Invisible ink no 268: Cynthia Propperseton


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The Independent Culture

It was typical of Cynthia Seton to go to see The Graduate only to come out identifying with Dustin Hoffman’s mother, for having to put up with such a trying son. The reason for this becomes clear when you check her dates; she was born in 1926 in New York, in her teens when war broke out, in her thirties during Eisenhower’s years of plenty, then coping with the radicalism of a generation marked by Nixon and the Vietnam War.

Are all women who write from a woman’s point of view automatically feminists? Of course not, no more than men are chauvinists for writing about male experience, but Seton’s stance was complex; she was certainly a feminist who wrote traditional comedies of manners in exacting prose, featuring a gallery of middle-class wives and mothers, who for one reason or another had become dissatisfied with their lot.

But she didn’t entirely blame men. She said: “I want to write about husbands who may be obtuse, but who are not brutes, and remind their wives that there is a great deal to hang in there for.”

She married a psychiatrist and had five children, worked as a journalist, and wrote a column about modern motherhood. But the roots of her literary passion lay in the past. She learned to write the kind of prose that George Eliot and Marcel Proust employed, having taught herself French just so that she could read Proust in the original, but most of all, her graceful prose was compared to that of Jane Austen. Her women tried to understand what they wanted and/or deserved, but beneath their calm exteriors were deeper channels. She wrote six novels, many essays, and died too young, at 56, of leukaemia.

These are books in which manners are minded. Her heroines are noble and move in domestic spheres that limit their actions, but they somehow find room to glitter. Seton identifies strongly with her leading characters. The amount of change that women went through, from the old moral code to the new era of Free Love, made her more of a feminist. About her college years she had this to say: “I matured in a manner appropriate to my time, manoeuvring through a mating game unconfidently, fearing that my new politics, my finer ethics, were they ventured, would be lost.”

Her third novel, A Fine Romance, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1976 and should have won. Although her books are now available again, it’s hard to find any reader reviews of them; read one and make a difference.