Margaret Drabble Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 5) - Essay

Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Drabble, Margaret 1939–

An English novelist, playwright, short story writer, and author of critical biographies, Ms Drabble writes intelligent and insightful traditional novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Ours is certainly an age of great, even heroic, biographies and autobiographies, and Margaret Drabble's richly detailed and wonderfully sensitive critical biography of Arnold Bennett is very much of our time. Though Bennett's reputation is not that of certain of his famous contemporaries, the intensity of Drabble's appreciation of him, and her ability to communicate that appreciation in both emotional and intellectual terms, will lead many of us to a new assessment of Bennett's major works. (p. 34)

That so highly acclaimed a young novelist as Margaret Drabble should spend many, many months researching Bennett, talking with innumerable people about him, always on the lookout for stray items of his ephemera—as well as fighting London traffic on a bicycle, back and forth between the British Museum and her home some distance away—seemed to me simply baffling; until I realized that this book is no ordinary biography. Of course, it satisfies every academic demand for factual accuracy, and then some; but it is also Margaret Drabble's analysis of her own origins and her own tradition, both as a person from Bennett's part of England—possibly related to him by way of a maternal great-grandmother—and a writer in his tradition, brought up to admire realism and social concern in literature.

Drabble understands her subject from the inside, in a way that no American critic could hope to approximate. To know what London and England are like, one can do no better than to read Margaret Drabble; it's doubtful that there is any single American writer who represents the diversity and near-chaos of our culture, as Drabble represents the tone of contemporary English culture. Her imagination is both refined and robust, slyly satirical and profoundly moral: there is no one quite like her writing today, and her work is especially valuable because it shows with what grace the uniquely contemporary personality can deal with traditional and timeless subjects….

Margaret Drabble analyzes her own background, then, and provides her readers with the means by which better to understand her own novels, especially Jerusalem the Golden and The Needle's Eye, which deal with moral issues of a kind not translatable into contemporary American terms. Art transcends regional and parochial particularities, of course, but the artist generally writes out of a fierce love-hate relationship with those particularities, in an attempt to discover just what they are and how one has been shaped by them. In The Old Wives' Tale and the "Clayhanger" series, as well as in other of his novels, Bennett dealt with a world and with people who stand behind, in a manner of speaking, the Londoners of Margaret Drabble's fiction. They are of the same stock, shaped by the same religion and the same class-consciousness. (p. 35)

Like Drabble's earlier studies of Wordsworth and Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett contrasts sharply with the kind of grudgingly appreciative—and occasionally cruel—academic criticism that is standard fare from university presses, written by scholar-critics with no sympathy for their subjects. This book is generated by Drabble's feelings for Bennett, written "in a partisan spirit, as an act of appreciation"….

[Margaret Drabble] struck me (and perhaps I struck her the same way: there is a great deal of similarity between us) as a young woman intensely interested in nearly all aspects of experience, but not one who would care to experiment, personally, in anything very much out of the ordinary. Warm, humorous, gently intelligent, she possesses the Jamesian talent for discerning possibilities of adventure, as well as the Jamesian caution (or wisdom) that values most highly the position of observer. After all, it is those who survive, those who observe carefully and sympathetically, who have something valuable to communicate to the rest of the world. Robert Frost speculated on what one might make "of a diminished thing"—assuming that the drama of an extraordinary life was no longer possible—but Margaret Drabble, like Bennett and like her own fictional characters, would declare the daily experience of life itself something extraordinary. (p. 36)

Joyce Carol Oates, "Bricks and Mortar," in Ms. (reprinted by permission of the author and her agent, Blanche C. Gregory, Inc.; copyright © 1974 by Joyce Carol Oates), August, 1974, pp. 34-6.

Although the primary theme in Drabble's fiction is her intense preoccupation with questions of fatalism and will, her work also involves—both explicitly and implicitly—feminist concerns. Because the central protagonist (even in The Needle's Eye) is always a woman and the society in which she lives is always depicted, accurately, as deeply patriarchal and class-bound, the problem of the individual's capacity for self-determination is inevitably tied to the feminist perspective. (p. 176)

After The Garrick Year, Drabble's novels become more complicated psychologically and philosophically, partly because the heroine's family and social origins become an additional aspect of fate to be consciously reckoned with in her comprehension of the present and her vision of the future. And of all Drabble heroines, Clara Maughm of Jerusalem the Golden is most heavily burdened by the circumstances of her childhood. (p. 178)

Drabble's portrayal of Clara is not particularly interesting and not completely convincing; it is difficult, at the end of the novel, to reconcile Clara's intelligence with her reaf-firmed pledge to force a modern fairy-tale fate out of human materials whose realness and vulnerability have been so palpably revealed. Through Clara, Drabble makes a sort of straw man of the efficacious will; the will that serves misguided desire substitutes for the will that serves the intelligence and inevitably gets knocked down by the dictates of justice and the free rein of authorial manipulation. Consequently, the most pressing question implicit in Clara's situation—how far she could conscientiously and realistically rise above the confines of her past—is virtually bypassed. In contrast to her handling of Clara, Drabble's gently controlled and affectionate portrayal of Rosamund Stacey in The Millstone raises more serious and subtle questions about the relationship between will and character, character and fate. Moreover, in the mild atmosphere of Rosamund's basic acceptance of past influences and present occurrences, the occasional exertions of her will in the service of a selfhood deeper than any fate offer a particularly effective challenge to the deterministic assumptions of the book. The Millstone incorporates the beginning of a subtle complexity in Drabble's notions of fatalism and related feminist issues, a complexity that thickens with the heroine's destructive submission to fate in The Waterfall and finally, in The Needle's Eye, breaks through into a new vision of possible freedom. (pp. 179-80)

Drabble has come a long way, in The Needle's Eye, from the artful construction of fatalistic circumstances to which Emma and Rosamund must yield and from the creation of the fatally destructive monolithic natures of Clara and [Jane Gray, in The Waterfall]. The Needle's Eye is a complex and passionate evocation of a fatalism deriving from the human condition and the nature of the world; Drabble's vision no longer imposes an idiosyncratic pattern on the materials of life. Perhaps the most authentic aspect of fatalism in her last novel is its political basis; Rose and Simon are both motivated in everything they do by a humanitarian consciousness. (pp. 187-88)

The Needle's Eye is a portrayal of political and personal existential struggle shadowed by a belief in the "doublebind" of man's psychic make-up: man is possessed of "just enough illumination … to suffer for failure, and too little spirit to live in the light, too little strength to reach the light" (NE, p. 172), and, although he strives for individual identity, as "the property of two parents with equal claim," "he is condemned for survival to partition" (NE, pp. 260-61). (p. 188)

The Needle's Eye is unusually complex among Drabble's works largely because it contains two central protagonists; it is the story of Simon Camish, as well as of Rose Vassiliou, and in a sense Simon's reaction to Rose constitutes the primary growth of consciousness in the novel. (p. 189)

In so far as it is convincing, fatalism in The Needle's Eye rests on the author's careful construction of interlocking double-binds relating both to the general psychological and political nature of man. But without betraying the delicate balance of her ironic vision of reality, Drabble might—as she says—have enabled Rose to remain alone with her children, "might have allowed her her freedom."… Feminism, as an issue, does not figure strongly in The Needle's Eye mainly because Rose, more than any other Drabble heroine, transcends conventional femaleness in her person and because her primary struggle is with questions of will and fate that affect women and men alike. (p. 190)

One of the qualities which makes Margaret Drabble unique as a writer—with the exception of Doris Lessing in some of her work—is her acute sense of the value and beauty of children, and her almost uncanny perception, usually without abandoning the adult point of view, of the child's inner life. She understands, better than most novelists, the power of an individual child's nature to affect the adult experience, as well as the force of a child's needs in shaping his parents' decisions and, if they are sensitive, their psychic development. (p. 191)

Marion Vlastos Libby, "Fate and Feminism in the Novels of Margaret Drabble," in Contemporary Literature (© 1975 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 175-92.

Margaret Drabble is an English girl who writes novels. Not just novels but bestsellers. Not just bestsellers but books which are critics' darlings. She is called the George Eliot of her generation, which pleases her very much, and the Charlotte Bronte, which doesn't please her at all. C. P. Snow tells me she is one of England's best novelists. (p. 255)

Is she a woman's novelist? Critics (of all sexes) say she is.

"Proust is a woman's novelist; Angus Wilson is a woman's writer; Joyce Carol Oates writes 'men's books'; a lot of men write best about women, with a woman's sensibility." The argument is tenable. Drabble has created some memorable men. Simon Camish, the introspective, self-analyzing lawyer of "Needle's Eye," is a man to remember. One would like to know the absent husband, the guitarist, so suggestively dismissed in "The Waterfall." (p. 262)

In style and form she is traditional. But what she is saying is not traditional. She is writing about revolutions in values. She is concerned with privilege; she does not believe in it. She is writing about the effect women are having on society; she is quite sure that the "woman's role, the rift between the sexes," is going to change society completely, and in probing these changes and anticipating further changes. "I and most women are writing about things that have never been written about, really."

She is writing about the universals in private experience, themes and subtleties which sustain the novel as an art form, make it more than a good story, and inspire good readers. The questions she is asking are recording the social history of an era. (p. 263)

She never thinks about keeping her audience. She has an absolutely heroic disregard of them. Hers, as Faulkner said of his work, is the standard which has to be met…. She is not arrogant but realistic. Reality for Margaret Drabble is the fiction she's creating, far more than the constant variable of popularity.

Then why is she so popular?

"There must be a lot of people like me. A lot of people have got exactly the same worries and problems…". (p. 264)

Drabble is answer and example to women who think the role into which society stereotypes them necessarily limits them, or makes them losers in life. She is a sweet reminder to stereotypers of women that women no longer swing in the ancient orbits. (p. 265)

Nancy Poland, "Margaret Drabble: 'There Must Be a Lot of People Like Me'," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1975, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Spring, 1975, pp. 255-67.

If the family as a social institution disappears over the next 50 years, Margaret Drabble's novels will become a documentation of its painful survival into the second half of the 20th century. The long and silent lifetime relation of brothers and sisters, the strain of grownup children's relations with aging parents, the fatigue-heightened experience of mothers with infants, the breathing, rib-close love and hatred of husband and wife, they are all there in what has come to be a rather sizable body of work.

But Drabble is not interested in documenting anything. One of the most obvious aspects of her work as a novelist has been her lack of passivity, her reluctance to be shaped by rather than shape the culture in which she lives. With her last novel it has become impossible to ignore what has always been a part of her attraction as a writer: her quest for the good life. Such an old-fashioned undertaking involves her not in turning the clock back but in moving more responsibly into the future. Fortunately she has none of the complacent purposefulness of one who knows where the world should be heading; her novels are full of our contemporary failures and confusions. Her characters drift on the swirling waters of our daily experience, but they do so with a kind of moral evaluation of their own drift. (p. 21)

Drabble is one of those writers who believe we do not make life, and yet human beings have a responsibility for what they do….

Taking responsibility for the life one has drifted into does not always mean doing the right thing. Indeed The Needle's Eye is unlike any of Drabble's other novels just because Rose does. She decides it is not enough to know the right thing to do. One must do it. No matter how irrational, how mad it may seem—for example, giving away one's millions to an African country—one must do it. At the end of the The Millstone, Rosamund can not perform such an act; she lets George go rather than behave in an uncivilized way by throwing herself at his feet….

But Rose is a kind of saint, a saint who yells at her children and fights with her husband, but who from childhood has asked with Bunyan's pilgrim: "What is it I must do to be saved?" She has given away her inherited wealth and fought her way back from a privileged position to that of the ordinary mortal. And what is most important about her is her support of the normally vulgar world. At the end, Rose pats the ugly broken lion outside the sports arena and thinks of the beautiful handmade lion in front of her father's estate. She lays her hand approvingly on the ugly lion. "It was gritty and cold, a beast of the people. Mass-produced it had been, but it had weathered into identity. And this she hoped, for every living soul."

That concluding prayer-like line has a generosity that is to be found in almost every line of Drabble's recent biography of Arnold Bennett. Although much of the detailed recounting of his literary life is uninspired, she praises his love of and respect for the ordinary. In an earlier book on Wordsworth she had also drawn the reader's attention to the moral as well as psychological implications of a writer's response to vulgar reality. (p. 22)

Her novels celebrate moral awareness; her characters attempt to make out of the rhythm of experience a meaningful life. (p. 23)

J. O'Brien Schaefer, "The Novels of Margaret Drabble," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 26, 1975, pp. 21-3.