As Thomas Wolfe famously said, You Can’t Go Home Again. Re-reading Grace Metalious’s hugely successful 1956 blockbuster novel Peyton Place is an unsettling experience.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the novel was a byword for forbidden literature. It was read in secret, in private, and hidden from children. Well-thumbed copies were surreptitiously passed from hand to hand. Those who did not dare bring it into their homes made frequent visits to bookstores and read it (or the sexy bits at least) in instalments.
So you are looking forward to plunging into a lovely trashy read, and are taken aback by the power of this compelling narrative which unflinchingly exposes what lies beneath the surface of small-town life.
The novel is a dark, disturbing slice of New England Gothic, a fluent and compelling story with a huge cast of characters, each with their own deftly presented backstory. The topics and themes it addresses include sexual awakening, assault, abuse, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, rape, adultery. It attacks racism, poverty, class privilege, male privilege. It gives women a voice.
The lives of three women
The book centres on three women who overcome their personal and social circumstances and transform their lives.
Constance MacKenzie, a self-styled widow, lives with the shame of having an illegitimate daughter, Allison, and lets her fear of sexual relationships and her obsession with maintaining respectable appearances influence the way she brings up her child. Allison herself grows from a naive, emotionally repressed young girl into a successful writer.
Selina Cross is a girl living in squalid poverty in one of the tar-paper shacks on the outskirts of town who kills the stepfather who abuses her and makes her pregnant. Selina’s is the dominant and most dramatically satisfying of the stories.
Constance is sympathetic up to a point, and Allison’s gradual coming to terms with life, boys etc is competently described, but it’s hard to engage with her. She’s a bit like a singer-songwriter sharing her rather tedious emotional journey with a politely attentive audience, and her story loses much of its impact when she moves to New York and has a disastrous love affair.
Politics and power
At least as interesting and at least as shocking as the women’s personal lives are the insights into Peyton Place politics.
There is a caucus of power located in the Chestnut Street area. Top Dog is Leslie Harrington, who runs the town. He’s the owner of the mill, the chairman of the school board and also chair of the bank’s trustees. Nothing gets through a town meeting without his vote. He buys his way out of responsibility.
When his spoilt, indulged son Rodney’s girlfriend becomes pregnant, Leslie’s response is ‘I’ll take care of it. Want a drink?’ When the girl refuses to have an abortion, Leslie tells her, ‘Do you know how many witnesses it takes to testify against a girl and have her declared a prostitute in this state?’ And the witnesses, of course, would be the men who work in his mill or who have mortgages with the bank, the same mixture who form the jury when a case is brought against Leslie on behalf of a girl who lost an arm in fairground machinery owned by him.
He is supported by a cohort of men, bankers, the town attorney, businessmen, the owner of the newspaper. They come from old families, their power partly deriving from their long association with the town. There is ‘more power on Chestnut Street than in the big Connecticut River’.
Doc Swain, general practitioner, is the nearest that the town has to a moral compass.
He’s a physically imposing presence, with a thick head of silver hair which is his only vanity. He does house calls day and night and sends birthday cards to all the children he has delivered. In some respects he’s a poor person’s Atticus Finch, the lawyer in To Kill A Mockingbird. In the most gentle way, he calls out the bigoted nurses in the hospital for racism.
In an act which recalls Atticus’s decision to protect a vulnerable child by not applying the law when Bob Ewell is killed, Doc Swain terminates Selina’s pregnancy under the guise of removing her appendix, and sends Lucas Cross out of town. Did Harper Lee read Peyton Place at the time she was thinking about To Kill A Mockingbird, which was published four years later in 1960?
From the bar to baptism
There are many near-incidental grotesqueries which give the novel its particular flavour.
Town drunk Kenny Stearns has six-week-long drinking lock-ins in his basement, one of which ends with Kenny hallucinating and putting an axe through his foot and Lucas Cross suffering a severe case of the DTs, emerging cursing and fighting off imaginary insects.
Nelly Cross’s suicide is presented in a stream of consciousness and hallucinations, showing her driven mad by the syphilis she contracted from her husband Lucas, and by her submerged knowledge of what Lucas did to Selina.
There’s the casual vileness about women. The old men remark that the drunk Kenny Stearns was at least born sober, but his wife Ginny was born a tramp. Kenny calls her a whore, harlot, slut. Constance hears the voices of Peyton Place: ‘Constance had a little girl.’ ‘Poor little bastard.’ ‘Bastard.’ Selina imagines what the town would say about her pregnancy: ‘She’s knocked up.’ ‘The tramp.’ ‘The dirty little tramp.’ About the girl who lost her arm, one of the men remarks ‘You don’t need a right arm to hold a kid.’
In a strange comic set piece Kenny’s drunkenness is mistaken for speaking in tongues by the members of the Pentecostal Church, is eventually baptised and ordained a minister, supported in his new-found calling by a reformed Ginny.
Small town sex
And those sexy bits? Oh, they’re awful. And there’s sex where you least expect it. Take Norman Page and his mother. Their relationship makes your flesh creep.
The boy’s name is eerily echoed in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Robert Bloch’s novel, published in 1959) where Norman, the eponymous owner of the Bates Motel, has a macabre relationship with his mama.
Poor Norman Page, always known as Little, and always referred to as ‘the bastard son of a whoring woman’ by his half-sisters. Metalious writes, ‘The two sisters bit off these words as crisply as if they had been eating celery,’ just one example of some spot-on observations throughout the novel.
Norman’s stifling, over-protective mother constantly gives him enemas, which cause him to experience a bittersweet sort of pleasure. Oh dear. Norman really doesn’t stand a chance.
Miss Hester Goodale, the local ‘witch’ figure, resists the town’s attempts to make people get rid of their outside privies. A brave stand for independence, you think, until you realise that she wants an excuse to be in her backyard so that she can sit in her strategically placed rocking chair and watch the newly-weds next door through the hedge, ‘a line of sweat over her top lip’. And that is actually where she dies, spying on their intimacies. It’s Little Norman who finds her, but his mother knows just the cure for the shock. ‘I’ll give you an enema and put you to bed,’ she says.
But most disturbingly, there’s the sexual ‘awakening’ of Constance, courtesy of Tom Makris, the newly appointed head of the school board. We’re supposed to see him in a positive light, but our early impressions of him are unfavourable.
Perhaps we have unrealistic expectations about the new school chief coming into a town like this. We want a hero who will take on the establishment in the cause of education. Instead we get this rather gross figure who negotiates his salary saying, ‘What’ll you pay? Are you kidding? Keep your crummy job.’ That’s the way, kids.
Metalious tells us that Tom is handsome in an obviously sexual way, and the victim of a vicious temper. When he first rents the apartment upstairs from the pastor and his wife (the pastor being forced into this by Leslie Harrington), the reverend tells him, a bit prissily, that he doesn’t want any smoking or drinking or noise. Tom laughs. ‘You stay downstairs, padre,’ he said unpleasantly, ‘and I’ll stay upstairs.’ Then he makes a mocking comment about him being able to drink in private and the pastor being able to worship false idols in private. Way to assimilate with the town you serve, Tom.
The pastor’s uptight wife dislikes him because he’s ‘too loud, too brash, too dark, too big,’ which you think says more about her than about him, until this is immediately followed by a description of Tom, ‘the headmaster of the Peyton Place schools’, greeting the pastor in his living room ‘naked except for a pair of athletic shorts’.
So, Tom and Connie. They eventually become lovers when they go for a midnight swim in the lake In the lake, she perceives him ‘naked from the waist up, and evil looking’. Back home, he asks ‘coldly’ which room is hers. The description of the seduction is full of words suggesting brutality. He slaps her a stunning blow, and says, ‘Don’t open your mouth again. Just keep your mouth shut.’ For Connie, this is a nightmare from which she could not awake until she feels ‘the first red gush of shamed pleasure’. Where to start. But hey, it’s all right — they get married and live happily ever after.
We’re meant to see Tom as Constance’s ‘saviour’, and towards the end of the book he assumes a kind of moral high ground, pontificating to Alison about the nature of love. It doesn’t convince. He’s still the man who forces himself on Connie, who speaks about men ‘claiming’ their women, and who on first meeting her thinks ‘I want to know you a lot better, on a bed for instance, with that blond hair spread out on a pillow’.
Grace Metalious’s novel was followed by a sequel, a film, and a television series which broadcast 514 episodes. Peyton Place became a byword for the dark side of small-town life, later explored in works such as Twin Peaks and Desperate Housewives. It was great spending time there, but for my money, it’s not a place to return to.
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