Margaret Drabble

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Margaret Drabble World Literature Analysis

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Drabble admires the experimental methods of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), and Drabble’s own prose occasionally owes something to the stream-of-consciousness methods pioneered by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, but she has not been known as an experimenter in her own work. She prefers not to use chapter divisions, using spaces to indicate changes of location or action. The nearest thing to unconventional method occurs in the early novel The Waterfall (1969). The novel opens with third-person narration but then switches to first-person narration by the central character; thereafter, the two methods alternate. On the whole, however, Drabble’s fiction is in an older tradition. She has been compared to such sturdily realistic novelists as George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Arnold Bennett, and Henry James, among others. She has said that she would like to write the great English novel, a successor to George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872).

Furthermore, she is sometimes seen as a feminist writer, since she is much concerned with the difficulties encountered by her female characters, but she rejects the description. In the past, she argued that feminism proposes oversimplified explanations for complex social and economic problems that affect both sexes, although perhaps not equally. In this regard, she most closely resembles her admired predecessor Eliot.

Drabble’s novels are straightforward descriptions of the events in the lives of people who are representative of their time and social position, although they could hardly be called average. She deliberately chooses to focus on characters whose ages and social positions are similar to her own at the time of writing, arguing that these would be the people whom she would know best and about whom she could therefore write with the greatest confidence. Because she herself had to contend with the complications of building a career while rearing several children, she presents a number of characters who must deal with this problem: It plays an important part in The Garrick Year, in The Millstone, in Jerusalem the Golden, and in The Realms of Gold, all written while Drabble was wrestling with the same life choices that face her characters.

In her later novels, beginning with Jerusalem the Golden, Drabble abandons the first-person narrative that she had earlier been using in favor of an omniscient third-person narrator. Her usual method is to focus on a single figure or on two or more central characters and to describe in detail a day or an episode in the life of such characters. In the course of describing an incident, she uses flashbacks to convey whatever information she thinks is important about the childhood or youth of the character, interpolating commentary on specific actions or on more general social or economic activities of the time. Long narrative passages fill the gaps between the extended scenes that Drabble uses to convey critical episodes in the lives of her characters.

She occasionally addresses the reader directly, for example by introducing a character briefly, with a comment to the effect that he or she will appear later in a more important role. Near the end of The Realms of Gold, the narrator observes that all the surviving major characters are reasonably content and well off, and she tells the reader: “So there you are. Invent a more suitable ending if you can.” Drabble is also willing, in what might be called an old-fashioned way, to insert comments on her own methods. At the beginning of the final section of The Ice Age , for example, she writes, “It ought now to be necessary to imagine a future for Anthony Keating. There is...

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no need to worry about the other characters.” At another point inThe Realms of Gold, while commenting about a coincidental meeting between characters, she mentions the coincidence but disarms criticism by saying that there will be less likely coincidences at other points in the book as there are in life.

Perhaps more important still, Drabble is never reluctant to comment on the social and economic situations in which she places her characters. The contemporary style is to ignore such matters or to leave them for the reader to deduce, but Drabble is outspoken in describing what seem to her the ills of society. In The Ice Age, in particular, she describes the laws and regulations that have made it possible for several of her principal characters to make a considerable amount of money and later to be bankrupted or sent to jail. Since many of her major characters are women, she frequently makes pungent observations about the difficulties that women encounter in modern society. Her characters who try to be content with being housewives and mothers are never really satisfied, but those who choose careers along with motherhood encounter their own difficulties. Neither situation is anywhere close to ideal, although she never says anything critical of motherhood.

In other important ways, Drabble’s methods run counter to those made popular by such modern novelists as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. There are very few extended stretches of dialogue in Drabble’s fiction. Instead, there are long narrative and descriptive sections informing the reader about characters, in the manner of Eliot or James. Dialogue is used only sparingly to highlight special scenes; even when it is used, it is generally employed only as a counterpoint to a description of a conversation. Drabble is more interested in conveying the feelings and reactions of her characters than in trying to make accurate representations of how they speak, and she evidently believes that summaries with commentary are more effective for her purpose.

Furthermore, Drabble does not seem to be concerned that her readers will be bored by novels in which there is not much dramatic action. In some novels, crucial developments are precipitated by a shocking event. The Waterfall is unusual, in that the climactic action, a fatal automobile accident, is described directly; elsewhere, decisive events take place offstage. In The Needle’s Eye, a divorced father kidnaps his three children and threatens to take them out of England; in The Ice Age, a young woman is involved in a fatal automobile accident in a Balkan country; in The Realms of Gold, an old woman dies of starvation. Yet none of these events is described directly. Rather, Drabble concentrates on the effects of such episodes on the characters who are at the center of the action.

Since violent action and snappy dialogue are not encountered frequently in Drabble’s fiction, she must rely on style and characterization to hold the interest of her readers. Her style is unsensational but consistently interesting and fresh, at least in the long novels of her major period, including The Realms of Gold and The Needle’s Eye. Her descriptions are detailed but seldom overly so, conveying a strong sense of what kinds of settings her characters inhabit, and her descriptions of characters are sharp and often witty.

More important, her characters are interesting. It is not Drabble’s method to idealize these figures or make them grotesques. Instead, she provides them with a mixture of strengths and weaknesses so that they are recognizably human, generally admirable and entertaining without being boring. Frances Wingate, in The Realms of Gold, for example, is a successful archaeologist and an attractive and forceful woman, but she is also a careless mother, happy that her children no longer demand her attention, and she has foolishly broken off her affair with the man whom she genuinely loves for no reason at all other than that her life had temporarily become less than exciting. Rose Vassiliou, in The Needle’s Eye, is a caring mother and a noble character in some ways, but she can also be dependent, annoying, and self-destructively moral.

Drabble’s later novels—The Ice Age, The Middle Ground, The Radiant Way, and A Natural Curiosity—all received negative reviews. Critics argued that Drabble was more interested in depicting large social issues and commenting on those issues than in creating interesting and believable characters. Nevertheless, the respect with which her work is treated is a clear indication that she remains one of the major British novelists of the second half of the twentieth century.

The Waterfall

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

A young married Englishwoman, mother of two, falls in love for the first time and engages in a passionate affair with her cousin’s husband.

In The Waterfall, Jane Gray is married to the successful guitarist Malcolm Gray, but she has driven him away with her indifference, her sloppy housekeeping, and her frigidity. When she gives birth to her second child, Bianca, she is looked after by her cousin and best friend, Lucy, and Lucy’s husband, James Otford. She and James almost immediately fall in love, and when she has recovered from the aftereffects of childbirth they begin a passionate affair, keeping Lucy, the absent Malcolm, and both Jane and Malcolm’s parents in ignorance.

For the first time, Jane is not only in love but also sexually passionate. The affair seems to be proceeding without difficulty until James suggests that they travel to Norway for a vacation with Jane’s two children. She is reluctant at first but then agrees. At the beginning of the trip, however, they are involved in a terrible automobile accident. Both James and Jane have expected something like this to happen, since he is a very daring and bad driver, but ironically the accident is not his fault. Another driver is killed. Jane and the children are shaken but not injured, but James is thrown from the car and severely hurt; he remains in a coma for weeks.

Jane, pretending to be Mrs. Otford, remains near James and visits him every day, but Malcolm Gray eventually finds out where she is and tells Lucy. Lucy’s reaction is to call and tell Jane that she wishes that both the lovers had been killed in the accident, but she soon relents and comes to join Jane in her hospital vigil. She reveals that her marriage was also going badly, that James was a lousy provider, and he had other affairs before the one with Jane; the news is a severe shock to Jane. Lucy, it develops, is also having an affair, evidently not her first. When James recovers consciousness and begins to regain his strength and abilities, Jane leaves to return to her home. The affair, however, is not over; when James recovers, he and Jane manage to get together for brief trips that are the highlights of Jane’s life.

Its narrow focus on the private lives of its characters makes this novel less socially concerned than most of Drabble’s fiction. What keeps The Waterfall from being a conventionally tear-jerking romance is the technique that Drabble adopts of alternating chapters of third-person narration describing the romance with Jane’s first-person comments, in which she admits lying about many things: her marriage, her blaming her parents for faults they did not have, and her describing the emotions other than passion that affected her during the affair. She feels no guilt, and at the end she has somehow managed to remain friendly with Lucy, but she recognizes that she is responsible for her own failings and her own decisions. Blaming fate, her parents, or others, as she had done in the earlier third-person segments, is no longer possible.

The Needle’s Eye

First published: 1972

Type of work: Novel

A man and a woman, both unhappy with their lives, form a friendship that never becomes romantic but that sustains both of them.

In The Needle’s Eye, Simon Camish is a successful barrister who is profoundly unhappy in his marriage to Julie. Rose Vassiliou is a divorced mother of three children who lives in virtual poverty. The daughter of wealthy parents, she has renounced her family and donated a large inheritance to a charity, rather than accept money that she believes she does not deserve. When Simon and Rose meet, each recognizes in the other qualities that he or she lacks. The two are polar opposites. Simon devotes considerable energy to suppressing the emotions that Rose expresses openly and shamelessly. Simon has struggled all of his life to gain the money and social position that Rose has thrown away. He remains locked in a marriage to a woman who is concerned only with material things and who makes him unhappy, while Rose has divorced Christopher, the husband whom she married against her family’s bitter opposition. Although he abused her physically and verbally, she feels guilty for separating Christopher from their children, whom he loves and misses. Ironically, Christopher, because he has become successful in business, is now closer to Rose’s parents than she is.

As their friendship grows, Simon and Rose realize, separately, that they could be happy living together, even though there is no real sexual attraction between them. Yet Rose says nothing because she does not believe that she deserves happiness, and Simon cannot bring himself to speak of something so emotionally important to him. Christopher’s kidnapping of his three children precipitates a confrontation involving himself, Rose, and Simon, an event that turns out to be quiet and undramatic. In the end, Rose takes Christopher back, Simon remains with Julie, and each continues to value and rely on the other’s goodwill. Neither is truly happy, but both are more content than they had been.

The Needle’s Eye combines social criticism with acute observations on the emotional difficulties of living in modern British society. Drabble disapproves of a society that values money and material objects highly and that does little to alleviate the conditions under which people without money have to live. Poverty, she observes, is not ennobling. Wealth is not ennobling either, but it makes the strains of life easier. The economic values of this society, however, are less damaging to the individual than are the social norms that require that a tight rein be kept on emotions and that pain and suffering always be denied and minimized by the sufferer. Drabble also pokes holes in romantic ideas; Rose’s youthful passion for Christopher brings her years of misery when the passion is spent, and her noble gesture of renouncing her inheritance leaves her miserably poor and puts her children in the same condition.

Drabble does not suggest that society is entirely to blame for what happens to her characters. They make choices, and those choices go a long way toward determining what will happen in their lives. Among the minor characters are a few who have made choices that are better for them: Jeremy Alford, a lawyer, and his pregnant wife are quite happy, as is Miss Lindley, the teacher of one of Rose’s children. Less happy are those, like Simon and Rose, whose choices have required them to struggle against their upbringing and early environment.

The Realms of Gold

First published: 1975

Type of work: Novel

A mature woman, a successful archaeologist, ends a happy relationship with her lover and tries to put her life back together.

The Realms of Gold is Drabble’s most optimistic novel and the one in which she seems most relaxed as a writer. Her central figure, Frances Wingate, is about forty years old, a respected professional in the field of archaeology. Years before, she had correctly predicted the location of the ruins of an ancient trading center in the Sahara Desert and had led in its excavation, and consequently she has enjoyed a highly satisfying career. Her marriage to a wealthy man did not turn out well, but her children have become independent, and she is able to leave them for extended periods while she attends professional conferences and other meetings important to her.

The problem in Wingate’s life is her broken relationship with Karel Schmidt, a lecturer at a small university, who had been her lover. Separated from him, Frances realizes that she had broken off their relationship for frivolous and foolish reasons. Her life, she believed when she made the break, had become too regular, too contented, and she needed change. The change that she manufactured has separated her from the only man she has loved, and she wants nothing more than to get him back. Very early in the novel, she sends him a postcard from an unnamed Mediterranean city, announcing that she misses him and loves him. She assumes that this will lead to a reconciliation, but when she does not hear from him she swallows her disappointment and determines to go on with her life. Because of a postal strike, the card does not reach Karel for weeks. In those weeks, the action of most of the novel takes place.

Frances travels to Africa for a conference, at which she becomes friendly with a cousin whom she had not known before, David Ollerenshaw. She enjoys flirting with a handsome Italian archaeologist and finds it satisfying to be an important figure among her contemporaries, but she also realizes that Karel is more important to her than this adulation and attention. Karel, having finally received her message, tries to join her in Africa but fails. After some comic errors, they are finally reunited in England.

Frances and Karel are sympathetic characters, but so are many of the others who populate this long book. The exceptions are Frances’s parents. Like the parents in most Drabble novels, these characters are somewhat cold and distant; her father is head of a small university, while her mother, a lecturer on birth control and a sexual counselor, does not like sex. Her brother, Hugh, is an alcoholic who is successful in business but needs alcohol to dull his sensibilities. Hugh’s son Stephen, a university student, has fathered a daughter and has become obsessed with the dangers that await her as she matures. Stephen’s young wife has had a mental collapse and has had to be institutionalized. In the end, to avert the suffering that he believes is in store for her, he kills his daughter and himself. Frances’s second cousin, Janet Bird, has no such fears. She tolerates a bad marriage and enjoys the company of Frances when fate brings them together, but she is not fearful for her child. In her quiet courage, she is like David Ollerenshaw, a geologist who the narrator says was intended for a large role but assumes only secondary importance.

Except for Stephen and his daughter, all the major characters in The Realms of Gold survive and, in varying degrees, find happiness. Even Karel’s discontented wife finally finds her place in life and permits Karel and Frances to live together. She and Frances, although they do not like each other, learn to get along.

The Ice Age

First published: 1977

Type of work: Novel

Anthony Keating and the people associated with him are frustrated and unhappy during the economic depression in Britain during the 1970’s.

After the relative contentment of the ending of The Realms of Gold, The Ice Age is like a cold shower. The later work begins the series of late novels in which Drabble adopts what critics have called a sociological approach in her fiction. These novels are concerned with the economic and social events in England during the years between 1973 and 1990, years in which a depression was followed by a period of recovery in some parts of the economy, fueled by the exploitation of North Sea oil. There is some justice in the critical complaint that Drabble became less interested in her characters than in how she could use the novel to address the current state of British affairs.

The structure of The Ice Age is unusual. As she often does, Drabble dispenses with chapter divisions, but this novel is divided into three parts; the first two move among five major characters and several minor ones. The final section focuses on only one of these characters. At the end, strong religious overtones are introduced, but it is unclear how seriously Drabble intends the religious motif to be taken.

Anthony Keating is at the center of attention and in the final section becomes the only important character. He is one of a group of middle-aged men and women whose lives have been disrupted by financial and social upheavals. Anthony became involved in real estate speculation after finding several other careers boring. For a while, he and his partners were surprisingly successful, but an economic slump has hit them hard. Anthony has had a mild heart attack and is trying to recover, while wondering whether he is about to become bankrupt. His friend Max Friedmann has been killed by a bomb thrown into a London restaurant by the IRA (Irish Republican Army); Max’s wife Kitty lost a foot in the incident and is trying to pretend that nothing bad happened. Anthony’s lover, Alison Murray, is a onetime star actress who left the stage to look after her second daughter, Molly, born with cerebral palsy and somewhat retarded. Now Alison is desperately unhappy in the Iron Curtain country of Wallacia, where her disaffected daughter Jane is to be tried for vehicular homicide. Anthony looks after Molly. Len Wincobank, a very successful if piratical developer, crossed the legal lines and is in prison. His lover, Maureen Kirby, finds a new employer, who will become her new lover. Giles Peters, who got Anthony into the real estate business, is desperately looking for a way to salvage their investments.

The problems of these characters represent the problems of a sick and depressed society. The malaise is more spiritual than economic, for when better things begin to happen to at least some of the characters, they cannot believe in their good fortune and become even more depressed. When Alison returns to England from the dingy totalitarianism of Wallacia, she is extremely disappointed at what she finds and goes into a deep depression. Anthony’s financial fortunes take a turn for the better, and he becomes solvent again, but he knows his good fortune cannot last, and it does not.

At the beginning of the third and final part of The Ice Age, Drabble dismisses most of the characters in a single paragraph and turns her attention to Anthony. He and Alison enjoy a brief period of contentment before he is called by a man in the British Foreign Office. Jane Murray, Alison’s daughter, may be released from prison, he tells Anthony, but someone must go and get her. Anthony goes, somewhat reluctantly carrying secret messages from the Foreign Office. In Wallacia, Jane is released, and Anthony gets her to the airport, but as they are trying to get to their plane an uprising takes place. At Anthony’s urging, Jane runs and is able to board the plane, but Anthony is left behind. After several months, his friends in England learn that he has been sent to prison for six years for espionage. The British ambassador in Wallacia realizes that his captors do not believe that Anthony was a spy; if they did, he would have been shot. Yet he will have to serve his term.

In prison, Anthony begins to write a book about the existence of God and the possibility of faith. In part, this is a reversion to his childhood as the son of a churchman, but it is also the only way in which he can try to understand what has happened to him. When he sees a bird that is far from its natural habitat, he takes it as a sign that he has not been forgotten by God. Recognizing that he believes this because he wants to, he cannot resist hope. Drabble, however, does not end on a hopeful note. Alison, living in England with Molly, has no hope, is neither alive nor dead. The doom-filled final sentence of the book is: “England will recover, but not Alison Murray.”


Margaret Drabble Long Fiction Analysis


Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 10)