The Ice Age

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Events associated with the characters of Margaret Drabble’s latest novel when listed off seem bizarre: a mother has borne one brain-damaged child and another, now a teen-ager, who has been imprisoned in a Balkan country behind the Iron Curtain; a woman has had her foot blown off by an I.R.A. bomb in a London restaurant; a property developer has been imprisoned on fraud charges; a fairly young television executive turned property speculator has both lost his fortune and suffered a heart attack. But as the novel develops, one sees that their stories are meant to appear not freakish but representative—representative, that is, of the troubles that are afflicting British citizens and, in fact, Britain itself. Most of the exciting events have happened just before the novel begins, moreover, so that it is mainly concerned with a time of passivity and waiting; the characters are, one might say, iced in.

Like her last novel, Realms of Gold, Margaret Drabble’s book focuses chiefly on two lovers in midlife but intertwines their story with a number of others. It is much more obvious in this novel than in the previous one, however, that the characters are types chosen to illustrate contemporary English life and the vicissitudes peculiar to it. Fortunately, Drabble’s ability to develop believable and sympathetic characters and to write well in a lowkey, finely ironic style prevents the book from being boringly schematic. Moreover, her inveterate cheerfulness keeps The Ice Age from becoming a gloomy catalog of disasters.

Yet such a catalog may be inferred from the characterizations, events, and commentary of the novel. London is a “sinking ship,” spilling over with people, garbage, and motor vehicles. Masses of concrete buildings stand empty, having proved not to be what anyone wanted to live in or rent for offices; in fact, belief in growth as an ideal to strive for has also been a casualty of the slump. No ideal or vision has replaced this belief; there is instead fear and despondency, disgust with corruption, and lack of confidence. Economically there is a slump, yet inflation accompanies recession. There is random terrorism: death can strike anywhere at any harmless, goodhearted person. Accidents, it seems, are becoming more frequent and more intense. Of course there are physical ills characteristic of our time: the heart attack that strikes a young businessman; cerebral palsy; breast cancer. Also, cracks and decay appear in domestic as well as public life: children reject old traditions, taking to drugs and easy sex; wives are dissatisfied, and both husbands and wives are unfaithful; divorces are common, so common that some people have several. Homosexuality surfaces. God is out of date, and mysterious influences from outer space are in. Intellectually there is a change, too: a classicist, committed to preserving the tradition of scholarship, finds that students are no longer interested and that in the end he has lost interest himself both in classics and in composing poetry; like a dryad in a myth he seems to have been changed into a tree.

As the list shows, Drabble has attempted to be impressive but not comprehensive. Cold War difficulties and political prisons are introduced through the scenes set in Wallacia, but international problems are otherwise omitted, as are the dangers of pollution, the evils of political corruption, the problems of dealing with labor unions, racial problems, energy problems and many others. She is suggesting a variety of typical problems of life in England today; however, she is most interested in stressing the emptiness, the lack of social values and ideals, the boredom, the selfishness, the depression, the insecurity of individuals.

As The Ice Age begins, its characters and England itself are sunk in depression, bogged down in problems they do not know whom to blame for and don’t know what to do about: “A huge icy fist, with large cold fingers, was squeezing and chilling the people of Britain, that great and puissant nation, slowing down their blood, locking them into immobility, fixing them in a solid stasis, like fish in a frozen river.” But as the novel moves along, things appear to be improving somewhat, although perhaps at glacial speed; and the end of the book is positively hopeful in a qualified way. Two-thirds through, a nightclub entertainer who specializes in insults and black comedy is introduced so that his point of view may be rejected. The English have lost their feeling of innate superiority, and they no longer deserve to be insulted and knocked about. At this point England is portrayed as not frustrated, not stuck fast, but “passing through some strange metamorphosis, through the intense creative lethargy of profound self-contemplation.” Finally, the last sentence of the book assures us that “Britain will recover.”

Anthony Keating is the character from whose experiences a reader can most readily discern Britain’s problems and anticipate her recovery. At the beginning of the novel, Keating is on ice at his country home, High Rook House, recovering from a heart attack. He has been forbidden excitement, whiskey, cigarettes,...

(The entire section is 2112 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age uses property speculation to analyze English society during the 1970’s. The novel begins on Wednesday, November 18, 1975, and concludes in the following spring. The Arab oil embargo and the October War of 1973 hurt Great Britain’s economy, which is dependent on oil imports. The severe fuel shortage caused a three-day work week, labor unrest, a drastic drop in productivity, the collapse of the real estate market, and inflation that reached a rate of 26 percent in 1975.

Several intersecting stories make up the action of the novel. First comes that of Anthony Keating. Keating, from a stereotypical middle-class clergyman’s family, studied literature at the University of Oxford and dabbled in light musicals with his wealthy friend Giles Peters. Married young, he could not afford professional training and took a job in television. As a producer, he was an intellectual with left-wing contempt for the philistine world of business. When he interviewed the property developer Len Wincobank in 1968, however, he decided that speculators took risks, had soaring ideas, and shaped the world. He quit his secure job to enter a partnership with Giles Peters and Rory Leggett. Their first development cost them 70,000, of which 65,000 was borrowed money, and they went on borrowing to develop properties in London. Their biggest scheme coincided with the oil crisis; Giles kept buying more property, but the crash came before they...

(The entire section is 599 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Some critics called Drabble’s first few novels—especially A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), The Garrick Year (1964), and The Millstone (1965)—lightweight “Tampax novels” or “soiled nappies novels” because her themes were how the coming of babies constricts choices and how women’s physiology affects their lives. Those critics who so dismissed her reveal more about themselves and about their views of women than about Drabble’s literary merits. As she wrote more explicit social criticism during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, she continued to ground it in the domestic.

The Ice Age mixes domestic images with global concerns. On the novel’s first page, Anthony buries a dead pheasant on his roomy estate; it reminds him that his London home had few spots suitable for burials, “and those that were suitable had been well stacked over the years with the small bones of mice and fish and gerbils.” Critics with families know how important it is to find suitable spots to bury small animals. Again, she uses the image of Anthony’s fried sausages—split open, burnt on the outside but raw on the inside—to reflect England’s condition. Critics see this as an allusion to the philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Le Cru et le cuit (1964; The Raw and the Cooked, 1969), which no doubt it is, but it also describes what happens when one cooks sausages. The most vivid example of Drabble’s merging...

(The entire section is 450 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Hannay, John. The Intertextuality of Fate: A Study of Margaret Drabble. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. Studies four novels, including The Ice Age. The chapter on this novel argues that Drabble uses a providential model of fate, in which events occur as part of a larger plan, even though its existence cannot be discerned by the people involved.

Moran, Mary Hurley. Margaret Drabble: Existing Within Structures. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Analyzes Drabble’s views of human freedom, choice, and constraints, using all the novels published up to 1983, including The Ice Age. Moran argues that Drabble sees human lives as determined by a variety of forces, including fate, nature, and the family. Hence, she rejects the existentialist idea that one is free to become what one wills.

Myer, Valerie Grosvenor. Margaret Drabble: A Reader’s Guide. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. After a brief introduction, each novel from A Summer Bird-Cage to A Natural Curiosity (1989) is discussed. A useful introduction to Drabble’s fiction.

Packer, Joan Garrett. Margaret Drabble: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988. A comprehensive, annotated bibliography of Drabble’s writings, both major and minor, and of English-language secondary works about Drabble published before May, 1986.

Rose, Ellen Cronan, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Drabble. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. A collection of eleven essays tracing the evolution of Drabble’s themes from the lack of choice for women to the question of the effect of equality on women. Five of the essays were written especially for this volume, and none of the six reprinted essays is older than 1977.

Rose, Ellen Cronan. The Novels of Margaret Drabble: Equivocal Figures. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980. Covering her works through The Ice Age from a feminist perspective, Rose complains that Drabble never releases her heroines from patriarchal trammels. Beneath the visionary message of strong women is the conservative message that women will never attain autonomy.

Sadler, Lynn Veach. Margaret Drabble. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Surveys how Drabble’s vision is primarily autobiographical by focusing on the themes of young women, independent women, marriage, and coping with middle age. Includes the novels up to The Middle Ground (1980).