At the time of writing her best-selling novel ‘Peyton Place’ Grace Metalious, a New Hampshire, housewife, lived in a dilapidated bungalow she’d wryly nicknamed “It’ll Do.” Her three kids were existing on lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches. At 30 years old she was poverty-stricken, parched, depleted, and frantic.
At last, she’d composed a book. She titled it ‘The Tree and the Blossom’ full of insider secrets, deceitful morality, petty mindedness, and vicious town gossip in a narrative about a fictional New Hampshire town much the same as her own town of Gilmanton.
Though ruthlessly and effortlessly exposing the human failings of the denizens of a typical New England town, Metalious’ work is not lacking in compassion for the colourful inhabitants of her world. Much of this compact universe is seen through a kind of shimmering emotional lens, the vehicle for this lens being Alison Mackenzie, the sixteen year old ‘illegitimate’ child of one of the town’s most respected citizens, Constance Mackenzie.
On publication, critics and reviewers honed in on the ‘scandalous’ sex, and torrid episodes, ignoring Metalious’ powerful social commentary. Much of this was achieved via her characters, for instance the tragic figure Nellie Cross, a shack dweller and half-crazed wife of abusive drunk, Lucas Cross. Metalious wastes no time either in exposing the hypocrisy of the Congregationalist church minister, Fitzgerald, a closet Catholic who refuses to bury suicide victim Nellie on ‘consecrated ground’.
The book caused a stir for its expose of small town New England, not quite the quaint historic idyll that many imagine it to be. Metalious was loathed by the very people whose lives she manifested so unerringly in her book.
Upon her death, she was given neither accolade, or memorial. Indeed, for many years this astonishingly raw, beautiful and vivid book was out of print.
Yet this novel has sold over 10 million copies in 10 languages, making it one of the 100 best sellers of all time. It immediately broke new ground and opened the door to writing about subjects like incest, illegitimacy and domestic abuse.
It is a wonderfully written book, and comparisons have been made to Faulkner, Upton Sinclair, (and others). Yet however skilful the writer’s rendering of small town New England, and however subtle the use of the vernacular, the book was reviled and Metalious scorned as a ‘tawdry housewife’ by many elements of the press.
Also by the outraged people of Gilmanton, who felt badly exposed in the novel.
One reviewer wrote to Grace;
“For you or any responsible person to advocate the reading of your material in my opinion represents low spiritual morals.”
Another editor recommended placing the book on a bonfire, or keeping it “under lock and key”, the very attitude of secrecy Metalious highlighted so well in her novel.
On the other hand the Times critic begrudgingly noted “her ear for local speech is unflinching, down to the last four letter word”.
Grace Metalious received death threats until her sad passing at the age of 39, hounded by alcoholism and the after effects of her success. She remains unforgiven by the Gilmanton residents who would prefer to wipe the book and its author from memory.
While indignant about the “obscenity” shown in the work, many failed to see Metalious’ depiction of community friendship, and the quiet courage evident in these hardy New Englanders.
When the young Selena Cross is on trial for the murder of her incestuous tormentor, Lucas Cross, the townspeople, along with prosecutor Charles Partridge, see to it that she goes free. Doc Swain, who carried out an illegal abortion on Selena, testifies against Lucas, implicating himself and jeopardising his medical licence.
The judge turns to the jury;
“There’s not one of you on the jury who don’t know Matt Swain. I’ve known him all my life, same as you, and I say that Matt Swain is no liar. Go into the other room and make up your minds.”
The other aspect of the book often overlooked is the writer’s affection for New England. In a rapturous last passage the young Allison is reminded of her abiding love for the environment in which she was raised.
“Alison looked up at the sky, blue, with the blueness peculiar to the deep blue of an Indian Summer and thought of it as a cup, inverted over her alone.”
“Oh, I love you, she cried silently, I love every part of you. Your beauty and your cruelty, your kindness and ugliness.”
It is a democratic book, offering multiple viewpoints, and giving weight to the voices of the powerless and the oppressed. It is a liberating book, speaking openly and honestly about sex. It is a timeless book, given its power to move and entertain readers of any generation.
Metalious was a precursor of the hippy movement, paving the way for ‘literary journalist’ Tom Wolfe and that other social chronicler, Armistead Maupin; writers who dig down into the lives of their characters and expose them to our imaginations as vividly and personally as if those lives were our own.
In 2007 Manchester NH, in alliance with the University of New Hampshire, finally honoured Grace Metalious with a searching retrospective of her work and ideas. It was New England’s first public acknowledgement of its native daughter.
Grace Metalious died aged 39. She was deeply in debt having been fleeced of her wealth by numerous individuals over the years following the publication of her novel. She is buried in a modest cemetery in Gilmanton, where a single white headstone reads “Metalious, Grace, 1924 – 1964.”