Margaret Drabble

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Margaret Drabble Long Fiction Analysis

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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...

(This entire section contains 6980 words.)

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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 meets Simon. Simon is introduced to the reader on the same night that he is introduced to Rose; the reader first sees him in a store, buying liquor. Simon feels estranged from the lower-class types who frequent and staff the store. Soon thereafter, this isolation is established as a sharp discontinuity in Simon’s life, for he has risen from these ranks. He has been pushed upward by a mother embarrassed by the meanness of her lower-class life and determined that her son will have what she never had. Ironically, the essential gap in his mother’s life is also left unfilled in Simon’s; that is, the need for warmth and affection. Simon tried to marry into an inheritance of warmth and wealth by his alliance with what he thought was a good-natured girl of the comfortable upper-middle class, Julie Phillips. Their marriage, however, only revealed her fear and insecurity, her essential coldness. What Simon had mistaken for warmth was merely superficial brightness, a by-product of the Phillipses’ affluence.

Rose and Simon have attempted to gain what each personally lacked through marriage, as if one could graft onto oneself a human capacity with a wedding ring. Such marriages are doomed to failure. Also doomed has been Rose’s attempt to meet human needs with “filthy lucre.” She has given a huge portion of her inheritance to a schoolhouse in a lonely, little-known part of Africa. Within months, the school was demolished in the chaos of a civil war, along with approximately one hundred children. Rose does not attempt to deny the futility of what she has done.

Simon and Rose strike up a professional acquaintance, casually, it seems, because Christopher has begun some devious maneuvers to get his children away from Rose. As he becomes increasingly involved in helping Rose, Simon realizes that he is in love with her. Rose reveals but a few of her feelings on this issue, but she does indicate the joy she takes in his company. While Rose and Simon are chasing around after Christopher, who appears to be in the process of abducting the children and taking them out of England, Simon finally tells Rose that, were they at liberty, he would marry her. He blurts out this sentiment as they are walking in a woodland setting. The moment of his revelation finds them in sudden confrontation with a dead stoat hanging grotesquely in front of them, a dried-up little corpse. According to the narrator, this is “a warning” to Simon and Rose.

The satisfaction that Rose and Simon might find together is based on their shared concern for their obligations and duties. To turn to each other, a temptation for both of them, would be a betrayal of the very basis of their attraction to each other, as it would necessitate shirking their responsibilities. It is the grace in them that understands commitments beyond the self. Understanding this, Simon and Rose remain friends; Christopher and Rose are reunited. Rose has achieved a modus vivendi with Christopher, who goes to work for her father. There is no fully articulated happiness, but a kind of integrity exists at the heart of Rose’s and Simon’s arrangement.

In the novel’s final tableau, Rose is looking at a vandalized plaster lion outside a second-rate British edifice called the Alexandra Palace. The lion’s head is broken, revealing a hollow inside. It has been spray-painted red with the name of a local gang, but Rose decides that she likes it. Although it began life as an anonymous, mass-produced piece of kitsch, the lion has been worn into something unique: “It had weathered into identity. And this she hoped for every human soul.” Rose’s final wish accepts the uniqueness of life, the beauty of its mere being. She rejects the vision of a life that is continually being held up to an intellectual ideal, by which standards the lion, like her life, is an awful mess.

Drabble has said in an interview that, had she written The Needle’s Eye after her husband left her, she might have altered Rose’s destiny; perhaps she meant that Rose might have been sent off with Simon after all. Perhaps these words reveal something of the personal Drabble, but they are a betrayal of the novel. The delicacy of Simon and Rose’s poise in front of the dead stoat and the final image of the lion resist second thoughts.

The Realms of Gold

Drabble has called The Realms of Gold her only comedy. It is the most elaborately plotted of her novels, and Drabble has observed that comedies are permitted such carefully structured plots. Perhaps Drabble defends her plot to excuse herself for pivoting the outcome of her story on the delay in the mail of a postcard, consciously parodying the tragic turn of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596), when Romeo’s letter from Friar Laurence is delayed. Unlike the passion of Romeo and Juliet, however, the passion of the lovers in The Realms of Gold, Frances Wingate and Karel Schmidt, is not “too swift, too unadvised.” Frances and Karel are survivors, and it is for this reason that true love between them is possible.

The novel begins in a hotel room. Frances is on a lecture tour, giving talks about her discovery of an ancient city, Tizouk. One evening, in a fit of loneliness, she writes a postcard to Karel, whom she capriciously rejected six months previously. She now regrets her action. Impulsively, she writes on the card, “I miss you. I love you.” She is bothered when she receives no response, ignorant of the fact that the card has not been delivered, having been mislaid by the European mail system. Frances is distraught, but she carries on as mother to her four children, as a professional, and as a member of her family.

Karel, too, carries on, thinking hopelessly about Frances, his lost love, puzzled by her rejection of him, suffering at the hands of his deranged wife and his students at the polytechnic, where he is a lecturer in history. Both wife and students continually take advantage of Karel’s patience and good nature, and he, not quite understanding why, allows them to victimize him.

Karel and Frances’s professional interests, history and archaeology, bring to the novel the long view of continuity. This view is partially what sustains Karel and Frances, whose families cannot or will not support them. Karel has been cut off from his family by the horrors of history. He is Jewish, the only member of his immediate family to survive World War II. Frances, on the other hand, has a large family, but it is wracked with odd and self-destructive behavior: alcoholism, suicide, depression. Frances’s family is composed of two estranged branches, isolated from each other by an ancient quarrel—that no one can remember—between two brothers. During the course of the novel, the branches are reconciled. The healing begins when Frances discovers her cousin David, of whom she was previously unaware. She meets him professionally at a conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Adra.

The conference has taken Frances away from England at a particularly crucial time in the life of her family. In Tockley, in the English Midlands, an old lady discovered dead of starvation turns out to be Frances’s estranged great-aunt. As Frances’s family is a prominent one, there is a scandal about this shocking neglect of a family member. Frances is called home from the conference and discovers another lost cousin, Janet Bird, the last person to see their great-aunt alive. Meanwhile, Frances’s cousin David is surprised at the conference by the arrival of Karel, who, finally receiving the delayed postcard, flies heedlessly to join Frances at the conference and must be escorted by David back to Tockley. The results of these and more complications are the marriage of Karel and Frances and the reunification of Frances’s family.

Frances and Karel synthesize stability and freedom; their marriage triumphantly asserts the victory of human freedom through history, continuity, and culture. The horrors of history—present in the Nazi persecution of the Jews, Frances’s blighted family history, and the evidence of child sacrifice that Frances has found in her ancient city Tizouk—do not lead to a rejection of continuity but to the passion to grow through it and outlive the evil it contains.

The major image of The Realms of Gold incarnates the comic attitude necessary if one is to lay hands on that hard-won treasure known as life. Shortly before Frances had rejected Karel, causing the long separation that was to end in Tockley, Frances and Karel were enjoying a vacation together. Endeavoring to spend a pleasant day in the country, they had driven their car into the mud, resulting in the bespattering of their persons in a most unromantic way. In the midst of their predicament, they heard a strange, almost ominous sound. An investigation turned up hundreds of frogs simply honking away in a drainage pipe in a ditch. Frances and Karel were flooded with affection and amusement at this gratuitously joyous spectacle. The image of it never leaves them and becomes a sustaining force during their ordeal of separation. Perhaps this is Drabble’s best image of a realistic optimism in a very flawed world: joy spontaneously uttered from a muddy ditch.

The Ice Age

In The Ice Age, Drabble considers the problem of survival within a dying tradition. England is enduring an ice age: Its social structure is collapsing. In a brilliantly dark vision, Drabble surveys the challenge this poses to personal resources.

As the novel begins, a reckless real estate speculator, Len Wincobank, is serving time in Scratby Open Prison for fraud. Len’s technically innocent accomplice, Maureen Kirby, is wondering how to fit the pieces of her life back together again. A teenage girl, Jane Murray, daughter of an extremely beautiful former actor, Alison Murray, is on trial in the remote Communist country of Wallachia. Anthony Keating, a charming author of musical comedies turned real estate speculator, is recovering from a heart attack and the collapse of his financial empire.

All the characters are suffering through imprisonment in England. It is a time in which Max and Kitty Friedman are the victims of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist attack as they are having an anniversary dinner. England is plagued by degenerate youth, a situation frightening in what it portends for the future. Jane Murray is an angry, shallow child, seemingly incapable of love or of true civility. Anthony Keating finds two young squatters on the empty floor of his former home. The girl is a heroin addict, pregnant and in labor. The boy is drunk and stoned, unable to summon assistance for the girl. Anthony’s chance visit to his old house means that the girl will get to the hospital, but she will die and her baby will be born suffering from prenatal heroin addiction.

Through the gloom of England’s dark night, Drabble feels her way toward dawn, steadfastly refusing to deny the value of principle because history is suffering temporarily from chaos. She paints a damning picture of a contemporary of Anthony, Mike Morgan, a comedian who pointlessly and viciously ridicules his audience because he mistakes a bad patch for the end of coherence. She also, however, defends the human being as a flexible, creative source of energy not to be trapped within rigidities of principle.

Alison Murray emerges as the polar opposite to Mike Morgan. She too is a doomed soul, because as England flails about, she has chosen the sterility of a noble perfection over the struggles of possibility. Alison’s choice has been to devote herself to her brain-damaged daughter, Molly, rather than to her normal daughter, Jane. Molly can never develop and grow, despite Alison’s martyrdom, and Jane is wild and sullen as a result of her displacement. Drabble shows that Alison’s choice is at least as bad as Mike’s, leading directly to her own misery and indirectly to Jane’s self-imposed troubles in Wallachia. Alison’s choice also leads indirectly to Anthony Keating’s downfall.

Anthony, Alison’s lover, goes to Wallachia to escort Jane home when the authorities suddenly decide to return her to England. A civil war erupts, randomly freeing Jane and trapping Anthony. He is mistaken for a British spy and remanded to a Siberian-style forced-labor camp.

Between the extremes of Mike Morgan and Alison Murray lies the possibility of working one’s way back to continuity by keeping the spirit free. The major examples of such survival in the novel are Maureen Kirby and Anthony Keating. Maureen is a lower-class girl, sexy rather than beautiful, who falls somewhat short of conventional morality. Hardly a person who eschews extremes, Maureen has been the partner of Len Wincobank in his whirlwind financial spree. She has also temporarily retreated into her own selfish, protected world when Len is imprisoned, but she is resilient. In a striking narrative device, Drabble looks into the future at the end of the novel, coolly summarizing the fates of her characters. Maureen is projected as a woman of the 1980’s who ultimately marries well and becomes a role model to young women. Her coarse-grained vitality and common sense lack the charm of Alison’s elegant self-immolation, but they radiate the warmth of survival.

Anthony Keating, in his frozen Wallachian prison, the ice age of England made palpable, turns also toward life in the only way that is available to him. He becomes enthralled with watching birds, symbols of his spirit, which, despite everything, remains untrammeled.

At the close of the novel, the state of the nation is given a good prognosis. It will recover, asserts the narrator. Anthony has come to terms. Len will surely go on to further development and a financial comeback. Maureen’s trajectory is in ascent, but, asserts the narrator, Alison Murray will never recover. The doom of Alison Murray strongly suggests that her kind of retreat from possibility is the worst prison of all, subject to no reprieve or amelioration. Here Drabble seems to have found the limits of what critics have called her conservatism. Cutting off from one’s roots to rise in the world brings peril, and denying one’s context in order to acquire more brings suffering; these may reveal the flaws in the liberal dream. The ultimate horror, however, would seem to be turning away from growth, regardless of the reason.

The Radiant Way

In her novels of the 1980’s—The Middle Ground, The Radiant Way, and A Natural Curiosity—Drabble continued to work in the manner of The Realms of Gold and The Ice Age. Her intrusive narrators continued to reflect on the nature of fiction and to make arch asides to the reader. All three of these novels center on well-educated characters of the upper middle class whose domestic concerns are intertwined with larger social issues.

The Radiant Way, A Natural Curiosity, and a long novel published in 1991, The Gates of Ivory, form a trilogy that follows a number of characters through the 1980’s and beyond. The Gates of Ivory is not only a long book but also a demanding one. It moves from England to Thailand and back and seems to take as its subject not only the state of England but also the state of the world. In the book’s opening sentence, Drabble understandably wonders whether it is a novel at all.

There is no doubt that the first two books in the trilogy are novels. As The Ice Age had shown Britain’s suffering during a Labour government, so these novels show national life under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. At the center of the novels are three women friends: Liz Headleand, a psychotherapist; Alix Bowen, an idealistic social worker; and Esther Breuer, a mysterious art historian who focuses on minor figures of the Italian Renaissance. The title The Radiant Way refers both to a book that Liz’s husband, Charles, read as a boy and to a television documentary he made in the 1960’s. It also provides the novel’s double-edged central symbol: the radiant personal sun of achievement that many of its youthful characters once envisioned and a radiant national future of justice and harmony. The novel’s other pervasive symbol is a web—a vast and complicated web of interconnections in which the characters live.

The novel begins at Liz’s New Year’s Eve party in the last minutes of 1979. The 1980’s get off to a bad start when Charles announces that he is leaving her. Things get worse nationally as relations between social classes deteriorate and as the gap between the North and South of England widens. Alix, the most political of the three friends, finds that her efforts to help the underprivileged not only bear no fruit but also lead to horrible violence. She loses faith in her husband’s old-fashioned lower-class values and is content to sift through the papers of an old poet. Liz finds herself enmeshed in a personal web with her sister, Shirley Harper, unhappily married back in their home in the North of England, and with their mother, Rita. The Dickensian secret that Rita Ablewhite keeps is one of even more interrelationships.

A Natural Curiosity

By means of a loosely constructed narrative that shifts from plot thread to plot thread, A Natural Curiosity enables readers to follow the stories of the three women up to the point where The Gates of Ivory begins. In A Natural Curiosity, Liz and her former husband try to discover what has happened to a friend of theirs who is being held hostage. Liz also worries about the fate of another friend, a novelist named Stephen Cox. (The story of Stephen Cox forms the backbone of the plot of The Gates of Ivory.) Alix, now living in the North, visits the murderer who was introduced in the previous novel and brings him books. In order to try to understand him, she tracks down and confronts his unpleasant father and even more unpleasant mother. Shirley Harper is more prominent in this book; she finds herself free for the first time in her adult life and flees to Paris and a wild affair. Liz and Shirley find that the Ablewhite family mysteries deepen and go in new directions; these lead in turn to new revelations and new energy. Drabble’s narrative voice is more intrusive in this novel than in her previous works.

The Gates of Ivory

The final novel of the trilogy that includes The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity, The Gates of Ivory follows Liz Headleand’s investigation into the disappearance of Stephen Cox, who had traveled to Southeast Asia ostensibly to research Pol Pot in order to write a play. After a discursive section on “Good Time” and “Bad Time,” the novel begins with the opening of a mysterious package delivered to Liz. The first items Liz finds are two finger bones. Also included are newspaper clippings, notebooks, postcards, a poem by Arthur Rimbaud, and photographs. One photograph is of a Khmer woman, Mme Savet Akrun, with the caption, “Where is my son?” In addition, Liz finds pages of an apparent novel in progress, which begins, “And he came to a land where the water flows uphill.” Discovering the handwriting of Stephen Cox, Liz is propelled into the full mystery of Stephen’s disappearance, the atrocities of a faraway land, and questions concerning the moral integrity of humanity itself.

In this novel, Drabble uses a nonchronological narrative from multiple points of view. A frequent ironic tone complicates the narration. Though largely told in third person through the perspectives of individual characters, primarily Liz Headleand, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer, in addition to a panorama of minor characters, The Gates of Ivory introduces a new character, Hattie Osborne, who speaks in first person. Hattie, whom Drabble describes as “dottie,” is living in Stephen’s apartment while he is away and serves as his unofficial literary executor. Interestingly, no one can remember how long ago Stephen left; was it one year, two years, or was it three? Though Liz is in charge, other characters take part as well; however, the entire investigation is frequently interrupted by the concerns of daily life in England. Within the narration, Drabble moves from England to Southeast Asia and back again, from present time to the past. One technique holding it all together is repetition—for example, the repeated image of Stephen’s white suit, the caption “Where is my son,” and phrases about water flowing uphill, as well as references to the sound of “spade on skull.”

Finally Liz is on her way to Bangkok, following the same trail as Stephen Cox, staying in the same hotel, meeting the same characters. She travels to Site Ten, a refugee camp, where she meets Mme Savet Akrun, and back to Bangkok, learning nothing of Stephen’s whereabouts. In a restaurant, she runs into old friends who tell her of Stephen’s apparent death. They are thinking about making a documentary film of the Booker Prize-winning novelist’s excursion to locate Pol Pot and his resulting death. Liz returns to England, where she organizes a memorial service for Stephen. Following the service, the novel closes anticlimactically, at a party at Liz’s house, where she and Alix and Esther propose a vacation, bringing the trilogy full circle to where it began.

The Red Queen

The Red Queen, subtitled A Transcultural Tragicomedy, continues Drabble’s exploration of the East. The novel is divided equally into two parts, the first titled “Ancient Times” and the second “Modern Times.” In addition, a short section titled “Postmodern Times” concludes the novel. Part 1 is told in first person through the voice of the eighteenth century Korean crown princess Hong, who is apparently still in search of the meaning of her own story. Interestingly, she speaks with knowledge of late twentieth century intellectual theory and scholarship; death has not hindered her education, but neither has her continued education served to enlighten her. Part 2 is told in third person through the eyes of Barbara Halliwell, a twenty-first century scholar on sabbatical at Oxford, who reads Hong’s memoirs on a flight to deliver a paper at an academic conference in South Korea. The immediate connection between Hong and Halliwell, and even between both and Drabble herself (as indicated by the novel’s afterword), is a fondness for the color red. Each harbors a fondness for red clothing. In the novel, beginning with this one connection, Drabble attempts to collapse the dichotomies of East and West, past and present. Despite postmodern theory’s demanding cultural relativism, Drabble attempts to locate a universal human personality.

The crown princess tells her story in the form of a chronological narrative. Hers is the story of a woman groomed from the age of nine to become a future queen of Korea. Korean life in the eighteenth century, based on Confucianism, was wrought with societal stresses; royal life was even more so. Hong begins her tale with a discussion of the pressure of examinations as experienced by her father. Quickly she is moved to the palace, where her daily behavior, even from childhood, is held to close scrutiny. She virtually grows up with her future husband and king, Prince Sado. Sado is constricted by his own pressures. He acquires a clothing fetish, which further creates economical stress. As pressure in the royal household mounts, his psychological problems escalate. He becomes a sadistic murderer, until he is, at last, forced to commit a ritual suicide by suffocation in a rice chest. All the while, Hong is cognizant of her own tenuous position in the royal household.

Barbara Halliwell’s story is also told chronologically. On the plane, she is immediately captured by Hong’s story. Arriving at her hotel in Korea, Barbara meets Dr. Oo, who is attending another local conference, through a mix-up in luggage. Dr. Oo serves as Barbara’s escort as she visits locations significant in the memoir of the crown princess. At the conference, Barbara meets the scholar Professor Jan van Jost, with whom she has a brief affair. Van Jost delivers a paper filled with images of entombment; Barbara finds the work largely incomprehensible. Later, van Jost dies in her bed.

The novel ends happily with a meeting between Jan van Jost’s wife, who has adopted an infant from China, and Barbara. Barbara returns to London, where she teaches and writes. Polly Usher, a character from earlier Drabble novels, makes an appearance. Margaret Drabble herself makes a cameo appearance at the novel’s end, “looking older than she did on her book jackets.”


Margaret Drabble World Literature Analysis