Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

A prolific writer, Margaret Drabble has written a number of novels, a biography of Arnold Bennett, and several stories and articles. She has edited the fifth edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985), a project that suggests the depth and breadth of her knowledge of English literary traditions. Her eighth novel, The Ice Age reveals her indebtedness to, and creative use of, those traditions.

Like the Victorian novelist George Eliot, to whom she is often compared, Drabble examines the conditions and consequences of moral choice in novel after novel. Her protagonists struggle, if not to make the right choices, then to accept responsibility for the choices they have made. In The Ice Age, however, the act of choice is threatened perhaps more than in any previous Drabble novel by the individual’s powerlessness to foresee consequences in a world dominated by chance.

Drabble gives no universally applicable solutions to the problems she sees. In an interview with Nancy Poland, she notes: “I have lots of questions. I don’t really pretend to have any answers so I am not a teacher. I am an explorer.” The Ice Age explores alternative adjustments to depression and chaos in the strategies or nonstrategies worked out by her various characters.

In moving from character to character, Drabble employs an omniscient narrator reminiscent of those of her nineteenth century forebears, but Drabble seems deliberately to exert less control over her fictional universe than Eliot did over hers. At the opening of the last section of the novel, Drabble’s narrator announces to the reader, “It ought to be necessary to imagine a future for Anthony Keating” as if storytelling becomes more taxing amidst the intransigent conditions of twentieth century disillusionment, so that the narrator must struggle to imagine the remainder of the story. At the end of the novel, the narrator proclaims that Alison’s “life is beyond imagining.” The tidy resolutions of the Victorian novel are no longer possible for the intelligent modern novelist. Drabble not only refuses to predict Alison’s future for the reader but also suggests that such a prediction, were she to offer it, would be a falsification of experience.