(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Middle Ground examines the experience of characters who are entering middle age; the vantage point is that of the postwar generation which came to maturity in the 1960’s—the bright, privileged beneficiaries of the sexual revolution who must struggle to find their place in a world of changing values and expectations. Kate Armstrong, Ted and Evelyn Stennett, and Hugo Mainwaring are all involved in careers that have lost their initial luster, and they face difficult family situations as well. Kate speaks to Hugo ironically of her “midlife crisis,” both embarrassed and amused to find herself living out a cliche. By the end of the novel, however, all four characters have come to terms with themselves and are ready to take up the reins of their lives again.

The book has no plot to speak of. Margaret Drabble dips into her characters’ minds, describes episodes from their past, and even has one (Hugo) write an analysis of another (Kate). She expects her readers to keep track of a huge cast of characters and move at dizzying speed from past to present and back again. At times, the novel seems to be a kaleidoscope of contemporary British life. What holds all the disparate elements together is the personality of Kate and her movement from alienation to recommitment.

Near the end of the book, Kate describes her distress: “For months I had this strange sensation, as if the world had in fact slipped, and I’d fallen off it.... This picture kept coming into my head, of a great dark globe rolling through the darkness at a strange angle.” Up to this point in her life, Kate has been relentlessly cheerful, strong, and dependable—one of fortune’s favorites. A combination of humor, talent, and luck that she had enabled her to escape from her stultifying lower middle-class background in East London. She married a ne’er-do-well artist and began a successful career as a writer of short pieces on women’s lives and problems. Although her husband left her after the birth of their three children, she kept her life on a steady course. She even managed to carry on a long-term affair with Ted and simultaneously to preserve her close friendship with his wife Evelyn. This unorthodox arrangement filled the needs of all three, and they seemed to have reached a point of equilibrium.

Then, in a manner familiar to readers of Drabble’s other work, fate intervened to shatter Kate’s complacency. She became pregnant by Ted at a point when their relationship was clearly over. She considered and rejected abortion, then learned through prenatal tests that her baby was suffering from spina bifida. On...

(The entire section is 1073 words.)