The most startling thing about Florence King’s 1982 novel When Sisterhood Was in Flower might be how thoroughly it combines satire and fondness.
Gentleness isn’t a characteristic often associated with satire; and it certainly isn’t often associated with Miss King, the acerbic virago of National Review. King on Sylvia Plath: “For all her insecurities, Plath was the kind of American woman who gets a lock on femininity by saying, in effect: ‘Listen, buster, I’m giving you five minutes to dominate me, and if I’m not dominated by then, you’re toast.’” King on Willie Morris: “I am tired! I feel like hell! I haven’t seen ‘halcyon’ in print since Anthony Adverse!” And on the gay Southern novel: “Also popular are River Of titles, such as River of Unseen Echoes; Home In titles, such as Home in Loneliness; and Time Is titles, such as Time Is a Lost Flute.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Yet in her terrifically funny take on 1970s feminism, her gleeful skewering has a note of generosity, even nostalgia, as the title might suggest: as if the heyday of Ti-Grace Atkinson were her very own “way of life gone with the wind.”
But don’t worry — King hadn’t gone soft. One of the basic moves of satire is confronting some beautiful Idea with the unbeautiful human reality. In Sisterhood, King creates Polly Bradshaw, a flinty New England type so idealistic that she doesn’t enjoy food. She doesn’t understand puns, doesn’t like animals, abhors “our Judo-Christian heritage” (sic!), and comes from a long line of busybody godless-Savonarolas. Her family photos have captions like “Aunt Tabitha after her hunger strike” and “Uncle Soames arrives in Harlan County.” Polly is the Idea manifest — or, as she might insist, womanifest.
So, of course, she’s confronted with two thoroughly demented specimens of unregenerate womanhood. Polly’s liberal compassion is confronted by Isabel, a displaced Southerner and devout misanthrope who is liberal only in the generosity with which she spreads her legs; Polly’s modern rationality is confounded by Gloria, a witchy madwoman with a social disease and a penchant for ranting about the untimely demise of Edward II. (I probably can’t quote her song on the subject here, but it is surely a classic of retro-bawdy.)
Isabel smokes while Polly does yoga; Isabel croons lovingly to cats and pigs, while Polly struggles to help humanity. Isabel is a Royalist, arguing, “One thing I like about Bloody Mary: she never said a word about lung cancer.” Isabel, after a fist-shaking leftist calls her a “reactionary,” muses: “This sort of thing was always happening to me since I had moved North, like the time in New York when I was called for jury duty and the defense attorney took one look at me and said ‘Challenge.’” Isabel’s whole persona is a challenge to Polly, who might be considered the defense attorney of the world.
Fair warning: This novel isn’t a good First Communion present. Its humor is often excretory when it isn’t sexual. King’s constant reminders of our human physicality, even our human grossness, are deployed against the skim milk of human kindness proffered by Polly and her sistren.
Yet the most thoroughgoing excoriation in the novel is reserved not for feminism or even New England do-goodery, but for the porn industry. Isabel takes a job writing paperbacks with a company called Sword and Scabbard. The porn office, staffed by Midwesterners who bring in home-baked cookies, eventually collapses when none of the employees can bear to think about sex for one minute more. They’ve been writing to guidelines like, “Although we require young characters and contemporary settings, please remember to supply your women with garter belts. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!” Her stint at the porn office manages to turn easy Isabel into a celibate. Such is the power of a bad adjective.
In contrast to the porn industry, Polly’s inhuman humanism gets a gentle treatment. Sure, she’s insufferable . . . but over the course of the novel, she teaches Isabel to drive (“‘But I don’t want to learn!’ ‘Yes you do, and you’re going to,’ said the liberal”), to Isabel’s eventual satisfaction. Polly still can’t cook, in a truly disgusting set-piece scene (key phrase: scrapple in a birth bucket), but she does manage to rescue a battered woman from her paranoid survivalist abuser — with the help of Gloria, and British history. She even creates a semi-functional female commune out of a pack of deeply dysfunctional females.
And so the novel closes with that rarest of satirical moments: a happy ending. Isabel’s Aunt Edna invites all the citoyennes back to Virginia, as Isabel reflects, “I couldn’t imagine parting from any of them now — even Polly.” Witchy Gloria enters an Episcopal seminary: “Sweeping across dimly lit stone floors in a cassock was, when you came right down to it, just about the only thing she could do for a living.” Everyone gets more or less what she wants, and no one’s desires are sillier than anyone else’s.
In a world where neither compassion nor reason can completely survive the collision with reality, that’s probably the happiest ending on offer.