Divorcée Fiction: On Ursula Parrott

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From The Paris Review:

I’d never heard of Ursula Parrott when McNally Editions in­troduced me to Ex-Wife, the author’s 1929 novel about a young woman who suddenly finds herself suspended in the caliginous space between matrimony and divorce. The first thing I won­dered was where it had been all my life. Ex-Wife rattles with ghosts and loss and lonely New York apartments, with men who change their minds and change them again, with people and places that assert their permanence by the very fact that they’re gone and they’re never coming back. Originally published anonymously, Ex-Wife stirred immediate controversy for Parrott’s frank depiction of her heroine, Patricia, a woman whose allure does not spare her from desertion after an open marriage proves to be an asymmetrical failure. Embarking on a marathon of alcoholic oblivion and a series of mostly joyless dips into the waters of sexual liberation, Patricia spends the book ricocheting between her fear of an abstract future and her fixation on a past that has been polished, gleaming from memory’s sleight of hand.

It’s been nearly a century since Ex-Wife had its flash of fame (the book sold more than one hundred thousand copies in its first year), and as progress has stripped divorce of its moral op­probrium, it has also swelled the ranks of us ex-wives. Folded in with Patricia’s descriptions of one-night stands and prohibition-­busting binges are the kind of hollow distractions relatable to any of us who have ever wanted to forget: she buys clothes she can’t afford; she gets facials and has her hair done; she listens to songs on repeat while wearily wondering why heartache always seems to bookend love. My copy is riddled with exclamation marks and anecdotes that chart my own parallel romantic catastrophes, its paragraphs vandalized with highlighted passages and bracketed phrases. There is a sentence on the book’s first page that I outlined in black ink: “He grew tired of me;” it reads, “hunted about for reasons to justify his weariness; and found them.” The box that I have drawn around these words is a frame, I suppose; the kind that you find around a mirror.

For all its painful familiarity, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of Ex-Wife’s nostalgic charm; there are phonographs and jazz clubs and dresses from Vionnet; there are verboten cocktails and towering new buildings that reach toward a New York skyline so young that it still reveals its stars. If critics once took issue with the book’s treatment of abortion, adultery, and casual sex, contemporary analyses have too often remarked that Patricia’s world cannot help but show us its age. “Scandalous or sensational?” wrote one critic when the book was last reprinted, in 1989. “Times have changed.” Yes and no; released in the decade between two world wars, and just months before Black Tuesday turned boom to bust, Ex-Wife probes the violent uncertainty of a world locked in a perpetual state of becoming.

Lurching toward sexual revolution but still psychologically tethered to Victorian morality, women of Parrott’s generation found themselves caught in the free fall of collapsing conven­tion. The seedy emotional texture of Ex-Wife’s Jazz Age de­bauchery reflected the panic felt by women across the country who had glimpsed freedom but remained ill-equipped to navi­gate its consequences. Almost immediately following the book’s publication, the press began a guessing game that sought to identify who was being shielded under its mantle of anonym­ity; was Ex-Wife a confession, a fantasy, or the indictment of a culture shifting too rapidly to acknowledge the inevitable casualties we leave in the wake of change? By August of 1929, conjecture had correctly zeroed in on Katherine Ursula Parrott (née Towle), a journalist and fashion writer who seemed to bear an uncanny resemblance to her bobbed and brushed heroine.

Considering the book in the context of what we now know about her life, one cannot put much stock in Parrott’s sug­gestion that Patricia was a composite figure. Instead, Ex-Wife seems to have been a place to record injuries too personal for her to claim as her own. Born in Boston to a physician father and a housewife mother, Parrott decamped to New York’s Greenwich Village shortly following her graduation from Radcliffe College in the early twenties. Her first marriage, to the journalist Lindesay Parrott Sr., ended in divorce in 1926, the year he discovered that the childless marriage he had in­sisted upon was not so childless after all. In 1924, Ursula had learned that she was pregnant and left the couple’s London home for Boston, where she gave birth to her only son before depositing him in the custody of her father and older sister. It was a secret that she managed to keep from Lindesay and their glamorous circle of friends for an astonishing two years. Marc Parrott, whose afterword concludes this book, would never have a relationship with his father. He was nearly seven years old when his mother finally acknowledged her maternity and assumed responsibility for his care. It was 1931 by then, and Ursula had become one of a handful of women who would find her fortune writing escapist romance tales under the pall of the Great Depression.

Marc Parrott’s recollections of his mother paint a vivid por­trait of a spendthrift who often worked for seventy-two-hour stretches in order to meet the deadlines that would keep her (and her lovers) in furs. Parrott swanned through the thirties publishing short stories and serialized novels in women’s mag­azines, her name often mentioned alongside the Hollywood stars who were attached to her screenplays and cinematic ad­aptations. Although I never once found her son mentioned in the many news items devoted to her work and her persona, Parrott was occasionally found in the company of a pet poo­dle improbably named Ex-Wife; in more ways than one, it would seem, her greatest scandal was also her most stalwart companion.

Though Ex-Wife was initially framed as the writer’s en­dorsement of a dangerous new cultural model, Parrott herself was painfully aware of the double standard that continued to condemn “girls who do.” Divorced for a second time in 1932 and for a third five years after, the writer openly mused about her vulnerability in a world where marriage no longer insulated aging women from “man’s urge for variety.” Parrott called di­vorced women like her “Leftover Ladies,” a term that implies both surplus and rejection. Her abandoned woman is doomed to a battle that offers neither victory nor surrender. I think of Patricia examining the phantom lines that have begun to etch themselves across her face. I think of her cold creams and her lipsticks, of her awareness of a clock that never stops ticking. “The Leftover Lady is not free to get old,” Parrott wrote the winter after Ex-Wife came out, “for she has entered the compe­tition, in her work and in her social life, with younger women. And that competition is merciless.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

2 thoughts on “Divorcée Fiction: On Ursula Parrott”

  1. It’s about time fiction caught up with reality, most divorces are initiated by women, so it’s obvious that the “Leftover lady” theory doesn’t hold in most cases now. (Not saying it doesn’t happen, but it’s not the reality for most divorces).

  2. I’ve not read that particular novel, but it seems to fall in line with so many of those OTHER Unhappy Wife/Ex-Wife novels:
    – Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying
    – The Women’s Room
    – Really, anything by Virginia Wolff
    – The Bell Jar
    – The Stepford Wives
    – Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen
    – The First Wives Club
    I was trying to think of ANY book with a woman in it that portrayed a reasonably happy marriage. And, I couldn’t.
    Not the fashion today.

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