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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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.