Grove Atlantic, 1966 (original); this edition Virago, 2003
Published in 1966 and spanning the years 1945-1965 in the entertainment industry on Broadway and in Hollywood, The Valley of the Dolls by actress-turned-writer Jacqueline Susann – one of three novels by the same author to hit the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously - marks a milestone in women’s fiction.
A precursor to the 1980s “bonkbuster” by the likes of Jilly Cooper, Jackie Collins and Shirley Conran, The Valley of the Dolls is the first significant novel to feature a new type of heroine: the celebrity.
Reflecting an aspiration particular to post-war America - and about to hit the rest of the world - the novel plays to the sexual and technological revolutions of the 1960s, embracing new personal freedoms and the opportunities afforded by the wide-spread adoption of television and, by extension, the advertising industry.
Particularly in the first part of the novel, the extent to which America was ahead of the rest of the world both technologically and culturally (and the extent to which World War II was something which happened somewhere else) is striking.
The novel was a runaway bestseller, and the film which followed close on its heels a box-office hit, and yet its perceived lack of literary worth earned it largely negative reviews. In this sense, Susann was the first “brand” novelist, evoking a particular lifestyle and aspiration.
This trend carried through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, probably only declining since the financial crisis of 2008, which marked a reversal in the kind of character and lifestyle which was considered to be aspirational or achievable.
Susann’s three main characters rise from obscurity to achieve fame and fortune in the entertainment industry, but ultimately (unlike Barbara Taylor Bradford’s heroine Emma Hart of A Woman of Substance fame, who is the first in a popular novel to be entirely self-made), the novel makes very clear that their fame ultimately depends on their looks.
All three of them are persistently subservient to various men, whether it be their less-famous husbands for whom they’re expected to give up everything, or their managers. Strikingly, Anne, the principal character, uses her wealth to enable her philandering manager husband to buy a share in the agency in order to become one of the two principal partners. Although undoubtedly the better business-person, there is never any indication that Anne would consider buying the share for herself.
Despite earning its place at beginning of the late twentieth century trend for the “aspirational” heroine, as opposed to the “relatable” heroine which both preceded and succeeded it, this is far from a feminist novel, at least from a twenty-first century viewpoint.
Two of the three main characters end up unhappy, and one ends up dead – in each case, largely because they weren’t able to live up to the impossible expectations of various men.
Entertaining as The Valley of the Dolls may be, one can’t help being left with the feeling that the women are being judged for their achievements. The ne’er-do-well men get away with their behaviour scot-free; the three women left either dead, destroyed or accepting of it.
Perhaps it suffers from being of its time, but, coming from a female author, this leaves a strange taste. Is the message that the three female characters should have known their place and stuck to a simple life of domesticity?