Homage to Margaret Drabble, Part I

Today’s post is about the British writer Margaret Drabble, who recently published, by my count,* her 18th novel, The Pure Gold Baby. Drabble has been, since your Meta-ist was a very young woman, one of her favorite contemporary novelists.

 Why? The intellectual play of her books is made for all the actual and incipient graduate students and thinkers among us. They are meta: the characters think and think about thinking, but in a way that portrays thinking as a comradely and pleasant activity. Several years ago, unfortunately, she forswore novel-writing in favor of the memoir. Also, in recent years, Drabble has been known less for her own books than for a feud with her novelist sister A.S. Byatt (the two don’t speak). Both oeuvre repudiation and sibling squabble are a profound shame, because they threaten to end or obscure her novelistic voice–which is very distinctive and very thoughtful. Therefore, it’s a relief to have her back with a new work of fiction.

Although Drabble’s early books (A Summer Birdcage, The Millstone, The Garrick Year) were written before my time, I happily discovered them when I was the age of their narrators. Each features young Oxbridge-educated women facing marriage, children, and possible exciting careers, often in the arts, and speaking in the first person, as if they’d just sat down to recount their current lives. Margaret Drabble young 2(BBC newsreading and acting is very big in the books published during the 1960s and 1970s; Drabble was married to the actor Clive Swift at the time and at one point served as an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave.)

She told the Paris Review that the writing of Birdcage, her first novel, was easy, as if she were writing a letter, and although the books are not epistolary, an easy candor does come through loud and clear. These are very specific to a time: the 1960s on the cusp of full liberation, and the 1970s+, liberation and after. She was giving a considered, intelligent report from the front lines.

The Pure Gold Baby is a return to the scene of these early books, such as The Millstone and The Garrick Year. All these books are about a primacy of bond between women and children, and about what one gives up for children: they are very explicit that careers, friendships, and relationships with men might suffer when children are in their early years, when their care takes precedence. (The Garrick Year has the narrator thinking that flirtatious conversations and affairs must be ended because children require constant attention, lest they tumble down river banks or into mud.) I don’t mean this to sound grim: it isn’t. Being a parent is a source of great joy in these books.

This aspect of Drabble’s writing brought her a great deal of critical attention at one time; critics in her mid-career often viewed her through the lens of maternity. In one interview, conducted by Diana Cooper-Clark, published originally in the Atlantic, and reprinted in the collection Margaret Drabble: Critical Essays (edited by Ellen Cronan Rose), Drabble said “I see motherhood in such positive terms that I feel almost embarrassed to state it. I think it’s the greatest joy in the world….I see parental love as an image of God’s love.”

It is these kind of linkages I like most about Drabble. Her works were once described to me (by someone who wasn’t aware of my fondness for her novels) as being “about relationships.” Well, yes. But also their higher, more abstract reverberations.

Next: More on The Pure Gold Baby.

*A list of her books through 2011, as well a brief biography, can be found on the Web site maintained by musician Jan Hanford.


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