Finding her 1926 work Enough Rope when I was schoolgirl in 1950s Ireland opened the door to a world beyond domesticity
They had a somewhat restricted view in Sandymount, Dublin 4 of what was suitable reading for a schoolgirl in the late 1950s: my uncle had confiscated an Agatha Christie mystery from me, pronouncing the subject of murder to be “squalid” and “disedifying” for the tender consciences of a young lady. Actually, I had come upon reading-matter that was much more subversive and this other book signalled to me, soul to soul.
It was a slim volume of verse called Enough Rope, written by Dorothy Parker (in 1926, but reprinted many times), acquired by my elder sister. As soon as I opened the pages, I felt that I entered Dottie Parker’s world of New York speakeasies, cocktails, cigarette holders, daring, doomed love affairs, and sassy, wisecracking Manhattan gals who could take care of themselves.
This was sophistication! The details of Dorothy Parker’s life I only learned later, but all the counter-cultural messages seemed to be hidden in the subtext and I picked up, intuitively, on all that Mrs Parker (she was always called either Mrs Parker or Dottie) was expressing. Reading those sardonic verses about suicide attempts (“Razors pain you / Rivers are damp …”) and the faithless men who break your heart in two – as opposed to those who never look at you – I somehow knew that Dorothy Parker was just like me; she’d been a troublesome pupil at her convent school – later expelled – and I knew that she had launched forth independently into a free and bohemian life just as I planned to do. And I knew she didn’t give a damn for convention or for all those virtuous people who always got the glittering prizes in this life – or the next: those who love too much, she wrote, would go to hell with Helen of Troy – while “those whose love is thin and wise / May view John Knox in paradise”.
As for men not making passes at girls who wear glasses – what a hoot! Surely a sally against those prim studious types always appointed the class prefect.
I just knew that Dorothy Parker drank too much – much too much; and long before I read her witticisms that “one more drink and I’ll be under the host”, I aspired to being a Dorothy Parker acolyte. I was delighted to learn that she especially enjoying boozing during the prohibition era because it was against the law. She was perfection.
It endorsed all my intuitions to know that Dottie hated domesticity and her kitchen fridge was empty save for a bottle of Martini and some ice cubes. It was all there in the allusions of her poetry. You could see she was the antidote to the good housewife, and the polar opposite of the virtuous women we were expected to emulate – from Joan of Arc to Elizabeth Fry, of whom one might well approve, but bad girls need role models too.
Yet in Parker’s verse the rebellion was beguilingly mixed with vulnerability, with ruefulness and yearning. (“Joy stayed with me a night – Young and free and fair – And in the morning light / He left me there.”) Unlike the later liberated New Yorkers of Sex and the City, she is lyrical about failure and mistakes, and the price of freedom.
Later in my teens I went on to read more of her poetry and her short stories, which were brilliant vignettes of life observed: these often described the lonesomeness of women when love goes astray. Although they can sometimes be satirical, they are less humorous than much of the poetry, and occasionally political. I remember being captivated by Soldiers of the Republic, a memorable account about the gallantry of poor men she encountered during the Spanish civil war (she considered herself communist, but never voted in her life). She wrote a poignant short story about a woman being visited in hospital after an abortion – drawn on her own raw experience – which is a remarkable accomplishment: not once is the word abortion mentioned, but you know exactly what is going on.
Only subsequently, too, did I read about the Algonquin round table where her gang outdid one another in bitchy repartee: Dottie’s pithy and caustic line about the actress who “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B”, and her sharp tongue about the society girls at Yale (“If all these sweet young things were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised”). She could be self-deprecating (“I was the toast of two continents – Greenland and Australia”) and disparaging of her lovers, always handsome men (“his body went to his head”). She surely spoke for all writers when she said that the two most beautiful words in the English language were “cheque” and “enclosed”.
She was mixed-up and flawed – isn’t everyone? She was intolerant of bores and though Jewish on her father’s side – born Dorothy Rothschild, though no relation to the banking family – she could be alarmingly antisemitic. She was self-destructive and one of her biographers considered her a despairing person. She didn’t age well and became to some degree reclusive (though I love what she said about the telephone ringing: “What fresh hell is this?”)
Books read in youth often make an impact on an awakening mind, but there are not many I could return to, now, without a veteran’s critical reflexes or a sense that their themes have been overtaken by time. Yet I still possess that well-worn little volume of Enough Rope, and it still brings an evocative response. I remember how it took me out of Sandymount, Dublin 4, when I was 15: made me dream, aspire, dare and fantasise.