Margaret Drabble Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Since she was in her twenties, Margaret Drabble has been one of Britain’s most important writers. She is best known for her fiction. Beginning in 1963, her novels have been popular and critical successes both in Great Britain and America. These works display her gradual development as a writer. She has also been a dramatist, a reviewer, an essayist, a short-story writer, a teacher, a lecturer, a literary critic, and an editor. In the last capacity, she is responsible for the revised edition of the classic Oxford Companion to English Literature. She is also the author of acclaimed biographies of two important English writers, Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson. Her work has been the object of much adulation and critical attention.

Drabble grew up in the industrial city of Sheffield (often described as “Northham” in her novels). Both her parents had risen from working-class backgrounds to obtain degrees from Cambridge University. Her father became a barrister and then a judge; her mother taught at the Quaker school Drabble herself would attend. Many critics see a Quaker influence in the emphasis Drabble places in her novels on liberal values of responsibility and service. The family was middle class and professional. It must have been an intense home, for all the Drabble children have achieved considerable academic and professional success; one sister is the famous novelist A. S. Byatt. According to the pictures Drabble gives in some of her novels, particularly in Jerusalem the Golden, she found family life (and life in Sheffield in general) joyless and suffocating.

Like so many of her characters, Drabble escaped. She attended Cambridge University (Newnham College), where she distinguished herself as a scholar—she was awarded a “double first” degree in English in 1960—and more obviously as an actress. The next step of her escape was to marry the actor Clive Swift and to join with Swift the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. Her career as an actress, mainly as understudy to Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench, was cut short by pregnancy; she filled her backstage hours and then the time at home with her baby by writing her first novel.

Her life in...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Margaret Drabble was born into a family that reflects at once the breakup of old patterns and the power of conventions, which may account for her receptiveness to both aspects of modern England. Her parents, John Frederick Drabble and Kathleen Marie (Bloor) Drabble, were the first of their families to attend university. The results of her parents’ upward mobility were both creative and destructive. Her father became a barrister and then a judge; her mother suffered the dislocations that attend such rapid social changes. She became an atheist and thus estranged herself from her religious fundamentalist parents. Drabble has stated that her mother was released from the harshness of her religious training when, as a young woman, she read George Bernard Shaw. As she turned the pages she had a revelation that there is no God. “One could say,” says Drabble, “that that was a revelation from God not to worry about him because it was going to drive her mad if she did.” Drabble’s mother struggled against clinical depression until her death.

Margaret Drabble is the second of three daughters. Her sisters are Dr. Helen Langdon, a scholar, and Susan Duffy, a novelist, whose pen name is A. S. Byatt. She also has a brother, Richard J. B. Drabble. She attended a Quaker boarding school in York, The Mount School, and then read English at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she finished among the top of her class. In 1960, in the week that she finished at Cambridge, she married Clive Swift.

Swift was an aspiring actor who worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the early years of their marriage, Drabble spent much of her time having three children, writing novels, and acting in bit parts and understudying for the Royal Shakespeare Company. While she was writing The Garrick Year, she understudied Imogen in Cymbeline, played a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and had a bit part in The Taming of the Shrew. Drabble separated from her husband in 1972; their divorce became final in 1975.

Drabble is a member of the National Book League and served as its chair from 1980 to 1982. During the 1980’s she devoted much of her energy to revising The Oxford Companion to English Literature for its fifth edition. In 1982, she married the biographer Michael Holroyd. They settled in the Notting Hill district of London and at Porlock Weir, Somerset.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Margaret Drabble was born on June 5, 1939, in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, the daughter of a circuit court judge, John Frederick Drabble, and a teacher of English, Kathleen Bloor Drabble. Her older sister, Antonia Susan, was to achieve a considerable reputation as a novelist under the name of A. S. Byatt; her younger sister, Helen, became an art critic; and a brother became an attorney. Drabble was educated at a Quaker boarding school in York and at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she concentrated in literature but spent much of her time in theater activities and was not involved with the literary set, dominated by the critic F. R. Leavis. After graduation from Cambridge in 1960, she spent a year as an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company; in June, 1960, she married Clive Swift, an actor. She left acting when she became pregnant; her first three novels were written during her three pregnancies.

Her early novels, based closely on her own experiences as a young woman, were immediate critical successes. The first, A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), focused on choosing between marriage and a career; the second, The Garrick Year (1964), dealt with the apparent necessity for a young woman to choose between an acting career and her family. Drabble’s conviction that motherhood and a career are not mutually exclusive led to The Millstone (1965; published in the United States as Thank You All Very Much), whose central...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Margaret Drabble belongs to the school of fiction that believes that novels can accurately depict the realities of life. Her intention is to show individuals trying to fashion satisfactory lives in a society that is or seems to be too often hostile. Her vision grows darker after 1977, but it is likely that her later works will be read as accurate guides to what life was like in the last four decades of the twentieth century.