Margaret Drabble Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Margaret Drabble’s novels begin as female arias in the bel canto style, predominantly elaborate embellishments on a simple series of events relative only to the first-person narrator, events that reflect a brief but formative time in the narrator’s life. The early novels deal with the lives of rather ordinary middle-class girls and, but for their sensitivity and subtlety of insight, come dangerously close to being considered women’s magazine fiction. The later novels are more complex, exploring the delicate webs of social interconnections and covering longer periods of time in which the convergences of many lives on one another effect subtle and not-so-subtle changes. Both the early and later novels express Drabble’s concern with finding the legitimate sources of growth and development. Her later novels explore global concerns in addition to the domestic. Throughout the entire canon of Drabble’s novels one finds the use of irony and the display of comedic wit, sometimes in the form of black comedy.

A Summer Bird-Cage

Drabble’s distinctive narrative voice is clear in her first novel. Sarah Bennett, a recent college graduate, is theprotagonist of A Summer Bird-Cage but figures mainly as a witness to her sister Louise’s marriage. From her older sister’s mistakes, Sarah learns about her own attitude toward the future. The novel begins as Sarah returns from Paris to attend Louise’s marriage to Stephen Halifax, a boring, trendy, wealthy, satirical novelist. Louise is a stunning and exciting raven-haired beauty, and Sarah cannot understand why she is marrying the bloodless Stephen. Sarah and her friends attempt to puzzle this out through the progress of the novel, especially as it becomes increasingly obvious that Louise has been having an affair with a very attractive actor, John Connell. In the end, Sarah learns directly from Louise what was obvious all the while: Louise married Stephen for his money. Rather than seeming anticlimactic, this knowledge solidifies Sarah’s growing understanding of what fidelity and betrayal are about. Despite its socially sanctioned position, the marriage Louise has contracted is in fact adulterous because it is a betrayal of her heart and affections. The technical adultery is an act of faith.

Louise divorces Stephen to take her chances with John, and Sarah ends the novel with a forged bond of affection with Louise. Sarah is thus prepared for the return of her boyfriend, Francis, from America. Having observed Louise, Sarah realizes that fidelity to her vow to marry Francis is not as important as waiting to see if in fact their relationship has its roots in truth. Sarah will only marry if the action follows from an authentic feeling.

Jerusalem the Golden

In her fourth novel, Jerusalem the Golden, Drabble experimented for the first time with omniscient narration, maintaining an ironic distance from her protagonist. Clara Maugham, a provincial girl from Northam, a small town in the North of England, is that young woman all too familiar in fiction, the woman whose capacities for development are greater than the opportunities presented by her narrow circumstances. In general, such a character is often created by a writer who has escaped the clutches of small minds and tight social structures; an identity of author and character is usually suspected. The character becomes a vehicle through which the author gets back at the tormentors of his or her youth; the character finds dazzling fulfillment in the city.

Clara Maugham, then, comes out of this tradition, but she does not lead the reader into the usual pitfalls. Drabble considers the problems of leaving one’s roots for fuller possibilities. As impoverished as one’s heritage may be, it provides one with a foothold in reality. Hence the title of the novel is a mocking one—it alludes to the utopian dream that emerges from a hymn to which Clara is attracted as a schoolgirl:

Jerusalem the GoldenWith Milk and Honey blestBeneath thy contemplationSink heart and voice oppressed.I know not, oh, I know notWhat social joys are thereWhat radiance of gloryWhat light beyond compare.

For Clara, the mysteries of ecstasy counterpoint the threadbare, wretched, familiar world. For her there is nothing in between, and she leaves Northam only to find a sham Jerusalem in London.

Clara begins life believing that she is doomed to be as her mother is, a woman without hope who remarks that when she is dead the garbage collector can cart her off. Mrs. Maugham is a jealous, inconsistent woman who verbally snipes at her neighbors behind her lace curtains because of their concern for their proprieties, and then she outdoes them in cheap ostentation. Rejecting such a life, Clara finds hope in literary images. Metaphors provide avenues of escape, as in the hymn; so too does a children’s story that makes a deep impression on her, The Two Weeds. The story presents the choices of two weeds. One decides on longevity at the cost of a miserly conservation of its resources, growing “low and small and brown”; the other longs for intensity, the spectacular but short life, and puts its efforts into fabulous display. Each weed achieves its goal. The small, plain one survives, as it had hoped. The magnificent, attractive weed is plucked and dies happily at the bosom of a lovely girl. What impresses Clara about this story is the offer of any possibility other than the low road of mere survival. Little by little, Clara chooses the mysteries of ecstasy.

Clara has to make her way to these mysteries by rejecting a more moderate course, thus losing real opportunities to grow and succeed. Her intellect is widely despised by the good people of Northam, although it is valued by some of her teachers, who fight to attach her to their subjects. She is also revered by a boy named Walter Ash, who values culture and comes from a family tradition that stresses intellectual stimulation. Clara is cynical about her teachers’ admiration; she does not value their esteem. She allows Walter to go out with her, but she has little regard for him. She ultimately rejects him, thinking, “I shall get further if I’m pulled, I can’t waste time going first.”

This cryptic remark makes sense only in the light of her choices in London, to which she goes on scholarship to attend Queens College. By chance, she meets Clelia Denham at a poetry reading. This meeting drives her to an instinctual attachment to the girl and subsequently to her family, especially Clelia’s brother Gabriel, with whom she has an affair. Although her attachments to the Denhams “pull her,” and she does not need to “go first,” it is questionable whether they take her anywhere. Indeed, the Denhams provide her the accoutrements of ecstasy. The life she leads with them, however, having torn herself away from her unsatisfactory family, is not one that she builds herself. It is one that envelops her in a “radiance of glory.”

The Denhams are rich, and their money is old. Their family house is exquisitely done in tile, with fireplaces, pictures, and mirrors—old, good things. Outside the house is a terraced garden that to Clara is the original Eden. The Denhams themselves are good-looking people who dress well and speak cleverly. Mrs. Denham is a writer known professionally as Candida Grey. Mr. Denham is a lawyer. Magnus, the oldest boy, is a rich capitalist. Gabriel is in television, and Clelia works in a chic art gallery.

To the detached eye, the Denham children seem smothered by this “good life.” The oldest child, no longer living in the Denham house, has gone crazy. Clelia is startlingly infantile. She speaks in all situations as if to a close relative, never using tact or discretion. Although twenty-seven years old, she lives at home, seemingly unable to establish herself on her own as wife, mother, or career woman. The job she holds in the gallery is purely decorative, one she obtained through family connections, and on which she could never support herself. Her extremely chic room contains her childhood toys as part of the decor. Clara interprets their presence as part of Clelia’s enviable sense of continuity with a happy childhood. Unfortunately for both Clelia and Clara, they are signs of a childhood that has never ended.

Gabriel is married and lives with his wife and children in one of those fashionable sections of London that are emerging from slum conditions. He has a good job with Independent Television and makes a good salary. He and his wife, Phillipa, make stunning personal impressions. When Clara visits the couple, however, she is appalled to find that their home is in a state of chaos. The house is potentially as beautiful as others in the neighborhood that have been renovated, but nothing has been done to it. The floors are pitted and worn, the walls are badly in need of paint, the ancient wallpaper hangs in tatters, and the rooms are poorly lit. The kitchen is a war zone in which the litter of cracking plaster vies with expensive cooking equipment. Phillipa is unable to provide food for her family or any kind of supportive attention to the children. Gabriel is unable to organize a life of his own, so dependent is he on the glorious life of his parents’ house. Gabriel becomes obsessively attracted to Clara and dreams of a ménage à trois between them and Clelia.

Magnus is an industrial mogul, a bachelor who becomes parasitically and emotionally attached to Gabriel’s women. At first in love with Phillipa, when he senses the affair between Gabriel and Clara he begins an erotic flirtation with Clara. Clara gives herself over emotionally to all the Denhams, and sexually to the brothers Magnus and Gabriel. She feels little for them, or anyone, but the lust for inclusion in a beautiful life. She acts out increasingly more elaborate scenes with them, climaxed by a visit to Paris with Gabriel. During this journey, a flirtation between Clara and Magnus sends Gabriel back to the hotel where he and Clara are staying. Clara outdoes him by leaving him sleeping to miss his plane while she returns to London alone. Once there, she discovers that her mother is dying of cancer.

Clara visits her mother, but there is no feeling between them. Returning to London, her connections to her childhood severed, she finds that the affair with the Denhams is just beginning. Despite the seemingly decisive break in Paris, Clara is now well into Denham games. Her future is to be composed of “Clelia, and Gabriel and she herself in shifting and ideal conjunctions.” There is no mention of the development of her intellect or talents.

Clara, at last, contemplates her victory: her triumph over her mother’s death, her triumph over her early life, her survival of all of it. “Even the mercy and kindness of destiny she would survive; they would not get her that way, they would not get her at all.” These final words are fully ironic: Clara has not triumphed over anything. She is a victim of her own fear of life. Her evasion of a nebulous “them” is a type of paranoid delusion that amounts to a horror of life. Clara has been true to her need to expand but false to what she is. The outcome is not a joyous one. She has achieved a perverse isolation in a bogus, sterile Jerusalem.

The Waterfall

The same themes are explored in Drabble’s next novel, The Waterfall. Though rendered in the first person by the central character, Jane Grey, The Waterfall is a highly ironic, fearfully complex exploration of the question that informs A Summer Bird-Cage and Jerusalem the Golden: To what must one be true? A vast variety of claims are made on one’s fidelity, and these claims frequently pull in different directions. Shall one be true to one’s family? One’s religion? One’s friends? One’s heart? One’s sexuality? One’s intellect? Even from the simple personal perspective, Drabble arrives at an impasse from which the protagonist herself cannot reckon her obligations or even the main issue deserving of her attention.

Jane Grey begins her story giving birth, overwhelmed, that is, by her biology, shaped and determined by her gender, her flesh, her sexuality. This is confirmed by her statement to her husband, Malcolm, who has left her before the birth of their second child, “If I were drowning, I couldn’t reach out a hand to save myself, so unwilling am I to set myself up against my fate.”

Jane Grey is a woman who does not give allegiance to anything that requires conscious choice. She cannot sustain a marriage, a career, or any affiliation that calls for directed will. She is faithful only to what takes her, overwhelms her, leaving her no choice—her sexuality. Thus she can be a mother, but not a wife. She can be a lover, but not a companion. The result is that she becomes the adulterous, almost incestuous lover of James, her cousin Lucy’s husband. This comes about in a way that can be seen as nothing less than a betrayal of a number of social norms.

Because Jane has been deserted by Malcolm, Lucy and James alternate visits to assist her. Lucy, who has been like a sister to Jane, initiates these visits without Jane’s request. Jane’s breaking of her marriage vows and her betrayal of Lucy are not as uncomplicated as Louise’s affair with John in A Summer Bird-Cage. Louise has violated nothing more than the law; Jane has violated the bonds of her heart, since Lucy has been so close to her, and the bonds of family and morality, as well as the bonds of law and ethics. Nevertheless, there is a fidelity in Jane’s choice. She and James, whose name is deliberately the male reflection of hers, are, in being overwhelmed by each other, satisfying the deepest narcissistic sexuality in each other. It is, of course, true that in so doing they create social limbo for their mates and their children, and for themselves.

Their adultery is discovered when they are in an automobile accident. James’s car hits a brick, although he is driving carefully, as they begin a weekend outing together with Jane’s children. The car turns over; only James is hurt, and he recovers almost fully. Jane and James continue with their ordinary life. Neither Malcolm nor Lucy exacts any payment from them. The lovers meet when they can. The novel ends with their only full weekend together after the accident. Jane and James climb the Goredale Scar, one of England’s scenic wonders. They are there because someone described it so enthusiastically to Jane that it became her goal to see it herself. The Scar is the quintessential female sexual symbol, a cavernous cleft in the mountains, flushed by a waterfall and covered by a pubic growth of foliage. Drabble then sends the lovers back to their hotel room to drink Scotch inadvertently dusted by talcum powder, which leaves a bad taste in their mouths. They have been faithful in their own minds to a force validated by nature.

The Needle’s Eye

The Needle’s Eye, regarded by many readers as Drabble’s finest novel, takes its title from Jesus’ proverbial words to a rich young man: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). At the center of the novel are Simon Camish, a barrister from a poor background who would seem to have regretfully gained the world at the expense of his soul, and Rose Bryanston Vassiliou, a rich young woman who compulsively divests herself of the benefits of her inheritance but is not fully enjoying her flight into the lower classes.

Rose, a pale, timid girl, had created a tabloid sensation by marrying out of her class. Her choice was the disreputable, seedy, sexy Christopher Vassiliou, son of Greek immigrants whose pragmatic financial dealings are not solidly within the boundaries of the law. Rose sought to escape from the evils of wealth through Christopher, one of the downtrodden. Much to her consternation, however, Christopher is not a “happy peasant.” He detests poverty, legitimately, and associates it not with virtue but with humiliation and deprivation, both of which he has endured.

Christopher’s dream is to make something of himself. This dream is strengthened by the birth of their three children, for whom Christopher wants “only the best.” He sees in Rose’s war on wealth nothing but perverse self-destructiveness. His fury vents itself in physical abuse. Frail, pale Rose is equally adamant in the protection of her children’s future. To her mind, “the best” means freedom from possessions. Again Rose and Christopher become figures of tabloid fantasy, this time in a dramatic divorce case.

Rose is working out her divorce settlement when she...

(The entire section is 6980 words.)