From a Whisper to a Scream

Where the Light Falls: Selected Stories of Nancy Hale edited by Lauren Groff. New York: Library of America. 384 pages. $26.

We all know that men don’t understand women. How could they? Women spend the whole time trying to understand themselves. “I specialize in women,” the writer Nancy Hale said in 1942. “Women puzzle me.” Hale felt that she knew how, “in a given situation, a man [was] apt to react.” (She’d been married three times by the age of thirty-four.) Women, on the other hand, vexed and intrigued her. Her mother, the portraitist Lilian Westcott Hale, made a career of looking at other women, including her daughter. In The Life in the Studio (1969), a memoir about growing up with wealthy, bohemian parents, Nancy describes being posed “propped up against pillows, at the age of six months . . . at the age of one, seated in a baby carriage . . . at six wearing a dark-blue straw hat with red cherries.” She hated it. “While people who paid for portraits by my mother might get their own way about what they wore in them, I, who had been since infancy the built-in, free artist’s model around that house, never had any such say.”

Born in 1908, Hale published more than a hundred short stories in her lifetime, ten of which were recipients of an O. Henry Prize, and eighty of which appeared in the New Yorker. (She still holds the record for the most short stories printed in that magazine over a year, from 1954–55.) Along the way, she worked for Vogue (where she “pinch-hit as a model”) and became the first female news reporter at the New York Times. The stories reproduced in Where the Light Falls, now out from Library of America and edited by Lauren Groff, first appeared between 1934 and 1966, and dwell for the most part on posh women. Melissa who’s going with Davis, the Harvard halfback, but is really hot for his roommate, Richard (“Crimson Autumn,” 1937); Victoria who seduces her riding instructor, Dan, and whose delicacy surpasses “the fat-legged Irish maids who were his normal social lot” (“Midsummer,” 1934); Lucy who summers at Clam Harbor and falls for the well-heeled Giles Wall at a country club dance—so far, so Pride and Prejudice, except that this Darcy has a lame leg (“Rich People,” 1960). These women belong to a world of lace and doilies, of damask tablecloths and great fluffy monogrammed towels. They go to Radcliffe, lunch at the Mayflower, and take their coffee from silver repoussé services. They ride around in Bugattis and eat a lot of cinnamon toast.

“From the outside,” Groff writes in her introduction, Hale’s women “could hardly be considered interesting subjects”: They’re “too well-bred, too moneyed, too privileged” to be relatable. But her yarns about the leisure class are also morality tales about determinism—scare stories about having nowhere to go (except down) and about getting stuck—especially if you happen to be a woman. As Hale once wrote, “it is often to a character’s most worldly values that [her] strength of soul is hitched.” Take “Sunday— 1913.” Laura, a newlywed with neuropathy, worries about what her fledgling sex life means for her updos: “The romping that Morton loved in bed was very tangling to her hair.” She’s overfucked and overfed: “We need flesh on those little chicken-bones,” Morton tells her. Things come to a head after a particularly gluttonous Sunday lunch: pea soup, then sole and cucumber, then roast beef with red and brown gravy, then vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, then a chocolate layer cake. Laura retreats upstairs, and Morton follows, assuming she’s hungry for him. “Your baby boy just wants to romp in his crib, with his baby girl.” As Morton thrusts into her—“There, Puddykins, there . . .”—Laura dissociates: “Her mind was a dark and empty place where little white pinwheels spun round and round.” He starts “to stroke her hair with his big damp hand.” It’s too much. Suddenly, she’s screaming: “I’m going to break! I’m going to snap! I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it, I can’t.” We’re all for Laura. Who among us hasn’t turned to a better man than Morton, grateful for the love and solicitude, and wanted to say—not unkindly—would you ever fuck off?

A moment of shattered composure—a sort of negative epiphany—is a mainstay of Hale’s stories, and often serves to satirize the class into which she was born. Her sense of social nuance was as meticulous as Elizabeth Bowen’s. (On Bostonian attitudes toward wealth: “For them it is not something to lavish, or even to spend. It is something to nurture, like a plant.”) In “Outside,” Theodosia and Peter fail to notice that their daughter, Phoebe, has a dangerously high fever because they’re fretting about a cocktail party at their country house: “Phoebe . . . began to scream at the top of her voice. Scream followed scream.” “Hysteria,” one nurse says knowingly. With artists for parents, “what can you expect?” Words like stifled and smothered pepper these stories. Life, for Hale’s women, is a fever dream. No matter: An Irish maid, or a mother-in-law, is perennially on hand with a damp cloth. At the height of conjugal distress in “Sunday— 1913,” Morton’s mother rushes to the bedside with an icy sponge and pushes it into Laura’s face. Hale dramatizes the struggle between what’s primal and what’s refined—and speaks at once of propriety and of the impulses that propriety seeks to undo.

Hale’s stories are sex-haunted, like those of any writer who makes women an object of study. “That Woman” (1940) parodies the cult of “Southern womanhood” that Hale encountered in Virginia with her third husband during World War II. Alida Norris, who has had “the gall” to marry four times, is treated like “a serpent and a menace” in a town where the single women pace around “a little like anxious loose horses.” In “Club Car” (1931), not included in Where the Light Falls, the narrator finds herself the “only woman . . . under forty” on a train bound for Boston. It’s Christmas Eve, and she takes herself off to the club car for a cigarette. “Suspicious eyes” peer at her “through the smoky murk”; the men think, “beyond question of a doubt,” that she’s “bent on seduction.” Put out, she moves to another part of the carriage, where “a worn oldster” with a yellowing mustache puffs on his corncob pipe. He ignores her, apparently far beyond “vain thoughts of predatory women.” She feels at ease. Then she notices his gnarled fingers scrawling something on the foggy window: I AM MARRIED.

This woman prefigures Mary McCarthy’s Meg Sargent, who’ll find herself on a west-bound train, a decade later, fumbling for a lost garter after a one-night stand with a middle-aged businessman who reminds her of a “young pig.” The world of Where the Light Falls isn’t the modish New York milieu of leftist thinkers and liberal magazines that forms the backdrop of McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps (1942). Still, Hale’s stories whip along with an acerbity that brings to mind “Bloody Mary of the icy smile and merciless candor”—especially when it comes to political satire. In Hale’s “Book Review” (1941), Elizabeth Mayo is branded a Communist for defending Hemingway’s view of the Spanish Civil War at a dinner party in Virginia; “The Marching Feet” (1941) sends up the hypocrisy and rabid anti-Semitism that Hale encountered in the South during the war. And, like McCarthy— “scratch a socialist and you find a snob”—Hale was alive to how social activism, even if you’re on the right side, can lend itself to pantomime. In “How Would You Like to be Born . . . ” (1955), two spinsterish sisters subsist on organ meat in order to subsidize leftist causes.

Nothing in Hale’s Selected Stories rivals the zeitgeisty smack of a novel like The Group (1963). (Think, for instance, of Dottie’s dilemma about the diaphragm: to plug or not to plug?) But, like McCarthy, Hale anatomized a species of midcentury woman who was at once whip-smart and periodically superficial. It’s almost like real life! In “The Bubble” (1954), a middle-aged woman looks back on the birth of her first child. She glimpses herself dancing in a long mirror, realizes how fat she looks, and decides to leave New York and give birth at her in-laws’ in Washington. After all, she muses, “my mother-in-law was the one who was really having the baby.” We believe her! We’re rooting for her to get back to New York—to get down to a size twelve again and confess her feelings to Eugene, her husband’s friend. To hell with the baby! “All those days before Eric was born were aimed frontward, hard,” she writes. “I was just getting through them for what it would be like afterward.”

The short story, Hale said in The Realities of Fiction: A Book About Writing (1962), is time “condensed; telescoped; manipulated.” It’s about telling a character’s life story in terms of “one crisis.” This is what redeems her women from shallowness. In “The Bubble,” the crisis takes the form of childbirth. Hale succeeds in communicating the way it changes a person—not because motherhood is a virtuous and humane thing, but simply because any form of intense and ordinary human pain is capable of rewiring a person:

I said, “I know what this pain feels like. It feels as if I were in a dark tunnel that was too small for me, and I were trying to squeeze through it to get to the end, where I can see a little light.”
The doctor laughed. “That’s not what you’re doin’,” he said. “That’s what that baby’s doin’.”
But that was the way it felt, all the same.
“Let me know when you need a little somethin’,” he said.
After a while I said, “This is bad.” And instantly he was at my side with a hypodermic needle, which he thrust into my arm . . . and I was working my way down that long, dark tunnel that was too tight for me, down toward the little light that showed at the far end. Then I had a terrible pain. That’s all I’m going to stand, I thought calmly. Deliberately I opened my mouth and screamed.

Here is a woman whose life is overly mediated—by class, by her mother-in-law, by her father (whom she imagines referring to the gifts from her baby shower as “the purchase money of the Philistines”). It seems right that her rebuke to all of it takes the form of an involuntary eruption—of something quite unmediated, a howl of pain, rather than a verbal utterance.

William Maxwell, Hale’s editor at the New Yorker, regarded her technique as “flawless.” When she died in 1988, he wrote that time would correct the “myopia” that had allowed an author as good as she was to lapse into obscurity: “Writing like that doesn’t age.” The best stories in Where the Light Falls live up to Hale’s own conception of how short fiction should work. When it’s “really good,” she wrote, a story “is like a glass that, struck, gives out a clear ringing that you can hear awakened in still other glasses” and “that keeps sending that rung note farther and deeper and fainter down into consciousness.” The narrator of “The Bubble” eventually does go back to Manhattan, but Eugene no longer seems like the thing. One night she’s at the St. Regis, having drinks with a group of people before going dancing. “A young man I had never seen before sat beside me. He said, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ And I said, ‘I’ve been having a baby.’”

Joanne O’Leary is a writer and an editor at the London Review of Books.