Thursday 24 November 2011

Margaret Drabble

Long ago I read a few Drabble books. A writer friend of mine read her in his twenties too. I knew about students then, but I didn't know how graduates lived, or how the middle classes lived. I didn't even know women who worked. In Drabble's books I encountered emotionally articulate women (I imagined they looked like those in David Hamilton's photographs) experiencing London lifestyles, meeting people who were interested in literature. I learnt what growing girls thought about. I saw a dramatization starring Sandy Dennis.

So I thought I'd re-read them. I couldn't recall which I'd previously read, and hardly any of her books were in the library. I found "The Millstone" in a secondhand bookshop. I must have read it but now I feel it couldn't have contributed to my abiding impression of Drabble books. I finished it, but only just. The writing didn't propel me along. Is the main character, Rosamund, supposed to come over as snobby? Maybe. When she found out that her lodger has been writing a novel about her, she was more annoyed by the novel's attack on scholarship than the invasion of privacy. But maybe it's just that times have changed. No longer do mothers stay 9 days in a maternity ward, neither do unmarried mothers have a "U" at the foot of their bed.

The character has a Ph.D so we should expect some elevated, controlled writing - "Lydia, who had hitherto been accepting our devious comfort, suddenly turned on us with a wail of despondency", (p.9); "she wore her grief well: she spared herself and her associates the additional infliction of ugliness, which so often accompanies much pain", (p.135). It's not a style that appeals to me. In The Guardian John Mullan says "Often it is as if the sentences were being transcribed as they arose in the narrator's mind. … Her peculiar formality of tone is partly a matter of the class identity of which she is so conscious. … The intriguing coexistence of formality and informality also seems appropriate to its period. … Drabble's narrator is a creature of her times: free-thinking but proper; informal, but formal too". So I guess the idea is that one should try to interpret the at times awkward, faux-Jamesian tone as an expression of Rosamund's personality.

The baby's nameless more often than I'd have expected - "I remember, however, the night before it was born with some clarity", (p.87); "And so the summer wore away, and autumn set in, and the baby started to sit up", (p.112).

Perhaps I don't appreciate the significance of the decision she made to become a single mother, to control her own destiny. In those days it might have been a bigger deal than now. I think the plot is that she becomes more self-assured. At the start she thinks of the father that "He must be one of these bisexual people, I thought, or perhaps even he's no more queer than I am promiscuous, or whatever the word is for what I pretend to be. Perhaps we appeal to each other because we're rivals in hypocrisy", (p.27). When the child is born she has a funny feeling - "Love, I suppose one might call it, and the first of my life", (p.98). Later she's brave enough to talk to neighbours, she realises that "If I asked more favours of people, I would find people more kind", (p.156). At the end she invites home the unknowing father having not met him for 2 years. She likes him. He asks if she'd like to travel the world with him. She turns him down, sort of - "I asked him if he would have another drink. But I asked him in such as way that he would refuse, and he refused.
'I can't help worrying,' I said. 'It's my nature. There's nothing I can do about my nature, is there?'
'No,' said George
" (p.167). We're left wondering whether motherhood has changed her much. Before, she loved no-one and had a career planned. After, she has someone to worry about and has a career planned.

Then I found "Jerusalem the Golden", secondhand again. I'm sure that I'd read that too. The heroine, Clara, is affected by words that are "phrased with some beauty" (p.31). I wonder what she'd feel about the start of this book. Early on she uses big words in conversation - "And now you can see that I can substantiate my disadvantage" (p.24) The following extracts of narration (3rd person privileged though they are, and interpretable as expressions of Clara's personality) are too wordy to me.

  • "Sometimes she wondered what would have happened if she had missed them, and whether a conjunction so fateful and fruitful could have been, by some accidental obtuseness on her part, avoided: she did not like to think so, she liked to think that inevitability had had her in its grip, but at the same time she uneasily knew that it had in some ways, been a near thing" (p.9)
  • In the following, the repetition of "right", "although" and "quite" seem accidental - "Although she was quite ignorant of the etiquette of such occasions, she rightly took this to be her duty; she could tell that she was right by the way that Peter, after introducing her, politely echoed her sentiments, although he had expressed quite other sentiments whilst sitting beside her in the auditorium" (p.10). How about this rewrite? - Though ignorant of the appropriate etiquette, she took this to be her duty; she could tell she was right by how Peter, after introducing her, politely echoed her sentiments, contradicting what he'd said during the performance
  • "Clelia was a name with which she had no acquaintance. She did not think it likely that she would ever need to use it, so she was not unduly uneasy about her ignorance". How about this instead? Again, it reduces the word-count by at least a third - She hadn't heard the name Clelia before, which didn't worry her because she didn't think she'd use it

The paragraph starting near the bottom of p.10 begins with a sentence containing "but". Successive sentences hinge about "but", "but", "but", "but", "but" and "nevertheless", "however, though", "though", "and yet" until the pattern's broken by the none too elegant "She liked to like things, if at all, for the right reasons. And all in all, she was glad".

Once the text has something to narrate and more dialogue interjects, the style loosens up. Naive, Clara emerges into a mileau she's longed for - the "Jerusalem the Golden" hymn elevated the heroine, Clara, "to a state of rapt and ferocious ambition and desire ... where beautiful people in beautiful houses spoke of beautiful things" (p.32). She trusts the first interesting family she meets - "Clara was impressed by the way they all managed to talk intelligently, yet without strain, without intensity, without affection" (p.136); "She took them on trust so completely, the Denhams, for as far as she could see they were never wrong" (p.156). She identifies with Clelia - when Clelia was 8 or 9 she once "confessed that she was weeping because she feared she would never be an artist" (p.137). Later, finding some of her own dying mother's letters, Clara identifies with her as she was in her 20s. In chapter 7 we have Gabriel's point-of-view. Later, Clara's and Gabriel's points-of-view alternate. At the end, events happen rapidly, and Clara, without experience, perhaps oversteps the mark. Coincidences play in her favour.

I like the last hundred or so pages - they are how I remember Drabble. I probably identified with her characters - heroines from a sheltered upbringing who have the basic brain power but lack cultural conversation and challenges to their beliefs. They meet someone who opens the door onto a new life, shows them London. They're not ready for it, they idealize their new friend, they run before they can walk, feeling there's so much time to make up.

In a Paris Review interview by Barbara Milton, Drabble says

  • "I was rather a lonely child when I was small. I made lots of friends when I was about thirteen or fourteen - when it became all right to be intellectual. But when I was a little child I was often ill. I had a bad chest and was always rather feeble - hated games. I make myself sound very pathetic, which I wasn't, but I certainly didn't feel I was part of the mainstream. I used to spend a lot of time alone, writing and reading and just being secretive"
  • the idea for her first novel ("A summer birdcage") "must have been related to my feelings at finding myself, at the age of twenty-one, free, unemployed, wondering where to go, watching my friends and contemporaries to see where they would go."
  • "Most people have a rival figure or model figure while some of us have lots of both. I suppose in my case this was either my older sister, or my best woman friend whom I've used again and again in my novels. The friend was very much a Celia figure to me in that she came from a more sophisticated background."
  • "The problem in my early novels was that I simply hadn't the ability to express the range of my feeling. I couldn't technically do it. When I wrote my first novel I didn't know how to write a novel at all. … In the fourth [Jerusalem the Golden], I tried to write (not very successfully) in the third person ... I'm slightly fed up with The Millstone, but I think that's probably a reaction against everyone else always liking it best. It's the most often translated into other languages. I get far more letters about it. I'm bored with it."

On enotes it says that

  • "The Millstone, and Jerusalem the Golden are semi-autobiographical"

So maybe my doubts about the books I've recently read match her own doubts, and the reasons I liked the books were to do with the reasons she wrote them, though I think I'd get on with her sister A.S.Byatt better.

In the Paris Review she says she finds it difficult writing

  • "about men. I used to find it difficult because I didn't trust myself to know what they were like. I still feel uneasy when I describe men's clothes and their offices. I have to do research, find out what they really look like, how they talk, and what kind of work pattern they have."
  • "about very stupid people. I'm aware that my characters tend to be not only intelligent, but intelligent about themselves."

I didn't notice a man problem, but the characters do all seem equally self-literate, plot turns tending to happen when a character becomes suddenly more or less self-aware than usual. Also on enotes it comments on style, saying that

  • "Her works have consistently been praised for their wry humor, their mannered style, and their uniquely literate approach to the culture of the twentieth century."
  • "Drabble is hailed as among the few living writers who continues to embrace the style of nineteenth-century novelists such as Austen, James, and Thomas Hardy. As Drabble bluntly stated to one interviewer, she prefers to participate at the end of a dying literary tradition that she respects rather than to join ranks at the forefront of one she dislikes."

However, Joyce Carol Oates in The New Yorker writes that "Drabble has joined the strengths of old-school realism with the playful detachment and blatant mythmaking of postmodernism". Jon Self on his The Asylum blog says "Drabble’s style remains similar through many of the stories: a subjective third person narrative which comes close to stream of consciousness in its detail and absorption of the characters’ thoughts (at times I was reminded of Mrs Dalloway). This enables her to impart her characters’ histories and impressions together, in a way which can tip from showing to telling"

I've seen little Drabblian postmodernism or stream-consciousness so far. Maybe I should read her later books. I'm surprised that she's written short stories, but she has a collection of those out, written over a space of 40 years. That might be interesting.


  1. I'm a Drabble fan, or should I say, I was. I loved her books when I read them years ago. Now reading through your post I see the mannered style as a little off putting but I don't remember feeling that way when I read the books in the first place. Fashions and styles change.

    I've done a little research into the sibling rivalry issue between Drabble and AS Byatt - fascinating - and then a couple of years ago, by chance, I shared a dinner with Michael Holroyd, Drabble's husband and a biographer in his own right. That gave me a deeper insight into these very British but also very human of people. I liked Holroyd so much. I imagine, were I ever to meet Drabble I would like her too.

    Though as Margaret Atwood argues to imagine you can know a writer from her writing is like comparing pate to a duck. There's so much process and product between them.

    Thanks for a terrific post.

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