A Lot of Everything
Sex Wars: A Novel of the Turbulent Post Civil War Period
By Marge Piercy
New York: HarperCollins, 2005, 411 pp., $24.95, hardcover
The Night Watch
By Sarah Waters
New York: Riverhead, 2006, 448 pp., $24.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Diana Postlethwaite
When Sarah Waters was born in 1966, the thirty-year-old Marge Piercy was busy protesting US military involvement in Vietnam and working on the front lines of Students for a Democratic Society. Shortly thereafter came the second wave of American feminism and the first of Piercy’s many sturdy, sprawling novels. Three decades later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Waters’ Ph.D. thesis on lesbian historical fiction would inspire her to try her own hand at the genre. Tipping the Velvet (1998) tipped its bonnet both to trendy contemporary critical theories of gender and genre and to the lavishly improbable melodramas of Charles Dickens, Sheridan LeFanu, and Wilkie Collins.
Only a book reviewer on assignment would find herself faced with the necessity of placing Piercy’s sixteenth novel, Sex Wars, cheek by jowl with Waters’ fourth, The Night Watch. But the exercise turns out to be illuminating. Obvious differences and similarities are easy to spot: two different generations of women writers; two nationalities; two distinctively dissimilar literary sensibilities. Yet both books share dramatic, lavishly researched historical settings (New York in the women’s-rights-and-robber-barons post-civil war l870s; London during and after the dark days of the German blitz in the 1940s). Both Piercy and Waters spin voluminous, triple-decker plotlines. And readers of both will enjoy the good company of strong women characters who exploit their turbulent times as opportunities for personal and social transformation.
“This is New York. There’s a lot of everything,” Piercy’s heroine Freydah Levin observes. There’s also “a lot of everything” in Piercy’s sprawling saga. In a growing city where the new Central Park is still in the boonies, we watch Freydah, a pragmatic Eastern European Jewish immigrant, work her way up from a straw mattress on a dirty floor to ownership of a Brooklyn brownstone. When she isn’t adopting destitute street urchins, Freydah is manufacturing condoms in her kitchen (“She was always making plans, it was her nature”).
The four major characters and four distinct plots in Sex Wars only rarely intersect. The book’s cohesion (such as it is) comes from its theme of “sex wars” and its historical focus on the years from 1868 to 1873.
Freydah (our Everywoman) is the book’s only fictional character; the others are famous historical figures. The novel opens with the glamorous, notorious, deliciously Machiavellian free-thinker Victoria Woodhull, somewhat improbably “lying in bed with her temporary lover, Charlie,” and reading the Orations of Demosthenes. Woodhull, who has “seen visions and heard voices,” will advance using skills she’s honed as an actress and a spiritualist medium (two roles in which Victorian women could speak in public).
An unrepentant practitioner of free love (“the sexual act committed in freedom and loving-kindness”), Victoria and her bodacious sister Tennie establish their initial nest-egg by providing séances and very special “massages” to Cornelius Vanderbilt. Woodhull becomes the first woman stockbroker in New York City (shrewdly milking as her main source of investment opportunities the pillow talk of Robber Barons in the arms of high-class prostitutes); and later, having found her vocation in suffragist politics, the first woman candidate for president of the US.
Woodhull’s pioneering path crosses that of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom Piercy portrays as the women’s movement’s more respectable leader. When we meet her in 1868, Stanton is the post-Seneca Falls matriarch of women’s-righters. Less flamboyant than Woodhull, she’s no less driven (“We have too many ladies, and too few useful women”). Happily postmenopausal, surrounded by a brood of children that others care for, Stanton writes, lectures, and tours while her husband Henry pays the mortgage and has the good sense to spend most of his time living elsewhere. If Woodhull mesmerizes, Stanton nurtures her audiences into enthusiasm: “She beamed at the audience as if she were about to give them a treat. Excitement, controversy, humor, warmth, and practical advice.”
The fourth of Piercy’s leading characters is the wild card of the bunch—and Sex Wars’ most intriguing portrait. Anthony Comstock is the male general of the enemy army, champion of the forces of patriarchy, fundamentalism, and repression. In smoky Manhattan saloons that cater to “sporting men,” where they can enjoy entertainments such as “Katie Sullivan and her Girly Girls” or a bare-knuckle match between Charlie the Chopper and Dan the Drayman, pious young Anthony finds his calling: to eradicate what he belives is sin.
Comstock’s one-man vigilante attack on smut peddlers blossoms into a nationally publicized, fundamentalist crusade against prostitution, abortion, birth control, and women’s rights in any form. “He attended meetings of the National Reform Association….They wanted the nation to pass a constitutional amendment to place the U.S. firmly under God, to declare God and Jesus Christ the rules and the Bible the supreme authority.”
Sound familiar? Piercy has lots of fun with these kinds of then/now parallels. What’s unexpected, however, is her willingness to get inside Comstock’s head; making him, if not sympathetic, more than a caricature or a punching bag. We learn, for example, that his sweet and dutiful wife nearly dies in childbirth, and that their baby is stillborn. “More than ever before, the life of precious children needed protection,” Comstock responds.
What’s least engaging about Sex Wars is Piercy’s relentless (and apparently irresistable) impulse to wallpaper her novel with her voluminous historical research. For every interesting, albeit slightly gratuitous, tidbit of period detail (a “goffering iron [is] needed for all the ruffles and little tucks”), we’re subjected to paragraphs like this:
The presidential election was approaching. . . . The Democrats nominated Governor Samuel Tildon of New York, someone Elizabeth could actually support, for he had been instrumental in overthrowing the Tweed ring. . . . Senator Blaine from Maine expected to be nominated by the Republicans, but the Union Pacific Railroad scandal stood in his way. Instead, after a huge battle in Cincinnati, the Republicans chose the governor of Ohio, one Rutherford B. Hayes.
This is not the stuff of good fiction (or even of bad fiction).
But I forgive Piercy her literary sins, because I love her spirit. She’s seen it all, yet she remains an optimist. And she generously lets her historical heroines (and feminist alter egos) have it all: political and economic clout, motherhood, great sex, and wonderful female friendships.
No such luck for anybody in The Night Watch. Sarah Waters’ description of heroine Viv Pearce at the beginning of her book sets the tone: “there was… something disappointed about her… A sort of greyness. A layer of grief, as fine as ash, just beneath the surface.” The timeline of The Night Watch literally runs backward, from 1947 to 1944 to 1941. At the novel’s 1947 beginning (which comes at the chronological end), London lies in bombed-out, burned-out ruins; and so, it seems, do the psyches of the main characters.
Botched suicide attempts and grisly back-street abortions, grim prisons and even grimmer bedrooms: Waters deploys her historical setting as metaphorical window-dressing for the emotional blitzkrieg these women and men inflict upon one another in the name of love. “I can’t get over it… As if one’s grief is a fallen house… I’ve got lost in my rubble.”
Like Sex Wars, The Night Watch spins several lightly interwoven, thematically connected tales: a sexually confused young man named Duncan languishes, shamed, in Wormwood Scrubs prison (for mysterious reasons not revealed until late in the novel) and yearns after his bunkmate, an upper-class conscientious objector who may or may not reciprocate the attraction. Meanwhile, Duncan’s sister, Viv, carries on a degrading clandestine affair with a married man.
These two plots feel somewhat tangential to the rotating triangles of lesbian lovers that span The Night Watch: Helen loves Julia; Kay loves Helen; Julia, we learn, once loved Kay. The best, and the darkest, moments in the novel come when Waters dissects the rationalizing, horrifically self-centered psychology of unfaithfulness. She may not have lived through the blitz, but I’m betting Waters has experienced what she’s writing about here. It rings chillingly true.
In running the clock backward from bitter endings to sweet beginnings, Waters borrows a page from Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. Hindsight inevitably breeds irony and rue. The brightest (and darkest) moment is thus the book’s final sentence, where ambulance driver Kay Langrish, “unable to believe that something so fresh and so unmarked could have emerged from so much chaos,” pulls from the rubble a stranger named Helen Giniver. Helen (the reader knows) will go on to be Kay’s devastatingly unfaithful lover.
Fans of Waters’ three previous novels, all set in naughty olde Victorian England, may be disappointed by The Night Watch. Those books were fun: technicolor sex, high-spirited con games, a frisson of the supernatural. Whether yearning, thwarted, or consummated, there was always a lusty energy in the lesbian sexuality that permeated Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith.
But The Night Watch grew on me. Especially when I went back through the novel a second time, knowing how it all “turned out” (or rather, how it all began). While Piercy’s prose would be well-served by some judicious skimming, Waters’ rewards lingering. “She saw odd little disconnected details: the glint of an earring, the gleam of a man’s hair, the sparkle of crystal in the paving-stones.” Keep your eye out for elegantly insinuated clues and talismanic objects—a small gold ring, a lush pair of satin pajamas—that disappear and reappear. There are cleverly resonant connections to be made by the attentive reader.
And then there’s London, a setting so richly realized in The Night Watch that it becomes a character in its own right. Sarah Waters may be an iconoclast, but she’s still British; when her characters gaze out over the River Thames, they quote Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” From a bohemian houseboat on Regent’s Canal to a tony picnic with china cups in Regent’s Park, we roam the streets of London—most often, and most dramatically, on night watch in a blacked-out ghost city.
Throughout the middle section of the novel, at the height of the bombing in l944, “the air [feels] charged, as if with a rapidly beating pulse.” Waters follows Kay, an ambulance driver, into the chaos (“Every time Kay put down her feet, things cracked beneath them, or wrapped themselves around her ankles”).
Waters’ most passionate scene comes three-fourths of the way through. While Kay is out on her nightly ambulance run, Helen, betraying her, makes an assignation with Julia to roam the pitch-black streets of London by moonlight. “I’m divining you… I can feel the heat of you, rising up… I feel as if a small button hook had been plunged into my breast.” Sensibility and setting fuse thrillingly.
Placing Sex Wars and The Night Watch side by side ultimately suggests a deeper, more thought-provoking set of oppositions than American/British or hippie/po-mo. The reader of both may ask herself: which writer’s sensibility best resonates with my personal world view? Piercy’s earth-bound temperament is that of a literal-minded historian: lives march inexorably forward (and then. . . and then. . . and then); whileWaters’ twisty bent is introspective and psychoanalytical (so that was because of that which was because of that? aha!).
Piercy’s plots, played out in the well-lit public arena of politics, are of necessity optimistic: change may be difficult, but progress must and can be made. The medium of The Night Watch is murkier, a private sphere of lovers, secrets, and lies that (as every good post-Freudian knows) condemns its participants to compulsive repetition—rich soil for ambiguity and irony.
What both Sex Wars and The Night Watch share, however, is the exuberance and delight their authors take in telling a good story. And who’s to say one reader can’t relish two very different ways of looking at the world?
Diana Postlethwaite is professor of English at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction. She reviews books for a variety of national publications.