Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
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 the decade of the 1960’s is mirrored in her early novels. Her strained rivalry with Byatt is reflected in the tensions between sisters in A Summer Bird-Cage. The problems of being a mother married to an actor are at the heart of The Garrick Year. The difficulties of escaping a Midlands background is treated in Jerusalem the Golden. Other novels seem less autobiographical. In The Millstone, the heroine is a single mother and a scholar; in The Waterfall, a very passive heroine experiences a sexual awakening. In these novels Drabble explores her own perplexities: What it is like to be a modern, well-educated young woman in the liberated world of the 1960’s? Can such a woman mix the integrity of a career with love and marriage? Can she mix career and motherhood? Drabble found many readers who responded to her concerns. Most of these readers were probably women, and Drabble became known as one of the first wave of the new feminist novelists.
The decade of the 1970’s brought much change to Drabble. She separated from Swift and divorced him. She and her three children became established in a house in the fashionable and lovely Hampstead section of London. Her three children were growing up, giving her more time to write. Her own interests began to broaden. As a result, her novels became less narrowly feminist, broader in theme and scope, and longer. The Ice Age was a “state of England” novel, one that attempted to evoke the problems of the nation and the temper of the day. In her last novel of the decade, The Middle Ground, Drabble seems to let her heroine evoke her own state: Kate is unmarried, a woman who faces an uncertain future with energy and hope. This novel makes clear that no neat explanations can define or describe life and that no patterns explain all experience.
After that, Drabble’s life and work took new turns. In 1982, she married the famous biographer Michael Holroyd. For many years they kept their own London houses, though sharing a comfortable country home in Somerset; in 1995, Drabble moved from Hampstead to be with Holroyd in west London. She spent several years producing a new edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Whereas her earlier critical and biographical books on William Wordsworth and Arnold Bennett were inspired by artistic indebtedness, her biography of Angus Wilson is a work of friendship and admiration. Her later novels have extended her concerns of the mid-1970’s. The Radiant Way and its short sequel A Natural Curiosity offer not only descriptions of England’s woes but also a diagnosis—or at least a diagnosis of the woes of liberal intellectuals such as Drabble. The Gates of Ivory could be called a “state of the world” novel, contrasting the good life in England with the life of suffering lived in the Third World. The Witch of Exmoor is part satire, part thriller, revolving around the missing Frieda Palmer, an eccentric author. The Peppered Moth is based on the life of Drabble’s mother and explores the competing claims of nature and nurture in the shaping of an individual. The Seven Sisters begins with the protagonist, Candida Wilton, dumped by her academic husband and shows her slow transformation into a different person altogether.
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