It’s 1953 and 19 year old Esther Greenwood has arrived in New York for a months work on a fashion magazine. One of 12 girls who have won a placement through a writing competition, it’s a month of all expenses paid and ‘piles and piles of free bonuses’, there are successful people to meet, finger bowls to learn how to use and plenty of advice about their complexions. They all live together in a women only hotel with cocktails and parties and Buddy Willard and Doreen lounging about in a peach silk dressing-gown.
‘I was supposed to be having the time of my life’
Of course it’s all just a matter of filling in time before getting married, what a ‘dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s’, thinks Esther who yearns to write and travel.
She sees her life mapped out for her, contained by social expectations where she fulfils everyone else’s hopes. But she wants independence so that she can enjoy change and excitement and not be stifled by ‘infinite security’.
But rather than liberate her, the disdain she feels for life around her sends her on a downward slope of depression. She becomes isolated, watching life but not experiencing it, she can no longer feel anything and wonders at her reaction if she was ever to be given the chance to travel,
‘. . . wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.’
First published in 1963 the detailed descriptions of her treatment for depression are a social history of women and mental health in the first half of the 20th century. Her fear of shock treatment and the treachery she feels for the Doctors she has learnt to trust but who prescribe it is heartbreaking. ‘Your mother tells me you are upset’ says Doctor Gordon when he first meets Esther, and I wondered who I hated most, the patronising Doctor Gordon or Esther’s mother for so rigidly following convention?
And what about the other women sitting chatting together in the hospital, how had they got there? were they sent by their mothers or husbands? were they there because they were ‘upset’ or ‘needed a rest’ or were ‘overwrought’?
For a book that is at times harrowing and disturbing I wasn’t expecting it to be so engaging and easy to read from the very beginning or for Esther’s droll wit to make me smile so much
‘The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.’
I loved the voice of Esther Greenwood, sharp and witty, disallusioned and disdainful and I really wish I had read this when I was 19. I borrowed this copy from my daughters teenage stack of books, but I’m hoping she’ll give me my own copy – Millie are you taking note?!