Sunday, 17 November 2013

Penguin no. 1938: Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
by Mary McCarthy

Cover by Paul Hogarth.
Poor Roy's children, as commiseration damply styled us, could not afford illusions, in the family opinion. Our father had put us beyond the pale by dying suddenly of influenza and taking our young mother with him, a defection that was marked on with horror and grief commingled, as though our mother had been a pretty secretary with whom he had wantonly absconded into the irresponsible paradise of the hereafter.

An unusual age distribution of mortality was one of the hallmarks of the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic. Most of the deaths occurred amongst young healthy adults rather than amongst the very young and the very old, and for Mary McCarthy's family this meant that while she and her brothers all survived the infection which the family suffered on the long train journey eastwards between their old home in Seattle and their prospective one in Minneapolis, their parents, both aged in their mid-twenties, succumbed within a day of each other, soon after reaching their destination. The young children were left orphans, though orphans who shared two sets of wealthy grandparents.

The children were claimed by their Catholic grandparents who may have been motivated, at least in part, by a desire to quarantine them from the influence of their Protestant relatives, as her Catholic grandmother carried on a lifelong battle against the other faith. A house was purchased in the neighbourhood, and Mary and her brothers were placed into the care of two middle-aged guardians. But the arrangement seems to have been an unhappy one for both the children and the adults. Mary and her brother Kevin ran away on several occasions, both independently intent on arguing their way into an orphanage, believing that the institution would offer a more comfortable and welcoming home than the one provided by their Aunt and Uncle. In time, Mary's grandparents in Seattle stepped in and took over the responsibility for her care.

Taken as stories, Mary McCarthy's recollections of her disrupted childhood are well-written and entertaining, and as the book progressed I found myself developing quite an affection for her Seattle-based grandparents, although I never really warmed to McCarthy herself. From very early in the book I had difficulty feeling any confidence that the picture she was attempting to recreate from her sample of surviving memories was reliable and fair. And this cannot be an uncommon reaction, for she mentions in the opening paragraph that she has often been challenged on the details, and she devotes much of her introduction to maintaining the accuracy of the broadly-sketched facts, while conceding that it all occurred a long time ago and that such things are difficult to remember in detail.

I didn't find her arguments convincing: the accuracy of a handful of independently verifiable details cannot really be taken as evidence that everything suggested is dependable, as the truth is not just a collection of facts, but something which can be distorted by the emphasis, or in the selection of examples, in what is included and what is left out. My doubts were triggered partly by the way the book has been structured, and partly by her frequent recollections of the deceptions and lies of her childhood, and by her acknowledged desire for attention. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is a collection of previously-published articles, which in sequence tell a story which is only roughly chronological. After each chapter she reassesses the accuracy of what she had written years before, giving some voice to those who had raised objections because they remembered the events differently. And not infrequently she actually admits to having rearranged the facts to enhance the story, or including ideas sourced elsewhere to augment conversations remembered only vaguely. In effect forewarned, I began to doubt the accounts as I read them.

Mary McCarthy was very critical of those who took on the responsibility of caring for her, retrospectively criticising them for personal quirks which she believed to have limited her childhood. In contrast, she seems entirely tolerant of her father's flaws, acknowledging them but accepting them as his personal foibles, a licence she extends to no one else. Perhaps the criticism of Roy alluded to in the passage quoted above was not that he had died young as she asserts, but that he had died without making any provision for his children's future. In life he seems to have lived on the charity of his parents, to have had more children than he could possibly afford, and to have spent the entire allowance his parents' provided him each year without setting anything aside. His death, and that of his young wife, meant that the burden of their care and upbringing passed to two sets of elderly grandparents who may have had other plans for their old age. But he is forgiven his failings, while they are held to account for theirs.

What was more interesting, for me at least, was the description of a Catholic childhood in America in the 1920s and 1930s, of what it meant to be born into an all-embracing subculture, and her grateful acknowledgement of the impact of the nuns upon her education and her desire to succeed:
'If you are born and brought up a Catholic, you have absorbed a good deal of world history and the history of ideas before you are twelve, and it is like learning a language early; the effect is indelible...Granted that Catholic history is biased, it is not dry or dead; its virtue for the student, indeed, is that it has been made to come alive by the violent partisanship which inflames it.' 
She also acknowledges the value of the nun's belief with in competition as an incentive to succeed, comparing it with 'the species of unfairness' and the 'brutal cutting down to size' of imposed equality. I read this and wished only that I had been given the opportunity to absorb such information by the age of 12, but I could never make such claims about my own Catholic childhood and convent education. Admittedly it took place on the other side of the world and more than fifty years later, but her description seems to suggest that something valuable had been lost.

First published in the USA 1957. Published in Great Britain by William Heinemann Ltd 1957. Published in Penguin Books 1963. This edition 1967.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 2327: The Company She Keeps


  1. How odd, just minutes ago I was at Nonsuch Book blog where Frances indicates that she just recently bought this book. I loved The Group so I was piqued by her mention of it. And now you review it. I think it might be time to get my hands on a copy.

  2. It's an odd sort of self-undermining to call your book 'memoirs' and then deliberately point to where you might have blurred the lines. Or is it more honest?! You think it might have made her a bit more sensitive about what might happen when she criticized Lillian Hellman re the truth!



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