Margaret Drabble Essay - Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 8)

Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 8)

Drabble, Margaret 1939–

An English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and playwright, Drabble uses traditional style and form in a revolutionary attempt to reconcile the established patterns of marriage and motherhood with the lifestyle of the contemporary woman. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

The star of [The Realms of Gold] is a heroine perfect for those people who prefer to 'identify' rather than to read. Frances Wingate is an archaeologist, reasonably intelligent, reasonably successful, reasonably attractive, and in her 'thirties, too. She begins her fictional life by suffering one of her recurrent bouts of depression in a European hotel, and the novel ends back in her native village in England. This is the reverse of the usual progress of such things and, in such a lengthy novel …, there are naturally some recognitions, reversals, and coincidences on the way….

[Beneath] all this is a note of futility which becomes the dominant tone of the book. It is no mere accident that the three central protagonists … [are all] looking for "realms of gold", a period or place in which everything has its significance, taking its place in the scheme of things. As it is, the other characters of the novel peep through the narrative only to get carried away down the meaningless but relentless succession of present moments….

All of this book is written in this bland but effective reportorial style, principally as a device to keep the narrator close to her heroine but not that close. Margaret Drabble is too intelligent and painstaking a narrator not to take advantage of that situation, and Frances Wingate eventually emerges as a rather more complex creation than the mythical creature with which I opened this review.

The direct transcription of emotional details has its pitfalls, though, as well as its rewards. Its virtues are that, in a writer who is as faithful a recorder as Margaret Drabble, passages of strong feeling spring unimpeded to the front of her narrative….

But the problems of this slow attention to tone and to mood is that, in a book of this length, it's necessary to be very interested in the role and the character of Frances Wingate before the book can carry full conviction. Margaret Drabble sometimes dabbles in the still waters of tedium, with a misplaced seriousness hovering over some sections of the narrative: it is only her strong sense of reality … coupled with the bleak, weary note at the bottom of everything, which keeps some of the excesses of the modern novel in check. They are enough, at any rate, to make the novel a more complete statement than her wordy heroine would have been able to make herself, and the Realms of Gold has a calmness and a sanity which eventually shine through.

Peter Ackroyd, "Per ardua …," in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 27, 1975, p. 412.

With Margaret Drabble's The Realms of Gold we come to full realization that her title is the true name for fiction. In reviewing her last three books in these pages I have had occasion to remark on some flaws that began to seem so persistent that it felt foolish to keep pointing them out when obviously she could do so much in their despite: a weakness of plot, a heavy reliance on not very interesting male characters, an excessive willingness to settle for superb parts and inferior wholes. But here all that has been wiped away. This long novel is wonderfully and carefully worked out, rich in pretension, detail, and execution so that one really needs to read right through to the end to see all she has conceived. There are at least two places where the book seems to lose its way, to become attenuated, but finally one sees it is all needed, not just to make the theme full but to make the story clear. (p. 625)

I believe [this novel], every word. The joy at the end overwhelms disbelief. Drabble knows. Having suffered a life that led to years of novels of hiddeness and unfulfillment, having touched down with Arnold Bennett and perhaps thereby discovering she was suffering only from a curable if lingering case of Midlands illness, she can create that stable and those Jaguars, the smell of straw and apples, the private history of an England that, if only in this beautiful novel, is becoming a realm of gold. (p. 628)

Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76.

"Omniscience has its limits," Margaret Drabble tells the reader in her seventh novel, "The Realms of Gold"…. Having taken upon herself the voice and manner of an omniscient Victorian novelist, she seems rather frequently to be appealing to the reader to help her out, to write the novel with her. Her particularizations suggest multiple-choice problems: "Something in her finally rebelled—pride, conscience, something like that"; "she ached, with either sympathy or envy for them: she was not sure which." A disarmed, if not disarming, vagueness afflicts her especially in the vicinity of male characters…. Like a housewife quite overcome by the complexity of her household tasks, yet confident of her feminine charm, the author in amiable dishevelment apologizes for the thinness of some scenes and the fullness of others….

Miss Drabble in some ways bears comparison with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark; she is as intellectually serious as they, though not as witty, and warmer than either. But, in sharp contrast to these two plotmakers, she does not encompass her material; rather, she seems half lost within it—mystified by her characters, ruminative where she should be expository, expository where she should be dramatic, shamelessly dependent upon coincidence, lackadaisical about locating her theme, and capable, for long stretches of blocking in episodes devoid of dynamic relevance to what one takes to be the action….

The heroine, Frances Wingate, is a divorced archeologist enjoying the aftermath of celebrity that has followed her discovery and excavation of the ancient Saharan trading city of Tizouk. The amount of archeological detail and theory Miss Drabble has worked up attractively adorns her portrait of this mistress and mother, drinker and lecturer. Archeology brings a wealth of metaphors and incidental illuminations to the book, and in a sense informs its very structure; we have less a plot than a lode of prose and description, through which, as he reads, the reader digs down toward some underlying message about kinship, ancestry, vitality, and life's meaning. An ingenious interlocking of academic disciplines broadens and unifies the terrain of significance. (p. 88)

The moments in "The Realms of Gold" that do not feel trivial tend to be those showing women alone: in hotel rooms, in suburban living rooms, in isolated cottages, wherever they are removed from the clutter of men and mating and freed to concentrate upon the silent solemn tasks—cooking and childrearing, withstanding pain and depression—that seem to be their essence…. English critics have already remarked, with raised eyebrows, [Miss Drabble's] fiction's concern with motherhood; she has here broadened her family to include all the earth, described geologically, topologically, archeologically, botanically (her background of vegetation is luxuriant and precise). Her love scenes take place in the mud; Karel and Frances gravitate to ditches, and in the end fall into one. Along with this earth-sense goes a naturalistic pessimism—"there never was a golden world, there was never anything but toil and subsistence, cruelty and dullness"—and something inchoate and defiantly, jauntily casual about the organization of at least this novel. The conversations, the dinner parties, the conferences (all trendy, flirtatious, and desultory) feel superficial, perhaps because they appear so to the author—a crust over the earthy realities…. Deeper than its scattered, diffident surface as a novel of manners, "The Realms of Gold" celebrates the human as a department of the natural. (pp. 89-90)

John Updike, "Drabbling in the Mud," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 12, 1976, pp. 88-90.

The best drawn of Margaret Drabble's characters have lives of their own; they are unpredictable, and they are believable. Their limits are those of their author. The female characters are treated in greater depth than the males, the males tend to be seen through female eyes, and when an effort is made [in The Realms of Gold] to get inside a male character—David the geologist—the result is one-dimensional and wishy-washy; we see him in nothing like the same relief. (We are taken into a ladies' lavatory with Frances, but modesty forbids a woman novelist from going inside a gents'.) Although there are some distracting and, I believe, mistaken distancing devices in the narrative, the author's resting-place in the book is in the consciousness of her main character, Frances. We are given Frances's history, feelings, perceptions and opinions in profuse detail, in so much detail, in fact, that one longs for a little reticence, for some sense of economy of means, for a meaning to be given through the narrative rather than simply being stated. It is a narrative eye with a wide-angle lens, getting in all the peripheral goings-on which make for naturalism. The result is … a novel not unpleasingly old-fashioned in its methods, a novel which means to be read and enjoyed and understood; but in the last resort, I feel, it is not a novel which breaks new ground for its author. (p. 70)

James Price, in Encounter (© 1976 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1976.

"It is interesting," wrote Charles Darwin at the end of The Origin of Species, "to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of all kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us…."…

[To] my knowledge no novelist, certainly no comic novelist, has taken [The Origin of Species] and the image [of the tangled bank] so explicitly for text as has Margaret Drabble. She does not quote the passage directly …—remarkable restraint for someone who calls on Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Arnold, Clare, Shaw, T. S. Eliot, and Darwin himself with far too much EngLit facility—yet it is the invisible epigraph for an ambitious work whose theme is nothing less than the survival of the human species.

Drabble has been preoccupied with the subject ever since the heroine of her second novel, The Garrick Year, concluded: "I, being different, and being what I am, am made for survival."…

Drabble's women usually decide in the end not to act against their natures, but most of them take some time to discover just what their natures are. Frances Wingate, the much traveled archeologist in The Realms of Gold, already knows hers, and it is a formidable force: She has "amazing qualities of survival and adaptation." (p. 17)

Given Drabble's rich descriptions of physical and social landscapes, and her capacity to entertain, it may be churlish to predict that The Realms of Gold will become dated before any of her earlier, smaller books. It is not the mod extensions of '70s London—where people "chat people up"—but the book's earnest received wisdom, its academicism, that makes it old before its time…. The realms of gold in Keats' poems were literary of course, and so are they—too literary by half—in this novel.

Traditions, received ideas, are not so much criticized here as simply assimilated into conventions of the novel and life. The confrontations between people become formulaic…. (pp. 18-19)

With the intrusive narrative voice, another natural law seems to be in effect: The wider the range and the longer the perspective, the greater the chance of banality. Drabble is far better when she shows than when she talks and tells. The discussions of survival and adaptation, of Freud, of psychology in general, of the Woman Question, are generally trite, although Drabble captures down to the last crumb of the baby's Weetabix the damp life of a trapped young housewife….

Still, Drabble is a natural-born storyteller, always delivering the party after the preparations, the reunion after the separation, the funeral after the death. The pleasures to be found here and there in The Realms of Gold make me hope that in her next work she will forsake her reach and return to the grasp she has long secured. (p. 19)

Ruth Mathewson, "A Tangled Bank," in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), April 26, 1976, pp. 17-19.

The Realms of Gold is Miss Drabble's seventh novel, and she is enormously comfortable in her role of storyteller. At first glance she seems almost to be a throwback, a female Rip Van Winkle who slept through the clever things that James and Joyce and all the others taught us. She intrudes herself into her own narrative as shamelessly as Thackeray, but as one comes to see, she knows the new techniques as well and pulls them out when they are needed. Miss Drabble's main character is an archaeologist named Frances Wingate, a figure of such splendid dimensions that she dominates the novel totally: she is the star around which all else revolves. (p. 119)

In its basic delineations The Realms of Gold is a sort of modern picaresque: it wanders over England, the continent, Africa; characters interesting in themselves but often of no significance to the major action are introduced, exploited, and allowed to fall from view, their ultimate fates of no consequence to the author or reader. But there is art at work here, and the larger sense of history, of the cycles of civilizations that Frances Wingate possesses as an archaeologist, informs and deepens the changes and absurdities and small tragedies of modern existence. (pp. 119-20)

[The] serious moments toward the end of the story, the introduction of mortality near the climax, enhance the comic resolution, the world brought right at last. Miss Drabble writes with remarkable candor. Cry here, she seems to be telling us, laugh now. This is a dangerous way to go about things, but her light touch and the enormous energy that infuses her writing carry her through. (p. 120)

Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1977 by The University of the South), Winter, 1977.