Monday, 14 March 2011

New Hampshire and Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)

Agh, one week in and I really bit off more than I could chew with Peyton Place. At nearly 500 pages long and with all the world news events going on in the last week it was a struggle to get through it in time, but I made it eventually, only 3 days behind schedule.

First published in 1956 Peyton Place takes place from 1937 to 1944 against the backdrop of the eponymous town of the title. While no such place exists in New Hampshire it is based on a number of real towns, most notably Gilmanton, Laconia and Alton, all located in Belknap County where Grace Metalious lived. The details of Peyton Place are typical of the region: all the characters are white and mostly Protestants or Congregationalists (a system of Protestant independent church governance established in New England in the 17th century), and like many towns of the region Peyton Place is built around its local industries, in this case the dominant one being lumber (Laconia was likewise built around lumber and grist mills). The richest man in town is Leslie Harrington the owner of the local lumber mill, and the poorest is Lucas Cross, a woodsman (an odd-job man for the lumber industry), who lives in a tar-paper shack on the outskirts of town.

What shocked America at the time of publication was not only that the morals of the characters who inhabit this typical small New England town, irrespective of their class, are no more stringent than those in the big cities, but the implication that these closeted, highly suspicious and self-righteous communities – where everyone knows everyone and rumours spread like wildfire (symbolised by an actual forest fire that burns outside of town towards the end of the second act) – actually drive people to sin rather than harbour them from it. So over the course of the novel the town plays witness to adultery, abortion, rape, incest, murder and more. Metalious’ fellow New Englanders were so offended by the unwanted reputation the success of the novel thrust upon them that they initially attempted to prevent her from being buried in the Gilmanton town cemetery upon her early death in 1964 at the age of 39 (they eventually relented).

Peyton Place was later adapted into both a successful 1957 feature film and a 1960s television series, both of which dramatically toned down the content of the novel, but it paved the way for every ‘skeletons in the closet’ depiction of small town life since, from Twin Peaks to Desperate Housewives, as well as every soap opera on television today. I enjoyed Peyton Place more than I thought I would. It’s by no means the best book ever written (even if it is one of the best selling), and it took a while to get used to the melodramatic soap-opera dialogue, but the characters are believably written (it has often been speculated exactly how autobiographical they were) and its attitude towards sex is surprisingly frank for the time in which it was published.

I still wish I had picked something shorter though.

Next: Vermont.

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