Let's Talk "Peyton Place": Abortions, Enemas And The Secret Sex Lives Of New Englanders

Welcome to “Classic Trash,” my lovelies! This is all for you, obviously, so I’m just going to get us rolling with my OWN slightly manic observations on this precious, precious gem, and then turn it over to our delightful commenters. If you forgot to read it, or never intended to read it, or gave up in disgust, feel free to participate anyway! It’s never stopped anyone from making public pronouncements on Peyton Place in the past, you know?

Fifty seconds into my (delightful, overdue) re-read of this novel, I found myself engaging in an unexpected bout of doublethink when my 15-year-old niece inquired politely as to what I was reading. Her mother being in close proximity (a lovely woman, mind, who had nonetheless previously shot down my attempt to purchase Scott Westerfeld’s spiky and age-appropriate Uglies for her daughter with a pointed “perhaps a book on the life/work of Coco Chanel?”), I heard myself saying, “Ohhh, Peyton Place. It’s… very bad. You wouldn’t like it.”

WELL-MEANING LIES. It’s perfectly serviceable, and OBVIOUSLY she would like it! It’s DESIGNED to take young sheltered women who haven’t been allowed to read Uglies and set their hair on fire! Your niece needs to learn about killing her rapist stepfather¹ and burying his body in her sheep pen sooner or later, you know?

Be honest, did you kind of have Peyton Place mixed up with Valley of the Dolls? Nothing to be ashamed of, but the THING, right, about Peyton Place, is not only did we clutch our pearls at the notion of such lurid delights occurring in a staid New England town (as opposed to Hollywood-and-New-York, which is obviously where sluts go to do sluttish things and receive their comeuppance), but it was published in NINETEEN-FIFTY-SIX. Ten years before Valley of the Dolls! I mean, there’s an abortion in Valley of the Dolls, too, but the chick in question has this dynamite excuse about not wanting her baby to inherit his father’s congenital mental retardation! WEAK SAUCE, right? I mean, there are Tea Partiers who would back her play on that one.

Peyton Place ain’t making nice. We enjoy three pages of bland New England fall scenery, and then Metalious hits us with:

Ginny Stearns is a tramp and a trollop,” said Clayton Frazier, unsmilingly (ed: picture that smilingly!). “There ain’t much a feller can do when he’s married to a born whore.”

“‘Cept drink,” said the man who had first spoken.

Right!?

Allison MacKenzie, our heroine, is obviously a standard-issue Mary Sue: plain (in that classic “her legs are too long” way that Gisele likes to mention in interviews), bookish, ambitious, dreams of getting out of [place A] and becoming a writer in [place B]. So, you know, she’s Francie Nolan or Emily Starr or Esther Greenwood or, hell, Anne Frank. We love those characters, we’re not complaining. And the women who fit that description are the only people who buy books any more, or, really, who ever have. Allison forever! Or as her conversation with Kate goes, “Maybe we could go together and be bachelor girls in an apartment in Greenwich Village, like those two girls in that book we read.” (Dollars to doughnuts, she’s talking about My Sister Eileen by Ruth McKenney. The titular Eileen, of course, would go on to marry the great Nathanael West and die in a grotesque car accident with him. It would then become the oft-revived musical Wonderful Town. Not the car accident, the book about being bachelor girls in Greenwich Village. Sorry.)

Peyton Place, in contrast to many of the books we’ll be enjoying in this Classic Trash bookclub, does not go out of its way to punish women for their desires. (We even have a sexually attractive 35-year-old woman who has a requited love affair—I mean, he rapes her, sure, but afterwards she’s totally into it). Indeed, the book has a fairly decent track record for punishing individuals—male and female—for cruelty. And, hoo boy, there’s a fair amount of that! There’s also the implication that Allison’s milquetoast boyfriend has been made into a possible homosexual because his mother breast-fed him until he was four, so I guess that’s on her?

Obviously, you want me to talk about the famous abortion. Scandalous! But, also, not? Selena admits to Doc Swain that her shit-for-brains rapist “step”-father has knocked her up; the doctor feels briefly torn, but then decides, “I am protecting life, this life, the one already being lived by Selena Cross,” and goes and gives her a nice, safe abortion in the hospital, after hours, with nice sterilized implements; and you think, WOW, Grace Metalious. NICE JOB. It’s going to be DECADES before we get another trashy novel that features an abortion that doesn’t involve someone killing herself with herbs, or jumping off a bridge, or bleeding out, or being so riddled by guilt AFTER the abortion that she drinks herself to death. To be fair, when Betty Anderson gets pregnant through consensual sex, SHE gets packed off in disgrace to a “maiden aunt” in Vermont, and the entire town discovers that she’s a hussy (we do blame Rodney Harrington’s failure to bring a condom for that, though, which is reasonably forward-thinking). I mean, generally, there’s a reason we don’t talk about Peyton Place like it’s The Women’s Room, you know?

I consistently pictured Doc Swain as Brad Dourif’s “Doc Cochrane” in Deadwood, since they’re basically the same person, and serve a similar function as wise-good-conflicted-superior-occasionally-tormented physicians who are in a decent position to observe the seedy underbelly of their community. A seedy underbelly that, in another sign of progress, is largely class-neutral. Lucas Cross (drunken woodsman) and Leslie Harrington (wealthy mill-owner, because what WOULD writers do without “mill-owner” as a ready-made example of probable douchebaggery?) each enjoy sticky ends—or at least public ridicule.

Racially, of course, this ain’t Invisible Man. Metalious wanted someone brown-ish (“almost revolting good looks”) and hyper-sexed (“that smile that belongs in a bedroom”) and new and terrifying, and went with… a Greek guy, which is completely hilarious as written, because they also toss out “Polacks” and “Canucks” as examples of the ethnic menace to be held at bay, and you’re all “yes, yes, yes. The ongoing attempt to act as though different types of white people are not white.” (You know that “No Irish Need Apply” thing that my translucent relatives like to mention? It’s not even true! Richard Jensen wrote a phenomenal article about it in the Journal of Social History in 2002. It’s just how Ted Kennedy attempted to portray himself as a minority. I digress. Google it!)

Now, of course, we come to the eternal (and inaugural) Classic Trash question: Is it any good? Well, I mean, kind of? It’s not Revolutionary Road, or anything, and you get all (makes blowjob gesture with fist and tongue) “Indian summer is like a woman,” etc., but it’s better than Twilight. It’s better than The Fountainhead, another novel that suggests that rape is one hell of a seduction tactic. It’s better than Hollywood Wives. (Please note that this list is not meant to be an exhaustive account of books of inferior quality to Peyton Place; those were just the books that immediately occurred to me as I glanced at my own private bookcase, which lives on a different floor from the public bookcase with all the New York School poets and Beckett and stuff.)

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Peyton Place is well written, but I would absolutely resist an attempt to describe its mild badness as being in any way notable by the standards of great trash. You could probably swap out entire paragraphs from The Witches of Eastwick, and no one would bat an eye. Which brings us to the venerable, wolfy Andrew Wylie, who notoriously dissed Grace Metalious with the following inaccurate and bitchy diatribe: “Her name is now barely known. She wrote a book called Peyton Place, which is badly written, out of style, out of date, out of print, valueless. Her publisher has disappeared. The publishers of Calvino, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner abide. Who made the better investment?” Because, honestly, can we play “one of these things is not like the other”? Calvino? For serious? I mean, I got high in college and dug Invisible Cities with everyone else, but I seriously doubt there’s a grateful publisher with a yacht named “Italo,” you know? But then I remembered that Wylie is rich and powerful and gives out book deals, and Metalious died of cirrhosis at the age of 40. No, the fact remains that, whatever its dubious literary merits and countless imitators brought to the table, Peyton Place inspired Grace Slick to masturbate for the very first time when she was eighteen. (Take that, Fitzgerald!)

The Clairvoyant Wisdom of Grace Metalious
Metalious on the merits of a low-carb diet: “Nellie Cross was short and flabby with the unhealthy fat that comes from too many potatoes and too much bread.”

Metalious on hoarding disorders: “Marion liked things. She surrounded herself with all sorts of small bric-a-brac and odd pieces of furniture. It gave her a thrill of pleasure to open her linen closet and see the piles of extra sheets and towels stored there. The size, purpose or quality of an object was secondary to Marion, coming after her desire to acquire and possess.”

Metalious on vanity sizing and vintage clothing: “‘You have worn an eighteen for years only because I’ve always torn the size tag out of everything you ever tried on and substituted one that read eighteen,’ said Constance bluntly. ‘Here’s a size twenty four and a half that may fit, although to tell you the truth for a change, I doubt it.'”

Metalious on men who don’t know about the clitoris: “‘The area around the opening of the mouth is, of course, the most highly sensitized of all,’ said Norman, ‘except for one other, and that is a woman’s vaginal opening. As I understand it –’ Norman’s voice went on, but Allison was no longer listening.”

Now Some Questions For You!
• Is Norman supposed to be gay, or just weird?
• What’s with the enemas?
• How did this ever work as a thrice-weekly television show?
• Who would you cast for a modern-day adaption? DO NOT SAY SELENA GOMEZ!

Discuss below and then let’s meet back here in two weeks? LET’S TALK ABOUT VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Love you.

¹ Fun fact: Metalious went to the mattresses for Lucas Cross to be Selena’s BIOLOGICAL father, but the hand of the patriarchy slapped her back down, thus adding grist to the mill of another half-century of awkward stepfather-stepdaughter interactions as influenced by literature.



Nicole Cliffe is the proprietor of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews. She lives, mostly willingly, in Sandy, Utah (much like the Henricksons—she sees herself as a “Margene”), and her favorite work of Classic Trash is Jilly Cooper’s Riders.