Mary McCarthy’s best and most satirical novel, A Charmed Life (1955), centres on her autobiographical heroine, Martha Sinnott, and Martha’s exhusband Miles Murphy, who meet again in a sharply observed group of old friends. McCarthy provides a theatrical context for the action by alluding to and discussing many plays and playwrights. The anti-hero Miles, a brilliant critic, has had a successful play produced on Broadway. Martha has been a professional actress, is now writing her own play, has a real sense of the theatre and has adapted Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (1884). Like Martha herself, Ibsen’s hero Gregers Werle, pursuing the ‘Summons of the Ideal’, returns to his home town after an extended exile and meddles in the affairs of a family with disastrous results.
Like the pivotal third act in a classical tragedy, everything leads up to chapter eight, when the eight main characters read Jean Racine’s Bérénice (1670) in French, and all the rest of the action follows from it. Racine’s static drama of passion and renunciation, of mythic characters pursuing a seventeenth-century ideal of nobility, would seem to have little to do with McCarthy’s group, but she elegantly and ironically illuminates her characters by contrasting them to Racine’s. Her characters each take on two roles, in the novel and in the play, each one complementing and enhancing the other. McCarthy blends high tragedy with social comedy to produce a biting portrait of herself and her friends. The dominant themes of Bérénice – love vs. duty, passion vs. reason, egoism vs. renunciation – add depth and meaning to the novel.
A Charmed Life is based on actual events. In the summer of 1954 McCarthy, with her third husband, Bowden Broadwater, returned to Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, where her previous husband, Edmund Wilson, was still living with his fourth wife, Elena. In the novel, Martha and John Sinnott unwisely return to New Leeds (a name that suggests new leads in life and new leashes and restraints). Their house is near the village where her brilliant, physically unattractive, hard-drinking, short-tempered, difficult and domineering ex-husband Miles lives with his current and quite worshipful wife, Helen. During his marriage to Martha, Miles liked to make love on the beach, despite her protests that ‘somebody would come and catch them’. But she had to admit that she had always enjoyed the risky sex. Their marriage had ended scandalously when, after a violent argument in the middle of the night, she fled in her nightgown and his car, and sought refuge with John Sinnott. Martha and Miles meet for the first time since their messy divorce – inevitably, awkwardly and drunkenly – at the reading of Bérénice, when her husband is in Boston and his wife is at home with their sick child.
The characters share a sense of unreality, as if they are not sure who they are or what they are doing with their lives. There are two representations of Martha, her portrait by the artist Warren Coe, and her part in the play, yet she tells her friend Dolly Lamb, ‘I don’t know myself at all’. Even the forceful Miles – who first possesses Martha’s portrait, then her body – has self-doubt. He solipsistically asks whether his past or present self is more real: ‘Is this I … or was that I, back there?’ Paul – a French vicomte and alcoholic owner of a liquor store – plays ‘the role of an imposter nobleman’ in ordinary life. He has led a double life and makes Martha doubt his reality. The inscrutable Dolly Lamb has remained unmarried because ‘men did not think she was real’. After remodelling the house she shares with her new husband, Martha sees it as a kind of stage set and tells Dolly, ‘We made it, but I can’t believe that it’s real’. When Miles buys Martha’s portrait and his wife agrees to pay for it, they seem more like actors than real people and ‘their eyes sparkled at each other, as if they were in a play’.
The characters eagerly look forward to the reading, the social and intellectual apex of the novel, and overcome several obstacles to reach it. Clever, highly educated, sophisticated and well-off people, they gather uneasily at Warren and Jane Coe’s house for dinner, copious drinks and intellectual sparring. The scene is set for them to define their identities and find their real selves. Miles, more imperious than imperial, plays the newly crowned Roman emperor Titus, who has been chastely in love with Bérénice for the last five years. In Racine’s story, an idealised version of the historical facts, Bérénice, the Jewish queen of Judaea (in modern Israel and Palestine), had been taken to Rome by Titus after he conquered her kingdom and fell in love with her. She also loves Titus and hopes to marry him. Dolly Lamb, a college classmate, look-alike and stand-in for Martha, reads Bérénice. Martha, though a professional actress, modestly takes the minor role of Bérénice’s confidante. Vicomte Paul plays Antiochus, King of Commagene (in modern Syria), who also loves Bérénice and hopes to marry the queen after Titus is forced to renounce her. Harold and Harriet Huber, a lawyer and his ex-singer wife, play the confidants of Titus and Antiochus. Warren and Jane Coe witness and comment on the reading, but do not take part in it.
Jane asks if Bérénice was Titus’s mistress and the worldly vicomte exclaims, ‘evidently’. But Miles, following Racine, corrects this mistaken notion: ‘For five years, they’ve been engaged, but he hasn’t tampered with her. Racine makes that plain in the preface … where he compares her to Dido. Bérénice, he says, doesn’t have to die in the end because she, unlike Dido with Aeneas, hadn’t gone the whole way with young Titus.’ (The historical Titus was forty years old when his father, Vespasian, died.) Racine also observes in the preface, ‘there is nothing more touching in any of the poets than the separation of Dido and Aeneas in Virgil’. Jane assumes, in the modern American way, that sex is a bond, which helps a couple form a relationship and leads to marriage, rather than, as in the play, the result of a dynastic contract. She claims that if Titus and Bérénice had slept together, their long engagement would not have ‘fizzled out’ and they could have had a happy life. But Racine’s play is about the thwarting of romantic love, and Bérénice’s tragic fate foreshadows Martha’s in the novel.
In another anachronistic comment, Harriet Huber, completely missing the point, says that Titus should give up the job of emperor, marry Bérénice and live like a plain citizen. She compares this scenario to the Duke of Windsor’s renunciation of the British throne after his moving speech about the (divorced) ‘woman I love’. But if Titus had behaved this way, his fate would have been more like the excruciatingly vacuous exile of Count Vronsky after he ran off with Anna Karenina: ‘Vil spectacle aux humains de la faiblesse de l’amour.’
Two other comments clarify the theme of renunciation in the play. Jane Coe defends Titus by maintaining that ‘he was above marrying Bérénice, because he was the Emperor. Love’s a form of slavery too; an Emperor couldn’t be a slave to love’. Dolly Lamb convincingly states, ‘there isn’t any “ought” or “ought not” at issue in the play. It’s really taken for granted what Titus ought to do. The interest is whether he can do it’. Similarly, a central question in the novel is whether Martha will have the strength to banish Miles from her charmed life.
After the reading Martha, though warned by her husband, allows Miles to drive her home when they are both drunk and invites him into her empty house for a nightcap. The chapter following the reading of Racine opens dramatically with: ‘An hour and a half later, [Miles] was making love to her on the Empire sofa in her parlour’. Like Miles’s repetition of the Italian word subito (at once) during the reading and in her house, the Napoleonic Empire sofa as well as Martha’s ‘dishevelled head’, connect the two characters to Titus and Bérénice. Like Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni – ‘Vorrei, e non vorrei./Mi trema un poco il cuor’ – Martha (at least at first) is ambivalent about having sex with the overpowering and repulsive Miles. But, in contrast to the lofty Bérénice, who acted unwillingly, Martha, who succumbs to passion if not love, is finally quite willing to have sex.
Though Martha is extremely intelligent, she does not understand why she slept with Miles this time – when she was presumably in love with her absent husband – any more than she understood what deep urge compelled her to sleep with him when they first met and to marry him soon afterward: ‘Why she had let this man make love to her in the first place remained totally mystifying. … With Miles she had done steadily what she hated, starting from the moment she married him, violently against her will. … She had no explanation for this strange fact about herself.’
Miles first dominates the reading of Bérénice and, in the two great scenes that follow, dominates Martha and then Warren Coe. McCarthy first describes the horrible yet comical seduction or near-rape, first from Miles’s and then from Martha’s point of view. He thinks, with some reason, that she wanted him to ‘tamper’ with her or would not have asked him in. Martha, punning on ‘laid’, wittily explains why she had ‘gone the whole way’: ‘She was too ironic a girl not to see that one screw, more or less, could not make much difference, when she had already laid it on the line for him about five hundred times.’ She agrees to have sex to prevent him from tearing her dress and to punish herself when she realises – though she detests him – that her senses were awakened even before he touched her. Like Racine’s Phèdre, she hates herself for the passion that preys upon her.
Once Martha submits, she can (ironically) no longer respond. She rather mechanically goes ‘through all the motions, trying to give him a good time. But he could not really rouse her, and it took the heart out of him’. After a few quick thrusts, the exercise in gluttony is finished. Like other exceptionally beautiful women – the writer Martha Gellhorn, the photographer Lee Miller and the actress Marilyn Monroe – who often slept with men they disliked, Martha gives in because she could not stop him and because she thought ‘his enjoyment could not harm her’.
But, of course, it does harm her, and she becomes pregnant. Like Bérénice, she appears in a state of extreme disorder. Her bead necklace, unstrung like Martha herself and scattered on the floor, resembles the broken pitchers and dead birds that symbolise the loss of virtue in the paintings of Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Martha’s incisive comment during the play reading explains how this squalid sexual episode compromises her moral stature and propels her toward her tragic fate: ‘Nobody can have a permanent claim on being the injured party; it seems horribly unfair, but there it is. As soon as you feel injured and begin to cry for justice, you discover that your position has gotten undermined; the ground has shifted beneath you, in a slow sort of landslide, and you find yourself cut off.’
The subplot concerning the wealthy amateur painter, Dolly Lamb, and the former art critic, Sandy Gray, is connected to Bérénice and Titus as well as to Martha and Miles. As with the characters in the play, there is no sexual involvement between Sandy and Dolly (Martha’s alter-ego). When Sandy tries to sleep with her, he is impotent – the exact opposite of Miles’s brutal thrusts into Martha. Moreover, Sandy tries (with Dolly’s help in court) to recover the custody of his beloved children, while Martha tries to get rid of her unborn child.
Martha’s moral dilemma is full of ironies. In the past she has endured one squalid abortion, and now considers another. The doctor tells her there is only one chance in a thousand that she has conceived the baby with Miles. Though she desperately wants to have a child, she decides to have an abortion to punish herself for her relations with Miles and make an overscrupulous, even perverse, restitution to John. She hopes to conceal her disgraceful behaviour from her adoring husband, who is almost certainly the father of the child she intends to destroy. Unlike Bérénice, who openly displays her emotion to the man she loves, Martha feels ‘It was a question of her honour, as John’s wife, that Miles should never know what straits he had reduced her to’. Martha parodies Bérénice’s renunciation of Titus by irrationally renouncing her own baby.
The end of A Charmed Life repeats the end of Madame Bovary (1857), which is mentioned in the novel. In Flaubert, Emma frantically and unsuccessfully seeks money from Lheureux, Léon, Guillaumin and Rodolphe. In McCarthy’s story, Martha desperately seeks money for her abortion from Dolly Lamb and Warren Coe. When she fails to obtain it, Warren, acting on her behalf, tries in vain to get Miles to pay for the portrait of Martha. Instead of being paid, he is angrily abused by the man he thought of as his friend. Miles tells him, ‘As a human being, you’re a wretched little rentier and a leech. I’ve put up with you for ten years, having you pick my brains. … I’ll pay you what I think it’s worth, in my own sweet time. If you don’t like that, you can sue me. Now, go on, peddle your papers.’ Finally, Warren secures an advance on his mother’s inheritance from the uncle who manages her estate, and also gets the name of an abortionist from the croyant Catholic, vicomte Paul.
The charmed life of the title is Martha’s. But it ironically alludes to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who is deceived into believing that he possesses a sort of magic protection, and refers to his charmed life just before his violent death. Though beautiful, clever and charming, Martha makes a number of serious mistakes in the course of the novel, beginning with the return to New Leeds. She goes to the reading without John, gets drunk (like the first time she slept with Miles), lets Miles drive her home, invites him in for a drink, has sex with him and plans to have an abortion. (She completes her play, but not her pregnancy.) At this point McCarthy damages the novel with a hasty and melodramatic conclusion. She kills off her autobiographical heroine before she can have the abortion because she does not know how to resolve Martha’s dilemma. Martha dies in a freak car accident, with a character who is suddenly introduced in the last pages, while she is driving on the supposedly safe side of the road.
McCarthy tried to defend her ending in the Paris Review interview: ‘the girl makes the decision – which from the point of view of conventional morality is a wicked decision – to have an abortion, to kill life. Once she makes this decision, she becomes mortal, and doesn’t belong to the charmed circle any more. As soon as she makes it, she gets killed – to get killed is simply a symbol of the fact that she’s mortal.’ But McCarthy’s defence is unconvincing. The novel is realistic, not symbolic. Martha’s decision is more irrational than immoral, and does not make her more mortal than anyone else in New Leeds.
Racine’s Bérénice illuminates the meaning of A Charmed Life. When Warren, speaking of his artistic career, tells Martha that ‘he might want to reject his past completely’, she slightly misquotes The Great Gatsby by insisting, ‘You can’t reject the past’. (When Nick Carraway tells Jay Gatsby, ‘You can’t repeat the past’, Gatsby, in his mad quest to recapture the elusive Daisy Buchanan, naively replies, ‘Why of course you can!’) Titus actually rejects his past five years with Bérénice, but Martha, by contrast, first repeats and then rejects her past with Miles. Martha (sin-not) calls herself ‘an absolutist’ and, expressing her impossible aspirations, says, ‘I want to be a paragon uniting all the virtues’. Twice in the novel she quotes the ethical injunction in Immanuel Kant’s The Metaphysics of Morals (1797): ‘Behave so that thy maxim could be a universal law.’ But, unlike Racine’s heroic figures, she fails to live up to it.
Bérénice and Titus represent an ideal standard of self-sacrifice that McCarthy’s flawed characters cannot match. Titus has the moral strength to banish Bérénice, but Martha lacks the strength to banish Miles. In the play, the heroic figures come together and Bérénice is driven out of Rome; in the novel, Martha is driven out of Miles’s house and they come back together in her house. In the play, mutual love transcends physical passion; in the novel, physical love is debased by mutual hate. Bérénice and Titus, who love each other but agree to part, achieve true consummation not in sex but in renunciation for a higher cause. Martha and Miles, after renouncing each other in divorce, give in to lust and betray their absent spouses. In place of Racine’s majestic idealism, McCarthy portrays drunken squalor, ethical muddle and moral bankruptcy.
Like Ulysses and The Waste Land (both 1922), two seminal twentiethcentury works, A Charmed Life, in a quite different genre, portrays the failure to live up to a classical (or mythical) moral ideal. It also contrasts this ideal with the debased existence of her characters. Eliot defined the method that Mary McCarthy adopted when he wrote about Joyce in Ulysses, Order, and Myth (1923): ‘Manipulating a continuing parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity … is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.’