Anne Firor Scott, in her Foreword to this edition of The Hard-Boiled Virgin
As it is, [Newman's] novels, though they are meticulously crafted, and filled with brilliant insights, require intense concentration of the reader who may, in the end, decide the effort was not worth it.
Who needs enemies?
Who should be more insulted, the author or her readers?
Comparisons to Virginia Woolf appear on the back cover and in the Foreword and I haven't noticed that Woolf is begging for readers.
I wonder whether it might be the subject matter. The Virgin
sends up the rigid social dogma of white Atlanta in the early part of the 20th Century -- the debutante world. I think many of us may know more about Bloomsbury society than about that of the Southern "aristocracy."
I saw what may have been the tail-end of that world when I used to sit in the lobby of the Phoenix Hotel on Main Street in Lexington -- a popular rendezvous point for families who'd come to town to shop or go to a Univ Ky ballgame -- and watch the be-gowned girls parade through on the arms of their escorts.
It did take me a little while to figure out how Newman worked. Characters are never explained or described except through the pov of the protagonist Katherine Farraday, so it took me a while to figure out that she had a mother and two older, more beautiful sisters. And that seeing her father in his nightshirt meant that she saw -- and understood -- more than his bony knees.
Apparently Atlanta belles were not to know a thing about sex until they were wed to a husband of the right kind.
But Katherine Farraday does note that her friend Sarah had laid
the little gray box . . . in her bag beside her bridal gown and her bridal neglige, and she had not forgotten Sarah Rutledge's assurance that it would delay the advent of Rutledge Simpson until he could be born in the quarters of a first lieutenant.
The box fails.
Sexual desire is described as a "radiant spray" that arises from below the "thin brown line" that divides Katherine's belly. I found the device both coy and frank.
I found it a very readable novel, but then I loved Catch-22
and all of Faulkner.
I loved it for passages such as this:
She was able to look away from Edward Cabot long enough to see that a great many young gentlemen and young ladies of the right kind had eyes like pale hot water and faces like dull oak frames, and that when they were circling the ball-room together between the somewhat stately dances, they looked exactly like an unpatronized merry-go-round in the country of the Houyhyhnms.
This novel doesn't deal with racism, "servants" barely make an appearance in its pages. The Foreword goes out of its way to explain that the novel isn't feminist. Or at least that Newman would not have wanted to write a "feminist" novel.
It is a highly intelligent send-up of an entirely fatuous society. A descendant of Jane Austen perhaps. Or perhaps out of Jane Austen by Virgina Woolf.
It is what Francis Newman set out to write: "a novel about a girl who begins by believing everything her family and her teachers said to her and who ended by disbelieving most of those things."