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Margaret drabble.


British writer Margaret Drabbles refined, shrewd voice has helped shape the literary world for over half a century. Her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), led to another 17 novels, as well as two biographies, a memoir, and one short story collection. Though her subject matter varies, perhaps her primary interest all along has been women's relationships: motherhood, sisterhood, and female friendship, and the troubled, interior dramas that result from such relationships. In The Peppered Moth (2001), she wrote brutally about her mother's depression; in Jerusalem the Golden (* JAMES TAIT BLACK MEMORIAL PRIZE, 1967), a girl leaves her unhappy home to attend a university. Drabble (also known as Dame Margaret Drabble, Lady Holroyd) never approaches the chick lit genre; hers is instead "candid and darkly funny writing about women's lot" (New York Review of Books, 2/6/2014). With a realism born out of respect for Victorian fiction (George Eliot's Middlemarch, for example, provided the basis for the sororal relationships in A Summer Bird-Cage), Drabble's works, taken together, form a morally astute social history of the latter half of the 20th century.

Born in Sheffield, a working-class city in northern England, in 1939, Drabble attended a Quaker boarding school in York, where her mother taught. She earned a scholarship to Cambridge, where she was influenced by critic F. R. Leavis and his "Great Books" curriculum and graduated with top honors in English. Hers is a notably academic family: her father was a barrister; her mother also studied at Cambridge but traded a career for motherhood; and her older sister is novelist A. S. Byatt, with whom she has a reportedly long-standing feud.

In 1960, Drabble tried her hand at acting. She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, serving as an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench--until she had her first novel published. Her brief acting career undoubtedly inspired her second novel, The Garrick Year (1964), in which a young mother follows her actor husband from London to Hereford. Indeed, Drabble's first marriage (1960-1975) was to actor Clive Swift, with whom she had three children. Her second husband is Sir Michael Holroyd, biographer and president emeritus of the Royal Society of Literature; they divide their time between London and Somerset.

Drabble's first three novels were largely semiautobiographical stories of young women navigating relationships and careers--precisely what she was doing as an admittedly content young single mother and author. Written in the 1960s and 1970s, they were seen, not wrongly, as feminist, though Drabble has never been pinned down as such. "I wrote novels to keep myself company, and with my first book had discovered an informal first-person narrative voice that took me by surprise," she reminisces. Female protagonists are a trademark of Drabble's work, and her juxtaposition of motherhood and the intellectual life placed her in the company of contemporaries such as Mary McCarthy, Edna O'Brien, Sylvia Plath, and Doris Lessing. Drabble recalls that, especially in the 1960s, "the courtship novel of ... Jane Austen was giving way to the post-courtship novel of marital conflict and professional ambitions" (Guardian [UK], 3/19/2011).

After these early works, Drabble broadened her scope to consider the state of the British nation and the individual's place in society. While incorporating weighty themes of politics, ethics, and fate, Drabble always retains a detached, almost clinical perspective on her characters, though in much of her fiction, internal drama surpasses outward action. Drabble also roots her realist fiction firmly in time and place in her consideration of the countryside versus the city and the North versus the South of England. She especially contrasts Yorkshire and London, as in Jerusalem the Golden, in which the female protagonist leaves the North for London and forms a strong friendship that sustains her in her loneliness. That preoccupation with a sense of place also informs Drabble's two definitive literary textbooks, A Writer s Britain: Landscape and Literature (1979) and The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985), which she edited.

Novelist Michael Cunningham asserts that "Drabble's novels are insightful, powerfully written, utterly unsentimental and driven by political convictions. . They're not revolutionary, but they're rigorous" (New York Times Book Review, 9/17/2009). They are also difficult to pigeonhole; nor should they be. Below, we offer a small sampling of her work.


The Millstone (1965)



At the time Drabble was writing The Millstone, her third novel, she was a young mother expecting her third child. "There weren't many novels about maternity in those days," she recollects, "but I don't think I had any sense of entering forbidden or dangerous ground. I was writing about what was all around me, the daily lives of myself and my friends, the struggle to work and bring up children at the same time." The novel also heralded a shift in Drabble's style. Her first three novels, including The Millstone, were fairly straightforward first person female narratives. In fact, Drabble herself states, "After The Millstone, I stopped writing first-person novels. I came to think it a lazy form, and embarked on more complex and ambitious polyphonic efforts. I sometimes wish I could recapture that easy single linear narrative" (Guardian [UK], 3/19/2011).

THE STORY: Rosamund Stacey, a young, insecure graduate student, becomes pregnant after a one-night stand. Raised on traditional values but enraptured by the feminist ideals she has encountered at her university, she must decide if she can balance motherhood with an academic career. As the title suggests, Rosamund's illegitimate child, Octavia, can sometimes feel like a burden, especially with her serious congenital heart defect (which one of Drabble's own children had). Yet, at the same time, Octavia is a source of pure joy. The novel may be slim, but it is a tender, even philosophical exploration of single motherhood in the 1960s, told in Rosamund's own matter-of-fact voice.

"Drabble does not romanticize the reputed sexual liberation of women in the period. Instead, we follow Rosamund as she deals with the consequences of becoming pregnant: her agonies about whether to self-abort, her progress through the maze of the NHS [National Health Service], the social stigma she endures on becoming a single mother. ... [I]n its realism, it's very much ... a novel that provokes as much today as when it first came out." CATHERINE BENNETT, GUARDIAN (UK), 11/21/2010

The Radiant Way Trilogy (1987-1991)

This trilogy, a composite portrait of three middle-aged female friends who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s, is also a commentary on Britain's social and political changes under Margaret Thatcher. Each woman faces professional and personal hardships during this newly conservative leadership. In a 1989 interview, Drabble says, "What I wanted to show in The Radiant Way is that even when you're living in a hostile climate politically, you yourself can live well, have a good life, supper with your friends. I was trying to contrast a constrained public life with a rich personal life" (Women Writers Talk: Interviews with 10 Women Writers by Olga Kenyon, 1989). The title of the first novel, A Radiant Way, is also that of one character's ex-husband's TV series, "A series that demonstrated, eloquently, movingly, the evils that flow from a divisive class system ... from Britain's unfortunate heritage of public schools and philistinism."


THE STORIES: The Radiant Way (1987), Drabble's 10th novel, opens at a party on New Year's Eve, with the central trio preparing to welcome the 1980s. Liz Headleand is a successful psychoanalyst, but as her marriage crumbles, she will have to face life alone; social worker Alix Bowen teaches poetry at a women's prison; and Esther Breuer is a reclusive art historian. A Natural Curiosity (1989) picks up seven years later, with Alix befriending a young serial killer and Liz delving into her family history. The Gates of Ivory (1991) ventures further afield and has characteristics of a mystery, as Liz tracks her former lover's travels through the Far East, including war-torn Cambodia.

"Each novel features multiple viewpoints with dramatic vignettes connected by montage. ... Drabble suggests an infinitely expanding social network, conveying Woolf's web of relationship, until the web threatens to thin into nothingness" NORA FOSTER STOVEL, INTERNATIONAL FICTION REVIEW 18.2, 1991

The Peppered Moth (2001)


Autobiographical reflections on three generations of mothers and daughters inspired Drabble's 14th novel. In the afterword, Drabble reveals that she based this work on her mother's life, supplemented by letters and documents. "I think about my mother a great deal, uncomfortably," Drabble divulges. "Maybe I should have tried to write a factual memoir of her life, but I have written this instead." In the end, she decided to tell her mother's story as a novel because she wanted to be able to generalize--"[to] say, this is the kind of thing mothers do to their daughters. And I could look at her as part of her generation." The title refers to a creature that famously illustrates the ability of a species to adapt to changes in its environment.

THE STORY: Bessie Bawtry is born into a South Yorkshire coal-mining village in the early 1900s. She earns a scholarship to Cambridge, thus fulfilling her longing to escape her working-class upbringing. However, depression--a matrilineal family curse--and psychosomatic illnesses land her back in her hometown after graduation. Marriage to a local lawyer, Joe Barron, disappoints, but it at least leads to a lively daughter, Chrissie. After a wild adolescence and a disastrous first marriage, Chrissie settles down with her second husband, a fellow archeologist, and her own daughter, Faro. Shifting effortlessly between three generations of troubled women, Drabble's omniscient narrator ponders the laws of inheritance, both metaphorical and genetic.

"Burrowing under the present and layering her story with metaphor, Margaret Drabble explores the persistence of the past, for better and for worse. ... [The novel's] zest derives in large part from the perfectly sustained tone, which expresses humor without poking fun, and deep regret without sentimentality." CHRISTINA SCHWARZ, ATLANTIC MONTHLY, 5/15/2001

The Pattern in the Carpet

A Personal History with Jigsaws (2009)


In The Peppered Moth, Drabble explores the idea of a depressive gene--something she returns to in this "oblique memoir" (Telegraph [UK], 4/19/2009). As a child, Drabble experienced periods of intense depression, exacerbated by her fears of an angry God. Taking long walks in nature, writing, and doing jigsaw puzzles have been her primary means of resisting despondency. In this highly unusual autobiography, "past folds into the present, and the personal into the public. Only at the very end is the pattern in the carpet fully revealed" (Guardian [UK], 4/18/2009). The book's title refers to the title of Henry James's 1896 short story, "The Figure in the Carpet."

THE TOPIC: Drabble inherited her love of jigsaw puzzles from her mother's spinster sister, Auntie Phyllis, who was also the village school mistress and who helped her parents run a roadside inn. Auntie Phyl is one of the central characters here. Drabble traces not only the history of the jigsaw puzzle itself--which began with London cartographer John Spilsbury around 1760--but also, as the subtitle suggests, her own family's history with jigsaws. From childhood onwards, this meditative hobby has been a balm against depression. It continues to comfort her in later years, especially during her husband's long bout with bowel cancer. She concludes, "[J]igsaws have offered me ... an innocent and soothing relief and this is where this book began and where it ends."

"Clearly, Drabble didn't intend to write anything resembling a big scholarly book about the human fascination with games and other pastimes, and she didn't have to. ... She uses the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle to assert that life is composed of small undramatic pieces, and not of the cataclysmic events on which some novelists insist." MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, 9/17/2009

The Pure Gold Baby (2013)


In 2009 Drabble announced she would publish no more fiction; four years later The Pure Gold Baby appeared. Critics agreed it was not quite the return to form it might have been, but the prose is graceful and the conspiratorial tone well realized, thanks to bursts of first person plural narration. One reviewer deliberately likened it to The Pattern in the Carpet, arguing that it "resembles a jigsaw; its ambitious themes of parenthood, innocence, wounded children, anthropology, literature, madness, aging, illness and love juxtaposed to form, if not quite a coherent pattern, then something tantalizingly close to it" (Telegraph [UK], 11/15/2013). In some ways, The Pure Gold Baby seems like an updated version of The Millstone: perhaps it is the author's older, wiser commentary on sexual liberation and single motherhood after more than four decades of social change.

THE STORY: Set in 1960s London, Drabble's latest tells the story of Jessica Speight, a young anthropology student with a bright career in African fieldwork ahead of her--until she falls in love with her married, Scandinavian professor and ends up as a single mother. Her daughter, Anna, is the winsome "pure gold baby" of the title, but she has a condition similar to Down syndrome; her health problems will require Jess to maintain responsibility for her for the rest of her life. Narrated by lawyer Eleanor and the other mothers from Jess's North London circle, the novel ranges in tone from satirical to heartwarming as it examines the complexities of modern motherhood. (***1/2 Mar/Apr 2014)

"In Margaret Drabble's superb new novel, a richly complex narrative voice achieves a choric magnificence hardly equalled in her earlier work. The Pure Gold Baby considers, with saturnalian humour and elegiac sorrow, how far the author's generation has come." STEVIE DAVIES, INDEPENDENT (UK), 11/1/2013

Other Notable Works





THE ICE AGE (1977)




THE SEA LADY (***1/2 Sept/Oct 2007)
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Title Annotation:notable works
Author:Foster, Rebecca
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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