AS AN ADOLESCENT in the early '50s I remember saying more than once, "I wish I were a boy!" I was only experimenting; despite the disadvantages, I preferred - and still prefer - to be a girl, and apparently so does Susan Swan, judging by a full-page photo of her in a seductive pose in a recent issue of Saturday Night.
What makes a girl a girl? A boy a boy? From the moment in September, 1963, when 13-year-old Mouse (Mary Beatrice) Bradford looks up at the words carved over the door of Bath Ladies College (11 ... Our daughters shall be useful and ornamental, like the clover that smells sweet in the meadow") she begins to confront this question, for she is about to be locked up "with people I didn't respect - i.e., girls, my least favorite gender."
Swan paints a vivid picture of the school's exaggeratedly feminine world, from the inevitable pair of matronly lesbian teachers (with a horrifying episode in the background) to the rituatization of the feminine: the corsets, bras, and garter belts into which the girls stuff themselves, the periods and the Kotex boxes, the rigid rules about "feminine" behaviour, the formation of the "feminine" attitude toward men. It's a pretty disheartening picture, enough to make anyone sympathize with Mouse's point of view, and also to bring back with unpleasant clarity some of the agonizing moments of one's own girlhood.
"John Wayne would still be John Wayne if he had a vagina, wouldn't he?" Mouse asks, I thought, a trifle forlornly, near the end of the book, apparently believing the right answer is yes. Mouse's hero is President Kennedy, and her goal in life, finally articulated, is considerably more reasonable than the school's: "I wanted something more rand than a penis. I wanted what my hero, President Kennedy, had: courage, individual style, a life of action, and an intellect."
This is probably what draws her to Paulie Sykes, one of her roommates, who takes King Kong as her hero - not the healthiest of masculine ideals, but he is a "take charge" kind of guy and Paulie admires that. Paulie's reasoning is convoluted and has the conviction of the desperate: is she lesbian? a transsexual in the making? a cross-dresser? merely crazy? Or is she simply taking to a logical conclusion her reaction to the school's teachings about the nature of womanhood? Her fearlessness and decisiveness intrigue and finally enmesh the timid Mouse in a script she hadn't expected and can't deal with, and which leads her to the edge of an abyss over which Paulie disappears. (I couldn't help but notice that the psychologically sick Paulie is the only working-class girl in the novel.)
Swan's novel has two strands: one is the Gothic element set in the gloomy, prisonlike boarding school where everything seems slightly out of the ordinary, and some downright bizarre, even terrifying things happen. Here Paulie, a dwarf janitor, and a Victorian ghost all appear and disappear down underground passages and through doors leading to unexpected places, and inevitably more than menstrual blood flows. The other, stronger element, deftly interwoven with the first, is the story of Mouse's coming of age.
But a writer takes a risk when deciding to use an adolescent as protagonist in a novel for adults, since most are neither original nor wise enough, nor have they the clarity to engage the adult reader. (One exception, of course, is Holden Caulfield.) In Mouse Bradford, Swan draws a character who does hold our interest, with her hump on her back (named after her dead mother, with whom she carries on conversations), her yearning for love from her too busy physician-father, her insights about the others in her hated school, and about her manipulative stepmother, Sal. Swan holds a lot of love for Mouse, as well as for the confused and yearning 13-year-old in all us women; and for all Gothic elements the book is surprisingly gentle in tone.
Nonetheless, Mouse is only 13, and we see this female world and the issues it raises through the eyes of one who expresses her misery by pulling the covers over her head and eating stolen Oreo cookies, by crying, or by masturbating. Mouse is never driven to the extremity of her friend Paulie, and she doesn't dig down deep enough inside herself to find that well of sorrow, rage, or wisdom that would make the novel resonate. Lacking that passionate edge of either wit or profundity, I found that The Wives of Bath, for all its considerable merits - its humour, tightness, warmth, lack of pretension, and the skill with which it is written - never fully engages.