‘Whatever has happened to me, or has not, with lovers and husbands, continuity and security have been built on the excellence of friendships. Yet these connections between women are taken for granted, a backdrop to the real business of life…It takes only the slightest change of focus to see that these neglected intimacies, independent of more passionate demands, can offer the terms on which we best learn to be ourselves.”
From Poppy by Druisilla Modjeska (1990)
These two books about friendships between women couldn’t be more different - different in genre, one a novel, one a collection of letters, but even more different in what they convey about women and their friendships and in what feelings they might be likely to evoke in the reader.
The first, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, an Australian writer, was published in 2019. The second, Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975 was published in 1995.
I read them both recently, novel first, letters second. Before the letters I had read a biography of Mary McCarthy, writer and “one of the most controversial American intellectuals of the twentieth century”, which helped contextualise the letters.
It’s always tricky when a friend recommends a book to you in the highest terms and you read it and find you can’t bear it. This is what happened to me with The Weekend. The recommendation had dismayed me a little because I had read Wood’s 2016 Stella Prize winning book The Natural Way of Things and found it one of the nastiest books I had ever read. The Weekend sounded different, however, in the reviews I had read and from my friend’s comments. Lighter, funny even. Perhaps it would be a good lockdown read, I thought.
It is a novel about three women in their early seventies gathering together in the home of a fourth, Sylvie, who had died about a year ago, in order to clear out her belongings so the house can be sold. The four had been friends for decades. Or so we are told. Sylvie’s bereaved female partner has gone back to Dublin, leaving Jude, Wendy and Adele to do the clearing out
Jude, once a restaurant manager, is single but has had a married lover, Daniel, for forty years or so. He supports her financially. Her friends all know about Daniel but Jude doesn’t know they know. She never speaks of him to them and they never tell her they know. (Could that really happen, I thought? In forty years of friendship?) Wendy is an intellectual and writer and her much loved second husband, Lance, died many years ago. She is estranged from her two adult children from her first marriage to Ray, a “bastard”. Adele was a beauty and a successful actress but is now in dire financial straits and on the brink of homelessness, not for the first time. Her current younger lover, Liz, who has been supporting her for the past year has just dumped her. She eventually confesses this to Wendy but wouldn’t dare tell Jude.
There are other minor human characters in the novel and one ever-present canine one, Wendy’s ancient companion, Finn, who she brings along for the weekend. Finn, an in-your-face harbinger of death and unpleasant example of the decrepitude of old age seems, for each of the women at different times, to transcend his dogness to become a symbol of… something higher. Existence perhaps?
We see each woman through her own eyes, though the eyes of her two “friends” and via some authorial comment. The words I use to describe them all come from the book, not me. Jude is described as bossy, cruel, intolerant and long suffering, a martyr. She has to be in control of all situations and is generally despising of weakness and vulnerability. Even her largesse is contingent: “After she gave you something she would badger you for months about its welfare.” She isn’t kind. When Daniel told her one evening about the death of a relative of his, “Jude waited for him to come to the point, before realising it was sympathy he wanted. From her. It was all she could do not to spit on the floor…. to shout, So what…”.
Jude thinks of Adele as useless, lazy, sentimental, like a greedy four-year-old, with no restraint or self-discipline. She sees Wendy as fat and smelly: “If you went to Wendy’s house these past few years – she herself avoided it – you had to hold your breath for the smell.”
Adele is trivial, a narcissist, a user of people. She takes money from Wendy’s purse even after she has already asked her for a loan of $500. She is afraid of Jude and despising of Wendy: “Why must she dress like a witless old hippy?... It made her look mad….”. Adele is perhaps the cruellest of the three, “triumphant” when she hears that Wendy is bringing Finn for the weekend because she knows Jude will be furious.
Wendy has a brain, albeit a failing one: “She noticed herself spelling things wrongly, very simple words. She sometimes typed ‘shit’ instead of ‘this’”. But she is decrepit, she has totally let herself go. We are told that she used to be sexy, stunning with a noble head and withering glance, having a powerful blazing allure. Now “the planes of her mighty cheekbones and jaw had tilted somehow, inwards and down, so that to Adele it seemed she’d begun, impossibly but surely, to look really very like Patrick White.”
Each woman observes with withering cruelty the physical signs of ageing in the others, sometimes even in themselves. Jude comments on her own cognitive decline, “Frontal lobe shrinkage, doubtless. At this age it was inevitable.” She compares her own fluffy thin hair that lets your scalp show through with Adele’s extravagantly long locks. Adele notes Jude’s “splintery, desiccating bones, Wendy’s breathlessness.” and observes Jude’s bare feet “pale white, pushed out of shape with bunions, with hard little grey stubs for toenails”. Jude thinks about Adele, “Adele was so relaxed about her body… Another person might not say relaxed; they might say deluded”. She notices, when they go to the beach, Adele’s “short freckled legs” and “too much crepey décolletage, her flesh spilling over the sarong, over costume straps cutting into her pudgy back.”
Adele feels sick when she looks at Wendy’s “big mannish feet.. the blackened toe-marks” on her thongs, the “wild grey hair” and “the loose flap of flesh at her throat.” To Wendy, on the other hand, “Adele’s commitment to her body was a source of everlasting fascination….. Who could be bothered now?”
Poor old Finn amasses the greatest number of pejorative words to describe him: grubby, smelly, arthritic, deaf, demented, incontinent, bewildered, crippled, moth-eaten, dirty. He has fetid breath, an addled mind and he drools, trembles, and pisses and shits everywhere. Even an avid dog lover would find it hard to think of enjoying a weekend away with Finn. Is the message he is there to transmit that this is what awaits us all as we age and are near death? When each of the women looks into Finn’s eyes, as they do, do they see their own demise? Some such deepness is hinted at.
Minor characters are very unpleasant too. Mothers come in for a roasting – Adele’s and Sylvie’s were “cossetting”, Jude’s and Wendy’s were “majestically awful”. I think we are to understand that they are to blame for how these women have turned out. Fathers are not mentioned. Wendy’s daughter is ice cold and her son wants nothing to do with her. Jude’s brother and his wife are deathly boring. Jude’s lover, his wife and daughter don’t sound happy people. The daughter knows about Jude and despises her, the wife probably also knows but turns a blind eye.
Our three protagonists run into Sophie, an old acting adversary of Adele’s, and her much younger companion Joe Gillespie, a director, outside a restaurant. Sophie is described by Wendy as “a hairless little monkey” with “skin as mottled as ancient parchment”. Joe is skeletal, limp, dirty, weak and uninterested. Even their yapping little dog, Coco, has nothing to recommend herself to us. Wendy wonders if Sophie and Joe are lovers and imagines them “wrestling slowly on a bed; one insect carefully devouring another.” Adele secretly invites them to the house for a drink, much to Jude’s and Wendy’s horror. The visiting pair are supercilious and spitefully unkind to Adele and the young man then turns on Sophie who is wounded and leaves without him. He stays for a while, shows himself to be even more despicable and then leaves with the parting words, “You old girls are fucking hilarious.”
In the aftermath of all this horrendousness, Adele recklessly reveals the secret everyone but Wendy had known, that her beloved husband Lance (“the love of her life”) and Sylvie whom she had “idolised and obeyed” and seen as “like a goddess”, had slept together “when Wendy was off in New York being her famous self”. How Adele has managed to resist telling her “friend” this painful truth for so many years and why she chooses to reveal it now, is not explained. Perhaps simply to cause in Wendy as much pain as she herself is feeling? The author tells us that this revelation will cause great anguish to Wendy for a number of years ahead. The implication is plain, however, that she deserved it, like she deserves the contempt of her children, for having been so single-mindedly devoted to her work and neglectful of her family.
Amongst all the disgust and cruelty in this novel there are odd hints at tenderness but they strike false notes because of their inconsistency with the relentless meanness of the rest. We are told that Jude thinks about Wendy’s nobility and courage when she had breast cancer and hopes Wendy notices how she pounces every time Adele is “silly” about Wendy’s prosthesis. Adele sees Wendy and Jude raise their hands to shade their eyes at the beach, a gesture familiar to her from decades of friendship and the author says, “Her love for them was inexplicable. It was almost bodily”. Wendy and Adele rally to drive Jude to the hospital when Jude gets a text from her lover’s daughter saying “My father will not regain consciousness. Do not come near my family”. (Would someone bother to send such a strange pointless message? Is it there simply for plot development perhaps?) Later the three of them swim in the ocean together in the dawn of Christmas morning, holding onto each other for strength. We are told that their friendship is immutable, that they come together obeying instinct, just as animals who are “simply themselves” obey instinct. It is not clear what this actually means. It doesn’t explain why they consider themselves friends, unless it is simply out of habit.
I found the reviews of this book curious. Could I really be the only reader to recoil in the way I had? All the reviews I read were positive, although here and there are warnings that deep fortifying breaths may need to be taken at times by the reader in order to persevere: “Wood can be unflinching in her depiction of her characters’ flaws, so that her reader must sometimes do some excavation to find their best qualities”. I confess that my deepest excavations unearthed near to nothing. About Finn’s allegorical role, “While some of this material could have been heavy-handed, Wood makes it work…” Not for me. The women are described as “still functional and independent and full of passionate feeling..”. Well, yes. And, “while The Weekend brings moments of spite and frustration, these are balanced with moments of pure familiarity, and affection.” Well, familiarity, yes; affection, hardly. The book is described as funny, one example of the humour being Adele’s description of her “friend” Wendy’s face as having collapsed so that she looks like Patrick White. I don’t find that funny, do you?
One of the things I most dislike about this book is the relentless disgust with which the author dwells on the physicality of female (and dog!) ageing. There are many more examples of this beyond those I have quoted. The book is full of them. I don’t read this as “Wood facing down the depressing and frightening things about old age and hinting at things which might be used to soften them” as one reviewer says. I read it as her reiterating and endorsing the age old societal fear of and disgust about old women. Charlotte Wood isn’t in her 70’s yet. One wants to reassure her that most middle class, white, first-world women really don’t find it that bad. She tells us that “Jude hated the elderly….All her life the elderly had disgusted her”. Is it a glimmer of self-knowledge when Wood adds, “She knew there was something wrong with her, she knew this disgust meant something psychological.”
The second thing I dislike, and even more so than the first, is that the book purports to be about female friendship. To my mind these women are not friends. They don’t trust each other (and wisely so), they relish each other’s weaknesses and misfortunes, they are not kind to each other, they don’t take pride in each other, they are judgemental and cruel, they feast their eyes upon the evidence of each other’s ageing and messed up lives with relish and disgust, they don’t enjoy each other’s company. With friends like these, as the saying goes, who needs enemies?
Reading The Weekend filled me with gloom and disappointment. Do women still need to write about women in this hateful disparaging way? And entice others into the conspiracy of hatred? Will those of us who don’t like the book feel we have to ask ourselves whether we are too serious, too squeamish to face the truth or humourless and unable to take a joke?
Oh the joy, after The Weekend, of reading the letters between Hannah Arendt, a philosopher and writer who had fled Nazi Germany to the Unites States and Mary McCarthy, twentieth century intellectual and writer. These two met in 1944 when they were in their 30s and began corresponding in 1949. Hannah died in 1975 when she was 69, Mary lived until 1989 aged 77. For the 26 years of their correspondence they often lived in different countries, both travelled hugely for work and pleasure but they always made efforts to spend time together whenever they could manage it. Both had husbands (Mary a number of them before settling \forever with James West in 1961), neither had children of their own. They were both formidable intellects who thought and wrote about all the big issues of their time – Communism, Stalinism, Fascism, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, McCarthyism, the Vietnam war, American war crimes, Watergate, Israel, the Kennedys, art and architecture, literature, philosophy, what constitutes fiction…. and much more. They shared their thoughts about all of these topics in their letters, along with their ideas about the writing and lecturing work which for both of them emanated from those subjects. Their friendship was a union of ferocious minds. They don’t shy away from critiquing each other’s work and each appreciates the frankness of the other’s comments but they are always respectful and humble with each other. They are each other’s fiercest allies in the face of the criticism that both experience as a consequence of being forthright, outspoken writers and political spokeswomen in a very much man’s realm.
But, or and, they also wrote to each other about clothes and hairdos, cooking and household chores, interior design, problems with their teeth, gardening, menopause, flowers, depressions and joys, ex-husbands and step children. They chided each other, gave advice about love and relationships, corrected each other’s work, listened carefully to each other, disagreed with each other, shared each other’s happiness and grief, celebrated one another’s achievements, missed each other, sent each other flowers and thoughtful presents, liked and were interested in each other’s husbands, shared information and gossip about mutual friends and introduced each other to new ones. Quite simply, they loved each other.
The letters don’t avoid but don’t dwell on, the physical decline of their bodies as they age. Both have significant ailments to contend with. They are sympathetic to each other, loving and kind when illness strikes and ready to rush to each other when serious problems arise. It is impossible to imagine them looking at each other as they age and thinking anything other than fond loving thoughts. And it’s impossible to think of them doing anything other than commiserate about each other’s ill fortunes and rejoice in their successes and joys.
The cruelty and savagery swirling around in the minds of Jude, Adele and Wendy about each other wouldn’t shock Hannah and Mary, both could be fierce, but I bet they would have something to say, write, to each other about it. I’m sure they would, like me, say “friendship”, you call that “friendship”?
In her obituary for Hannah, Mary spoke of course of her friend’s great mind but also of her 69 year old physical presence “She was a beautiful woman, alluring, seductive, feminine …. She had small fine hands, charming ankles, elegant feet. She liked shoes……Her eyes, so brilliant and sparkling, starry when she was happy or excited, but also deep, dark, remote, pools of inwardness.” After Hannah’s death, Mary put aside a half finished manuscript of her own to take on the task of editing and annotating Hannah’s lectures for her book The Life of the Mind. It took three years and was an arduous job but one “which”, Mc Carthy wrote, “kept going an imaginary dialogue with her, verging sometimes, as in life, on debate….. I am aware that she is dead, but I am simultaneously aware of her as a distinct presence in the room, listening to my words as I write, possibly assenting with her musing nod, possibly stifling a yawn.”
The depiction of friendship between women in Between Friends resonates with my own life’s experience over decades of long and rewarding friendships with many fabulous, interesting, loyal, generous hearted, fun, challenging and loving women. A few have died and I miss them a lot. Some have been lost along the way. The rest, from school days, from recent times and from all the years in-between, continue to help steady me through. They make me think. They make me laugh. I love seeing them grow old, some right alongside me, some in the vanguard, some trailing behind. Reading Between Friends made me think of them all with love and appreciation. It lifted me up and made me rejoice in the great pleasure of female friendship.
And yes, in case you were wondering, I did tell my old friend who recommended The Weekend that I didn’t like it and it’s ok. We survived.