Peyton Place is no longer an exciting source about sexuality, but the 1956 novel is a great window into America’s and New England’s recent past. The book’s action starts out in the 1930s.
A central character is a woman who went to Manhattan, got pregnant, was supported by her married-with-two-kids boyfriend, and then returned to Peyton Place, New Hampshire after the boyfriend died, leaving her moderately well fixed for cash. As proper society of the time had no place for women who bore children out of wedlock she has to invent and live a lie. Even her lie is not good enough for people who worship the white picket fence married-with-kids lifestyle:
“That MacKenzie woman,” she said to her husband. “Don’t tell me a young widow like that is any better than she should be. Don’t tell me she doesn’t do a lot of running around that no one has heard about. Don’t tell me she hasn’t got an eye on every man in town.”
Prior to the age of no-fault divorce, marriage was a decision not to be taken lightly:
Oh, she’s probably waiting to make sure,” said Jared’s mother. “After all, he may be a nice young man, but he doesn’t come from around here, and one can never be too careful where marriage is concerned. …
“I am not. You don’t want anything to do with Ted Carter, Selena. He comes from a terrible family. I heard my mother talking to Mrs. Page once, about Ted’s mother and father. Mrs. Page said that Mrs. Carter is no better than a hoor!” “D’you mean whore?” asked Selena.
[The accusation against Mrs. Carter stemmed from her first marriage:
Roberta Carter had been seventeen years old and her name had been “Bobbie” Welch the year that Harmon Carter, aged eighteen, had conceived his great plan. Harmon was employed at that time as an office boy in the Cumberland Mills, a position he had held since leaving high school at the age of fifteen. Bobbie was employed as a part-time secretary and cleaning woman by Dr. Jerrold Quimby. This was during the same year that young Matt Swain was serving his internship in the Mary Hitchcock Hospital at Hanover. Young Swain, as he was then called, was supposed to go into Old Doc Quimby’s office when he finished at Hanover, for that was the year that Old Doc Quimby was seventy-four years old, and much in need of a younger man to help him.
And: “Old Doc Quimby’s an old man. A woman smart enough to land him wouldn’t have to wait long for his money.” And: “Old Doc Quimby depends on you for everything. He needs you. If you wanted to go ahead and marry him, I’d wait for you.”
Old Doc Quimby had been a widower for twenty years, and did not mind it a bit as long as he could hire someone to come in to look after him. There was the hook, and Bobbie, under Harmon’s tutelage, sunk it deep. She threatened to quit her job; she refused to cook the old man’s meals; she left his dirty clothes where he dropped them; she spread the word around town that he was a vile, old lecher and an impossible man to work for. Old Doc Quimby, unable to find a replacement for Bobbie who would come into his house and look after him, had succumbed wearily. Bobbie married Old Doc Quimby, and Peyton Place rocked with shock and, later, laughter. The town called Old Doc Quimby a senile old man, an old fool of the kind there is no other like, an old fool who did not know enough to see that he was being cuckolded regularly by young Harmon Carter …
Two weeks before the date of the first anniversary of his marriage to Bobbie Welch, Old Doc Quimby put his revolver to his head and shot himself.
Small towns are notorious for their long memories and their sharp tongues, and Peyton Place did not spare Bobbie Quimby and Harmon Carter. It was years before the words hurled at them began to soften, and the epithets hurled by Peyton Place ran the gamut from “Whore” and “Pimp” to “Harlot” and “White Slaver.”
If a woman married a dud there was little remedy for the mistake:
John Ellsworth was a job shifter, perpetually discontented with his lot and forever looking for a plot of greener grass. Lucy had been a registered nurse when she married John, and she always said that it was a good thing she was, for she had had to work ever since to support the two of them, and later, the daughter who was born to them. Very often, Lucy Ellsworth said that she would leave John if it weren’t for Kathy. But after all, a child needed her father, and John might have his faults but he was good to the little girl, and a woman couldn’t ask for much more than that now, could she? Kathy was thirteen and in the eighth grade, and sometimes Lucy said that when the child was older, old enough to realize what was happening, then the two of them would leave John and his restlessness.
New Hampshire today has some of the world’s most lucrative child support guidelines, making an out-of-wedlock pregnancy potentially far more profitable than going to college and working. Back in the 1930s, however, an unmarried pregnancy was a potential disaster:
In Peyton Place there were three sources of scandal: suicide, murder and the impregnation of an unmarried girl.
Selena had never been one to let the opinions of Peyton Place bother her in any way. “Let ’em talk,” she had said. “They’ll talk anyway.” But now, with this terrible thing that had happened to her, she was afraid. She knew her town, and its many voices. “A girl in trouble.” “She got in Dutch.” “She’s knocked up.” “The tramp. The dirty little tramp.” “Well, that’s the shack dwellers for you.”
“Selena,” said Dr. Swain as gently as he knew how, “Selena, there is nothing I can give you at this point that will make you miscarry. The only thing now is an abortion, and that’s against the law. I’ve done a lot of things in my time, Selena, but I have never broken the law. Selena,” he said, leaning forward and taking both her cold hands in his, “Selena, tell me who this man is, and I will see that he is held responsible. He’ll have to take care of you and provide for the baby. I could work it so no one would know. You could go away for a little while, until after the baby comes. Whoever did this thing to you would have to pay for that, and for your hospitalization, and for you to look after yourself until you get back on your feet. Just tell me who it is, Selena, and I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
Even when the father was from a wealthy family, the woman might have a difficult time getting cash:
“You’re not buying me off that cheap, Mr. Harrington,” she screamed. “It’s Rodney’s kid I’m carrying, and Rodney’s going to marry me.” Leslie Harrington picked up the check the girl had flung. He did not speak. “Rodney’s going to marry me or I’ll go to the police. They give a guy twenty years for bastardy in this state, and I’ll see to it that he serves every single day of it unless he marries me.” Leslie buzzed for his secretary. “Bring my checkbook, Esther,” he said, and Betty flounced to a chair, a smile of satisfaction on her bruised lips. When the secretary had come and gone, Leslie sat down at his desk and began to write. “You know, Betty,” he said, as he wrote, “I don’t think you really want to bring Rodney to court. If you did that, I’d have to call in a few boys as witnesses against you. Do you know how many witnesses it takes to testify against a girl and have her declared a prostitute in this state? Only six, Betty, and I employ a great many more than six men in the mills.” Leslie tore the new check from his book with a crisp rip. He looked at Betty and smiled, extending the check. “I don’t think you want to take Rodney to court, do you, Betty?” Beneath the red bruises, Betty’s face was white and still. “No, sir,” she said, and took the check from Leslie’s hand. With her back to him, on her way to the door, she glanced down at the paper in her hand. It was a check made out to her father for two hundred and fifty dollars. She whirled and looked at Leslie Harrington, who still smiled and who looked right back at her. “Half of two fifty is one twenty-five,” he said quietly. “That’s what it’ll cost you to come back again, Betty.”
New Englanders of the 1930s loved to talk about their open-minded attitudes toward racial minorities who lived in other states:
Talk was cheap. It cost nothing to give voice to what you wanted people to think you believed. Mary wondered if medical ethics could be compared to the question of tolerance. When you talked you said that Negroes were as good as anybody. You said that Negroes should never be discriminated against, and that if you ever fell in love with one, you’d marry him proudly. But all the while you were talking, you wondered what you would really do if some big, black, handsome nigger came up and asked you for a date. … You knew that you were safe in saying these things, for there hadn’t been a nigger living in Peyton Place for over a hundred years…
General practitioners actually treated patients instead of simply deciding to which specialist they should be referred:
Everyone in Peyton Place liked Doc Swain. He had warm, blue eyes of the type which, to his eternal disgust, were termed “twinkling,” and his kindness was legend in the town. Matthew Swain was one of a rapidly disappearing species, the small-town general practitioner. The word “specialist” was anathema to him. “Yes, I’m a specialist,” he had once roared at a famous ear, eye, nose and throat man. “I specialize in sick people. What do you do?”
Being a schoolteacher in the days before $100,000+ salaries and fat pensions was not fun:
Constance MacKenzie provided ice cream, cake, fruit punch and assorted hard candies for Allison’s birthday party, and then retired to her room before an onslaught of thirty youngsters who entered her house at seven-thirty in the evening. My God! she thought in horror, listening to thirty voices apparently all raised at once, and to the racket made by thirty pairs of feet all jouncing in unison on her living room floor to the accompaniment of something called “In the Mood” being played on a record by a man to whom Allison referred reverently as Glenn Miller. My God! thought Constance, and there are still apparently sane people in this world who take up schoolteaching by choice! She sent up a silent message of sympathy to Miss Elsie Thornton and all others like her who had to put up with many more than thirty children every day, five days a week.
Poverty was truly bleak:
In northern New England, Lucas was referred to as a woodsman, but had he lived in another section of America, he might have been called an Okie, or a hillbilly, or poor white trash. He was one of a vast brotherhood who worked at no particular trade, propagated many children with a slatternly wife, and installed his oversized family in a variety of tumble-down, lean-to, makeshift dwellings.
Birth tended to be destiny. The young people whom Grace Metalious follows through about 20 years end up having similar characters and circumstances to their parents.