I just finished this book and it was hard to stop laughing, at least until the very end, when Florence King, like all good humor writers, switches gears on you.
The book was published in 1985, but is as contemporary as if it were published this year. The book covers her childhood, growing up in D.C., with her eccentric family; her college years at American University (she graduated in 1957); her one year of graduate school at Ole Miss; and a short period of time after her return to D.C. The Ole Miss references gave me a certain degree of nostalgia, mentioning place names that are very familiar to me. Apparently at the time, the entire state of Mississippi was “dry”, so there are frequent runs to Memphis for, as King calls it, “hooch” as well as to smaller neighboring towns for visits to various bootleggers. I personally didn’t move to Memphis until 1967, so it’s hard to imagine how it was in 1958. Living in Memphis, I never had to go to a bootlegger, but I did go to one once, with a man, at a town on the Tennessee River, so I got a taste of the experience. (It was scary.)
One of the things King makes very clear about Southern Ladies is the importance of being delicate. This delicacy always takes one of two forms: “nervous conditions” and “female trouble”. Nervous conditions may range all the way from fainting spells to nervous breakdowns. Female trouble also has a range of symptoms, but at the very least it needs to involve intense suffering, and it has to occur at least once a month.
The book is erotic at times, but mostly bawdy and irreverent. I thought the funniest passage had to do with her observation about the impact of strict religion on sexuality. Studies have shown that the reddest and most Bible-thumping states have the highest rates of participation in online porn viewing. Why does this still surprise anyone? Why do people gasp when politicians who are Family First, God-Fearing, and “Patriotic” to the max turn out to be involved in the sleaziest and most reckless sexual activity? Argentina, anyone? How about the Minneapolis airport? That suppression of natural instincts or whatever you want to call it causes perversion to leak out like air from a balloon with a pinhole in it. Here is King’s take on it, still relevant after all these years.
” The old adage about danger enhancing sexuality is all too true, and the reason why Southerners are so horny. Much has changed now; liquor is in, and racism, at least the blood-and-thunder kind, is out, but old-time religion is still flourishing and those black velvet nights are still ominous. I have a feeling that Mississippi is still the best place to be a consenting adult, and might even be our national G-spot. Just press Jackson and every woman in America will come.”
I’m not at all familiar with any of King’s other work, but I plan to catch up. For many years, she wrote a column for National Review, called “The Misanthrope’s Corner”. She’s a political conservative, which I find odd, but then again, I find all political conservatives odd. I haven’t met a single one I can truthfully say I understand.
And yet, you know that exercise where you name five people you’d like to have to dinner? Florence King is first on my list.