Homage to Margaret Drabble, Part II

In yesterday’s post, I promised more on Margaret Drabble’s most recent novel, The Pure Gold Baby. So, here it is!

This novel is a return to the concerns of her first decade as a writer. So she has returned to maternity and God’s love for humankind, and even to the scene of those early novels, gentrifying London, circa 1960s and later. Like the heroine of The Millstone, the heroine is a single mother; unlike the heroine of The Millstone, Jess Speight of The Pure Gold Baby gives birth to a daughter, Anna, who is in some unspecified way unable to mentally develop past her initial primary grade.

The novel is a meditation on the needs of such a child and the balance between tending to those needs and the contemporary considerations of her anthropologist mother: giving up travel, men (mostly), and a wider social circle. The book, narrated by a friend of Jess’s, is full of entertaining digressions on the efforts of 19th-century Victorians to help the less fortunate–the doctors who built sanitariums for the slow-witted (as they were then called) and the insane–and even Dr. Livingstone on his African sojourns. (Jess’s anthropological interests center on Africa.) Drabble widens her canvas, in a sense, to weave the social history predominant in her mid-career novels (The Ice Age, The Radiant Way, The Realms of Gold) with the earlier focus on how we care for those who most need it.

Given the affectionate portrayals of 19th-century scientists and philanthropists in The Pure Gold Baby, it would be safe to say that Drabble believes a rather 19th-century credo herself: that how the less fortunate are treated is a proxy for a kind of moral and spiritual order. (Indeed, she says as much in the Cooper-Clark interview: “I think the idea that you’re here in order to enjoy yourself is very wrong. You’re here in order to do the right thing and to seek the depths in yourself.”) This could serve as a gloss on The Pure Gold Baby, which is about the tug between Jess’s needs for self-fulfillment and duties as a parent.

Puzzling out the right thing is her books is done via intertextuality; her narrators (and then you, reader!) think in tandem with writers of the past. Affection for past avatars of British concern animates Drabble’s works.

One doesn’t have to read her own remarks about Wordsworth, for example (“he believed in plain living and high thinking, something that always haunted me….He believed in those spots of time in one’s life when one is in touch with something slightly beyond the immediate”), to realize his influence on her books. The epigraphs in The Ice Age, her novel about commercial Britain in the run-up to the Thatcher years, place Wordsworth in dialogue with Milton.  The latter’s epigraph foretells “a year of sects and schisms,” setting the stage for the novel’s tumultuous politics. The former’s, however, from Wordsworth’s poem “London, 1802,” specifically calls on the memory of his illustrious forbearer as a guide to order through the chaos: “Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour:/ England hath need of thee…/ We are selfish men;/ Oh! Raise us up, return to us again;/ And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”

One has only to think of the lines left out of the epigraph—“the heroic wealth of hall and bower,/ Have forfeited their ancient English dower/ Of inward happiness”—to realize the implicit analogy. The Drabble of 1977 was calling upon Wordsworth, just as Wordsworth (more explicitly) called upon Milton.

In her biography of English writer Arnold Bennett, Drabble remarked that many times she “wanted to shake his hand, or thank him, to say well done.” Well, ditto, from this reader to her.


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