Drabble, Margaret 1939–
Ms. Drabble, a British novelist, short story writer, and playwright, writes fiction of unusual sensitivity. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
Margaret Drabble writes with a rare passion: rare not so much in its intensity (though there is more pretence of strong feeling than the thing itself around in English writing today) as in its object: a passion for justice. She has what Sartre recommended for a novelist: moral obsession. In some of her earlier books, the quality was repressed in the more genial pursuit of a social sketch (Jerusalem the Golden) or a romantic portrait (The Waterfall). In The Needle's Eye, it is finally given its head….
Although this is a very ambitious, marvellously written, morally admirable book, its final impact is less than the sum of its parts. Its conclusion is not only a further concession but a defeat. Rose, reflecting on her weakly patched-up marriage, tells herself that she did it "in the dry light of arid generosity…. Her duty, that was what she had done. For others. For him, for the children." Like a true Puritan, Miss Drabble is sounder on pain than pleasure, on self-denial than on achievement. "To those that suffer", Rose tells herself, "is given the strength to endure suffering." Or not, as the case may be. Yeats also wrote: "Too much sacrifice can make a stone of the heart." And a stone is not even an acceptable sacrifice.
"In View of the Poor," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), March 31, 1972, p. 353.
Margaret Drabble's bleak pessimism regarding love, marriage, and the casual disasters besetting the female locked into heterosexuality and a less radical life style is the focus of her first five novels, written since 1964. Published and praised in England, she seems little read in the United States, a transatlantic reader's loss since the currency of her vision is remarkable.
Bungled and achieved female self-definition is her consistent theme; her women might set out to pay homage to patriarchy's dearest forms, but en route their increasing awareness of the absurdity of their sexual, social, and economic positions results in their befuddlement and defeat within the system. Only occasionally and in a limited sense do her women manage to infiltrate intellectually or economically the masculine milieu. Drabble turns to the novel to explore the various options of women today; she evidently lacks the idealism that active feminist politics demands, while her awareness of human inequities needs no heightening through consciousness raising sessions. The conversion of the sexual protest into novels is what makes her interesting. The choices of artist over activist and imitation over frontal attack allow a subtlety and sensitivity that politics frequently precludes.
Margaret Drabble leisurely inspects patterns of female development and the nuances of both male oppression and sexual liberation; unlike her political counterpart who is sustained by a vision of a new order, Drabble's outlook is grim. Her conclusions are often nihilistic and suggest sexual tyranny is here to stay, a component of a deterministic universe. Neither a missionary, an idealist, nor a prophet, Drabble offers the reader practical imitations of the real world. The novels incisively diagnose female complaints while avoiding talky and dubious prognoses and treatment programs; rhetoric and wish-fulfillment are, mercifully, out of bounds in her work. Because the English novel has traditionally contributed to social reform through its criticism of social inequities, the enduring gains in woman's rights may as well be made by cautious and introspective artists, such as Drabble, as by the movement's activists and political theoreticians.
The inevitable problems of the mid-twentieth-century woman provide the specific plot complications in all Drabble's novels; both female and male character is revealed and developed in relation to familiar feminist issues of education, sexuality, marriage, motherhood, and economic dependence….
The dilemma of the centrality yet inadequacy of heterosexual relations for females runs through all of Drabble's novels but is never as fully expressed until The Waterfall. The idea that human happiness is not allowed for in the universal program is ancient, but its clear working out in female terms with the mores of contemporary patriarchal society playing the Furies to the erotically hubris-ridden woman is Drabble's distinctive contribution. Being both a feminist and a compassionate pessimist who can relate isolation to causes deeper than the simply temporal and political, she has an interest also in man, society, and civilization. That [her most recent novel is] told from the masculine point of view comes as no surprise. Margaret Drabble will undoubtedly continue to explore questions that are finally human and impartial to sexual distinction.
Virginia K. Beards, "Margaret Drabble: Novels of a Cautious Feminist," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 1, 1973, pp. 35-46.
Drabble is a warm and friendly person with an intense quality that finds expression both in her demeanor and her works. It seems appropriate that her concern is frequently, among other things, with "the holiness of the heart's affections," for there is a kinship between her and the early nineteenth-century romantic writers who tended to give primacy to emotion over reason and who honestly trusted their inner perceptions. She is equally in tune with those later nineteenth-century novelists whose world involves predestined paths and fate. Yet, she is also very much of her own time, and her characters and their self-confrontations are burdened with choices relevant to the 1960s and 1970s….
Drabble's novels are studies of human nature with the emphasis on feminine nature. That is not to say she is a feminist writer; she is too private a person and is not one who fits well into organizations or women's liberation groups. The most she does on this score is to "give the odd lecture on the status of women, if I'm invited to do so. I've got a literary lecture called 'Feminism in the Novel' which I deliver when I think people need it, or when they request it. If they say, come and talk about feminism, I talk about literary women—Mrs. Aphra Behn, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, and people like that." In her novels, however, Drabble shatters various female stereotypes and for the most part emphasizes women's competence and independence.
The Drabble women are notable for their resiliency and endurance; frequently they know what it is that they do not want, while they struggle to learn what it is they seek and who it is they are. They posit themselves in the world of professions, of marriage, or of making it on their own and more often than not come to recognize themselves through their lovers, husbands, or children. In addition, they see men in a fair and open-minded manner. There is little if any doubt that Drabble's characters are personalities of inner strength…. Furthermore, Drabble's women are a convincing mixture of opposites and are all the more human for being so. Their morality is congruent with "a whole host of other unlikely irreconcilable propositions …".
Nancy S. Hardin, "An Interview with Margaret Drabble," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 273-95.