Margaret Drabble

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Joan S. Korenman (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “The ‘Liberation’ of Margaret Drabble,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXI, No. 3, 1980, pp. 61-72.

[In the following essay, Korenman explores feminist issues and sexual equality in Drabble's fiction. According to Korenman, “without insensitive spouses, helpless children, and thwarted careers to divert attention” Drabble's liberated women “confront the meaninglessness of life.”]

Immensely popular in her native England for more than a decade, Margaret Drabble has begun to develop a following in America as well. Readers of both sexes admire her wit, her intelligence, her Jamesian sensitivity to nuance, and her graceful style. For many women, though, Drabble's work also has an intensely personal appeal. The only book-length study of Drabble identifies this aspect of her appeal:

Margaret Drabble is the most contemporary of novelists: a whole generation of women readers identifies with her characters, who they feel represent their own problems. Her heroines were preoccupied with the difficulties of fulfillment and self-definition in a man's world, the conflicting claims of selfhood, wifehood and motherhood, long before the women's lib movement really got going.

Drabble has written two more novels—The Realms of Gold (1975) and The Ice Age (1977)—since this evaluation, and they suggest that she is moving in new directions.

Partly the change is one of scope. A reviewer has observed that “her early novels were interior and subjective” while the more recent ones are “open and expansive,” focusing “on social and political as well as private concerns.” At least as important and far less noticed a change occurs in the nature of Drabble's private concerns. In the early works, she examines problems confronting the contemporary woman—the “familiar feminist issues of education, sexuality, marriage, motherhood, and economic dependence”—and at times suggests compensatory joys that amount to a kind of secular salvation. In her more recent works, however, while not wholly abandoning her interest in the problems that beset women, Drabble now seems to be asking: suppose these problems did not exist, suppose women were to achieve true equality, what then? The answer that emerges is unsettling. What her two recent novels suggest is that without insensitive spouses, helpless children, and thwarted careers to divert attention, one may be forced to confront the meaninglessness of life. In the face of that, the earlier “salvations” are inadequate.

Drabble's early heroines are, for the most part, protected from such a confrontation by the immediacy of their day-to-day problems, problems that result largely from their being female. Although the novels are far from being feminist tracts, Drabble is centrally concerned with examining the life of the contemporary woman and in helping readers “to find patterns or images for a possible future—to know how to behave, what to hope to be like.” Three of the novels portray the difficulties facing intelligent women—Sarah and Louise Bennett in A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), Emma Evans in The Garrick Year (1964), Clara Maugham in Jerusalem the Golden (1967)—who are raised without a sense of vocation, educated inadequately or without direction. Marriage has traditionally been an answer to the problem of “what a girl can do with herself if over-educated and lacking a sense of vocation,” but the women in Drabble's early fiction who marry find they have merely traded uncertainty for frustration. Emma Evans observes wryly: marriage “had already deprived me of so many things which I had childishly overvalued: my independence, my income, my twenty-two-inch waist, my sleep, most of my friends, who had deserted on account of David's insults, … and many more indefinite attributes, like hope and expectation.” Motherhood, too, complicates the lives of several of Drabble's protagonists. On...

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the one hand, it brings Emma Evans and Rosamund Stacey inThe Millstone (1965) the greatest pleasure either of them has ever known; however, it also limits their possibilities and isolates them in a world that includes only mother and child. Sexuality also presents problems for these women, mothers and non-mothers alike. Conspicuously absent from their lives is a fulfilling, intimate physical relationship with another adult. The women share an underlying sexual coldness that has been termed their “sexual dis-ease.”

Drabble's fifth novel, The Waterfall (1969), seems in part an attempt to move beyond the situations described in the earlier novels. Jane Gray has much in common with the other protagonists: she is talented and well educated but makes no plans for a career; she is a mother; and she is sexually cold, at least at first. But she is not simply another Emma Evans or Rosamund Stacey, for she does not experience their intense maternal satisfactions. Drabble has been called “the novelist of maternity” in that “the interaction between mother and child, the love that comes unbidden like the operations of grace, is for Drabble the most instructive and surprising human relationship.” While true of Emma and Rosamund, this view does not really describe Jane, who offers what amounts to a repudiation of the asexual salvation the earlier characters find in motherhood:

I could have turned myself into one of those mother women who ignore their husbands and live through their children. But with me, this did not happen; my ability to kiss and care for and feed and amuse a small child merely reinforced my sense of division—I felt split between the anxious intelligent woman and the healthy and efficient mother. … My body, healthy, indestructible, said to me, look, you can do it, you could do that other thing too; but my mind hovered somewhere near it, shut out.

“Mother women” like Emma and Rosamund find their anxieties and frustrations less compelling than the intense, instinctive joys of motherhood. They remain sexually unresponsive—they cannot “do that other thing too”—but they seem not to mind as long as they can express their love for their children. By the time she wrote The Waterfall, Drabble apparently felt dissatisfied with their solution. While the earlier maternal love has been likened to religious grace, Jane uses religious terms to refer not to motherhood but to sexual fulfillment. When Jane at last experiences orgasm with her lover, James, she speaks of her “sexual salvation”; she says that with James “What I received was grace.”

Jane is the first of Drabble's protagonists to enjoy sex. Her sexual satisfaction seems intended as a corrective to the coldness so dominant in the earlier characters and in Jane herself before she is “saved.” Drabble fails, however, to make Jane's salvation through sexual passion compelling or convincing, let alone attractive. Jane remains almost pathologically helpless and cloyingly dependent on James. Drabble herself recognized Jane's serious shortcomings, at least in retrospect, calling her “feeble”—“the dottiest, the nearest to madness, of all the characters.” With Jane, Drabble's examination of the problems and possibilities confronting women in contemporary society reaches an impasse.

As if in acknowledgement of the difficulties she faced, Drabble took three years to publish her next novel, The Needle's Eye (1972). It marks a transitional stage between the early phase and a more recent one. Drabble continues to explore the problems confronting contemporary women and to seek models for the future. Earlier thematic concerns—the causes and effects of bad marriages, the responsibilities and joys of motherhood—still preoccupy her, especially in the character of Rose Vassiliou. For the first time, however, Drabble abandons the point of view of a sole female protagonist, splitting the focus between two characters, one a man. Partly as a result, The Needle's Eye is considerably longer than the earlier novels, more complex in style and plot, broader in focus. The presence of Simon Camish as co-protagonist suggests that Drabble may be trying not only to move beyond the confines of a single sensibility but also to show that some of the issues previously associated only with women have a larger relevance.

In his psychological makeup, Simon bears a striking resemblance to Drabble's female characters. Like Clara Maugham, Simon struggles to free himself emotionally from his mother. His appetite for renunciation is a hallmark of virtually all Drabble's female protagonists, and like most of them Simon has remarkably little interest in sex. But Simon differs from them in several important ways. His career consumes a great deal of his time and energy and gives him an interest aside from the world of personal relations. Of Drabble's earlier protagonists, only Rosamund Stacey had a career; while hers is every bit as prestigious and intellectually demanding as Simon's, relatively little of The Millstone deals with it in detail. Another difference between Simon and the women is that he is affluent—financially, whatever he wants, he can have. Not hampered by the usual limitations of being female, he has achieved many of the goals for which earlier protagonists yearned: a career, status, affluence. Curiously, though, he is no happier than they were. Some of his discontent stems from problems similar to theirs: an unhappy marriage, a temperament that finds renunciation more natural than enjoyment. But a new note is also sounded. Having come closer than any of the others to a situation where the feminist issues are not problems, Simon begins to despair over what he sees as the futility and meaninglessness of life. He thinks about his mother's sacrifices and hopes for him:

It was for him that she had hoped, and so on, through the generations. And to what end, to what end, to what right end of life, to what gracious form of living, to what possible joy, there was nobody who had achieved it, there was no achieving and no arrival, there was merely a ghastly chain of reiterated disillusions, and each generation discovered a new impossibility, and all the more miserably because it had been given to hope for more.

Simon is the first of Drabble's protagonists to express such doubt that there is a point to human striving, that life has meaning. Such thoughts occur to him only rarely; most often his mind—and the novel as a whole—focuses on the same kinds of problems that confronted the earlier characters and filled and defined their lives. In Drabble's two most recent novels, however, Simon's occasional doubts swell to a steady refrain. In an interview a year or so after The Needle's Eye, Drabble spoke of a shift in her interests:

It's true that in my earlier novels I wrote about the situation of being a woman—being stuck with a baby, or having an illegitimate baby, or being stuck with a marriage where you couldn't have a job. But I'm less and less interested in that now: one's life becomes wider as one grows older and books reflect one's life. Inevitably.

The Realms of Gold and The Ice Age bear out what she says in the interview. Even more than The Needle's Eye, they have a breadth absent in the early works: they focus on the public world as well as the private; they make use of a looser, more daring point of view and plot structure; and they include several significant characters rather than just one. In both books, the important character is someone for whom the earlier feminist issues are not problems.

The feminist problems that lay at the heart of the early novels appear only on the periphery of The Realms of Gold, where they trouble secondary characters like the hapless Janet Bird. Stranded in a provincial town with an insensitive, spiteful husband, a critical mother, and an infant son, Janet has much in common with Drabble's early heroines. In The Realms of Gold, however, she serves primarily as a foil to her confident and accomplished cousin, Frances Wingate. Although Janet is portrayed with some sympathy, the omniscient narrator's tone is frequently flippant and condescending. After saying that Janet “was not a confident cook, as she was not a confident mother,” the narrator adds parenthetically:

(For Frances Wingate tolled the Christian bells of the church. Happily neglectful, confident mother, no agonizer she over bits of bread salvaged from the carpet, over mud and diseases: haphazard, confident, efficient cook. To them that have, it shall be given. There is no need for Frances Wingate to bury her talents. Stony ground, stony ground, tolled the bells, for Janet Bird.)

Janet's presence indicates Drabble's continued awareness of feminist problems; however, Janet's secondary role and the way she is dealt with by the narrator suggest that Drabble's main concerns now lie elsewhere. “Books reflect one's life,” Drabble has observed; by the time The Realms of Gold was published, she had become well known and highly regarded as a novelist and literary critic; her books were financial as well as critical successes; her three children were becoming independent; and her unsatisfactory marriage to actor Clive Swift had been terminated. The character in The Realms of Gold she most resembles is not Janet Bird but Frances Wingate, the novel's most important figure. Frances triumphs where all Drabble's previous protagonists had faltered. “The golden girl,” she succeeds spectacularly as an archaeologist while raising four well-adjusted children and enjoying a satisfying love life. Even an unhappy marriage does not faze her. Where earlier protagonists had suffered and endured, Frances “refused to submit”; she simply “pursued her own career, her interests, her own self,” and after seven years, she leaves her husband. She apparently never agonizes over her decision and its possible effects on others, as Rose Vassiliou does for years. Frances is not insensitive; rather, in the feminist paradise Drabble has constructed for her, liberation generally has healthy consequences.

Although Frances appears to have everything for which the earlier protagonists longed—a profession, financial security, happy children, a satisfying love life, self-confidence—her privileged state turns out to be a mixed blessing. Freed from the usual problems of being female, she is frequently oppressed by an awareness of life's emptiness. When her children were young, caring for them and worrying about them did much to shield her from such an awareness, but as they grow older, they fill less of her life: the children

had kept her so busy, worrying about them even when she wasn't with them had kept her so busy, guilt about them (not very profound, she had to admit) had occupied the surface reaches of her being with its endless little squalls and tempests, so that she had hardly had time to worry about herself. … And now it all seemed to be slowing down. They no longer needed her very much, the children. … They were independent, they had learned independence early, the time would come when they would not need her at all. And what would she do then?

Her profession enhances her sense of life's futility and meaninglessness. She sees her career as “a fruitless attempt to prove the possibility of the future through the past.” As an archaeologist, she seeks “golden worlds from which we are banished,” but she finds that “they recede infinitely, for there never was a golden world, there was never anything but toil and subsistence, cruelty and dullness.” “What for, what for,” Frances asks herself. “What is it for, the past, one's own or the world's.” She finds no answer, only pragmatic ways of dealing with her despair. Ironically, her most common tactic is to “cure depression by work”: “she had clung to activity and movement as an escape, and on the whole her remedy had worked: she had been able to evade the effects of the sickness, if not the sickness itself.” On occasion, her despair prevails over all her efforts to subdue it: “the absolute futility of all human effort struck her in all its banal, heavyweight, unanswerable dullness.”

As despondent as Frances becomes, she always manages to weather her bouts of depression and survive, but Drabble apparently feels drawn to explore the notion of life's meaninglessness further than she permits her surrogate character to go. The Realms of Gold includes another character, Frances' favorite nephew, Stephen Ollerenshaw, whose brooding over life's ugliness and futility finally leads him to kill himself and his infant daughter. The conditions of human life appall Stephen: “he had read medical textbooks, constantly, with horror, shocked by the catalogue of all the illnesses that flesh is heir to. And the medical textbooks didn't mention road accidents, fires, lightning flashes, falling meteors, and all the other likely and unlikely causes of accidental death.” Ironically, he turns to Frances to help him find meaning in life. He asks her: “How can you possibly imagine … that the things you do are worth doing?” Not surprisingly, Frances can offer him no satisfactory answers. His despondency increases, and at last he becomes convinced that “it was better to be dead than alive”:

Being alive was sordid, degrading, sickly, unimaginable: to struggle on through another fifty years, tormented by fear and guilt and sorrow, was a fate nobody should ever embrace. That others did was not his affair. Man had been created sick and dying: for seventy years he feebly struggled to avoid his proper end. There was something overwhelmingly disgusting about man's efforts, against all odds, to stay alive. One spent one's life in inoculating oneself, swallowing medicaments, trying to destroy disease, and all to no end, for the end was death.

Although Frances is at first devastated by Stephen's suicide, she comes to understand and accept it: “He had had the revelation she had always been denied, which she had glimpsed so often in the distance. It was a revelation that she did not want at all. She would continue to live, herself. He had spared her, and taken it all upon himself.” The many parallels between Frances and Drabble make Frances' attitude toward Stephen's suicide especially significant.

Like Drabble's earlier protagonists, Frances is resilient, a survivor: however grave her problems or her despair, her life instincts prevail. She does not understand why she has such instincts and Stephen does not. A decade earlier in The Garrick Year, motherhood made the difference between Emma Evans and her suicidal friend, Julian, but The Realms of Gold yields no such simple explanation. Moreover, the ability to survive is here defined as a negative rather than a positive quality—it is the denial of a revelation. Frances implies that Stephen's view of life is closer to the truth than her own.

Frances ultimately backs away from the pursuit of truth: “She did not want to know, she did not want to understand, she turned away. She could not believe in the resurrection, or in the revelation, and anything more sinister she did not wish to comprehend.” Her concerns are existential and pragmatic. Although Drabble has described existential thought as “a very inadequate way of looking at life,” Frances' outlook has much in common with the existential views of Hemingway and Camus. She might say along with Jake Barnes, “I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live with it.” For Frances, like Dr. Rieux, human mortality is “the sentence of death” which threatens to render all accomplishments futile. Frances resolves finally to live each moment as fully as she can: “she lay there with him, perishing and fading, it was true, but who cared, who cared, if one can salvage one moment from the sentence of death let us do so, let us catch at it.”

In spite of Stephen's suicide and Frances' frequent musings on the meaninglessness of life, Drabble is apparently unwilling to allow the novel to end pessimistically. She concludes instead with a happily-ever-after relationship between Frances and her lover, Karel, and an ostensibly auspicious marriage between Frances' daughter and Karel's son that ignores the unrelievedly bleak portrayal of first marriages throughout the novel. While this ending, which Drabble herself has called “an element of the fairy story. at work,” may contradict the novel's pessimism, it does not dispel it.

That pessimism also pervades Drabble's most recent novel, The Ice Age. Here she creates a protagonist even further removed than Frances from female limitations: Anthony Keating is a moderately wealthy male Oxford graduate, a television producer turned real-estate speculator. Like Frances, he has had an unhappy first marriage and has found a new, far more satisfying lover. From the perspective of Drabble's early heroines, Anthony would seem a fortunate man but, like Frances, is oppressed by life's meaninglessness. At first, Anthony's malaise seems to stem from an unfulfilling career in television. Bored, he wakes up in the middle of the night thinking, “Is this it?” Even after he discovers the excitement of property speculation and development, he still is not content. He remains terrified of boredom: “He wondered why there was so little recognition in the world of the possibility of profound, disabling, terrifying boredom. … Like fear of death, it was not supposed to exist. Perhaps, because if one admitted it, one would never have the courage to live on at all.” Like Frances, he combats his fear with constant activity; when he lets up, “nothingness would yawn suddenly at him, worse than the prospect of a violent death.” He is struck by “the emptiness of his success.” Significantly, both he and Frances are drawn to Shelley's “Ozymandias”—especially the sardonic line, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Once again, the novel's pessimism is not limited to the main character. Alison Murray, Anthony's lover, gives up her acting career to devote her life to her second daughter, Molly, born with cerebral palsy. When Alison realizes that Molly can live without her, she sees her own life as meaningless and suffers a nervous breakdown. As in The Realms of Gold, motherhood no longer brings salvation. Stephen Ollerenshaw's morbid reflections on life and death are echoed by Anthony's former classmate and Oxford professor, Linton Hancox, who finds the modern world so distasteful that he considers killing himself and contemplates with approval the suicide of one of his students: “Everybody had remarked piously that it was a tragic waste but Linton did not agree. … Much better to die young than to struggle through the process of aging and disillusion.” Drabble further broadens the scope of the malaise by continually setting up parallels between the despondent state of the individual characters and the state of contemporary Britain. Just as Alison feels herself “held in some cold grip” from which she prays to be released, so “a huge icy fist, with large cold fingers, was squeezing and chilling the people of Britain, that great and puissant nation, slowing down their blood, locking them into immobility, fixing them in a solid stasis, like fish in a frozen river.”

Though the protagonists of The Realms of Gold and The Ice Age are considerably more successful than their earlier counterparts, these recent novels give voice to a despair over the meaninglessness of life rarely heard earlier. However painful, the earlier characters' struggles at least gave shape and substance to their lives. Drabble's latest novels suggest that if, like Frances and Anthony—and Margaret Drabble?—we overcome the obstacles between us and “success,” we may find ourselves staring despondently into the void, asking with Anthony, “Is this it?” or with Frances, “What for, what for?”

Fundamentally, these are religious questions, and Drabble gives increasing indication that she is moving toward, or at least considering, a religious answer. The “salvation” that earlier characters find in an acceptance of womanhood—Emma and Rosamund in motherhood, Jane in sexual surrender—no longer suffices. “What can I do to be saved?” Rose asks in The Needle's Eye. Her answer lies in old-fashioned virtuous behavior—doing the right thing, sacrificing her own interests for the good of others. Drabble has said that, through Rose, she was “trying to explore … the possibility of living, today, without faith, a religious life.” Drabble admits, however, that such a life “does … suppose a purpose: indeed, it supposes the existence of God.” In the novel, Rose prays to a God she is not at all sure exists, but according to Drabble's later comments, “Rose, like Bunyan, is prepared to make a bet on the existence of God.” Frances Wingate is not prepared to make such a bet. The only thing that ultimately makes life worth living for Frances is human love, which she speaks of as “part of a salvation so unexpected.” Even as Drabble creates this wholly secular salvation, she has reservations about its sufficiency. Frances describes love as “the last resort, the last deliverance, for those who could not aspire to the holy love of God.”

Her statement anticipates the tentative resolution Anthony arrives at in The Ice Age. A non-believer who regards God as “an illusion,” he strives to find secular satisfaction first through his work and then through love. The peace he seeks eludes him, and he finds himself thinking, “I do not know how man can do without God,” and the thought astonishes him:

It was such an interesting concept that he stopped in the roadway, like Paul on the way to Damascus: not exactly felled by the realization, for alas, faith had not accompanied the concept. But it stopped him in his tracks, nevertheless. He stood there for a moment or two, and thought of all those who accept so readily the nonexistence of God, who find such persuasive substitutes, such convincing alternative sanctions for their own efforts.

Anthony's words seem to look back to Frances and her faith in human love. Significantly, at the end of The Ice Age, Anthony abandons “the empty private dream that he and Alison once shared, of peace and love.” Sentenced to six years in a Balkan labor camp for alleged espionage, Anthony begins writing a book about “the nature of God and the possibility of religious faith”; he is determined “to justify the ways of God to man.”

A reviewer has expressed uncertainty about Drabble's intentions at the end of the novel: “It is not entirely clear whether Drabble imagines this ‘possibility of religious faith’ without irony.” Certainly, some statements seem to invite a tongue-in-cheek reading, as when Drabble writes: “The absence of drink, sex, warmth, and human affection has concentrated his mind wonderfully.” On the whole, however, the conclusion has a quiet dignity and seriousness. The uneven tone suggests that Drabble herself may be unsure how fully she endorses Anthony's turning to God. Like the fairy-tale marriages at the end of The Realms of Gold, Anthony's religious awakening and the contrived circumstances under which it occurs may testify primarily to Margaret Drabble's reluctance to allow her vision of meaninglessness to prevail.


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Margaret Drabble 1939-

British novelist, critic, biographer, editor, short story writer, dramatist, journalist, and screenplay writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Drabble's career. See also Margaret Drabble Criticism (Volume 2), and Volumes 3, 5, 8, 10, 22.

One of the first female novelists to take her themes from the growing feminist movement of the mid-twentieth century, Margaret Drabble is considered among the most accomplished British authors of the postwar period. Her novels, in which characters often serve as embodiments of a particular social class or culture, addressed a new category of reader: the college-educated woman confronted with the conflicts between her career and her responsibilities as a wife and mother. A respected contemporary of feminist novelists such as Doris Lessing and Angela Carter, Drabble's interest in social issues confronting British society and, in particular, women have also strongly influenced her work. Each of Drabble's novels isolates and scrutinizes one specific female role—whether wife, mother, daughter, sister, mistress, or career woman—within the context of modern culture. Drabble's most recent fiction is heavily salted with social consciousness as she has continued to expand her focus from the concerns of middle-class, educated women to a variety of political and moral dilemmas. Drabble is also distinguished for her literary scholarship as editor of the Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985) and her biographies of major literary figures such as Virginia Woolf and Angus Wilson.

Biographical Information

Born in 1939, in the industrial city of Sheffield, England, Drabble grew up under the shadow of the Second World War. One of three daughters and a son born to an English teacher and a part-time novelist, Drabble was instilled with the same intellectual curiosity possessed by her parents. Each of the Drabble children would make their mark: one sister, A. S. Byatt, as a noted writer; her other sister as an art historian; and Drabble's brother as a barrister. Like her mother, Drabble attended a Quaker school, then enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge, to pursue studies in literature. At Cambridge, Drabble was influenced by F. R. Leavis, a professor and literary critic who was well known for his efforts to promote a “Great Books” curriculum that excluded such avant-garde authors as the novelist D. H. Lawrence. After graduating from college with honors in 1960, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company for several seasons. She married Clive Walker Swift, also an actor with the company, in 1960. Drabble's dream of an acting career ended when, pregnant with the first of three children, she was forced backstage. At this point she decided to turn her creative energies to writing and, several years later, published her first two novels, A Summer Bird-Cage (1964) and The Garrick Year (1964). Additional award-winning novels followed, including The Millstone(1965), winner of the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Award; Jerusalem the Golden (1967), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Book Prize; and The Needle's Eye (1972), which received the Book of the Year Award from the Yorkshire Post. Drabble was presented with an E. M. Forster Award from the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1973. Over the next decade she published the novels The Realms of Gold (1975), The Ice Age (1977), and The Middle Ground (1980), as well as the collection of short stories Hassan's Tower (1980). In 1982, seven years after her first marriage had ended in divorce, Drabble married the biographer Michael Holroyd. During the late 1980s, Drabble initiated a loosely linked trilogy comprised of The Radiant Way (1987), A Natural Curiosity (1989), and The Gates of Ivory (1991). In addition to her works of fiction, Drabble spent several years re-editing the fifth edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, and has continued to balance her fictional offerings with works of criticism and biography, including studies of William Wordsworth (1966), Virginia Woolf (1973), and personal friend Angus Wilson (1995).

Major Works

Characteristic of Drabble's early novels of the 1960s, A Summer Bird-Cage, The Millstone, and Jerusalem the Golden are semi-autobiographical and link her protagonists to the fictional heroines of such nineteenth-century novelists as George Eliot, Jane Austen, and the Bronté sisters, the last with whom Drabble closely identifies. While A Summer Bird-Cage examines both the female protagonist's relationship with her glamorous married sister and her difficulty in choosing between building a family or a career, Jerusalem the Golden depicts a rural woman's infatuation with the cosmopolitan life of London and her resulting dissatisfaction with her own situation. The only work by Drabble to have been adapted into a film (as A Touch of Love, 1969), The Millstone tells the story of Rosamund Stacey, a shy young graduate student who finds herself caught up in the tide of sexual freedom characteristic of the 1960s. Finding herself pregnant, the result of a one-night stand, the woman finally gives birth and, through the process, realizes how dependent on the conventions of society her survival actually is. Childbirth and sexuality also figure strongly in The Waterfall, (1969) where a young housewife who is ignored by her husband during her pregnancy, develops a loving, supportive relationship with her brother-in-law, who nurses her through the experience and allows her to gain self-esteem.

In The Needle's Eye, which Drabble counts among her favorite novels, the novelist began to experiment with new themes and characters. The publication of The Needle's Eye in 1972 saw Drabble moving away from her home in academe. As she adopted more mature, wide-ranging insights, her protagonists began to attempt to reconcile their personal wealth or good fortune with others in society not so well off. The protagonist, Rose Vassiliou, is an affluent young woman who attempts to gain self-respect by casting off her riches and husband to join the working class in an impoverished section of London. Although her efforts at moral redemption ultimately fail, Rose's idealistic spirit and introspective nature allow her to steer her life's course down a more defined spiritual path. The first novel by Drabble to feature a male protagonist, The Ice Age begins Drabble's illumination of contemporary British society. This centers upon businessman Anthony Keating, who suffers a mid-life crisis while life around him grows increasingly alienating and violent. Similarly, The Radiant Way and its companion novels A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory, while also giving male characters a more prominent role, continue to highlight the corruption of twentieth-century values through the lives of three young women whose youthful idealism about the future is gradually replaced by a distrust of politics as a force for positive change and a cynical acceptance of an unsettled society. The trilogy begins by examining the careers and class attitudes of three middle-aged women who have been friends since college and ends in the unveiling of a serial killer. A Natural Curiosity follows one of the women on her search to discover the psychological origins of the mass murderer, while The Gates of Ivory draws yet another member of the group into the quest for understanding, including an excursion to the “killing fields” of Pol Pot's Cambodia. The continuing story of the three friends—art historian Esther Breuer, psychiatrist Liz Headleand, and outreach worker Alix Bowen—represents the alternate life paths that collectively represent the diversity within Drabble's own generation, now in its middle age. Since the mid-1980s, in novels like The Radiant Way and The Witch of Exmoor (1996), Drabble's work has become international in flavor; in The Witch of Exmoor, for example, characters have links with Guyana, Jamaica, and Denmark, as well as with England. While still classified as realistic, her fiction has also become increasingly postmodern, particularly evident in the frequent use of literary references, symbols, epigrams, and other metafictional techniques that characterize her novels of the 1990s.

Critical Reception

Drabble has achieved great respect as a writer and critic on both sides of the Atlantic. Her dedication to both the craft of fiction writing and sharing her love of literature—accomplished in addition to meeting the demands of her private life—has caused at least one critic to dub her a “role model for modern women.” Her works have consistently been praised for their wry humor, their mannered style, and their uniquely literate approach to the culture of the twentieth century. While early works such as A Summer Bird-Cage and The Garrick Year were criticized for insubstantial characters and thin plots, Drabble's protagonists rang true with many readers who were, like the author, college-educated young mothers in their twenties trying to make sense of their place in society. The Millstone, with its focus on sexual liberation and single parenthood, gained Drabble the title of “the novelist of maternity” from feminist critics, while more mainstream reviewers admired the novel's approach to modern culture as similar in style to that of nineteenth-century writer Henry James. However, Drabble's depiction of women, particularly in The Waterfall, aroused the ire of some feminists due to its underlying premise that a woman might be “saved” from a deteriorating psychological condition such as depression simply through obtaining the love of a man. In many of her early novels, as some critics note, Drabble's embrace of feminism has been perceived as somewhat ambivalent. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the author's feminist concerns gave way to social concerns, The Needle's Eye received criticism for its unorthodox fatalism, while such later works as The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity also drew critical comment as a result of their ambivalence, this time due to Drabble's failure to totally break with her traditional realist approach to fiction writing. These later novels, while appreciated for their ambitious scope, have received criticism for their postmodern narrative experiments and unwieldy incorporation of myriad social, political, and historical issues. Despite such criticism, Drabble is hailed as among the few living writers who continues to embrace the style of nineteenth-century novelists such as Austen, James, and Thomas Hardy. As Drabble bluntly stated to one interviewer, she prefers to participate at the end of a dying literary tradition that she respects rather than to join ranks at the forefront of one she dislikes.

Anne Golomb Hoffman (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Acts of Self-Creation: Female Identity in the Novels of Margaret Drabble,” in Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 21-9.

[In the following essay, Hoffman explores Drabble's depiction of female experience and self-awareness in her novels and the influence of Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing. Commenting on The Middle Ground, Hoffman writes, “the novel itself constitutes for Drabble the opportunity to bring together the public and private, the political and the maternal.”]

At the start of Margaret Drabble's most recent novel, The Middle Ground, we see Kate, the protagonist, sifting through her morning mail, an array of marketing materials, each abusing and exploiting women in its own particular way. Kate's comic despair questions the notion of progress in the face of such flagrant instances of degradation and may well cause us to wonder if the situation of women in the late 1970s is to be the focus of the novel. As Kate herself asks, is she “a special case,” and as such “of little general relevance,” or is she “on the contrary an almost abnormally normal woman, a typical woman of our time, and as such of little particular interest.” The question is playful and perhaps more than a little misleading. For while Drabble will provide a small gallery of women making their way, the “new women,” Kate calls them, she makes no polemical or sociological efforts to categorize or typify; indeed the achievement of this most recent novel rests just in its acceptance of its characters, their actions and conflicts, small resolutions, in their most ordinary and individual sense.

Kate is a journalist, whose articles originate in her situation as divorced mother of three (we hear the resemblance between author and character); Kate has made herself who she is through the act of writing which both expresses her kinship with women, and gives her the additional role of observer. At the time of the novel's opening, however, she is at the point of weariness with herself and her writing. As she remarks to a friend, “I'm as bloody sick of bloody women as you are, I'm sick to death of them, I wish I'd never invented them, but they won't just go away because I've got tired of them. Will they?” Kate chafes in the constraints of her subject matter and indeed her discontent may well serve Drabble as the opportunity to comment on the limitations of some women's writing, which remains mired, obsessively, in the delineation of women's problems, women's work.

Kate's comments capsule some of the dissatisfaction Drabble expressed a number of years before writing The Middle Ground and echo the author's conviction that while one may start out by writing out of one's own situation, this is something of a limitation to be outgrown. For example, after publication of The Ice Age: “I'm on better terms with my own interior life. I don't feel the need to write about it. I'm very interested in the way society works.” Has Drabble indeed shed the more private concerns of femaleness for larger public issues? In what sense is she to be considered (or does she consider herself to be) a women's writer? In The Middle Ground, Drabble explores the life of a woman whose work—writing—is fashioned out of her life, yet Kate does not offer Drabble's self-portrait. Rather, the novel itself constitutes for Drabble the opportunity to bring together the public and private, the political and the maternal.

Susan Gubar has described the closeness of the female artist to her art, the lack of distance that originates in the concept of the female body as artwork. Traditionally, the female body has functioned as the material that is fashioned into art by the male creator (for example, Pygmalion), but one can find the subversion of the traditional notion of art as masculine activity by paying attention to the unnoticed or overlooked areas of female creativity. Indeed Gubar comments on the kind of “revisionary theology” by which late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century women writers were able to “reappropriate and valorize metaphors of uniquely female creativity and primacy.” Drabble is one of that company of writers who restore to the novel the examination of an area of experience that had been disregarded. With a kind of controlled closeness, she incorporates much of herself into her creations, sustaining a semi-ironic awareness of her own maternity as well as that of her characters.

As a writer and as a person, Kate of The Middle Ground is deeply rooted in femaleness, and so cannot dismiss it with witty comment or detached observation. Writing is directly connected to maternity for Kate. Nevertheless, having created herself out of her situation, and having fashioned for herself a role, the question of what is to be next confronts her. A recent abortion expresses her dilemma: she is not to be a mother again, not this time; indeed, Kate is blocked in her life, haunted in her dreams by the image of the child that might have been. Thus at the outset, Kate is moved to consider all the things she is not, but the question remains of what she is to do, how she is to focus her considerable energies.

By the end of the novel this question remains more or less to be answered. On the outside nothing much has changed. The novel ends as a party is about to begin; it is a party that draws together, perhaps only in a physical sense, the persons who have walked through the novel, the various strands of Kate's life, the important relationships and casual encounters of her urban existence. And so it concludes with Kate poised on the threshold, about to descend the stair: “A child calls her from downstairs. The doorbell rings. The telephone also rings. She hears her house living. She rises.” It is surely not too remote an association to invoke the presence here of another literary lady and her party: as her novel ends, Clarissa Dalloway too stands ready to descend the stair and draws into herself the fragile strands of the moment.

In a 1973 tribute to Virginia Woolf, Drabble acknowledges her initial aversion to the writer who was to become for her something of a literary progenitor. Put off by Woolf's reputation as a difficult, even an elitist writer, Drabble could not, she avers, place herself in relation to Woolf. Via the feminist stance she discovered in A Room of One's Own, however, Drabble describes a journey that for her culminated in an act of identification: “And here I sit, in my own room in Bloomsbury, feeling myself uncannily a product of her imagination.” It is with a significant leap of her own sympathetic imagination that Drabble appropriates Woolf for her literary family; in Woolf's novels, she notes, she finds no pictures of businesswomen with freezers and washing machines, nor any of “women novelists with many children, rushing from typewriter to school to butcher … but they were about to be born and she welcomed them.” We have here the recording of a kinship, perhaps more accurately the act of creating a progenitor who, from the distance of time, casts her approving gaze upon one who has come after. Here we find the establishment of the kind of continuum women writers are so often said to have lacked; in the course of acknowledging their differences, Drabble is able to feel also a necessary closeness and support for her own acts of self-creation.

Indeed, in describing what she finds to be Woolf's lasting contribution to the novel, Drabble underlines those qualities which she has grown to achieve in her own prose: “her perceptions of the slightest connections, her lack of interest in a heavy conventional narrative, her passion for the inconsequential psychological detail.” These Woolfian qualities are most to be found in Drabble's more recent work from Realms of Gold to The Middle Ground. She has grown to this point, I think, leaving behind her the propensity to melodrama that structures such novels as The Waterfall and Jerusalem the Golden. Now she offers the kind of glancing, panoramic view of the urban scene that Woolf carried out in Mrs. Dalloway. Kate, at one point in The Middle Ground, looks at the urban landscape from her friend's hospital room and achieves, for the breadth of the moment, the “aerial view of human love, where all connections are made known, where all roads connect.” Such wholeness is something the eye gives to a scene and achieves for the duration of a moment. The perception may well arise from the absorption in all the details of the everyday, so that as Drabble notes of Woolf, daily life takes on “such absorbing interest, so rich in terror and joy, that she needed no other stimulants.”

Is this perhaps a particularly feminine capacity to perceive, indeed, to create the moment? Drabble on Woolf's achievement: “To seize the moments of calm in the very midst of smoke and music and noise and flux—Mrs. Dalloway poised on her staircase to greet her guests; Mrs. Ramsay ladling out soup, endlessly concerned about her family, feeling suddenly the 'still space that lies at the heart of things,’ alone in the midst of company—this is triumph indeed.” Such moments imply not grand resolutions, but acknowledgments and acceptance of the values of kinship, of the values of community, the fragile unities that arise amid the disorder of daily life.

The Middle Ground considers the forms that women's lives take. As a novel, it may well constitute for its author the kind of opportunity that Judith Kegan Gardiner describes—to “define herself through the text while creating her female hero.” Even further, it may offer the woman reader access to an analogous process of empathic identification. In an effort to articulate the spectrum of women's roles here, we can perhaps define polar opposites: at one extreme, the offering of the body as art or ornamental object and, at the other, the function of nurturing. In her investigation of her own past, Kate comes upon the sister of an old school chum who has gone from a flair for the dramatic to become a second-rate film star in cheap movies and who now sits, reified and decaying, amid the emblems of her brief period of success.

Perhaps at a polar opposite is Evelyn, the social worker who moves amid urban chaos, trying to administer some order and warmth, to heal broken families. Possessed of a large measure of insight and professional competence, Evelyn wonders at the kind of necessity that has compelled her to care for the lives of strangers and thinks back, by way of pondering her role, to her early years when each girl at school had to contribute sixpence of her pocket money to something called the Self-Denial Fund. Such precedents, in one form or another, structure early female experience, help to instill the habit of self-sacrifice and may show themselves to be at the root of the vocation of so sophisticated and self-aware a character as Evelyn.

The film star suggests use of the body as emblem, or object to be adorned expensively; Evelyn's role as social worker points to the opposite side of the coin, offering of the body in an act of service. Both hark back to the notion of the female body as ground to be worked. Bouncing somewhere between the two is a young woman, in the novel, who offers a bizarre repudiation of the female body and the nurturing role. This is Irene, who lives with a man and produces a child, but rejects each of these elements of her femininity in her periodic flights to her lesbian friends and in physical abuse of her child. The novel enacts something of a mythic play around these varieties of female experience, a drama that culminates, with ironic appropriateness, in an accident in which Evelyn is seriously injured and for which Irene is responsible.

It is Irene's very repudiation of femaleness that strikes out at Evelyn's kindly nurturance and benevolent interventionism, the novel seems to suggest. Indeed this significance is not lost on Kate and Evelyn, who laugh ruefully at the entanglements into which the instincts of mothering have led them. The human capacity to recoup and even redeem the moment receives its due, however, for it is Evelyn's recovery from the accident that provides the occasion for the party with which the novel concludes. The party as human creation counters the force of the accidental and offers its own tentative assertion of meaning.

The novel traces such a spectrum of women, but concentrates its gaze more on the mothers, “the new matriarchy,” as Kate designates them, with an awareness of the difficulties of single parenting. Here, Drabble wants to say, it is going on, all around us, people making do, women raising children, struggling to make ends meet, not to mention to create themselves. That struggle, that work is what she adds to the novel; her novels are about women in the process of becoming, a process, one would think, that has brought her to where she is. Claiming a development of her own, Drabble says in an interview: “It's true that in my earlier novels I wrote about the situation of being a women—being stuck with a baby, or having an illegitimate baby, or being stuck with a marriage where you couldn't have a job. But I'm less and less interested in that now: one's life becomes wider as one grows older and books reflect one's life. Inevitably.” While her books reflect a growing breadth of concern, this expansion has been achieved within the realm of the ordinary and, in significant ways, through the ongoing concern with the realm of feminine, even maternal, experience. Drabble is, I think, no less concerned with women's situations now, but her concern has altered to produce novels that are less reflective of the obsessions of a single mind.

Drabble's early novels such as The Millstone tend to be monothematic, each with a theme that reflects the mind of the protagonist; one might term these novels of female development. There is a marked contrast between the early and the more recent novels, a contrast having to do in part with the larger sphere of activity and fulfillment that seems to open up for the female protagonists. The early protagonists chafe in a world defined in terms of masculine prerogatives, masculine action. Bright and talented, they either entrap themselves in relationships where their potential for autonomous action is limited or else they try to escape such traps in ways that isolate them from the rewards of human relationship.

One might be reminded here of Patricia Meyer Spacks' discussion in The Female Imagination of power and passivity in nineteenth-century novels by women. Spacks notes that female dependency on a man is a basic fact in these novels, regardless of the attitude that writer or character takes to it. It has been noted, incidentally, that Drabble is flattered by comparisons of her work to George Eliot's, less so by references to Charlotte Bronté; it is perhaps Bronté's preoccupation with obsession, emotion thwarted and intense, that Drabble rejects in herself, has tried to move beyond in her fiction. The pleasure Drabble takes in relationship to Eliot reflects an identification with Eliot's more comprehensive, social portrayal of English life; it is no accident that Middlemarch is subtitled A Study of Provincial Life. In The Ice Age, Drabble attempts a more encompassing sweep; the novel is her state of England book, the national health explored via the rises and falls, the financial ups and downs, the passing political concerns of its characters.

Drabble's early novels have something to say about the problem of passion—problem because the protagonists, women, chafe within the bonds of attachment to one man, living through a man; they reject too the rejection of passion. Passion can create a claustrophobic setting, in which the characters are compressed by the intensity of their feelings. In The Waterfall, for example, we find a tale of obsession, here presented with some significant experimentation with narrative form: the protagonist presents herself in both first and third person. In the third person, Jane takes extraordinary pleasure in endless descriptions of her obsession with James who seems to exist to give form and outlet to her sexuality. Jane and James, her sometimes twin, live out an obsessive fairly tale in which she is the imprisoned maiden; indeed, the narrative locates itself within the constrained world of the fairytale, acknowledging only occasionally the existence of the larger social world. Although an automobile accident falls, like grace, to release Jane from the confinement of her affair with James, it is only with the possibility of this emergence that the novel ends.

While in The Waterfall we are on the inside, only rarely looking out, The Middle Ground, as its title suggests, moves outward to a larger perspective without losing the preoccupation with inner experience. The protagonists of both novels are writers, but Jane suggests the writer at an early stage, hesitant about the place of her work beyond private experience. Kate's writing is of a different order—articles, rather than poems—a more public form, quite in keeping with her outwardly directed nature.

Towards the end of her novel, Kate visits a museum where her attention is caught by a painting titled “Psyche Locked Out of the Palace of Cupid,” which pictures Psyche sitting, large-limbed and abandoned, in “an attitude of despondency.” Why does she not look around her, Kate wonders. “She should look up, and move, and go. The castle of love was a prison, a fortress, a tomb, how could she not appreciate her luck in being locked out, in being safe here in the open air? Let her rise and go.” Kate sees in the picture an emblem of a situation she has left behind. Psyche remains trapped, in Kate's eyes, by her failure of vision; she remains trapped in masculine definition of her universe, so that she can only sit on the beach and mourn, unaware of the life around her. It is as if Kate had looked back into the world of the early novels and seen Jane trapped in her erotic relationship with James, Rosamund of The Millstone trapped in her strenuous evasions of her own erotic nature, Emma of The Garrick Year trapped both in relationship to men and to children. The painting serves emblematically too to suggest the kind of novel Drabble has left behind her—the novel of a female in a male-structured universe, alive only in her passion for the male and in the energy of her repression. “Psyche Locked Out of the Palace of Cupid” describes the problematic of passion without the possibility of release.

It is, of course, in Realms of Gold that Drabble brings together work and questions of personal relationship through her protagonist, Frances Wingate. The novel moves with Frances, from conference on archaeology to London kitchen, encompassing the variety of women's work and allowing in Frances for both scholarly breadth and maternal concern. The novel has been criticized by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese for its failure to explore female identity. Fox-Genovese sees in Drabble's female protagonists generally a repudiation of feminine being, one which culminates perhaps in Frances Wingate and the man she loves, Karel, whose sexually ambiguous names suggest that Drabble is groping for a model of androgyny. One might see here rather a probing from the opposite end of the spectrum of the need for relationship in a woman who has established herself eminently in her profession.

A particular strength of Drabble's in these most recent novels is to raise the issue of relationship (particularly of parent and child) for consideration. We move closer to Frances through her responses to her own mother's professional eminence and cool disregard of her offspring, her brother's alcoholism, her nephew's pain and inability to sustain the defenses necessary for survival in the world, her cousin Janet's narrow and restricted existence. It is the fact of relationship that comes before our consideration, an abstraction that exists only through the various instances that give rise to it, an abstraction that can never be detached from those varieties of human connection.

In a discussion of narrative strategies in Realms of Gold, Cynthia Davis notes that “we must view the narrator as reporting and shaping the tale but not fully controlling it.” She sees the narrator “struggling to give \the story] shape but also to respond to its inherent shape. The story is not just an artifact, but a part of living reality.” Similarly, The Middle Ground acknowledges the arbitrariness of narrative choices, suggesting that the narrator is not simply the ruler of the fictional universe, but rather a somewhat privileged observer, an interested neighbor, caught up in the flow of events. It is important for Drabble to remove omniscience from the catalogue of narrative characteristics: no one can know; one can record, perceive a bit of meaning here or there and call attention to it, but we are all subject to accident. Thus meaning is not, as Fox-Genovese suggests, denied “in favor of the multifarious variety of human life,” but is rather generated out of acknowledgment of that variety, variety which admits of the momentary emergence of a pattern while continuing to assert the primacy and inscrutability of experience.

This ongoing life of the fiction is suggested also in Drabble's use of tenses in The Middle Ground. Kate's crisis, her period of coming to terms with herself, is presented to us in the present tense; Drabble alternates her tenses, filling in the past and moving forward, suggesting thereby that she too is engaged in the act of observing Kate Brewster as she goes through an interlude of self-assessment. In The Middle Ground we have a narrator and, beyond, an author, in extraordinary sympathy with the protagonist.

In this concern with the totality of a woman's experience, Drabble finds important literary kin in Doris Lessing, particularly the Lessing of The Golden Notebook or the early Martha Quest novels. Kate shares with Anna Wulf of The Golden Notebook the acts of self-creation that their authors perceive as central to a woman's experience. Drabble and Lessing both use female friendship as a mode of exploration and both suggest the awareness that women are “living the kinds of lives that women have never lived before,” as Anna puts it in The Golden Notebook; Drabble picks up the phrase and uses it in a 1978 review of Lessing's collected stories, a review which becomes the occasion for her of recording an indebtedness or, put another way, of establishing a literary kinship. Lessing has been, she observes, “both mother and seer. … A difficult role, inviting—as mothers do—as much blame as praise.” Lessing has charted new territory in the novel, has reported, as Drabble puts it, on “an area of experience not yet made available to the general literate consciousness.” As with Woolf, Drabble finds her ancestors; in the act of recording an indebtedness, she defines and confirms her sense of her own territory. Of course it is in the exploration of ordinary experience that Drabble feels close to Lessing and thus she feels quite comfortable reviewing stories that fall into that mode. (When she must acknowledge the apocalyptic side of Lessing's more recent writing, Drabble is less at ease, a discomfort I sense in her explicit refusal to assume a critical stance.)

It is in this area of shared feminine experience that Drabble has worked most effectively, although this kind of concentration has caused her discomfort. Indeed, The Middle Ground achieves significant breadth of concern, but does so by bringing the larger into the smaller, that is, by working through the immediacy of its characters' lives. Issues of urban violence and even international politics are raised through the relationship of people to one another, within the dynamics of friendship and family life.

Drabble is perhaps all the more able to have Kate express her exasperation with “women, bloody women” because she herself has worked through the problem of limitation that “women's writing” poses. In interviews, she stresses the expansion of her own concerns, suggesting that she is less compelled to write of herself, to write out and so resolve herself. But while such growth is indeed apparent in her work, it has not led to impersonality of subject or of viewpoint. Keeping in mind her response to Virginia Woolf as well as to those aspects of Doris Lessing's writing with which she identifies herself, we can see that she has made her way with her literary progenitors as guides, towards a breadth and depth of concern that may begin but does not end with women, and that includes a feeling for the particulars of human relationship as well as for the larger concerns of society.

Principal Works

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A Summer Bird-Cage (novel) 1964

The Garrick Year (novel) 1964

The Millstone [republished as Thank You All Very Much, 1969] (novel) 1965

Wordsworth (criticism) 1966

Jerusalem the Golden (novel) 1967

Isadora (screenplay) 1968

The Waterfall (novel) 1969

The Needle's Eye (novel) 1972

Virginia Woolf: A Personal Debt (criticism) 1973

Arnold Bennett: A Biography (biography) 1974

The Realms of Gold (novel) 1975

The Ice Age (novel) 1977

For Queen and Country: Britain in the Victorian Age (criticism) 1978

A Writer's Britain: Landscape and Literature [photographs by Jorge Lewinski] (history) 1979

Hassan's Tower (short stories) 1980

The Middle Ground (novel) 1980

The Oxford Companion to English Literature [editor; fifth edition] (criticism) 1985

The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature [co-editor; sixth abridged edition, 1996] (criticism) 1987

The Radiant Way (novel) 1987

A Natural Curiosity (novel) 1989

Safe as Houses (nonfiction) 1990

The Gates of Ivory (novel) 1991

Angus Wilson: A Biography (biography) 1995

The Witch of Exmoor (novel) 1996

Lucy Ellmann (review date 22 September 1989)

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SOURCE: “Cupboards Full of Skeletons,” in New Statesman & Society, September 22, 1989, p. 33.

[In the following review, Ellmann offers tempered criticism of A Natural Curiosity.]

Bogmen, wax museums and the excesses that fill the News—in her latest novel, a sequel to The Radiant Way, Margaret Drabble examines why we gawp so pleasurably at these spectacles. Whether natural or not, curiosity encourages personal and global mayhem and yet, she implies, no neighbourhood is healthy or complete without a few twitching curtains.

The Radiant Way was a less complex novel, following the paths of three women who approach the 1980s in every expectation of the rewards to which, having once been undergraduates at Cambridge, they are automatically entitled. A number of parties and partners are endured, as they head towards disaster. But they are able to ignore most signs of the times until, near the end of the novel, Alix finds a severed head in her car.

The story resumes in A Natural Curiosity with some of the odder methods by which Drabble's ageing jetsetters deal with the dark side of the radiant way of life. Forever travelling the M1, these people have a precarious hold on the ground and, unlike all those boring youngsters under 50, have suddenly realised equilibrium is what life's all about. To achieve it, one must confront one's fears. Liz gets herself on telly as an advocate of sexual relationships with children. Her argument is a little hard to follow but would certainly make great TV. Her ex-husband, Charles, goes to the Middle East to rescue someone he doesn't much like from terrorists, whom Charles feels responsible for inciting. He even attempts to read the Koran as penance, but compromises with the New Testament, which he steals from a hotel.

Liz's sister Shirley, the dead-end drudge of the last book, throws her apron to the winds and embarks on a steamy Parisian love affair heaped, by Drabble, with unpleasant physical consequences—sex is an excursion from reality that rarely gets people anywhere. Esther, mercifully absent through most of the novel, occasionally turns up considering marriage to someone respectable. And the dull, dutiful, energetic, non-violent Alix frequently visits the murderer who hacked so many heads off in The Radiant Way but who now languishes somewhat innocently in a Yorkshire prison, studying botany and hoping to hear from his long-lost mama.

They may shop at Waitrose but their cupboards are full of skeletons. The writing is livelier than in the previous book, and Drabble is at her most daring when she gets her characters in private, contemplating gross derelictions of duty—shall I or shan't I acknowledge that my husband has just committed suicide in the garage? Shall I just stay here in the Heathrow Hilton for a week and pretendI've been in the Middle East trying to rescue a kidnap victim from Muslim fanatics? Unfortunately, the main focus of the book is on Alix, whose demon suggests to her merely that she should do a lot of driving and buy a new baggy ethnic dress before earning the right to release a little aggression.

Drabble holds the reader's hand a little too tightly over the dangerous terrain she investigates. Her wordiness gives a sense of comfort and complacency that seems to rule out any great revelations. And the book is also slowed by her occasionally insufferable self-consciousness: “Shirley's behaviour … has been highly unlikely. It astonished me, it astonished her, and maybe it astonished you. What do youthink will happen to her? Do youthink our end is in our beginning … ?” As no space is left for the reader's answers, the interrogation seems a waste of everyone's time.

She's best when she sticks to the job at hand. A minor character, on the verge of madness, prepares a dinner party while contemplating a lump in her breast which she hopes will prove fatal. “She slices an onion, and weeps,” writes Drabble, for once driven to be brief. But usually the deeper issues poke out of the rich tapestry Drabble tirelessly constructs, repulse the author herself and then disappear altogether—making this a rather mild novel about seriously nasty things.

Further Reading

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Bromberg, Pamela S. “Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way: Feminist Metafiction.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 24, No. 1 (Fall 1990): 5-25.

Examines Drabble's deconstruction of plot, narrative presentation, and elements of intertextuality employed to portray the experience of contemporary women in The Radiant Way.

Campbell, Jane. “Becoming Terrestrial: The Short Stories of Margaret Drabble.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction XXV, No. 1 (Fall 1983): 25-44.

Discusses the plot, characters, narrative form, and major themes of Drabble's short stories.

Campbell, Jane. “‘Both a Joke and a Victory’: Humor as Narrative Strategy in Margaret Drabble's Fiction.” Contemporary Literature XXXII, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 75-99.

Explores the narrative and thematic significance of comedy in Drabble's novels.

Grossman, Judith. “What Do You Think Will Happen to Shirley?” New York Times Book Review (3 September 1989): 3.

An unfavorable review of A Natural Curiosity.

Harper, Michael F. “Margaret Drabble and the Resurrection of the English Novel.” Contemporary Literature XXIII, No. 2 (Spring 1982): 145-68.

Discusses Drabble's critical reception, realistic narrative style, and the expression of her artistic and social values.

Hannay, John. “Margaret Drabble: An Interview.” Twentieth Century Literature 33, No. 2 (Summer 1987): 129–49.

Drabble discusses her novels, feminism, contemporary society, and the education of a writer.

Lay, Mary M. “Temporal Ordering in the Fiction of Margaret Drabble.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction XXI, No. 3 (1980): 73-84.

Examines the function of narrative time as a technique to underscore major themes and psychological states in Drabble's novels.

Preussner, Dee. “Talking with Margaret Drabble.” Modern Fiction Studies 25, No. 4 (Winter 1979-80): 563-77.

Drabble discusses the subjects of wealth and community in her fiction, as well as her portrayal of female characters and English settings.

Whitehill, Sharon. “Two for Tea: An Afternoon with Margaret Drabble.” Essays in Literature 11, No. 1 (Spring 1984): 67-75.

Drabble comments on aspects of her novels and her creative process.

Additional coverage of Drabble's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1960 to Present; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 18, 35, 63; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 14, 155; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors Modules; DISCovering Authors 3.0;Major 20th Century Writers; 1, 2; and Something About the Author, Vol. 48.

Henry Fairlie (review date 27 November 1989)

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SOURCE: “Drab Bull,” in The New Republic, November 27, 1989, pp. 40-2.

[In the following review, Fairlie offers unfavorable assessment of A Natural Curiosity.]

It is discouraging to open a novel and find it prefaced by an author's note that reads:

I had not intended to write a sequel \to The Radiant Way], but felt that the earlier novel was in some way unfinished, that it had asked questions it had not answered, and introduced people who had hardly been allowed to speak.

Only a few scattered critics in Britain and America suggested that in The Radiant Way, which appeared in 1987, Margaret Drabble had slipped badly. But she now has her doubts about it, and perhaps also about this sequel, since she adds that she intends to write a third novel, picking up the story of a minor character who has disappeared to Democratic Kampuchea, where we are to follow him. One has been offered, in one's time, more enticing prospects.

In A Natural Curiosity we are escorted back to Drabble's England of the 1980s, again with her three protagonists, the middle-aged friends Liz and Esther and Alix. They were all born in Northam, an imaginary industrial city in Yorkshire, reminiscent of the Sheffield in which Drabble was raised. They went to Cambridge, as Drabble did. Then, still in Drabble's footsteps, they moved to London. They have now, like Drabble, reached their 50s, three professional (emphatically not business) women: Liz is a therapist, Esther is an art historian, and Alix (who has moved back to Northam) has a contrived job that is less important than her obsession with a mass murderer in a nearby prison. In other words, none of them (like a novelist?) really works for an employer, or even with a partner. This gives them at least a sensation of independence.

What are we to make of an experienced novelist who thinks that her autobiography, followed so closely, can breathe life into three characters? Their dissimilarities, perfunctory and mechanical, worn like labels, are not enough to differentiate them clearly, even though (with Esther packed off to Italy) they are now apart. Nor do the distinctions create any tension in their 30-year friendship that might call for an interesting accommodation. In their exchanges—at the end they are brought together again—their voices are interchangeable.

By now we have followed them through 719 pages, from New Year's Eve 1979 to late May 1987, and still we cannot be sure why we were introduced to them in the first place, or what we have learned about or from them. They, like their readers, have also had to struggle with the hobbling repetitiveness of Drabble's writing, the wearying lack of movement in the two novels, and contrivances in the plot that exhaust even a willing suspension of disbelief.

There are reminders of how Drabble used to carry us with her: the lucidity of observation, her exploration of character, and generally the style of her earlier fiction. When A Natural Curiosity opens, Alix is driving across the Yorkshire moors, on a mission to Porston Prison, “as the white mist parted for her. She had the illusion of moving in a small patch of light, her own small pocket of clarity. She took it with her, it moved with her.” To start us off, we could hardly ask for better. We are informed and we are intrigued. Once Drabble would have left it there. Now she piles on five sentences about “The sleeping place of the sun. … As the Ancients put it,” that obliterate the pocket of clarity. Clumps of snowdrops clustered round the swollen bole of a tree: “Their little white heads assemble.” If you have the gift to find a verb of such exact, livening observation, why add, “A promise of spring,” fit for a Hallmark card? The snowdrops are not wanton. They reappear later, now on Alix's desk:

They jostle in their wineglass on their thin stems. She lifts the face of one of them, gazes inquiringly into its intricate green and yellow and white, and lets it fall back. With a sigh, the whole wineglass rearranges itself, with inimitable, once-only grace, to create a new pattern. The flowers shiver and quake into stillness. They cannot fall wrongly. They cannot make themselves into a false shape.

Moment, mood, character, even time of year, in a wineglass.

But read the passage again, deleting “With a sigh” (trite, off-putting); “inimitable” (ditto); “to create a new pattern” (the snowdrops have rearranged themselves); and the final “They cannot make a false shape” (the preceding sentence found just the note on which to end). Each falsifies precisely the point that the snowdrops were making: January, a new beginning, her middle-aged characters possibly rearranging their lives, but all too likely to fall wrongly. Now Drabble squashes the snowdrops.

Why do these two assertive and ambitious novels, uncomfortably joined like Siamese twins, make themselves into a false shape? She places many hurdles in her way, but the main obstacle lies in the nature of the ambition. In all the forced artifice of plot, character, image, and, alas, the actual writing, one feels the author gritting her teeth to deliver the Great English Novel of the 1980s. The politics; the class divisions, the unemployed, the homeless; the North, the South; the inner cities, the suburbs; the greed, the crime; the shimmer of the affluent, the drudgery of the neglected; the culture, the generation gap (still?); the crumbling of standards, the attrition of loyalties; the bankruptcy, the futility; and behind it all, the surrender of empire.

It is Thatcher's England—with, to drive the point home, a few limp references to “the fleshpots of Reaganland.” Got it? For Drabble is not going to move on until she is sure we have got it. All this and more (“the extraordinary mixture of whining vote-beseeching, arse-licking vulgarity, demotic stupidity, intellectual pretension, moral confusion, and entertainment-packaged pseudo-seriousness”) is to be shown through the three protagonists, along with the minor characters now brought forward to have their say, and a clutter of new ones—a nuisance to the novel, every one of them.

Almost mute in The Radiant Way, Liz Headleand's sister, Shirley Harper, is now made present, reflecting on the “dull despair” of her marriage:

The house ticks over, Shirley ticks over, Shirley-and-Cliff tick over. … It all seems a little unreal, but then, the country at large seems a little unreal too. It is hard to tell if it is ticking over or not. Are we bankrupt or are we prosperous?

There follows still another of Drabble's catalogs of England's woes. Or are these signs of prosperity? Got it? Are the emotional lives of the characters bankrupt or prosperous? Got it. This finger-wagging gets in the way of the characters, and between them and the reader. They are denied all volition, and we are denied our own to find them, and what they represent, for ourselves.

The marriages and ineffectual liaisons of Liz, Alix, Esther, and the rest are all, even those that are beginning, in various stages of disillusion, lifelessness, or final disintegration. Even Alix's steady (second) marriage to Brian, an “unreconstructed socialist,” survives largely because she is so enthralled by herself that it is of little consequence to her that she finds Brian a stick in the mud. Her marriage is another of her good causes, calling for a patient social worker. Beyond themselves, they like or care about few others. Their relationships with their children are mostly listless, cold, or actively hostile. It is even hard to be confident that they are deeply fond of or interested in each other.

So what impels them, which might make us care, as they re-examine their lives in middle age? We are directed to the title:

Attractive danger. Natural curiosity. Unnatural curiosity. Charles Headleand cannot resist pursuing a visa for Baldai. Alix Bowen cannot resist traveling to see her murderer across the lonely moor … and Liz Headleand will not be able to resist an invitation to appear in a contentious debate on television.

Toward the end we find Liz:

Her curiosity is at a low ebb. It occurs to her that not only may she die before she satisfies it, but that she may also lose it before she dies. Curiosity has kept her alive. What if she were to lose it now? She has not the energy to move. … She yawns. … She nods, her eyes close, she dozes.

(We're with her there.) Curiosity is a thin motive to explain three protagonists, or to sustain our interest in them. If they cannot resist what they choose to do, if they have been made by their creator so will-less, who cares?

The England they represent is so unremittingly dismal, hopeless, and hapless that it carries no conviction, even for a reader who laments much of what Thatcher is, stands for, and has done. Marriage and family are here the analogues of the discordance of English society in the 1980s. In The Radiant Way we were introduced to the family as the “source of murder, battering, violence.” Now we discover that Liz and Shirley's father committed suicide, and Shirley's daughter Celia is at Oxford, ignoring pleas from her family to get in touch because her father is ill. “The cold dull breath of home cannot touch her here.” As in the first novel, sex fares no better (except in one faintly warm encounter, when Shirley vanishes after not reporting that her husband has—of course—committed suicide, meets a stranger on the cross-Channel ferry, and conducts a brief romance with him in Paris). Liz lunches with a friend who tells her he is getting married:

She wishes Ivan and Alicia well, yes, of course she does, but how can she, at her age, have any faith in their vision of married bliss … ? Unless they are freaks, who have escaped the human condition altogether, one can be certain that grief, boredom, infidelity or disillusion await Mr and Mrs Ivan Warner …

In this bleakness, the characters are carrying the burden not only of England through the 1980s, but of England through 2,000 years. In The Radiant Way we were introduced to Cartimandua, the Queen of the Brigantes, who betrayed her people to the Romans, and we are reintroduced to her on page ten of the sequel, along with Druids, Stonehenge, the Bog Man of Buller and, inexplicably, “Onychomys Leucogaster, the stubborn stocky mouse of Utah (see study by L. D. Clark),” which pops up later, for no discernible reason. Cartimandua, the Brigantes, the Celts, and the rest, infest the new novel, all to suggest that the

treacherous Celtic Queen, gold-torqued, magnificent, betraying her people for the civilization and comforts of the Romans … \could be made] topical, surely—a hint in the portrayal of Cartimandua of the Prime Minister, duplicitous Britannia, striking deals with a powerful American, abandoning the ancient culture of her own folk? Those stiff hair styles would surely lend themselves well to allusion, to analogue.

Mrs. Cartimandua Thatcher. Got it? In case we are slow, Alix is forced by her creator to take down her “battered old purple Penguin Tacitus” to find that the ancient Britons were led on to their enslavement by the comforts of Roman life: “Coca-Cola, McDonald's, blue jeans, jacuzzis … yes, that was surely what Tacitus had in mind.” Surely.

Drabble won't let go of her portentous analogy. From the ancient Britons (“Hadn't they burned people alive in wicker cages?”) she ransacks history and mythology for the symbolism of violence on which she relies to give a jolt to an otherwise stationary plot. The Radiant Way ended with the identification and the arrest of the Horror of Harrow Road, of whom we had been hearing, off and on, for his ungentlemanly habit of cutting off women's heads. He was discovered to be Esther's upstairs neighbor (an unassuming man, except when severing heads), who was taken away by the police while she and Liz and Alix chattered downstairs. This contrivance was rendered more implausible by the fact that the Horror's final victim was a former prison inmate, Jilly Fox, whom Alix had befriended in her social work, whose head he deposited in Alix's car.

It is to visit the imprisoned murderer P. Whitmore that we find Alix driving in her “small pocket of clarity,” cheerfully singing, “O come, O come, Ema-a-anuel, Redeem thy captive I-i-israel.” She is bearing as a Christmas present “a new, illustrated book about Roman Britain and the resistance of the Brigantes,” because “P. Whitmore was very interested in the ancient Britons, and knew quite a lot about prehistory.” Credulity is out the window, again. Eventually Drabble concedes that “Alix Bowen has got Roman Britain and severed heads on the brain.”

Severed heads of all kinds are strewn through the novel: from archaeology, Medusa's, in the Italian paintings Esther studies, even that of a bull mastiff owned by Whitmore's mother, whom Alix tracks down in a scene of ghoulish improbability. Violence becomes the only symbolism, of England and of people's lives, that Drabble seems able to reach. “Life is more like an old-fashioned, melodramatic novel than we care to know,” we are told. Drabble has written one, without the zest and even conviction of the authentic ones.

If Drabble wished to portray Thatcher's England with the banality of evil, it would have to be done with a good deal more subtlety, indirectness, and variousness than she here seems able to summon. Equally, if we are to be persuaded, as she sometimes seems to intend, that only the mad are sane in the high-tech England, “clean and sparkling,” that the solicitor Clive Enderby imagines for Northam, we can, at this late date, only yawn.

Still, the reader feels that such questions as the novel has asked have not been answered. Drabble herself appears to think so, because at the end, in a section marked off with its date at the top, Liz and Alix and Esther are brought together in Italy to explain it all to us. Liz is in the process of taking back Charles, after he has drifted unsuccessfully from woman to woman. (Few of Drabble's men are successful, in their businesses or the rest of their lives: poor husbands, poor fathers, poor lovers.) Esther has ended her lesbian relationship in Italy. Alix still bears, effortlessly, with Brian. Of her obsession with her murderer, Alix says: “So, I haven't proved anything. I've just confirmed my own prejudices about human nature. I've been traveling round in a closed circuit,” like the novel. “Me and my murderer together.” A natural curiosity? We've been put through it all to find that?

But Esther suddenly announces: “I'm coming back to London. I'm going to buy a flat. In London. That's the plan.” (We have no idea of what she learned in Italy, or learned from her lesbianism, or of why her creator wanted to impose either on her):

Liz and Alix express their satisfaction at this decision. … “England's not a bad country,” says Liz. … “No,” says Alix. “No” … “England's not a bad country. It's just a mean, cold, ugly, divided, tired, clapped-out post-imperial, post-industrial slag-heap covered in polystyrene hamburger cartons. It's not a bad country at all. I love it.”

And they laugh—what else can they do?

The reader has more options.

Brina Caplan (review date 4 December 1989)

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SOURCE: “What Really Happened,” in The Nation, December 4, 1989, pp. 688-90.

[In the following review, Caplan offers unfavorable assessment of A Natural Curiosity.]

It used to be that Margaret Drabble treated her audience with the same deferential consideration Victorian novelists showed their Dear Readers. But in A Natural Curiosity, her ninth novel, she doesn't mind saying outright that readers get on her nerves. When she feels them pressuring her for plot resolution or consistent characterization, she starts hurling whatever's handy. “I wonder,” she growls at one point, “if those of you who object to the turn that Shirley's life has taken are the same as those who objected to its monotony in the first place. If you are, you might reflect that it might be your task, not mine or hers, to offer her a satisfactory resolution.” And no more out of you, Dear Reader, unless you want a typewriter upside your head.

Besides authorial snarling, interruptions include moments of muttering, self-referential jokes, a little essay on Arnold Bennett's virtues as a novelist, and tossed-off asides. A Natural Curiosity is not, moody Maggie warns, “a political novel. … No, not a political novel. More a pathological novel, a psychotic novel”; then, pulling herself together, “Sorry about that. It won't happen again. Sorry.” Even so, between fits she continues to provide the kind of tidy novel we've come to expect from her: witty dialogue, a tightly webbed plot, men and women whose concerns are contemporary but who have the feel of characters drawn from old-time British fiction. Drabble's last novel, The Radiant Way, dealt with life choices made by three bright, ambitious women who met in the 1950s as Cambridge undergraduates. In that book, the character for whom you are now responsible, Shirley, was seen only briefly, sharing a bleak, deadening working-class childhood with her sister, Liz. Unlike her aspiring sister, Shirley made an escape through sexy adolescence and early marriage. As a middle-aged woman, though, she finds herself in A Natural Curiosity responsible for a half-mad mother, two beefy sons and a closemouthed, resentful daughter. Eventually, the children go off, the mother dies, the husband commits suicide (yet another victim of Thatcherite economics) and Shirley, free again to choose, impulsively runs away to Paris.

By contrast, her sister, Liz, enjoys the luxury of speculation. “I want to know what really happened,” she tells a friend, “at the beginning. When human nature began. … And I know I'll never know. But I can't stop looking.” A fashionable London psychiatrist with grown children and a divorced second husband on the threshold of return, Liz must decide whether she can bear to probe the family mystery her bizarre, agoraphobic mother had concealed—the identity and fate of her own (and Shirley's) biological father.

Liz's best friend, Alix, is also trying to puzzle out a mystery. When she and her husband both lose their jobs to education budget cuts (she taught in a women's reformatory), they must leave London for a depressed industrial town in Yorkshire. There Alix takes to visiting a nearby maximum security prison and an utterly isolated inmate whom she calls her “murderer.” She wants to know what made Paul Whitmore kill, then ritualistically decapitate, a series of women, including one of her former students. Is Paul an aberration, a historical product or simply evil? “He is like a theorem,” explains the anonymous narrator at the beginning of the novel, smoothly entering Alix's stream of thought:

When she has measured him, she will know the answer to herself and to the whole matter. The Nature of Man. Original Sin. Evil and Good. It is all to be studied, there, in captive P. Whitmore.

This novel is also crowded with secondary characters: a solicitor-land developer dreaming of grass-girded industrial parks (Astroturf will do), an ancient poet with a recently resurrected reputation, adulterous suburbanites, media mavens, a beleaguered socialist politician and, of course, the painfully growing or already grown-up children of the questing women. Like a Victorian novelist, Drabble loves to pack the stage. Nineteen eighty-seven in England, the narrator warns us early on, “will be a psychotic year, the year of abnormality, of Abuse, of the Condom.” The commonweal is also in some respects a character.

How seriously does Drabble take the emotional devices and physical violence she identifies as typifying the England of 1987? Sometimes she seems urgent. At one point, the narrator sits Alix down in front of a TV set in order to make vivid nine newsworthy acts of cruelty—from a murder committed by friends as a joke to a skinhead's torturing of a homeless person for cash. “Spot the one invented story, if you can,” she proposes dourly. “No prize offered.”

This is an attention-getting moment. But it rapidly comes to seem just another instance of grouching, its effect dissipated when the narrator speeds on to other matters. Drabble never commits her narrator to a slow, sinking down through the surface of a character's consciousness. Missing is the step-by-step constriction of available choice that in, say, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye makes sense of the violent rape of a child by her father. Missing is the evolving capacity for violence that convinces us a Dickens or Dostoyevsky murderer is always more human than not. Because Drabble seeks out levels of observation that put characters at a far distance, they diminish in importance, and their scurryings and activities seem grotesque. Violence remains something far off, referred to or talked about. Alix and Liz speculate about cruelty in the ancient world or recall the death exacted from the Roman poet Lucan. Even Paul the murderer, it turns out, has a scholarly interest in those British tribes that mixed a bit of decapitation with their religion.

Consequently, the novel fails whenever it is time to explain why a character has acted violently. From the distance Drabble maintains, such an act seems random rather than characteristic or, as it might appear from the perpetrator's perspective, inevitable. Paul's compulsions are not felt to result from his mother's insane cruelty; they are merely ascribed to this cause. When Drabble shows us his macabre, dog-torturing mother, the suspense rivals moments in a Hitchcock movie. Without doubt it's a neat trick. But it is, unfortunately, a trick. Like Anthony Perkins's taxidermied mother in Psycho, Mrs. Whitmore is a prop, wheeled out to spook us into belief. We leave her knowing no more than we knew at the outset about what it is like to be Paul or how, among all the possible actions for securing safety and redress, Paul's selection narrowed precipitately down to murder.

“One wants a theory that fits all occasions,” says Liz at the end of the novel, “but there isn't one.” It's pretty late in the day for Liz, who is supposedly a psychotherapist, to be discovering the inefficiency of explanations that ignore the particular in favor of the general. Psychotherapy, after all, consists of the disclosure of idiosyncratic meanings, the deeply personal ways we make sense of our experience. Of course, many novelists also seek out these depths, though so far Margaret Drabble has not been among them. She has preferred to remain on the surface, perfecting a display of incident and dialogue. Here, once again, she presents a group of initially credible characters who neither develop nor deepen over the course of the narrative.

She's done only what she can do easily, which frustrates success. More is needed, more and different: more understanding of her characters' crotchets, motives and ideas, and a different, layered treatment of their development. Were Drabble to sink within the experience of her characters as they evolved, she also might be less ticked off about her job. Who, after all, wants to keep on polishing that same unrelievedly expansive surface? For Drabble, down could be the way out.

Harrier F. Bergmann (essay date Summer 1990)

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SOURCE: “‘A Piercing Virtue’: Emily Dickinson in Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 181-93.

[In the following essay, Bergmann explores similarities between Emily Dickinson's poetic persona and the self-conscious heroine of Drabble's The Waterfall. According to Bergmann, both share preoccupations with love and mortality, often expressed in the form of “paradox, imagery, irony, and reversal.”]

The sense of working within a tradition is part of what the woman writer must have to establish that sense of individuality and autonomy that is necessary to create art. If, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar tell us, “the creative ‘I AM’ cannot be uttered if the ‘I’ knows not what it is,” then part of the way the “I” defines itself is through its identification with other, similar “I”s. Understanding women's influence on women, Elaine Showalter tells us, “shows how the female tradition can be a positive source of strength and solidarity as well as a negative source of powerlessness; it can generate its own experiences and symbols which are not simply the obverse of the male tradition.”

The experiences and the symbols of women's literature have been shared by women authors across centuries. Emily Dickinson only listened in on this conversation among the women authors of her century; although she read George Eliot, the Brontés, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, they knew nothing of her. In the twentieth century, however, her importance is thoroughly acknowledged. The narrative strategies embodied in the tiny plots of her poems, her thematic concerns of love, death, renunciation and redemption, and her control of language are examined, shared, and rewritten by Margaret Drabble in The Waterfall, a novel in which Dickinson seems almost as much incarnation as she is influence.

Margaret Drabble's novels often seem to spin around themes clearly announced by their titles: The Needle's Eye is about the divestiture of riches; Realms of Gold is about the discovery of hidden treasure, personal and public. Allusive and literate, each Drabble text has as its donn‚e a previous text, a book of the Bible or a piece of poetry that it rewrites. The Waterfall takes its theme from a poem by Emily Dickinson that appears as its epigraph:

Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise.
Three times, 'tis said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode,
Where hope and he part company—
For he is grasped of God.
The Maker's cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.

The poem speaks of the supposed three times that a drowning man attempts to save himself before going under and comments ironically that although we are supposed to want to go to God by dying, in fact we make every effort not to do so. The twentieth-century novel that follows this nineteenth-century epigraph is structured by water imagery and includes several important images of waterfalls, literal and figurative, but the Dickinson poem provides more than simply a clue to theme and image in the novel. It provides us with a way to understand the novel's heroine-narrator, who bears a striking similarity to the persona of Emily Dickinson's poetry. More important, it tells us much about the novel's mode of narration and about its language.

Jane Gray, the heroine of The Waterfall, is self-consciously the author of her own text, and it is as an author that she refers to those she recognizes as predecessors. Like Charlotte Bronté, she tells us, she has created a lover made of prose, living in “a Brussels of the mind”; like George Eliot, she has created a heroine (who is also her self) who “had a cousin called Lucy, as I have, and like me she fell in love with her cousin's man.” She compares her status-conscious family to families in Jane Austen's novels, although Jane Gray deplores some of Austen's solutions—“What can it have been like,” she demands, “in bed with Mr. Knightly?” At the end of her novel, she contemplates having her lover suffer permanent injury so that she can keep him “as Jane Eyre had her blinded Rochester.” The novelists she mentions have indeed created plots not unlike hers, but Jane, we find out, is a poet, and there is a foremother of whom she appears perfectly unaware, and that is Emily Dickinson.

Told in both the first person and the third person, The Waterfall is the story of Jane Gray's love affair with her cousin Lucy's husband, James. The affair begins a few days after the birth of Jane's daughter and continues until it is discovered by Jane's estranged husband, Malcolm, and reported to Lucy after Jane and James have a car wreck on the way to an illicit vacation. Jane is reclusive, agoraphobic, crazily introspective, and she receives James as the savior of her sanity and as the object of a most intense passion. Despite her conviction that even the smallest task is overwhelming, she is a published poet, and by the end of the book has escaped her neuroses enough to resume writing poetry, to clean her house, and to pick up the ends of her life and go on with it.

Drabble allows her first/third-person narrator an awareness of all her real and fictional literary precursors—Charlotte Bronté, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Maggie Tulliver, Emma Woodhouse—except the one she most resembles: Jane Gray is Emily Dickinson's poetic persona reimagined by Margaret Drabble. It is for this reason that Jane can acknowledge her ties to other literary heroines as well as to other novelists (aware as she is that she is both author of and character in her own novel) but never to the poetic mother whose epigraph poem sets the major image for the novel. Jane's central concerns—love, death, renunciation—are Dickinson's concerns, and her interior life (for certainly not the externals of her life, lived as it is in contemporary Britain) is correspondent with that intense interior life lived by the persona of Dickinson's poetry. These concerns, moreover, are figured forth in the art produced by each speaker by the same techniques of paradox, imagery, irony, and reversal. The two speakers hold point after point in common—their rejection of traditional salvation, their identification of lover with savior, their fascination with death and exaltation of love, their Calvinistic sense of doom, even Dickinson's solitary “white election” and Jane's daughter of solitude, Bianca. Read this way Drabble's novel is a palimpsest whose story, that of a contemporary woman writer imagining herself as character, can only be understood when we see inscribed as its lost text the character of Emily Dickinson as imagined in her poems.

Both the Dickinson persona and Jane Gray practice what I would call Dickinson renunciation, that special sort in which limitless desire is reduced to satiety by the willed spurning of the desideratum before it is ever offered. Value thus is transferred from the object of desire to the act of desiring and finally to lack itself. Probably the most familiar poem in which Emily Dickinson propounds this notion is “Success is counted sweetest,” in which by using the imagery of battle she elaborates the value of failure in teaching the true nature of success. More often, she uses the imagery of food to express the value of extreme desire going unfulfilled. The speaker in 579, “I had been hungry, all the Years—,” imagines looking through windows at a banquet and concludes that

… hunger—was a way
Of Persons outside Windows—
The Entering—takes away. …

Entrance to the feast threatens that her desire might be satisfied, and the narrator discovers that it is better to hunger than to have. Again, in poem 1282, the speaker questions the value of satisfying desire:

Art thou the thing I wanted?
Begone—My Tooth has grown—
Supply the minor Palate
That has not starved so long—
I tell thee while I waited
The mystery of Food
Increased till I abjured it
And dine without Like God—

Her desire is so great that the only satisfaction possible is renunciation of the food; the object of desire loses all intrinsic value, and instead value comes from desiring and renouncing. Renunciation, in turn, paradoxically empowers the speaker; she discovers not loss but gain in lack and is raised to the status of God by embracing absence itself.

Jane Gray learns abstention and renunciation in her parents' home where she gets no psychic nourishment from either her father or her mother, who both practice walking “the delicate line between flattery and self-aggrandizement” at the prep school of which her father is headmaster. She learns self-denial in response to her mother's lived lies, such as the assertion of the importance of “family warmth … she, who flinched from any physical approach,” who “rejected me at my sister's birth and had disliked me ever since.” The hypocrisy she reads in her parents' lives breeds in her a sense of alienation from their world, and as a child she blames herself for living “on the dim outskirts of their world, my life a mockery, a parody of theirs.” The result is alienation from herself: “It seemed in a sense, better to renounce myself than them. …”

In the face of this hypocrisy Jane devises ways to hide her desires and persists in these ways into her adulthood:

… I declined a drink, to my own surprise; I could not resist trying to outwit my mother at her own abstemious game, as though only by such deceitful gestures could I protect and color my true desires. If I declined even the permitted measure, how could they know how much and what I really wanted?

Fearful, like Dickinson, of the enormity of her desire, she makes a virtue of showing none at all. Based on her observations of the hypocritical world around her, she constructs a self to cloak her real self, and waits trembling for her deceit to be discovered, “knowing that if they could see me as I truly was they might never recover from the shock.”

Losing faith in the adults around them, both Jane Gray and Emily Dickinson lose faith in the God in whom those adults say they believe. Both find only terror in the anthropomorphic God proposed by the hypocrites. Jane says:

They believed, or so they said, in the God of the Church of England, and in a whole host of other unlikely irreconcilable propositions. … Sometimes at table I would look down at my plate, afraid that they might see in my eyes the depths of my deceit, afraid that they might see themselves condemned.

In one of her early letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson says of her family, “They are religious—except me—and address an Eclipse, every morning—whom they call their “Father.” The socially sanctioned God addressed by her family is meaningless to Dickinson who, as we know, felt unable to participate in the revivals that swept New England in her youth.

The hypocrisy they find in the world causes both narrators to invest heavily in truth as an absolute and to invent for themselves a god abstract and perfectly rational, a deity who is all necessity. In poem 576, Dickinson depicts how she would feel if the God promised by religion really existed:

I prayed, at first, a little Girl,
Because they told me to—
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel—to me—
If I believed God looked around,
Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady on his own
In Childish honesty—

Imagining a god far too abstract to feel an individual human appeal, Dickinson justifies spurning hypocrisy and societal forms. Jane, too, insists on an abstract God: “Perhaps I could take a religion that denied free will, that placed God in his true place, arbitrary, carelessly kind, idly malicious, intermittently attentive, and himself subject, as Zeus was, to necessity. Necessity is my God.” The ironic humor of the portrait is belied by the obvious intensity of her desire and inability to believe. She wishes for virtue but can find only one way to struggle toward it: “So what could I do, but seek in abnegation, in denial, renunciation, that elusive quality.” Rather than deny the existence of a deity, each chooses to deny her self, minimizing the human personality while further exalting the divine.

The God they both insist on is one who will have instant access to what each conceives as her inmost self, the self that has been split, deliberately and consciously, from the self “known” by the world they inhabit. Surely they imagine a most patriarchal and powerful God, and yet one senses that their desire for an absolute deity is a kind of challenge to the patriarchy to produce and abide by a God who will act in accordance with human claims for him. Each heroine has a kind of ironic distance on herself that is the product, paradoxically, of a real but unenforceable will to believe.

When James enters Jane Gray's life, which until now has been all pretense, he sees, according to Jane, her real self: “he redeemed me by knowing me, he corrupted me by sharing my knowledge.” Until James, Jane says, “I thought that if I could deny myself enough I would achieve some kind of innocence,” but his clear knowledge of her renders all her past denial meaningless. He is at once savior and devil, redeemer and corruptor, and she is willing to rewrite her past morality in new terms, to reinvent religion, if it is necessary to accommodate the fact of his loving her. She no longer needs Zeus as a deity; she will worship James: “Salvation, damnation. That is what it amounts to, and I do not know which of these two James represented.”

Dickinson also raises the beloved to the position of a deity. In poem 640, “I cannot live with You—,” she imagines accompanying her lover to heaven, where she says she would not be accepted because her lover's “… Face / Would put out Jesus'.” Her passion for the beloved is so intense that he “saturated Sight—/ And I had no more Eyes / For sordid excellence / As Paradise.” The lover becomes the savior in a new religion of love, and like Jane Gray, the Dickinson persona consciously and willingly risks blasphemy of the accepted religion to declare her own private one.

One form that both Jane's and Dickinson's renunciation takes is literally to renounce the world. They choose to be alone. Jane chooses her isolation for the night of her daughter's birth. She is eventually attended by a midwife, and then by her cousin Lucy and by James, but she goes into the moment of birth alone. “I made that loneliness, I created it alone, it grew out of me and surrounded me; and I chose it, I preferred it to the safety of human company, or a hospital bed.” A soul selecting her own society, she chooses only to admit James.

Jane's solitude is white; as snow falls outside, Jane lies on the “white moist sheets” with “heaps of white towels” standing by, the baby under its “white blanket.” Dickinson's “white election,” her choice to wear only white, is accompanied by her withdrawal from the world. The implications of this choice of solitude and whiteness are many, but for Dickinson and for Jane Gray most of them circle about the question of sexuality.

Both Jane Gray and Emily Dickinson have renounced love. At the same time, both acknowledge within themselves the capability of a passion so intense that it seems to result, like white-hot flame, in purity. In both their cases this is a paradox; Jane's, because she has married and borne children, yet not loved until she falls in love with James, and Dickinson's, because the intense passion of her love poetry seems unrelated to what we know of her experience. Both speakers further the paradox by insisting on it: “Like a nun, \Jane] had held on, in wise alarm, to her virginity; through marriage, through children, she had held on to it, motionless, passive, as pure as a nun, because she had always known it would destroy her, such knowledge.” Told by James that she is beautiful, Jane denies it,

but at the same time she knew he was right, she was beautiful, with a true sexual beauty, she had always been so, with a beauty that was a menace and a guilt and a burden … wild like an animal, that could not be let loose, so she had denied it, had sworn that black was white and white was black …

Dickinson, who never married, and about whom it is probably safe to say that she never had a realized sexual affair, asserts “A Wife—at Daybreak I shall be—.” The wife claims that she is a nun, the virgin that she is a bride. By insisting on the paradox they simultaneously recognize and deny their sexuality and accomplish, as well, a redefinition of the terms in which they have set the challenge to language.

Jane Gray and the persona of Dickinson's poems go beyond simple abstention and valorize renunciation by their emphasis on choosing to renounce. Choice is essential because they are not passive; renunciation is not victimization. In poem 745, “Renunciation—is a piercing Virtue—” Dickinson first defines renunciation rather traditionally: it is “the letting go / A presence—for an Expectation.” The ability to defer gratification is a sign of maturity. She goes on to redefine renunciation in terms of choice, and in terms, more importantly, of a split in the self:

Renunciation—is the Choosing
Against itself—
Itself to justify
Unto itself—

Renunciation is, in other words, its own justification when it pits the self against its equally strong number, the other part of the self. Choosing to renounce is a declaration of action, an enabling rather than a disabling act.

That sense of alterity, of objective distance from the self, that the “Renunciation” poem defines is of great importance to Dickinson's persona and to Jane Gray because they are both artists. Margaret Homans argues that the ability to grasp their own alterity, to hold it and embody it in their texts, is what enables artists to produce art. Women artists, especially those who inherit the Romantic tradition, are handicapped by the identification of nature as female and are thus deprived of this sense of objectivity about the self. Emily Dickinson's sense of self against self is therefore for Homans “probably the most radical and conceptually challenging answer possible to the dualism of self and other that empowers the masculine tradition and that troubles its female inheritors.” Dickinson's expression of the dualism of the self occurs in some of her most famous poems, as when she imagines “Me from Myself—to banish—.” Dickinson's conscious dualism not only opens up for her the possibilities of language but puts her in control of her text.

The same conscious strategy creates the dual narration of The Waterfall and is probably the most important technique shared by Emily Dickinson and Margaret Drabble, although the generic differences between novel and lyric markedly change what happens to their two personae. The novel alternates between first- and third-person narration, although almost twice as much is told in the first person, and indeed the first-person voice corrects much of what the third-person narrator asserts. This technique allows the text to be, in effect, constantly rewritten by the more authoritative first-person voice. “It won't, of course, do: as an account, I mean, of what took place”; she confesses to the reader at the first switch in narrative voice, thereby reopening for investigation all the assertions made in the first fifty-one pages of the novel. The switch is convenient, of course; it allows a kind of writerly cheating, as when she says of the newborn baby, Bianca, “I would have liked to evoke her” and then proceeds to do so. More than tricks, however, it allows a dialogue between the two parts of the self that emphasizes the psychic balance of self and creativity that Jane at first lacks totally and must gain throughout the course of the narrative. If we see the foremother incarnated in Jane and read in her an embodiment of Dickinson's thematic concerns, we see that the character/author Jane Gray can finally attain the control that empowers Dickinson only by discovering for herself her own relation to language. Renunciation as a theme, then, announces for us the presence of a strategy of control of desire, control of creativity, and finally control of the word itself.

Art is the most obvious connection between Jane Gray and Emily Dickinson's poetic persona: they are both poets. The reader never sees any of Jane's poetry, but we early find out that it is famous enough to have been read on the BBC's Third Programme, and Jane describes it as very regular and rather formal. Jane derives little satisfaction from her art because she views herself as helpless to control it. She offers a reason for the extremely formal verse that she writes: “My verse was flawlessly metrical, and it always rhymed; I think that I tried unnaturally hard to impose order upon it because I was unnaturally aware of my own helpless subjugation to my gift, my total inability to make a poem at will. …” The externally imposed order of rhyme and meter controls her creative chaos. Jane identifies this sense of the chaos of creativity quite specifically with what she sees as the random success of sex: “I resented this helplessness \with her poetic gift] as I resented a woman's helplessness with a man. …” Grief and despair are the occasions for her poetry, and when she finds pleasure with James, it is unutterable: “I did not know how to write about joy, I could find no words for the damp and intimate secrets of love.” Sex and art join to be imaged in wetness. Jane is unable to write about her joy because it is her own sexuality, and it is watery, formless, chaotic, not to be bounded by rhyme and meter. In a kind of classic struggle of ego and id, she simply forces form on the chaos of her poetic gift and her sexual abilities.

The chaos that Jane so fears contains knowledge of the world and of herself, and she fears knowledge—at least knowledge as expressed in language. Musing on the smell that emanates from the race track where James is testing a car, she thinks about learning the name for that smell, and about what such knowledge would imply:

Perhaps it would be a word she would never again be able to dispense with, an important word, a necessary word, that she now still at that instant lacked. Learning was so dangerous: for how could one tell in advance, while still ignorant, whether a thing could ever be unlearned or forgotten or if, once known and named, it would invalidate by its significance the whole of one's former life, all of those years wiped out, convicted at one blow, retrospectively darkened by one sudden light? It seemed at times too dangerous to find out those most important things, in case, having found them, one should also find that nothing else would do, no other word, no other act.

At this point in the narrative language is so perfectly literal to her that a word, once known, could be fatal; Emily Dickinson tells us in poem 1261, “Infection in the sentence breeds” and in poem 952, warns, “Let us discourse—with care—.” Incapable, it seems, of metaphor, Jane sees no way to control language, which threatens her with oblivion should she choose the wrong word. Incapable, as well, of irony, she cannot see language but as absolute.

It could easily be argued that the word Jane needs does not exist for her, because it can only be spoken in the patriarchal language and cannot be a true utterance for a woman. Certainly the patriarchy speaks its language in this novel; when Malcolm strikes Jane several times, accusing her of unfaithfulness, she is proud of the language of her bruises, “glad that my flesh had made some response to so desperate a statement.” But Jane's deep sexual response to James comes so clearly from her own femaleness, and so clearly restores to her a part of herself she had renounced, that it feels like her own language, like a true female utterance. The water imagery in which she reports on her feelings reinforces the sense of femaleness.

Emily Dickinson's most passionate poem is probably “Wild nights—wild nights,” in which the sexual intensity is figured specifically in water imagery. Jane's recognition of her intense sexuality, so central to the book and to her salvation, is also figured in water imagery. James's first declaration of love is a “blind, suicidal dive into such deep waters”; marrying into a family like Malcolm's shows her that “only by sinking could \she] avoid the deadly, human, incriminating impulse to rise.” It is that impulse toward earthly human life and selfhood that Dickinson records in the epigraph poem, which imagines a man struggling against drowning. The first time Jane and James make love she admits that “one of the things she had always most feared in love had been the wetness,” but after this experience “she lay there, drowned in a willing sea.” At the center of the book Jane experiences a powerful orgasm, during which she fears that “she will never get back to the dry integrity she once inhabited” but allows herself to be led “to fall, painfully, anguished, but falling at last” until she ends “down there at last in the water, not high in her lonely place.” In this water/fall she accepts water as her element.

Finding the intensity of her passion matched by that of James, she can only think that he has been responsible for a kind of second life of hers, that she has been reborn by his efforts: “A woman delivered. She was his offspring, as he, lying there between her legs, had been hers.” In poem 470 Emily Dickinson tests and affirms the fact that she is alive, and also ascribes her rebirth to a beloved:

How good—to be alive!
How infinite—to be
Alive—two-fold—The Birth I had—
And this—besides, in—Thee!

Dickinson claims rebirth in the beloved, Jane Gray with him.

Two-thirds of the way through the novel Jane and James are in a car crash, just the sort of catastrophe that would be predicted by a nature like Jane's. Driving toward Newcastle with both of Jane's children in the car and the radio playing a popular song called “Chimborazo” (an Ecuadoran mountain, named by Dickinson in poem 453 as a height the speaker and her lover might scale), the car hits a truck. Jane faces death with Dickinsonian resignation, trying “to avoid the impact of eternity by pretending I had always foreseen it.” She says, “The accident, when reconstructed for me, was so horrific in its ghastly disproportion between cause and effect that it would have shattered any delicate faith; and yet how dreadfully it reinforced my views of providence, of Divine Providence, of the futility of human effort against the power that holds us.”

She is certain James is dead, but in fact he is not, and a paradox attends his life: “The price of his restoration was his loss.” Lucy discovers their affair, but there is no apocalypse, because the accident forces Jane to assume some control of her life. Loss of James (an incomplete loss, at that, since they continue to see each other) is paradoxically accompanied by rediscovery of her self. Jane returns home, cleans her house, sorts the mail, writes poems, and thinks about what happened.

As she reevaluates her life, the narrative moves more quickly from first to third person, and back to first. At every instance the dual narrative rewrites itself, able by this technique to maintain all fictionality and all truth at once, telling all the truth, yet telling it slant: “In presenting myself, in this narrative, as a woman on the verge of collapse, on the verge of schizophrenia or agoraphobia, I had been lying. … And yet, that can't be the whole truth.” In the battle of self against self that Jane fights, the first person begins to win.

As Jane's control of her text and her life strengthen, she is able to abandon her dependence on the paradox of renunciation and admit change to her life, as the water imagery culminates in a new definition of self: “In a sense, perhaps, I have always believed that a passion adequately strong could wrench a whole nature from its course. …” This would read simply as acquiescence and passivity were it not rewritten by her next statement: “had I not expected such events, they would not have occurred: the force of the current admits them, and a shifting landscape effects them.” She empowers herself to use language as she wants by admitting love and allowing the changes wrought by passion. Dickinson's poem 556 is a gloss on this:

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly—and true—
But let a Splinter swerve—
'Twere easier for You—
To put a Current back—
When Floods have slit the Hills—
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—
And trodden out the Mills—

For both of them, an outside force (the passion or the splinter) moves the current that in turn occasions the change in the landscape, and the emotional landscape alters accordingly. For Jane the inward change signals a new understanding of language as metaphoric rather than literal.

Ellen Cronan Rose points out that the ending “successfully resists its own impulse to make a final formulation.” Jane has a new control of language even as she recognizes her lack of control over events: the poems she writes while James is in the hospital are “none the worse for the fact that they were written founded on an unfulfilled terror.” James wants the poems to be symbolic and therefore truly expressive of the events that occasioned them: “He claimed that it was sacrilege to speak of such matters.” She convinces him that her poetry is an act of affirmation, and “he accepted the analogy, although I daresay it would not bear inspection.” Language for Jane Gray, as for the poet (not the persona) Emily Dickinson, is now proximate and not absolute. The transaction between language and reality no longer singular bespeaks potential bondage; a word will no longer have the power to “invalidate by its significance the whole of one's former life.”

“There isn't any conclusion. A death would have been the answer, but nobody died.” Jane and James at the end of the novel visit a waterfall called the Goredale Scar. Jane has made this final water image literal: it is, she assures us, “real, unlike James and me, it exists” and indeed it does. Of it, Drabble has written in her travel book A Writer's Britain that “any post-Freudian would of necessity see this landscape in terms of sexual imagery—the hollow cavern, the gushing water, the secrecy of the approach, the tufted trees—.” Post-Freudian she may be, yet Jane Gray seems as unaware as Emily Dickinson might have been of the somatic comparison and as innocent of the language for describing it. She finds instead in the waterfall a contained chaos that perfectly represents to her the closing of the split of self that now can be expressed in a single voice, the first person: “water leaped down through the side of the cleft, pouring itself noisily downward across brown rocks that are twisted and worn like wood, like the roots of trees. It is impressive not through size, as I had perhaps expected, but through form: a lovely organic balance of shapes and curves, a wildness contained within a bodily limit.” Her own wildness, her creativity, her jouissance is contained within a bodily limit whose bounds she finally understands. Her desire is no longer limitless and self-threatening but, like the torrent, channeled. Form, previously absent from her life and artificially imposed on her poetry, now can be seen as “organic” and “lovely” and her text chooses the single voice, the “I am,” in which to speak.

Dickinson's split selves, her “Me” and “Myself,” appear, unreconciled, in many ways in the poetry, but not as an indication of the poet's indecisiveness or inability. Homans tells us that they open for us and for Dickinson an “understanding of the fictiveness of language” that enables control. It is just this fictiveness that Jane Gray learns and then successfully demonstrates. “There isn't any ending” she tells us, and then ends the novel twice—once with the trip to the waterfall, and then again (“No, I can't leave it without a postscript …”) to tell us that she had imagined killing James (but “I loved him too much”) making him impotent (that “little, twentieth-century death”) but must settle (“the truth is quite otherwise”) for her own escape from death by the accident of stopping birth control pills. “I am glad I cannot swallow pills with immunity. I prefer to suffer, I think.” In full control of her story Jane proffers and then rejects a choice of endings. Identifying in externalized nature a useful trope for her twentieth-century condition of life, Jane chooses to suffer within the bodily limits she has discovered, accepting her humanity and shunning, as Dickinson admits human beings do, “The Maker's cordial visage.”

Lawrence S. Friedman (essay date June 1991)

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SOURCE: “Puritan Self-Fashioning in The Needle's Eye,” in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, June, 1991, pp. 426-35.

[In the following essay, Friedman examines “Drabble's attempt to apply Puritan remedies to modern dilemmas” in The Needle's Eye.]

A few pages into The Needle's Eye and we are on familiar ground: a fashionable dinner party in fashionable London, desultory conversation about getting and spending, a hostess who “did not like to think that anything would happen, nor that nothing would happen.” And when the relentlessly introspective Simon Camish muses that “he had come to hate people, even the people that he liked,” we begin thinking of polite excuses to exit from the dinner—and the novel—before the coq au vin is served up with great helpings of the “sick society.” But Rose Vassiliou, the tardy guest of honor, has finally arrived in “a long dress eccentric enough by any standards, a tatty off-white embroidered and beaded dress, with fraying sleeves and an irregular hem line, and on her feet were very old flat red leather shoes, bursting at the seams, and extremely worn.” She has about her an air of authenticity and distinctiveness such that Simon, who barely remembers experiencing “something like preference,” hopes that he will be placed next to Rose at dinner.

We take a firmer grip on the novel. And well we should, for The Needle's Eye is Margaret Drabble's antidote to the way we are. In this, her finest novel, she has attempted no less than “the active, vital, energetic, mysterious recreation of a set of values by which human beings can live.” That values must be recreated is, of course, a measure of our fallen world, which Drabble implicitly begs us to transform by joining with her in the “creation” of Rose. For the Rose who comes to dinner is the end-product of a rigorously conscious program of self-fashioning that forms the substance of The Needle's Eye. A thirtyish divorcee with three children, Rose, n‚e Bryanston, has defied her tyrannical plutocrat of a father to marry Christopher Vassiliou. All but disinherited by her father, she persists in giving away the remnant of her income to hopeless causes. She chooses to live in a shabby working-class neighborhood so removed from fashionable London that she must painstakingly direct Simon when he drives her home from the dinner party. Intelligent and sensitive as she is, Rose is poorly educated and only sporadically articulate. She gropes for a vocabulary of self-definition; and she finds it in the vocabulary of faith. As Simon drives Rose closer to her neighborhood, he senses the depressing “dark breath of urban uniformity.” But Rose defends these mean streets with the first of her rare bursts of eloquence:

I hated it at first, I hated it for years, but I believed in it and now I love it. … All this, you see, I created it for myself. Stone by stone and step by step. I carved it out, I created it by faith, I believed in it, and then very slowly, it began to exist. And now it exists. It's like God. It requires faith.

To Simon, the man of little faith, this outburst is astonishing. And well it might be. For Rose Vertue Vassiliou inhabits a moral kingdom far from Simon's London. Hers is the kingdom of God, which she has painfully entered by the same slow process of recreation that transformed the dreary backwaters of London. By the exercise of faith Rose has sloughed off a succession of former selves—the unloved child of a callous father and vacuous mother, the giddily doting bride of the fatally charming Christopher, the guilt-ridden dispenser of her “unjust” legacy—to find peace in the banality of ordinary existence. Recalling the thousands of pounds she flung into the construction of a school in Central Africa only to see it obliterated by civil war, Rose “had to admit that she was much exercised by an ancient orthodoxy, a modern heresy: She believed in faith as well as in works, she believed that giving is not simply for the benefit of the receiver.” Rose's “ancient orthodoxy” is, of course, ultimately grounded in the Bible.

As a child, Rose was looked after by a village woman named Noreen, “very puritanical,” who “used to nag her endlessly about the family's money and her father's wickedness in being so rich.” One Sunday Noreen takes the eight-year-old Rose to church, where they hear a sermon preached on the text “about it's being easier for camels to get through needles' eyes than for rich people to get into the kingdom of heaven.” The minister tries absurdly to soften the rigors of the text, but Noreen, dread puritan that she is, insists on it literal meaning. And Noreen, as Rose reminds Simon nearly a quarter of a century later, was right.

The scene is Judaea. Jesus is approached by a man who asks him, “Master, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” To Jesus' rejoinder that he keep the commandments, the man answers, “I have kept all these. Where do I still fall short?” Jesus tells him: “If you wish to go the whole way, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and then you will have riches in heaven; and come, follow me.” Upon hearing this the man departs with a heavy heart, for, as the text reminds us, “he was a man of great wealth.” “I will tell you this:” says Jesus to his disciples, “a rich man will find it hard to enter the kingdom of Heaven. I repeat, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

But Jesus' words are characteristically hyperbolic. They prepare us for the passage a few lines further on, which implicitly contrasts the rich man with the disciples: “And anyone who has left brothers or sisters, father, mother, or children, land or houses for the sake of my name will be repaid many times over, and gain eternal life. But many who are first will be last and the last first” (Matthew 19:29-30). To enter the heavenly kingdom requires a leap of faith approximate to that of the disciples who abandoned themselves to Jesus. The exhortation to the rich man—and to all of us—plumbs the depths of faith. Keeping the commandments is a species of negative virtue, mere passive obedience. But trading riches on earth for vague promises of riches in heaven involves an act of spiritual transcendence. When Christopher in rage and Simon in silence indict Rose for her foolish and useless charities, they judge her by modern standards. But Rose, in the toils of “ancient orthodoxy,” motivated by a faith that passeth understanding, is busily stockpiling riches in heaven. The little girl who, by Noreen's side, daily took the Bible with her tea, has grown into a woman quietly but fatally imbued with that old-time religion.

Rose's latter-day Puritanism, roused by Noreen in nursery days, originates in a bygone age of religious belief. Alone in Noreen's former bedroom in the Bryanston manse, Rose recalls the precise moment many years before, when her faith was confirmed. Razors cut, Noreen had cautioned her in the same sepulchral tone she used to evoke Christ crucified, wicked man, and yawning Hell. Sure enough, when the doubting child tests the razor's edge, she bleeds, thereby confirming the nanny's infallibility: “It had all come about as Noreen had predicted: There had been no appeal from her darker pronouncements.” This being so, thinks the mature Rose, as she has “a million times …, what can I do, what can I do to be saved?” Obsessed by salvation, she must create a life that will withstand the scrutiny of an angry and demanding God. For Rose, who is “not much good at accepting, in herself, the natural shortcomings of humanity,” bears the dreadful burden of one who is “marked” by God. Anxious to appease the fearsome deity who “sends after her his fierce angels with their clattering wings,” precisely because He has “chosen” her from the multitudes, Rose sporadically begs God to “take away His message.”

But God is as unrelenting in His pursuit of Rose as He was in pursuit of her spiritual forebear, John Bunyan. Still in Noreen's room, the frightened Rose goes to the bookshelf for Pilgrim's Progress and Grace Abounding, both of which “she had to read too often.” She stares at the paragraph in Grace Abounding, which, as a child, she had heavily marked, and which recounts Bunyan's obsessive concern for the state of his soul. Fearing that his soul is “gone and lost,” Bunyan momentarily yearns for the soullessness of a dog or horse. Echoing his “gone and lost,” Rose suffers the same violent spiritual oscillations that fill the pages of Grace Abounding. Alternate moods of hope and despair mark Bunyan's personal quest for salvation. Near the end of Grace Abounding, imprisoned for nonconformist preaching and imagining the hangman's rope around his neck, Bunyan poignantly reaffirms his commitment:

I thought I might now have an opportunity to speak my last words to a multitude which I thought would come to see me die; and thought I, if it must be so, if God will but convert one soul by my very last words, I shall not count my life thrown away, nor lost.

And this thought finally allays Bunyan's fears for his soul. Surely, he reasons, it is “the sign of an upright Soul, to desire to serve God when all is taken from him.” Job-like, Bunyan has endured God's trials, even in the face of death. That he can keep the faith when life itself is taken from him is the ultimate proof of his sincerity: “Now was my heart full of comfort,” Bunyan concludes.

The intense self-scrutiny and the alternate waves of joy and anguish which inform The Needle's Eye no less than Grace Abounding are symptoms of an identity struggle that is as old as Protestantism itself. Beyond Bunyan looms the early sixteenth-century reformer William Tyndale, whose Obedience of a Christian Man establishes the Protestant framework for the examination of the inner life. Discarding Catholicism and with it the mixed blessings of papal authority and auricular confession, early Protestants are awash in an existential sea at once terrifying and exhilarating:

What we find then in the early sixteenth century is a crucial moment of passage from one mode of interiority to another. Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man is located at this liminal moment; in his book and the others of its type we may watch the fashioning of the Protestant discourse of self. …

To this newfound mode of discourse, grounded in Biblical literalism, Tyndale dedicates his life. One day, so the story goes, he tells a curate that some day through his efforts, a plowman will know more of scripture than does the curate. These efforts culminate in the English New Testament (1525). In one profoundly revolutionary stroke Tyndale has recaptured for the masses the plain sense of God's Word. The framework for the inner life is firmly in place:

Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto, if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way. And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way.

More than a century later Bunyan voices the “kind of self-consciousness …, the sense of being set apart from the world and of taking a stance toward it, the endless discursiveness” that began to take shape in Tyndale's day Grace Abounding is the sort of personal testimony which is by no means unusual in the seventeenth century. But three hundred years later the same brand of interiority is quirky if not suspect, and has long since been displaced by a host of therapies. Eschewing the analyst's couch for the Bible and Bunyan, Rose Vassiliou retrieves a discarded methodology of self-fashioning. Its value is measured by juxtaposing Rose's moments of introspection with Simon's. For Simon Camish is the quintessential modern: analytical, skeptical, bored. While his self-scrutiny is no less intense than Rose's, its mode is far more familiar. For Simon attributes his spiritual listlessness to popular secular demons: the squalid upbringing, which forced him to “overcompensate” intellectually and socially, and the overly solicitous and self-sacrificing mother whose dreams for Simon demanded fulfillment in a distinguished, if sterile, career. Such “explanations” only lead Simon deeper into his moral quagmire, whereas Rose's anachronistic Biblical literalism is the way to spiritual renewal, and even saintliness. Ever the unbeliever, Simon cannot fully understand Rose, although he perceives the odd radiance of her life. He treads the middle rungs of Drabble's spiritual ladder. Like the guests at those several quasi-symbolic dinner parties, Simon is restless and miserable, emotionally dead, Unlike them he is aware of his sad state and wishes himself out of it. His is a moral nature that strains toward a transcendence which he dimly perceives but falls short of that suspension of disbelief that constitutes religious faith. Transformed by his relationship with Rose, Simon emerges from the long winter of emotional hibernation. The man who “had not for so long experienced something like preference” and who expected a “perpetual winter” finds something “like happiness” with Rose: “So great and innocent a peace possessed him that it seemed like a new contract, like the rainbow after the flood.” Simon has come to desire the kingdom of heaven while simultaneously denying its existence: “Not of this world is the kingdom, but there is no other world.” And his dream of the heavenly kingdom is a haunting invocation of the Puritan vision of Tyndale, Bunyan, and Rose Vassiliou:

Shake down the superfluity. There was nothing else to hope for, any other hope was intolerable, and yet it was so hopeless, it was as though one were to desire the kingdom of heaven. Where the rich may not enter, where greed may perish.

By now it should be apparent that The Needle's Eye is Margaret Drabble's attempt to apply Puritan remedies to modern dilemmas. The title of the novel, the name of its heroine, the ubiquitous Biblical references, and the invocation of Bunyan reanimate the lost drama of salvation. Rose Vertue Vassiliou's struggle toward God's kingdom is a process of relentless, yet ironic, self-fashioning: The identity so painstakingly constructed must at last be cast off. The exercise of faith involves the abnegation of self as well as the abnegation of wealth. Rose's reconciliation with Christopher is the final act in a drama of self-denial:

She had been right to take him: no ulterior weakness of her own, no sexual craving, had prompted her to do so. She had done it in the dry light of arid generosity, she had done it for others. Her duty, that was what she had done. For others. For him, for the children.

Rose's sacrificial purity is not attained overnight, nor is it the result of a sudden blinding epiphany. Rather it results from a life process of rigorous self-examination which parallels Bunyan's. Michael Zuckerman's comments on the individual's relation to society in Bunyan's seventeenth century seem equally pertinent to ours:

Something seems then to have come unhinged in the ways people were wont to live with one another and in their aspirations for, and anxieties about, group life. Something seems to have driven them simultaneously to seek a new purity of personal identity and covenanted community alike.

For Bunyan the cost of “covenanted community” is a terrifying isolation: casting off the fraying cords of his social binding, Bunyan becomes a community unto himself, one that he prays is sanctified as the Elect of God. Certain of the presence of God's grace, but unsure of its conference upon him, Bunyan fills the pages of Grace Abounding with passages of alternating hope and despair, “Wherein is particularly shewed, The Manner of his Conversion, his fight and trouble for Sin, his Dreadful Temptations, also how he despaired of Gods \sic] mercy, and how the Lord at length thorow \sic] Christ did deliver him from all the guilt and terrour that lay upon him.” Purity, for Bunyan, is finally attained by a nearly total rejection of the “group life” of the seventeenth century.

Rose finds a corresponding purity in a communal existence that implicitly rejects the “sins” and “temptations” of the “group life” of fashionable London. In her sense of neighborly interdependence, in her friendship with Emily, in her “daily pleasures of streets well trodden, faces well known,” Rose affirms that “there was some inexplicable grace in living so.” Even Simon, the unbeliever, senses the viability of the community shared by Rose and Emily: “They looked—he found it hard to explain it to himself—they looked complete, they looked like people.” But they are not the common run of people. They are the Elect of The Needle's Eye.

The self-fashioning process by which Rose finds grace is accompanied by the same fears and doubts that beset Bunyan. And the central economic metaphor that expresses her faith reaches back through Bunyan to Jesus himself. Taking Jesus' cautionary words to the rich man quite seriously, Puritans like Rose and Bunyan are committed to a career of divestiture. Bunyan sees his poverty as evidence of God's blessing, and Rose's struggles toward penury would be comical in another context. Perhaps her recurring fear about the disposition of her fortune is a latter-day echo of Bunyan's hysterically repeated, “I had sold my Saviour” (his emphasis) in Grace Abounding. Both express their flashes of despair in terms of the market place: Bunyan fearing that he has sold his Saviour too cheaply, Rose worrying that her hard-won poverty might not purchase His grace.

Rose's reconciliation with Christopher is the last installment of her debt to God. The ending of The Needle's Eye is neither a betrayal of Women's Liberation nor a weak anticlimax, but the final act in the drama of self-fashioning. It is the divestiture of the self, her ultimate remaining possession, that defines the purity of her sacrifice:

And now she lived in dispute and in squalor, for the sake of charity and of love. She had ruined her own nature against her own judgment, for Christopher's sake, and for the children's sake. She had sold for them her own soul. …

Rose doubts the efficacy of this last “transaction.” Indeed she considers it a sellout: “The price she had to pay was the price of her own living death, her own conscious dying, her own lapsing, surely, from grace, as heaven (where only those with souls may enter) was taken slowly from her, as its bright gleams faded.” And just as characteristically she is too hard on herself. The woman who sells her soul in “charity” and “love,” who gives her life that others may live, has surely reserved the very best place in heaven that she fears she has lost. “Wherefore,” thinks Bunyan, near the end of Grace Abounding, “I am for going on, and venturing my eternal state with Christ, whether I have comfort here or no; if God doth not come in, thought I, I will leap off the ladder even blindfold into Eternitie, sink or swim, come heaven, come hell,—Lord Jesus, if Thou wilt catch me, do; if not, I will venture for thy name.” Rose Vertue Vassiliou, postmodern Puritan, has done no less.

Victoria Radin (review 25 October 1991)

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SOURCE: “A Hard Time,” in New Statesman & Society, October 25, 1991, pp. 37-8.

[In the following review, Radin offers unfavorable assessment of The Gates of Ivory.]

This is writing by numbers. It is Caring, Compassionate, Concerned, Committed—all the C words. It is not quite a novel, but then Drabble hedges her bets on that count in her first sentence. Novels can cover a lot of possibilities, however. What makes The Gates of Ivory not quite a novel is its refusal to look up from the filing cards, to transform its thoughts into something that stands on its feet.

Thoughts there certainly are, in profusion. The last of the series that began with The Radiant Way, it moves from the beleaguered, estranging Britain of its trio of fifty something Cambridge-educated heroines to south-east Asia, penetrating into the horrors of Cambodia, where it weeps loudly, inconsolably, and finally painlessly.

“This is a novel—if novel it be …” it begins. On every level it is a protestation of helplessness and hopelessness. Its title and epigraph derive from the Odyssey's distinction between false dreams (which issue through gates of ivory) and true ones (through gates of horn). So this, then, is a book about treacherous dreams that may itself deceive.

Apostrophes to the reader mingle with displays of authorial incompetence: “the limbo of my old Amstrad word processor …” Documents, the rough-hewn draft of a play, a kind of diary, even a bibliography that is appended to the book and to which the text refers us, are Drabble's other counterstrikes at the anti-novel, to which the term deconstructionist or postmodernist (both deployed within the book) are inappropriate.

Time present jostles with time past. The action, such as it is, shoots all over the place. One need not look only to contemporary writing for these devices, of course: most can be found in the earliest examples of fiction that we have, that is, in Homer. Drabble's professed urge to let multitudes clash with multitudes, her references to contemporary sorcerers and demons lead one to suspect that Homer, more than anyone else, is her model. Homer, however, is moving and fun to read.

At any rate, here is an Odyssey. Stephen Cox, a vaguely Marxist Booker winner of historical novels, sallies forth to Cambodia for no other reason, apparently, than “There is nothing to keep me here.” He leaves behind him Penelope—or several Penelopes. The primary one is Dr Liz Headleand, head-girl of the Cambridge trio and soul-curer. (Drabble can't decide within the series whether she is a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist.) Liz receives a peculiar packet containing that play draft, diary jottings, a poem by Rimbaud, and the bones of two human fingers. Finally, much later than we had thought, Liz sets off on her own Odyssey to find Stephen.

She does not, but somehow she rediscovers herself in a Bangkok hospital where she nearly dies of tampon-induced toxic shock: one of the book's many references to the more pathological aspects of gynaecology. Back home there is a memorial service for Stephen, at which Liz's stepson's primigravida lover goes into labour. After all her work to do otherwise, Drabble can't resist pulling that atavistic rabbit out of the hat. Life goes on.

If only it didn't go on so resoundingly Englishly. Although the (Homeric) multitude of incidental potted stories as well as that bibliography (28 titles) suggest that Drabble has done her homework, we get no real sense of Cambodia. Lists of atrocities rain down like napalm, presumably to poison us into pain. Back home in London and south Yorkshire with Alix, a former prison teacher who now visits a mass murderer for recreation, one can't distinguish between a Posy Simmonds cartoon and an author who wants us to take her characters' dulled plaints and her own obesity of adjective-noun-catalogue-syllable, this quite weirdly archaic diction in what she calls the Good Time (as opposed to the Bad Time of Cambodia), for real. Are Alix's musings on her parents' deaths (“Potty and Dolly had behaved, at the end, impeccably. One could forgive them past embarrassments.”) meant to be comically smug or honourably stoical?

Is Drabble's characterisation of Stephen (“He does not much like the human race, with its chitter chatter munch munch aggressive acquisitive competitive pettiness. He is as guilty as anyone of chitter chatter petty mutter petty bitty bitch bunch bite and suck …”) meant to matter? One senses, grimly, that it is. With such a template for the so-called Good Time, how can one even recognise the Bad?

Roberta Rubenstein (essay Winter 1992)

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SOURCE: “Severed Heads, Primal Crimes, Narrative Revisions: Margaret Drabble's A Natural Curiosity,” in Critique, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Winter, 1992, pp. 95-105.

[In the following essay, Rubenstein examines the significance of decapitation and social deviancy in A Natural Curiosity. As Rubenstein notes, Drabble draws upon allusions to classical mythology and Freudian psychology to explore the mysteries of human nature and latent evil.]

Why is Margaret Drabble fascinated with severed heads and dismembered bodies? Increasingly in her fiction, beginning with The Ice Age (1977), images of dismemberment or decapitation form part of the narrative subtext: in The Ice Age, Kitty Friedman is maimed by random IRA violence that kills her husband; another character, Alison Murray, reads with fascinated horror the newspaper account of a woman blown to bits by a bomb. Hugo Mainwaring of The Middle Ground (1980) has an amputated forearm. In The Radiant Way (1987), a novel deeply concerned with social and psychological deviance, the imagery shifts from dismemberment in general to decapitation in particular; Drabble employs both classical and contemporary images of severed heads, juxtaposing the figure of the gorgon Medusa with the contemporary serial killings of a murderer who decapitates his victims.

Although Drabble did not originally intend to write a sequel to The Radiant Way, she felt that the novel “was in some way unfinished, that it had asked questions it had not answered, and introduced people who had hardly been allowed to speak” (Drabble frontispiece). Thus, in a continuing pursuit of answers to questions raised in the preceding novel(s), Drabble's characters in A Natural Curiosity struggle to comprehend social pathology and deviancy. Alix Bowen and Liz Headleand are, figuratively, archaeologists in the realms of the psyche and the social order: Liz, a practicing psychotherapist who helps her clients unravel family histories complicated by adoption; and Alix, a social worker and teacher who confesses a deep fascination with “prisons, discipline, conviction, violence and the criminal mentality” and worries that her morbid curiosity reflects darker tendencies buried within her own “nice” self. Despite her deeply law-abiding orientation, as a child Alix had been “haunted by the idea the one day she would find herself in the dock accused of a terrible crime which she had not committed.” Fascinated by the “unnatural,” she seeks the sources of the pathological behavior of the Horror of Harrow Road, the decapitating murderer of The Radiant Way who, seven years later, is serving a life sentence in a top-security prison for his crimes.

Through her characters' curiosity about the deeper sources of human behavior, including its pathological manifestations, Drabble elaborates on and revises the meaning of several central images and events of the immediately preceding novel. In that novel, Liz Headleand turns her professional expertise as a psychotherapist onto herself, entering the psychological labyrinth of her own repressed past to confront the sexual minotaur of childhood in the figure of her pedophilic father; Alix Bowen, through her association with the decapitating murderer's final victim, is linked with the classical myth of Perseus who beheads the gorgon Medusa. In the sequel, A Natural Curiosity, the two women's mythological roles are reversed: Liz, following a further revelation in her “family romance,” imagines composing “a brilliantly original treatise on Medusa:Our Hidden Knowledge”; Alix becomes the narrative's more active “detective,” figuratively entering a labyrinthine underworld and initiating a quest to solve the riddle of Paul Whitmore's criminal deviancy. Both women (the third member of their triangular friendship, Esther Breuer, is only a minor character in this novel) are thus drawn to fathom “ancient crimes \that] arise to declare themselves, to invite detection. Graves weep blood, sinners return to the fatal scene, the primal crime.”

Invoking the mood of Greek tragedy and classical tales of retribution through this intense, even exaggerated, language, Drabble thus locates her characters' contemporary search for answers to the riddle of human relationships within a many-stranded web of mythological, historical, and psychological contexts. Drabble has always been interested in the relationship between moral and psychological realities: between the classical moral categories of what her character Alix Bowen terms “Original Sin. Evil and Good” on the one hand; and, on the other, the quotidian contexts of material and psychological forces that suggest influences beyond the individual's responsibility or control. Drabble represents the complex fabric of her characters' private lives and social relationships by locating them in a universe poised between benign and arbitrary or even malign potentialities. Particularly in The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity, she explores the intricate pattern—and the absence of pattern—in the multiple cross sections of contemporary experience, from the natural exchanges that animate friendship and romantic relationships to the “unnatural,” the pervasive social pathology that runs like a fault line beneath the surface of ordinary events.

Drabble's major characters, motivated by a deep hunger for comprehension, actively seek to understand the nature of the collective social body within which they pursue their private affairs. As Liz phrases it, “what I … suffer from is curiosity. I want to know what really happened … at the beginning. When human nature began. At the beginning of human time. And I know I'll never know. But I can't stop looking” (emphasis in original). Alix also “suffers” from curiosity, although her fascination with monstrosity is rooted in her need to domesticate horror rather than to work out her own family aberrations.

One of the moral-social riddles that Drabble herself worries away in her recent fiction and particularly in A Natural Curiosity is the classical “nature-nurture” debate: are people shaped inexorably by the “shabby little secrets” and deprivations that occurred in their early lives, or can they act freely, even sometimes “out of character,” as adults? Alix Bowen, philosophically committed to the “nurture” side of the argument, believes that if she can identify the sources of “her” murderer's criminal behavior, she can resolve questions within herself about the pathological tendencies in human nature. She feels almost mystically linked with the murderer, who acquires a human identity in this volume: a vegetarian and the son of a hairdresser and a butcher, Paul Whitmore is apparently reasonable and intelligent enough to be fascinated by botany and ancient British history. Alix, who enlists herself as his sympathetic ally, determines that if she can locate his mother, who had abandoned him both literally and emotionally in childhood, she will be able to redeem not only him but “Mankind.” The murderer's earlier savage behavior becomes the focus for Alix's—and Drabble's—continuing explorations of the “unnatural” dimension of human nature.

Accordingly, the dark side of human potentiality is explored with reference to its long, if not distinguished, history. A museum exhibition that Alix and Liz attend together features the Lindow Man, a recently unearthed sacrificial corpse brutally mutilated two millenia ago and miraculously preserved. Alix speculates that Paul Whitmore, incarcerated in prison rather than sacrificially killed for his crimes as he might have been in an earlier era, is “a kind of Lindow Man in a glass coffin.” In fact, these fossilized and entombed human figures, separated by two millenia but linked by their expression of the criminal potentiality in human nature, serve to anchor the historical as well as the moral sweep of A Natural Curiosity. Mention of other human fossils punctuates the characters' conversations, including the Piltdown Man hoax, the Bog Man of Tollund, and the Bog Man of Buller—about whom Alix's employer, the poet Howard Beaver, himself an aged “living fossil,” once wrote a poem. Lindow Man is a “link and messenger from the underworld” not only of the past but of the psyche.

Also ranged along the historical continuum are reflections concerning the early inhabitants of Britain: Celts, Brigantes, Druids, and Parisis. Figures and events from Greek and Latin literature and mythology, including Oedipus and the sphinx as well as Pegasus, Icarus, Medusa, and others occupy the thoughts and conversations of a number of characters. These references and allusions to ancient cultures highlight the tensions between civilized behavior and the “passion for atrocities” that underlies it. Considering the barbarities amply recorded in classical texts of human culture from the Bible and the Vedas to Greek tragedy and the Koran, Liz Headleand wonders if “the whole of human history is nothing but a history of deepening psychosis? That something went wrong at the beginning of human nature, of human nurture, that humanity mistook itself fatally, for ever? False revelation, hoax riddles, grinning sphinxes from prehistory.”

One particular image of atrocity, the severed head, appears even more frequently in A Natural Curiosity than in The Radiant Way. Drabble's two-volume preoccupation also ranges widely from classical to contemporary images, even appearing encoded in the name of one of the narrative's major characters, Liz Headleand. While the primary classical allusions of The Radiant Way are familiar Greek figures, a number of the allusions in A Natural Curiosity are from less familiar Latin sources. Celia Harper, Liz Headleand's niece (a minor character) who is studying ancient history at Oxford, reads the Roman historians, mulling over Tacitus's depiction of the death of Piso by decapitation. Alix, also reading Tacitus, turns to the poet Lucan to ponder a passage describing Caesar's desecration of the sacred grove of Massila. A book that Alix gives the incarcerated murderer Paul Whitmore describes the influence of the Roman religion on the Old Religion of Britain; Paul considers a passage in that volume citing Lucan on the sacred grove of the gods—a direct paraphrase of the passage Alix later reads. Moreover—almost too conveniently—while Alix is pondering Lucan, she catches a pertinent fragment of a television program on Celtic religion; the commentator remarks that “As the cross is to Christianity, so the severed head to the Celtic religion”; “the soul resided in the head, according to the Celts.” Thus, in this novel the severed head image, in addition to serving as a leitmotif continued from the preceding narrative, also acquires a revisionist meaning, becoming associated not only with barbarity but with religious ritual. At the same time, a reader may feel that the image, invoked so insistently, betrays the novel's scaffolding and occasionally threatens to undermine Drabble's intentions.

Juxtaposed with the images of ancient lives and monstrous deaths are the more recent historical figures enshrined in Madame Tussaud's wax museum, where Alix pursues her fascination with the etiology of atrocity and decapitation. There, she gazes at wax effigies of “Mary Queen of Scots about to have her head cut off.” Descending into another kind of underworld, the subterranean Chamber of Horrors, she observes “the authentic casts of the severed heads of Louis and Marie Antoinette.” Appropriately, the figure of Alix's “own” murderer, the decapitating Horror of Harrow Road, is a recent addition to the wax “Hall of Fame.” Descriptions of terrible contemporary atrocities—decapitation, dismemberment, rape, sexual abuse, and child abuse—periodically are inserted into the narrative either in characters' conversations or as part of the television news they glimpse. These recurring images of human barbarity emphasize a central implication of A Natural Curiosity (and of Drabble's recent fiction): that beneath the civilized surface, human society has not advanced far beyond its early destructive and pathological tendencies.


“Is nothing safe, is all knowledge to be revised, will not the dead lie quietly. …” Alix's query, elicited by her musings on the dietary patterns of Britain's ancient inhabitants, hints at several central issues from which the narrative's concern with abnormality and the “unnatural” spring. The “revision” process that she names applies to the personal histories that she and Liz reconstruct during the course of A Natural Curiosity and also, more generally, to one of Drabble's own narrative strategies. As Liz phrases it, “We stare backwards into time, and continue to find new plots, new patterns.” Appropriately for a sequel—and indicative of Drabble's revisionist impulse in this novel—patterns of imagery and theme developed in The Radiant Way are carried forward into new “plots” and developments in A Natural Curiosity. One of these thematic variations concerns the mysteries of the flesh, understood through the body's connections to sexuality, to food, and to annihilation through death—natural or unnatural, with or without the context of religious ritual.

On this serious central preoccupation, Drabble juxtaposes a series of comic and ironic variations, ranging from descriptions of a minor character's equation of “fucking and cooking” and the parallels between food preparation and bodily discharges to another character's nymphomania; the murderer Paul's vegetarianism resonates ironically with eating disorders and with the butchery of meat that underlies the common diet. More seriously, suicide and natural death, both of which occur to characters close to Liz and Alix during the narrative, highlight the predominantly middle-aged characters' anxieties about death. Additionally, the narrative is punctuated with accounts of crimes of violence, from muggings (Liz's ex-husband is mugged) and racially motivated murders to dismemberment and several bizarre incidents involving the deaths of children (in one instance by a crossbow). As if to locate these chilling contemporary events within a larger historical context, Alix speculates, as a result of her reading of certain Latin writers, that perhaps the classics, rather than teaching us “balance, wisdom, stoicism,” reveal “monstrosities.”

The narrator—who, as in most of Drabble's recent novels, directly addresses the reader from time to time—speaks only partly in jest when she describes the narrative as “not a political novel. More a pathological novel. A psychotic novel.” Drabble's exploration of individual and social pathology in A Natural Curiosity—her characters' fascination with the deviant and unnatural—also included a more veiled exploration of sexual deviance and what Liz Headleand terms “hidden knowledge.” Through a number of separate incidents described in the narrative, Drabble tests assumptions about normalcy in sexuality and in what Liz has earlier referred to in psychoanalytic parlance as the “family romance.” Accordingly, two predominant emotional states for Drabble's characters in the novel (as in the one that precedes it) are shame and guilt, particularly with reference to childhood experiences. Alix Bowen, haunted as a child by dreams of crimes she had not committed, contrasts herself with Paul Whitmore, who “did not feel guilty, although he admitted guilt. Alix felt guilty when she was not, and knew she was not.”

Several minor characters in A Natural Curiosity express aspects of the narrative's concerns with guilt, shame, and sexual deviancy. However, the most explicit references to deviant sexuality concern the sexual abuse of children. Liz Headleand, herself the victim of such abuse, makes outrageous comments on a television program, revealing her ambivalence about her own personal history. During a panel discussion on sex and the young, she shocks her peers and her audience by “uttering atrocities” such as supporting the abolition of age-of-consent laws. Even more astonishingly, she virtually defends the “desire of adults for sexual contact with children,” arguing that “this desire itself could be less abnormal than you believe it to be.” Liz's preoccupations represent what Drabble identifies as a current social preoccupation with child sex abuse, which has become “suddenly, astonishingly fashionable, as a theme for indignation, moralizing, vindictiveness, sensational journalism.” Liz's solicitor recognizes that Liz's comments, far from being the neutral observations of a professional psychoanalyst, are “an act of elaborate professional and personal self-justification, a baroque attempt on Liz's part to justify her own genesis. …” Later, Liz reveals to her former husband her guilty feeling that in some way she is responsible for her father's death by suicide. Her feelings are in fact consistent with those of victims of sexual abuse who believe that they are to blame for what has happened to them. Liz also wonders whether Freud was correct in his initial—though later rejected—observations concerning “the high incidence of abuse of children by parents.” Through Liz's comments, Drabble demonstrates her familiarity with contemporary disagreements within psychoanalytic theory as well as with the relation of that theory to her social concerns.

Paul Whitmore is also a victim of parental abuse, although in his case the abuse was emotional rather than overtly sexual. Through Alix's sincere effort to comprehend the pathology and psychosis that might “explain” Whitmore's grisly aberration, Drabble attempts to make the serial murderer (though not his crimes) an object of sympathy rather than revulsion. Paul's revelation to Alix that his mother ran off with a lorry driver during his adolescence provides her with the scent of a trail that eventually does lead to his unnatural mother and to Alix's own speculations about maternal influence and abuse. Paul's mother, Angela Whitmore Malkin (her names, particularly her surname—Mal-kin—are aptly chosen) is almost a caricature of evil. Paul's childhood memories of his father's butcher shop, with its grinning pigs' heads, fuse with the image of his mother “gazing at herself in a mirror. Her hair stands out from her head in long stiff silver spikes, some six inches long.” Thus is Angela allied with severed heads, both human and animal, as well as with the Medusa in her hideous form. As Alix eventually undertakes an expedition to locate Angela Malkin, she acknowledges her morbid fascination with severed heads, which she begins to see “wherever she looks. She collects them.” Even the knocker on the door of the sinister country house where Paul's mother lives in a tête coupée in the “shape of a woman's head with flowing locks”; Alix sees it as “a Medusa … a Celtic offering.”

Angela Malkin and her absent male partners are breeders of bull mastiffs; Alix, overwhelmed by the smells and sounds of cringing, howling dogs, feels the sadistic monstrosity of their country house on her first visit. Not surprisingly Paul Whitmore's mother angrily rejects Alix's pleas on his behalf; renouncing all connection to her “pig” son, she threatens Alix with repercussions if she does not stay out of her affairs. Alix retreats, only to dream (rather transparently) about a dog she must protect from a monstrous woman wielding a butcher knife. Her return visit is almost a fulfillment of her dream: a ghoulish scene of abandoned, dying dogs in a room with a rotting severed horse's head suspended from the ceiling. Defending herself against the clearly mad Angela by hurling a tin can that strikes her in the chest, Alix enters the criminal state herself: her manifest capacity to commit “bodily harm,” although in self-defense, nonetheless allies her symbolically with “her” murderer and with the human potentiality for extreme behavior.

Yet in identifying and subduing his monstrous mother, Alix feels that she has finally vindicated Paul Whitmore. “He had been mothered by a mad woman, a fury, a harpy, a gorgon. … Poor Paul was exonerated. … The finger points at Angela.” The malevolent woman whose “red hair in a blazing crest” again alludes to Medusa, had effectively turned her son to unfeeling stone; according to Paul's father, she had “teased and tormented” him during childhood, fueling an obsession with “death and human sacrifice” that ultimately finds its expression in savage sacrificial revenge and decapitation. Alix's archaeological detective work on the “primal crimes” in the Whitmore family also discloses that Paul had a twin sister who died in infancy. Paul's mother's rejection, Alix speculates, stems from her preference for the female child who died; her cruel anger was directed toward the male child who survived.

Other “lost” sisters appear in other threads of the narrative: Liz Headleand figuratively loses and literally finds a sister. Her sister Shirley temporarily vacates her customary identity and domicile, disappearing for a month in what Liz later calls a “hysterical fugue” state following her husband's suicide. Another unknown sibling emerges late in the narrative as Drabble revises a classical literary device—which she wittily terms the “sister ex machina”—while also revising Liz Headleand's family history. Liz is one of two uninvited guests at a large social gathering. By a narrative coincidence that one may regard as either humorously satisfying or contrived, the other uninvited guest, Marcia Campbell, an adoptee, reveals herself as the sibling of Liz, a therapist who specializes in the identity problems of adults adopted as children. Marcia discloses the facts that she has pieced together concerning their mutual maternal origins: she is their mother Rita Ablewhite's illegitimate daughter by a titled aristocrat. Before Liz's own birth, her mother had given her illegitimate baby daughter up for adoption, in return for a covenanted annuity from her lover stipulating that financial support would continue only as long as she maintained secrecy and remained married to Alfred Ablewhite.

Through this revelation of unsuspected elements in the “family romance” (understood by now not only psychoanalytically but also ironically) that had unsuspectingly colored Liz's childhood, Drabble amends an incompletely resolved dimension of her character's life story in The Radiant Way. The new knowledge also compels Liz to revise her image of her mother as mad and agoraphobic by acknowledging the pathos of her lifelong imprisonment in silence as a consequence of her hidden “primal crime.” Liz herself feels “reborn” through her new and more sympathetic vision of her mother.


Alix Bowen muses to herself during a visit with Paul Whitmore, “Riddles, mysteries. How to read them? Was there any way of reading them?” The reader also asks: how should one read the recurring theme of “primal crimes” and the imagery of severed heads—and Drabble's preoccupation with them—insistently figured in A Natural Curiosity, as in the novel that precedes it? In both narratives, through the major characters' attempts to identify the sources of personal and social pathology, Drabble explores the continuum that links “natural” and “unnatural”: even the narrative's most “normal” characters acknowledge their affinities with extremity—their attraction to the abnormal, the deviant, or the dangerous. The veneer of civilization is indeed very thin.

Through Alix Bowen and Liz Headleand's inconclusive inquiries into the origins of social aberration, Drabble narratively represents and interrogates alternative theoretical assumptions that derive from psychology and sociobiology. Is the propensity toward atrocity rooted in traumatic childhood experiences? Or are its sources genetically determined, already imbedded in the human psyche at birth? As Liz speculates, perhaps “abnormality is in-built, by now.” In this novel, more than in The Radiant Way, Drabble attempts to rationalize deviant behavior as well as the human fascination with it. Paul Whitmore embodies the author's simultaneous inquiry into and sympathetic domestication of criminal abnormality and the “unnatural.” In fact, the intertextual revisionism of A Natural Curiosity permits Drabble to comment on, modulate, and amend psychological and social themes initiated in The Radiant Way.

Yet, one weakness of this revisionist impulse is that in her attempt to meld complex social issues with narrative complexity, Drabble obscures her own position concerning the atrocities represented or reported in the narrative. Are they to be understood as the psychotic expressions of disturbed individuals whose parents neglected or abused them in childhood? Alix, the optimist, and Liz, the pessimist, admit both the appeal and the inadequacy of this line of reason. Whereas early in the narrative, Alix wonders whether the serial killer is “victim, villain, or accident,” by the end of the novel she has concluded that Paul Whitmore is less a villain than himself a victim—not only of a psychologically disturbed mother but of a pathologically disturbed society.

Thus Drabble narratively rehabilitates and “revises” Whitmore from the terrifying serial murderer of the earlier novel to a meek and even intellectually curious man who is “distressing rather than frightening,” who “instilled sorrow, not fear. Sorrow for human suffering, for human distress, for waste, for error.” Equally significant as evidence of Drabble's revisionist and rehabilitative impulse in this sequel, the appearance of Liz Headleand's unsuspected half-sister at a party at which both are uninvited guests almost has a fairy tale quality to it: Drabble naturalizes, even romanticizes, Liz's aberrant childhood, revising the incomplete story of her agoraphobic mother into a more sympathetic tale of illegitimate passion between people of different social classes. Liz's pedophilic father is also narratively revised and rehabilitated. Through the daughter's defensive psychological rationalizations, he is amended “into a plot, a pattern \that] allowed him to emerge as harmless, inoffensive, suffering perhaps from some glandular abnormality: a timid man, sexually inadequate, with an unindulgent wife. Not a Horror. Not a Fiend. No, almost normal.”

Furthermore, Drabble, using the traces of “primal crimes” and criminal or deviant acts as the indices of social pathology in history and in contemporary experience, revises the obsessive image of decapitation itself. On the one hand, the severed head signifies the past crimes of a savage murderer whom Drabble deliberately humanizes after the fact. In The Radiant Way, decapitation directly invoked the figure of the classical Medusa; In A Natural Curiosity, the image also encodes the ritual symbol for the separation of the seat of reason, intelligence, and the soul from the rest of the body—a meaning with sources in ancient rituals that celebrated the head as the “receptacle of the spirit.”

Although Freud drew on classical ritual and mythology, his own adaptation of the meaning of the severed head is more sexual (and misogynistic) than spiritual: decapitation signifies male castration anxiety. Freud pronounced the equation, “To decapitate = to castrate. The terror of Medusa is thus a terror of castration that is linked to the sight of something.” That “something” that induces terror for a young boy is the sight of “the female genitals, probably those of an adult, surrounded by hair, and essentially those of his mother.”

Contemporary readers may find in Drabble's preoccupation with the image of decapitation another intertextual echo. In Iris Murdoch's 1961 novel, A Severed Head, the title image carries decidedly Freudian overtones, including a misogynistic view of female sexuality. As one character in that novel comments, the severed head suggests “illicit and incomplete relationship\s]. … Perhaps an obsession. Freud on Medusa. The head can represent the female genitals, feared not desired.” By contrast, in Drabble's A Natural Curiosity, Liz Headleand (a revisionist psychoanalyst) and Alix Bowen briefly discuss the Freudian castration complex in connection with Paul Whitmore's crimes, though Alix confesses that she does not see any connection between “the beheading thing” and Paul's relationship with his mother. Readers, left to draw their own conclusions, may feel that Drabble uses these intertextual echoes of Freud and others for narrative effect rather than psychological clarity.

Similarly, Alix's theory of the linkages between material power and human savagery is ultimately judged inconclusive, even given some theoretical support through a reference to John Bowlby, whose analyses of maternal deprivation may have, Alix admits, “brainwashed” her. Liz resists pointing out to Alix (though her thoughts are narratively expressed) that not all children who grow up in loveless or broken homes become pathological murderers; Liz, herself a victim of childhood sexual abuse, can testify that the riddles of human behavior defy such pat solutions. In pursuing Paul Whitmore's family history, Alix, rather than solving a riddle, has merely “confirmed \her] own prejudices about human nature” within a closed system. As she acknowledges early in the narrative, long before Whitmore's story has unfolded, “it is almost as if she had invented \Paul], as an illustration of whatever it is she wishes to discover about human nature.” One hears Drabble's own voice—if not her pretext for the narrative itself—in Alix's recognition.

Thus, in A Natural Curiosity Drabble implies that theories are intellectual abstractions that do not necessarily solve the riddles of human behavior they purport to explain. Yet the novel itself sometimes wobbles between an overly theoretical exploration of social and psychological issues and a sense of moral and intellectual inclusiveness. Drabble, attentive to the theoretical morass within which this particular text is constructed, wryly alludes (through a minor character) to the postmodern mindset in a way that suggests the pressures of irresolvability with which her own narrative wrestles: “He is … programmed to take in several story lines, several plots at once. He cannot quite unravel them, but he cannot do without the conflicting impulses, the disparate stimuli.” As Drabble circles back to reconsider and revise the “hidden knowledge” that preoccupies her characters in these paired narratives, she alternately connects and disconnects the links between plausible causes and actual effects. Whatever “human nature” is, it remains stubbornly resistant to theory and analysis, even as it invites both imaginative exploration and narrative revision. The author's own “natural curiosity” about her characters' lives compelled her to extend their concerns into a second volume that imaginatively extends, intertextually revises, and—it must be admitted—occasionally befuddles the issues that animate the narrative it succeeds.

Gabriele Annan (review date 28 May 1992)

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SOURCE: “Numbers Game,” in New York Review of Books, May 28, 1992, pp. 15-6.

[In the following review, Annan offers favorable evaluation of The Gates of Ivory.]

Margaret Drabble's The Gates of Ivory is the third novel in a trilogy. The first was The Radiant Way, published in 1987. It began with a New Year's Eve party given on December 31, 1979, by a successful London psychiatrist called Liz Headleand. The new novel ends with another of Liz's parties. Same caterer, same guests, give or take a few. Only this time the party is a luncheon following a memorial service: an end, not a beginning.

The Radiant Way was a state-of-the-nation novel about the early Thatcher years in Britain, a cry of anguish and rage at the decline of a fairly decent society into heartlessness and squalor. Drabble took a serial murder known in the tabloids as “the Notting Hill rapist,” renamed him “the Horror of the Harrow Road,” and used him as a symbol and symptom of what was wrong with Britain. The Gates of Ivory is about what is wrong with the world:

This is a novel—if novel it be—about Good Time and Bad Time. Imagine yourself standing by a bridge over a river on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. Behind you … all the Good Times of the West. Before you the Bad Time of Cambodia.

A character in the novel attributes the concept “Good Time and Bad Time” to George Steiner; another “thought it came from William Shawcross. (Both were right.)” The authorial intervention is a regular Drabble device, a postmodernist link with the tradition of Charlotte Bronté and George Eliot. We know George Steiner, of course. As for William Shawcross, he is a journalist specializing in Southeast Asia, a “young man with curly hair … the son of the British Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg.” His book, The Quality of Mercy, appears in a bibliography at the end of Drabble's book, and he himself lines up with more, or less, completely fictional characters by the border bridge. The Gates of Ivory is a historical, factoid novel: the bibliography proclaims that. The subjunctive in the qualifying “if novel it be” proclaims that literary standards are to be maintained.

The main story is simple. In her bijou house in St. John's Wood, Liz Headleand receives a package from Cambodia which contains two small finger bones and scraps of writing—diaries and notes for a novel by Stephen Cox, a writer whom she had thought of marrying two years earlier. At that time he was about to set off to gather material for a book about the Khmer Rouge. He has never been heard from since, and the packet is accompanied by an anonymous note which sounds like a cry for help. Liz consults, among others, Alix Bowen and Esther Breuer, friends from her student days at Cambridge with whom she shared The Radiant Way on equal terms, but who have been relegated to bit parts in the new novel. She decides to go to Cambodia to look for Stephen, gets as far as Saigon, discovers that he has died of fever in a Cambodian hospital, contracts a different kind of fever herself, returns to England, arranges Stephen's memorial service, and thinks about remarrying her second husband. The account of her quest alternates with happenings in London and the tale of Stephen's adventures. Stephen and Liz are linked by their mutual English friends, especially by Stephen's agent, Hattie Osborne. Hattie is a rackety forty-year-old who becomes pregnant by a younger man, an avant-grade theater director who happens to be Liz's stepson. (There is an element of soap opera here: the very best soap.) Another link is the ravishing Miss Porntip from Thailand, who sits next to Stephen on his first-class flight to Bangkok. Miss Porntip's jewels match her outfits. She is a rich operator and entrepreneur, but benign. Her education consisted of four years in elementary school followed by massage parlors, but she understands world economics. “Britain is poor country. … Post-industrial country. You import from Japan, from Korea, from Thailand. You no more manufacturing. You cooling, we heating. You protectionist now. You senile now,” she tells Stephen. And on another occasion:

Socialism finished, simplicity finished, poverty finished, USSR and China and Vietnam all finished. Liberty, is all. Growth, is all. Dollars, is all. … Is good. Is better. Equality and fraternity is poverty and sickness. Is men working like beast, like buffalo. Is men killing one another like beast, like worse beast. Is no good, Stephen. Is finished. Is new world now. Is failed and finished.

Thank God for Miss Porntip's English. Stephen becomes her lover until he insists on moving on from Bangkok to Vietnam and Cambodia. When Liz in her turn gets to Bangkok, Miss Porntip takes her under her wing and on a compulsory shopping trip for precious stones before sorting out her visa problems for her. Miss Porntip is “Beauty Queen of Asia,” but her title might just as well be Miss Good Time. Good Time—the consumer society—is what she symbolizes.

Mrs. Akrun, on the other hand, is a monument to Bad Time. Stephen and Liz in turn visit her in a camp for Cambodian refugees on the Thai border. Most of her family were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and she has become a familiar tragic icon; her photograph with the caption: Where is my son? appears throughout the world on posters appealing for aid. It was taken by Konstantin Vassiliou, a charming blond photographer from North London. Konstantin is the son of a Greek businessman and an upper-class English woman. In Saigon he persuaded Stephen to collaborate on a book about Cambodia; Stephen is to write the text and Konstantin will take the photographs. Together with a Japanese journalist called Akira, who is equipped with every sort of electronic device, they set out from Phnom Penh into Khmer Rouge territory. In no time at all they are captured and Akira is led away to be shot, Stephen falls sick, and the Khmer Rouge soldiers dump him and Konstantin in an isolated jungle village. When Stephen looks close to death, Konstantin decides to get away. A village woman nurses Stephen, until he is taken away to die in an unspeakable hospital in the jungle. Konstantin makes it to London just in time for the second half of Stephen's memorial service. He is late because there has been a pileup on the M4 motorway from Heathrow. This kind of implication-loaded, doomy circumstantiality is one of Drabble's trademarks.

She has always been a perspicacious observer of the social scene, brilliant at spotting fashionable and unfashionable accessories, from ideals to handbags. In this particular novel there is even a fashionable disease: thoroughly modern Liz is laid low in Vietnam not with dengue fever, but with toxic shock caused by an ancient tampon she finds in the back pocket of her hand bag and uses in an emergency. Drabble employs her knack for detecting material and intellectual fashion statements to define the societies she writes about; and also to animate her characters. It's a technique with a built-in ironic slant, and the nearest she ever gets to comedy.

In the East, the knack doesn't work so well. Drabble is out of her manor lost among the crowd of old Southeast Asia hands, and her descriptions of overstated hotels in Bangkok, of dying jungle villages and ramshackle camps full of amputees are not even news. That is not her most serious problem, though. A bigger one involves the form as well as the content of her novel; how to combine writing about the density of multitudes with writing about individual destinies. She could, she tells us, have interwoven Mrs. Akrun's search for her son with Liz's search for Stephen.

with a conventional plot sequence, \and it] would have made a much more satisfactory narrative than this. … Such a narrative would have required a certain amount of trickiness, a certain deployment of not-quite-acceptable coincidences, a certain ruthless tidying up of the random movements of people and peoples. But it should not be beyond the competence of a certain kind of reasonably experienced novelist. One may force, one may impose one's will.

But such narrative will not do. The mismatch between narrative and subject is too great. Why impose the story line of individual fate upon a story which is at least in part to do with numbers? A queasiness, a moral scruple overcomes the writer at the prospect of selecting individuals from the mass of history, from the human soup. Why this one, why not another?

Perhaps, for this subject matter, one should seek the most disjunctive, the most disruptive, the most uneasy and incompetent of forms, a form that offers not a grain of comfort or repose.

The form of The Gates of Ivory is certainly uneasy. There are three main elements: one, the up-market London soap opera of Liz and her mostly media friends (actually rather a comforting easy read); two, the Southeast Asian travelogues of Stephen and Liz; and three. Well, three can be a meditation in the mind of one character or another, or straight from Drabble's own mind. It tends to have a vatic, liturgical ring to it, and to be in the historical present or the future tense, often punctuated by unanswerable questions:

Is it Rose's fault that Konstantin is a sweet bird of death, a mourning dove, a destroyer, driven by childhood responsibilities to haunt battlefields and widows and orphans and starving children?

Is it Rose's fault that Stephen, whom she has never met, lies dead in an unmarked grave? Is it Rose's fault that Konstantin has been through the slough of despond and dwelt in the valley of the shadow? This is the language she gave him, these the images, and this the pain.

This sort of thing doesn't get one anywhere, especially in this case, where Drabble has already explained that Konstantin and Rose (his mother) miss the party after Stephen's memorial service because “they belong to a different world and a different density. They have wandered into this story from the old-fashioned, Freudian, psychological novel, and they cannot mix and mingle with the guests of Liz Headleand. They should never have been invited.”

The remark about the old-fashioned Freudian novel sounds as though Drabble meant The Gates of Ivory to be a new kind. In fact its structure is at least as old as War and Peace: births, love affairs, marriages, and career moves within a group of linked characters are intercut with the march of history. The pattern has built-in irony and pathos. The difference is that Tolstoy's characters are affected by history; Prince Andrew's death alone changes the destiny of almost all the others. Stephen's death doesn't affect anyone much, not even Liz; and it is not thrust upon him by history but is the result of a caprice of his own. The rest of the English characters are safe from history, mere foils to it; and therefore—or so it seems—their creators can't help presenting them with a certain disdain. They can't rise above soap opera level. A bit of the old-fashioned Freudian stuff might have given them life instead of just liveliness. Still, lively and entertaining they certainly are. Drabble cannot help being a lively and entertaining writer—Tolstoy put in reflective passages about history which many readers skip. It might be a good idea to skip Drabble's incantations.

The Gates of Ivory ends with a prophecy. The last paragraph is about Mrs. Akrun's missing son Mitra. He has joined the Khmer Rouge.

He will march on, armed, blooded, bloodied, a rusty Chinese rifle at his back. Many have died and many more will die in their attempt to maim and capture him. He grows and grows, he multiplies. Terribly, he smiles. He is legion. He has not been told that he is living at the end of history. He does not care whether his mother lives or dies. He marches on. He is multitudes.

The new kind of novel, then, must be about multitudes. Going through Stephen's notes. Liz discovered that this was what he was thinking about: “the Crowd, Genocide, and the Numbers Game.” How many Libyans were killed by Rameses II, how many Persians and Indians by Tamburlaine, how many Romans by the Iceni, how many Congolese by the Belgians, how many Armenians, Jews. Bangladeshis, Soviet Russians, Vietnamese, Cambodians in the twentieth century? To write, a novel on this subject is a huge undertaking and not a very promising one; and it doesn't really suit Drabble. Her talent is for storytelling in general and for pinpointing British nuances in particular. Fortunately, she does quite a lot of both in The Gates of Ivory, and uses quite a lot of the “reasonably experienced” novelist's techniques: “a certain amount of trickiness, a certain deployment of not-quite-acceptable coincidences,” and so on; quite enough to enter her book for the prize just founded by the bookselling chain W. H. Smith for “a thumping good read.”

Hermione Lee (review date 8 June 1992)

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SOURCE: “Unnatural Curiosity,” in The New Republic, June 8, 1992, pp. 41-2, 44.

[In the following review, Lee offers mixed assessment of The Gates of Ivory. As Lee concludes, “The novel achieves a kind of gallant success out of failure.”]

Almost at the end of this ending of a trilogy—The Gates of Ivory follows The Radiant Way (1987) and A Natural Curiosity (1989)—two characters are pushed out of the concluding scene. They are in the wrong novel. “They belong to a different world and a different density. They have wandered into this story from the old-fashioned, Freudian, psychological novel. … There is not time for them here.” So closure is refused, any idea of a climax dissipated in the possibility of other stories that might have been told. This apologetic, even embarrassed narrator has been making her presence felt in all three books. In A Natural Curiosity she says that the reader may know more about one of the characters “than this story is able to tell.” She forgets the age of another character, and asks you what you think a suitable ending for her might be. In The Gates of Ivory, she exhibits some queasiness about having “characters,” “individuals,” at all, in a story that (she ventures, equivocatingly) is “at least in part about numbers.” In all three books, she asks very many rhetorical questions.

Narration in bad faith is a twentieth-century commonplace. But the insistently anxious, responsible voice that Drabble uses in her trilogy is distinguished by its nostalgia for moral authority, as though a truth-telling liberal humanist like George Eliot or E. M. Forster had been forced to dress up as a postmodernist. So, while the narrative keeps dismantling itself, we are learning lessons about life: “This was the lesson of the '80s. … Appetites have no natural limits. They cannot be sated.”

The interest, as well as the problem, of the trilogy, which becomes particularly intriguing in the last and the best of the novels, is the gap between its personal materials and its conceptual ambitions. People die, marry, fall suddenly in love, get pregnant, gossip, give parties, grieve, and bicker, just as they used to in A Summer Bird-Cage or The Millstone, back in the '60s when the Drabble “world” seemed so satisfyingly real to a generation of young, white, middle-class British women readers. The important thing now, Drabble insists, is not so much what people do as what they think. Or, rather, whether what they are thinking makes them do anything. Take the suicide of Vietnam veterans. “It makes one think. And Liz thought.”

This ineffectual little paragraph is typical of the book's procedures. It seems irritating and fatuous. But after all, what do most of us do about what we ingest from newspapers and books and the media, from “the fermenting sludge” of world information? Like us, these characters mostly just think and talk about their weighty list of topics: world aid, genocide, war, refugees, governments. “They discussed …” “They discussed …” And meanwhile normal middle-class habits persist: Liz dips her amaretto into her black coffee while discussing Pol Pot, or wonders whether she can get to the store in time to buy semi-skimmed milk while “thinking about” massacres, crowds, and orphans.

In the first two novels, the seesaw between the habitual and the atrocious, the taken-for-granted and the alien, is meant to expose the frightening psychic roots of a nation's behavior under Thatcherism. The Radiant Way began on the eve of the 1980s, with the shedding of old opinions: “Stuffy woolly shabby old liberal vests and comforters were left piled on the shore … the conventions were changing. … Change is painful.” Through the preoccupations of its three middle-aged women characters—Liz Headleand, a (divorcing) psychotherapist; Esther Breuer, a solitary, secretive art historian; and Alix Bowen, married, left-wing, living in the north of England, who has become involved in visiting a psychotic murderer in prison—the fate of Britain under Thatcher is linked to obscure, private areas of fear and trouble.

But these relations—for example, between a national loss of compassion and an individual capacity for savagery—are rather awkwardly negotiated, and often the attempt to find connections between the dreadfulness of the individual and the society looks merely like a gripe at how nasty things are getting for right-thinking English liberals. In one passage in A Natural Curiosity, Liz's sister Shirley observes a motorway service station:

The room is full of waifs, witches, grotesques. Shirley has never seen such a miserable collection of people, such a gallery of unfortunates. What has gone wrong? Is this some outing for the disadvantaged, the disabled? No, it is Britain, round about Budget Day, March 1987. Shirley is appalled. An immense obese woman spoons scarlet jelly from a cardboard dish. Two thin tall lanky youths devour a mountain of chips and swill from cans of coca-cola. A young couple with a baby, pale like convicts, glare into space as the baby wails and wails. An old man on crutches picks uneaten chips and crusts from the dirty plates on the passing conveyor belt. … Shirley does not know whether she feels sorry for these tramps, these refugees, these motorway wanderers, or whether she feels she has nothing to do with them at all. Is she still part of the human race? Is this the human race, or are these shadows, ghosts, lingering afterthoughts? This cannot be what is meant.

“The horror, the horror”: but these atrocity stories (a recurring phrase in the trilogy) read parochially. A disgusted list of horrid sights in a cafeteria doesn't penetrate the essence of human evil. Drabble has a habit of using the word “deeply”: “Stephen Cox's thoughts about human nature are deeply lonely“; “His mother was … deeply, deeply self-centered”; “As a child, she had been deeply self-conscious.” This is part of the novel's intentional chattiness, its fabrication of an intimate, even clumsy speaking voice. But it also suggests the fiction's anxiety about going deep.

Yet The Gates of Ivory makes a surprising leap. The same strategies are used as before—the discussions, the questions, the lists, the historically helpless present-tense narration. But this time they do seem to get us “deeper.” The “unnatural curiosity” that pushes some of Drabble's characters beyond their habitual existences and assumptions into risky inquiries into evil or barbarism finds, here, a more challenging subject.

Edging quietly through the two earlier novels is the character of Stephen Cox. He is more radical than the others (in The Radiant Way he wants to abolish “all privileges, all titles, all honors, all degrees” … “to establish equality of income, and see what happened”). He is romantic, nomadic (he reminds me rather of Bruce Chatwin), and full of the “fatal curiosity” that makes some people quest “beyond the limits of the known world” and come face to face with “the gorgon.” Though his novel about the Paris Commune has won the Booker Prize, life as an English man of letters no longer appeals. When Liz offers him London life in the 1980s as material enough for a writer (“There's plenty of human nature here at home”), Stephen replies wistfully: “There is nothing to keep me here.”

He seems to be repudiating, on behalf of his author, the very materials that have made her name—that have, indeed, given their name to a particular kind of fiction, the “Drabble novel.” Now, instead, Stephen and his author cross the border from Good Time to Bad Time. “Some cross the bridge into the Bad Time, into the Under World, and return to tell the tale. Some go deliberately. Some step into Bad Time suddenly. It may be waiting, there, in the next room.”

The crossing of this border is deliberate and gratuitous. Stephen Cox turns his back on the Western world—and the thick, realist, humanist Western novel—in quest of Pol Pot. The motives for this quest are kept simple and hazy, so that generalized questions can be attached to it. Stephen Cox wants to find out what went wrong with Pol Pot's vision of “the greatest reconstruction project of the twentieth century,” which was “to take Cambodia out of history, and make it self-sufficient.” Like Alix Bowen with her murderer, he is fatally intrigued by evil, by “atrocity stories,” and by theories of evil. (Hannah Arendt is mentioned, naturally, but not pursued; “evil” here seems more impenetrable than banal.)

Drabble frequently does her thinking here through literary analogies, Shakespeare and Conrad particularly, and Heart of Darkness provides a somewhat predictable model. But it is Conrad treatment of the crowd, of savagery en masse, that is dwelt on (especially in his Victory), rather than the more obvious analogy of Stephen with Marlow and Pol Pot with Kurtz. Conrad raises the question of whether the individual is “progressive and flexible, while the mass primitive and punitive.” “Was the charismatic leadership of Pol Pot a socializing influence, binding the exploited peasant of Cambodia into a purposeful society? Or was it a barbaric, primitive influence?” “Discuss,” the passage ends, with that irritating and anxious drop into helplessness that is so often found in the novel. But what else can the novel do: Solve the questions?

The novelist's refusal to solve matches Stephen's failure to arrive. Instead he is helped and hindered, as in all Odyssean narratives, by a series of guides. The wonderfully alluring, ruthless, and improbable “Miss Porntip,” whom he meets on the plane, inducts him into the material pleasures of Bangkok, where “it is not necessary to see poor people and horrid places.” Miss Porntip's commitment to Good Time, conveyed in comically lyrical transworld English, is a victory over a harsh peasant family life. Her moment came, she says, with “the time of the economic power of the women.” Winner of beauty contests, collector of jewels and lovers, she is interested in money, pleasure, and celebrity, and her tone is “light, neutral, quizzical.” She inhabits the Land of Never Mind, and she is very well done.

Others of Stephen's mentors are not so hedonistic. Madame Savet Akrun, sitting in the Displaced Person's Camp, Site Ten, on the border near Aranyaprathet, hoping against hope for news of her son, who has probably been killed by the Khmer Rouge, provides Stephen with one story among the “thousands and thousands of separate, lost, intercrossing lives” in the border camps. Helen Anstey, a disillusioned ex-Marxist working in the camps, teaches him some plain facts. A Japanese journalist, Akira, hung about with high-tech gadgetry and yet fanatically utopian about the Khmer Rouge, urges him on. And the charming, popular, dangerous Konstantin Vassiliou, free-lance photographer, at home all over the world, leads him further on his quest (for dubious personal reasons), and at the last abandons him.

“It is as though that small, expendable country, that hole in the map of the world, were trying to speak to them.” At home, Stephen's friends hear nothing of him. Then Liz Headleand receives a mystery package—a piece of human bone, fragments of Stephen's writing, cryptic messages—that she must decode. This is where the novel starts. Like the reader, she has to retrace, and to understand, Stephen's journey. Questions of what is “real” dog her all the way.

Drabble has set herself a tricky job. She has to explain as much as possible about Cambodia while not seeming to do so. (As a result there are some rather stage-managed conversations about Angkor Wat, the refugee camps, American involvement.) She wants to make us interested in a disappearing character. And she means to make us think hard about numbers rather than about individuals. So we are tugged between the author's ruminations on her larger concerns and the lively voices of Miss Porntip or the perky, jokey Hattie Osborne, Stephen's last contact in England, who injects a good deal of brio into the London end of the novel. Some of these characters are allowed quite satisfying happy endings, but we aren't sure how much this is supposed to matter.

The effect of the whole enterprise is peculiar: irresolute, repetitive, awkward, but unexpectedly moving, perhaps because of its uncertainties. Drabble doesn't write a conclusive account of Cambodian history, any more than the earlier novels succeeded in accounting for Thatcherism. She can't, in the end, explain what evil is. But she does recognize how most of us perceive and respond to worlds that are alien to us. And her sadness is good, her haunted dreaming of what is lost or dead or irrecoverable. Even at its most stagy and formalized, her dialogue strikes a plangent note: “‘I can't stick it all together.’” (Stephen says this to Miss Porntip, sounding like his author.)

“Sex, politics, the past, myself, I am all in pieces.”

“Who can stick these things together? Why expect?” she demanded.

“But in me,” persisted Stephen, “the gaps are so great. … I have no cohesion. … I seek a land where the water flows uphill. I seek simplicity.”

“Is no simplicity. Is only way onwards. Is no way back to village. No way back to childhood. Is finished, all finished. All over world, village is finished. English village, Thai village, American village. Is burned, is chopped, is washed away. Is no way backwards. Water find level. Is no way back.”

The novel takes its title from Homer's gates, through which the false dreams, the illusions, enter in the Odyssey. The real dreams, the prophetic ones, come through the gates of horn. But, though it doesn't call itself “the gates of horn” (since it is continually asking what is “real”), some truths do reach us through the gates of this uneasy, conscientious, self-doubting fiction. Truths, that is, not so much about politics or history as about what fiction can try for. The novel achieves a kind of gallant success out of failure. It cannot answer many of its own questions, but it knows how to ask them.

Judith Grossman (review date July 1992)

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SOURCE: “Good Time, Bad Time,” in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. IX, Nos. 10-11, July, 1992, p. 30.

[In the following review, Grossman offers tempered criticism of The Gates of Ivory.]

Margaret Drabble's trilogy on the lives of intellectual women of her own generation in England comes to a magisterially conceived finale with her new novel, The Gates of Ivory. Drabble has narrowed her focus from the trio of Cambridge graduates with whom she began—Liz Headleand the London psychiatrist, Alix Bowen the doer of good works, and Esther Breuer the reclusive art historian—to the first of the three. Liz, moving as a tolerant, mainstream-liberal observer in the circle of British cultural operatives, has always been Drabble's alter ego, and here she is handed a novelist's challenge: an anonymously sent package containing the personal papers of her friend Stephen Cox, a writer who has vanished on a trip to Cambodia to find out “what had happened to the dreams of Pol Pot.”

This event triggers the novel's expansion outward in multiple directions. From Liz, scanning through Stephen's clippings on the Khmer Rouge, cut to Stephen's flaky agent Hattie Osborne's memories of her last night with him before he left England, cut to episodes of Stephen's doomed journey to Bangkok, Hanoi, Phnom Penh and the Cambodian forest. Then cut to the Cambodian refugee camps, and a bereaved mother whose photograph, circulated worldwide, makes the reputation of young photojournalist Konstantin Vassiliou—who with his mother Rose appeared in Drabble's The Needle's Eye some twenty years ago.

Thus the narrative grows into a global catalog of randomly linked lives. Plotlines often fade out, although at the end of the book Liz's memorial gathering for Stephen pulls the London crowd together for review. And within each episode itself the dominant stylistic device is again the catalog, whether of the contents of Liz's old handbag (watch for deadly superabsorbent tampons), or the varieties of brothels in Bangkok (including Red-Indian style, geisha style, and wedding style complete with gowned brides and organ music), or the jumble of international refugee-aid organizations active on the frontier: “Oxfam, UNBRO, ICRC, UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO, FPP, FHH, WR, COER.” And, inevitably, of Pol Pot's continuing atrocities.

To control this flood of referential detail Drabble invokes a pair of organizing categories, Good Time and Bad Time. These appear to correlate mainly with life in the prosperous, politically stable West on the one hand, and on the other with Third World immiseration under violent, militarized regimes: London vs. Phnom Penh. But the concept of Bad Time also stretches to include evils erupting from within, as in the case of Alix Bowen's protégé, the serial killer Paul Whitmore. And it is occasionally hinted that the West and its ideologies are implicated as a source of Bad Time in Southeast Asia. “How could a French infection from the Sorbonne drive this quiet, faraway peasant people mad?” Drabble asks, having noted that Pol Pot went to Paris as a student in electrical engineering and came back a revolutionary ideologue.

Such ethical questioning of Western domination invites more searching consideration than The Gates of Ivory gives it; the fact that Drabble holds back suggests where her current work is most vulnerable. She has been criticized for shortchanging sympathetic representations of character in favor of such features as her appended bibliography of nonfictional sources. And she has openly declared herself a kind of social historian rather than a novelist per se. In fact, she has moved her work closer to an established European mode of socially and historically conscious fiction. In America, we tend to enforce (at real cost) the territorial grouping of literature with psychology as being primarily concerned with individual realities, while assigning the collective picture to history, sociology and cultural studies. I would frankly honor Margaret Drabble for resisting this kind of segregation, which is especially damaging to women writers, given the pressures on them to stay inside a domestic frame.

The problem with The Gates of Ivory is rather its attempt to cover too broad a canvas, which results in a kind of conscientious skimming. Instead of reaching toward a prophetic nightmare of the barbarized, generic Khmer Rouge guerrilla (“Terribly, he smiles. He is legion. He has not been told that he is living at the end of history …”), might she not have focused closer to home on the singular decadence of the European revolutionary Left?

But this raises a crucially difficult question for the novelist: what is the subject that is at once vitally my own and that of my culture; and further, at once my own and that of everyone? Nadine Gordimer is one of the few who have succeeded in formulating an answer. Margaret Drabble, despite her confident handling of the surface dramas of her world, appears to be searching still.

Suzanne Keen (review date 14 August 1992)

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SOURCE: “Miss Porntip Sends Flowers,” in Commonweal, August 14, 1992, pp. 30-1.

[In the following review, Keen offers favorable assessment of The Gates of Ivory.]

In The Gates of Ivory Margaret Drabble brings to a satisfying close her three-volume diagnosis of England's contemporary condition. The project began with Liz and Charles Headleand's New Year's party celebrating the end of the seventies in The Radiant Way (1987). In this novel of Thatcher's Britain, Drabble follows the fortunes of the Cambridge friends, Liz Headleand, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer, who make up the three-legged stool of perspectives upon which she balances her investigative narrative. Of the second volume, A Natural Curiosity (1989), Drabble remarks, “I had not intended to write a sequel, but felt that the earlier novel was in some way unfinished, that it had asked questions it had not answered, and introduced people who had hardly been allowed to speak.” A Natural Curiosity nonetheless extends Drabble's relentless anatomy of Britain by means of her three major characters, Liz, Alix, and Esther. “No,” says Alix, at the end of the novel, “England's not a bad country. It's just a mean, cold, ugly, divided, tired, clapped-out, post-imperial, post-industrial slag-heap covered in polystyrene hamburger cartons. It's not a bad country at all. I love it.”

The Gates of Ivory places England in a global context, decentering Drabble's familiar fictional world by tracing Stephen Cox, Liz's absent friend, to Cambodia. In the process, Esther and Alix are relegated to minor subplots; the old triumvirate is reconfigured into Liz's story, Stephen's story, and Hattie Osborne's first-person narrative. Holding together these disparate, crisscrossing, and disconnected trajectories is an old-fashioned overt narrator with a voice, and opinions, of her own.

This narrator announces the subject: “This is a novel—if novel it be—about Good Time and Bad Time.” Cambodia stands for Bad Time in The Gates of Ivory and into Bad Time first Stephen and then Liz go, equipped with self-deprecation of and desire for the heart of darkness. Drabble's Bangkok and Cambodia are departures for a novelist of the British middle-class experience. Her other travelers stick to airplanes, hotels, and restaurants, and in The Gates of Ivory she is still most at home in descriptions of tourists' venues. Yet she devises in the savvy Miss Porntip a credible guide for Stephen and, later, for Liz. Miss Porntip knows better than to enter the Bad Time of the Khmer Rouge and Stephen's further explorations feel rather researched, an impression strengthened by the presence of a bibliography at the end of the novel—if novel it be!

The book begins engagingly when a package containing a manuscript in Stephen's handwriting, papers, postcards, newspaper cuttings, and two joints of a human finger bone arrives in Liz's office and transforms Stephen's prolonged absence into a mystery. Despite the narrator's self-conscious declaration of the narrative options (“Some cross the bridge into the Bad Time, into the Underworld, and return to tell the tale. Some go deliberately. Some step into Bad Time suddenly. It may be waiting, there, in the next room”), the novel spills untidily in many directions. It proceeds by juxtaposing sequences and scenes, as Drabble's novels often do. In the beginning of The Radiant Way, for instance, we see Alix at her dressing table, Esther walking, and Liz daydreaming as she prepares for the evening's party. Drabble resorts to this technique of itemized simultaneity only at the end of The Gates of Ivory, when the characters come together for the party—a memorial service—that closes the trilogy. Yet here the gesture of completion is undermined by the narrator's assertion that “There is no way that Konstantin and Rose Vassiliou could have attended the reception in Dresden Road.” Readers familiar with Drabble's earlier novels will have recognized these characters from The Needle's Eye (1972). In fact it is not at all necessary to have read any previous Drabble novel to enjoy this one, for the narrator generously explains that “They belong to a different world and a different density. They have wandered into this story from the old-fashioned, Freudian, psychological novel, and they cannot mix and mingle with the guests of Lix Headleand. They should never have been invited. There is not time for them here.” In a fictional world governed by the simultaneity and proximity of Good Time and Bad Time, the amazing Miss Porntip's flowers can arrive by air mail for the memorial service of her deceased lover, but the certainties of the psychological novel may no longer fit.

In The Gates of Ivory, Drabble's characters are obsessed by Conrad, but the novel's strengths and weaknesses are Trollopian. Plot is not the strong suit here. Connections and coincidences abound, despite the dedication of this fictional world to lost information and the impossibility of conveying knowledge completely. The strong presence of a commenting, judging, and sometimes lecturing narrator who breaks in to undermine the illusion mixes with a diverse cast of characters possessed of convincing talk, actions, and social relations to produce a flavor familiar and delightful to those who enjoy Trollope.

Drabble is her own novelist, of course, with a distinctive tone. I most enjoy the way she deploys objects in oblique metaphorical relation to one another. In this novel the finger bone that arrives in the mail reappears at later stages of the narrative; it acts as the marker of past and present narratives. As the division between Liz's world and Stephen's closes when Liz finds Miss Porntip in Bangkok, Liz goes shopping for a charm of her own. The scene in which Liz tries on six rings and buys the seventh, with Miss Porntip's expert approval, links the two overlapping and awkwardly fitting quests more convincingly than any intervention by the narrator. When shopping fever gives way to the continuing search for Stephen, Liz finds herself beset in Saigon by an unexpected menstrual period with only two battered and ancient tampons. Toxic Shock Syndrome knocks Liz into the Bad Time of Dream Time, which brings her closer to Stephen Cox than will her search in the real world. This chain of objects—finger bone, ruby, tampon—solidifies the presence of these characters in impossibly coexisting worlds, in Bad Time and Good Time.

Gayle Greene (review date 31 August-7 September 1992)

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SOURCE: “The Horror,” in The Nation, August 31-September 7, 1992, pp. 217-20.

[In the following review, Greene offers positive evaluation of The Gates of Ivory.]

The Gates of Ivory begins as Liz Headleand—familiar from The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity, the preceding novels of the trilogy that Margaret Drabble here completes—receives a curious package in her post one morning, a package containing part of a human finger bone. It arrives from Stephen Cox, last seen at the end of The Radiant Way, on his way to Cambodia to write a play about Pol Pot; it contains fragments of a prose manuscript and a play, some journals, postcards, sketches and a booklet of “Atrocity Stories,” but no message or instruction. As Liz and various other friends of Stephen try to piece together the meaning of this “text“—is it a joke, an S.O.S., a novel or evidence of “craziness on a grand scale”?—the reader contemplates the tragedy of Cambodia. The novel engages us, simply, as a missing persons story, and more deeply as a mystery on a “grand theme.”

Drabble's canvases have become larger in the course of her thirty-odd-year career. She began in the sixties with works that associated her with “women's issues” (e.g., The Millstone, The Waterfall) and moved, in the seventies and eighties, to large-scale works that offer vast panoramas of English society and analyses of the condition of England (The Ice Age, The Middle Ground, The Radiant Way). In The Gates of Ivory, she reaches out to bring England into a global context. This final installment in the unnamed trilogy is in some sense the most ambitious of her eleven novels to date.

As we cut back and forth between Stephen's journey to Cambodia and Liz's efforts to track him, we see that Stephen himself is by no means clear about “what on earth he is doing here.” He is fascinated by Pol Pot, that much he knows. When Liz asked him why he had picked Cambodia, “when the world was full of atrocities waiting for novelists, poets and screenwriters to descend upon them like vultures,” he had said, “Because it's so extreme, I suppose. \Pol Pot] had a great project, you know … the greatest reconstruction project of the twentieth century. He was going to take Cambodia out of history, and make it self-sufficient. He was going to begin again.” Stephen, who won a Booker Prize for his novel on the Paris Commune, shares Pol Pot's revolutionary fervor and cataclysmic vision, and he shares his nostalgia as well: “I seek a land where the water flows uphill. I seek simplicity.” Though no apologist for Pol Pot, he sees Cambodia as a great experiment gone wrong, “the death of a nation, the death of communism, the death of hope.” Its failure meant the death of Stephen's faith as well, and so he turned to the Orient to “kick-start his imagination,” in search of a story. Finally, however, Stephen goes because he has no reason to stay, and both he and Liz keep returning to the conversation they had shortly before he left: “There's nothing to keep me here,” he had said, and she had “thought … of saying something rash and blind like ‘You could stay here for me,’” but “had said nothing.”

Stephen thus joins the “desultory, ragged band of witnesses” who are drawn to “the bridge”:

Imagine yourself standing by a bridge over a river on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. Behind you, in the little town of Aranyaprathet, bristling with aerials and stuffed with Good Time merchandise, connected by road and rail and telephone and post office and gossip and newspapers and banking systems with all the Good Times of the West. Before you, the Bad Time of Cambodia. …

Many are drawn to stare across this bridge. … \S]ilently, attentively, one after another, they come, and take up the position, and then turn back. … For different reasons and for the same reason they are drawn here. … They are asking a question, but there is no answer.

The Gates of Ivory is about the attempt to comprehend Bad Time from within the comforts and complacencies of Good Time. As such it is an appropriate sequel to A Natural Curiosity, which concerned the fascination of Alix (Liz's best friend) with the serial murderer and decapitator Paul Whitmore; only here we contemplate serial murder gone big, gone political, and are asked to take in the “Big numbers. Mass destructions. Mass graves”—the twentieth century. What is the cause, what can account for such atrocities? characters repeatedly ask. Like Alix contemplating Paul Whitmore, they ask whether men like Hitler, like Pol Pot, are born wrong or driven wrong by wrongs done to them. Is it nature or nurture that makes such hard hearts? Alix unearths a bad mother and a childhood trauma in Whitmore's history, yet she knows this does not finally explain him—“he is as incomprehensible, as opaque as he ever was.” Alix—like those drawn to the bridge—is asking a question to which there is no answer.

Alix speculates, further, about her own motives for asking: for the novel is also an attempt to understand what drives us to seek out “the horror,” to write about it, to represent it. Stephen is following a long line of novelist-adventurers—Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Paul Theroux, William Golding—who have been attracted by a spirit of quest, of conquest; and Stephen feels special affinities with Conrad, “drawn to his loneliness, his restlessness, his temptation to despair.” There are also the journalist-adventurers like Malcolm Caldwell and Sean Flynn and Konstantin Vassiliou—the dashing young photographer Stephen hooks up with in Bangkok, an Easy Rider-type millionaire whose photographs of the refugee camps include a particularly haunting photo of a woman, Mme Akrun, staring tragically, asking “Where is my son?”; a photo that stares down from walls in various relief agencies and turns up in the package that Stephen has sent to Liz. (Mme Akrun also figures as a character in the novel, sought out by both Stephen and Liz, who wish to hear the desolate story of her missing son, Mitra.)

But when Konstantin Vassiliou suggests that he and Stephen collaborate on a book, Stephen is reluctant to write the text for a book of “glossy photographs of tragic people.” Though Konstantin insists “I photograph life, not death,” Stephen wonders “if this is so. If it is possible,” and tries to quell his doubts about photojournalism—“Why, as a trade, should it be any worse than his own?”—but he cannot.

How, indeed, does photojournalism differ from Stephen's trade as a novelist? (Or from Drabble's?) In the course of his disillusionment, Stephen decides that it does not, and ends up renouncing his own prizewinning novel:

He had cashed in on the Commune, he had turned it into fiction and sold it. The Commune had done him proud on the market. Gide had sold the Congo. Malraux had sold the spoils of Angkor. This was what writers did. They seemed to purvey messages, but in truth they sold commodities. Art was nothing but a trading speculation. Rimbaud had sold poetry and skins and gold and ivory and guns and slaves.

So Stephen repudiates those writers of his youth—Rimbaud, Malraux, Gide—who fed his dangerous fantasies: “Beware what you read when young. Beware what you feed upon. It may bring you to this shore, this brink, this bridge.” Writers, too, “flash you, print you, fix you, sell you,” are no better than the “devouring camerafolk” who batten on atrocities and turn life and death into photo opportunity—“The cameras whirr and click.The vultures circle.” It is appropriate that Stephen himself be similarly preyed upon, when his agent Harriet Osborne conceives the idea of buying “an option” on his life before she even knows he is dead; and she is already too late, for a film crew has beat her to him, descending on his remains for a documentary. Representation is the ultimate colonialism, and worse, it is cannibalism—art feeds upon death and life feeds upon art, in a kind of macabre food chain. Drabble is exploring these vampirish, ghoulish relations—art and life, life and art.

This novel is not only about the impossibility of comprehending Bad Time from the perspective of Good Time, it is also about the ambiguity inherent in the attempt: “It would be easy to say that we grow fat and greedy, that we thrive on atrocities, that we eagerly consume suffering,” but “it is not as simple as that.” Drabble reveals the horribly mixed motives of human action, the intermingling of heroism, despair, idealism and delusion, the fine line between battening off atrocity and attempting to alleviate it. While some go out there playing at being heroes, at being Errol Flynn, spurred by a heroism that is a kind of despair—as Konstantin admits, “it's quite easy to be a hero … if you don't care if you die”—others “do not seem to be here for death or glory, for their name on a byline, for their faces in front of the camera, for the hope of a Pulitzer Prize.” At the refugee camps there is a band of workers, anomalous in these self-interested times, displaced persons of the West, working “against the grain … shoring up the impossible, trying to make water flow up-hill.” What are they playing at? Even the kindest, even Alix herself (Alix suspects) have mixed motives: “Is it death itself that attracts her, that compels her” to Paul Whitmore? When Harriet Osborne observes a “weirdo” reading The Road to the Killing Fields, she dismisses his interest as “hardly wholesome”; but then, she wonders, “whose is?” Is Drabble's own interest wholesome? Is this a story to “pass on,” as Toni Morrison asks at the end of Beloved? Are atrocities to be “passed on,” in the sense of communicated, or “passed” on, in the sense of let drop?

Besides questioning the morality of art, Drabble questions the truth of art, approaching these age-old issues from new angles. The Gates of Ivory is about the difficulty of distinguishing “true” from “false” representations of experience—representations we can trust from representations that “deceive,” messages that come through the gates of horn from those that come through the gates of ivory. The gates of ivory, as Drabble's epigraph (from the Odyssey) tells us, “deceive us with false images of what will never come to pass,” whereas the gates of horn “speak plainly of what could be and will be.” But in this postindustrial, postcolonial, postmodern age, our experience is so thoroughly mediated—in the literal sense of being shaped by the media and by technological methods of information dissemination—that it is difficult to know which is which, which is “real.” “Stephen Cox meets a Kampuchean refugee who is playing the role of a Kampuchean refugee in an American semi-fictionalized documentary about Kampuchean refugees. He meets extras who have worked on The Killing Fields, some of them survivors of the killing fields. … The gates of ivory, the gates of horn. The shadow world.” Seeing a documentary about Cambodia, Liz wonders, “How can one believe anything anyone says? How can one even believe the evidence of one's own eyes? … They could be actors dressed \as Khmer Rouge],” though “the bones are bones, it is true. One could be sure of them.” Bones and blood are absolutes, and Liz and Stephen keep returning to them as to the bottom line—though on the tables of a bar in Saigon, the skulls, purported to be American, turn out to be plastic.

All of which makes it difficult to crack the code of Stephen's bizarre text or decipher the message Liz returns with: As in Heart of Darkness, where Marlow sets forth in search of Kurtz, so Stephen sets forth seeking Pol Pot; but Drabble adds layerings to Conrad's tale, for when Liz sets out to track Stephen “into the heart, she supposed, of darkness,” she turns quester, becomes Marlow—which makes Stephen into the Kurtz of the story. (Pol Pot, all this while, remains absent, silent, making no pronouncement, not even one so elliptical as “the horror.”) And in the same way that Marlow represents the stolid virtues that enable him to return to the land of the living but make it difficult for him fully to comprehend Kurtz, Liz represents virtues and values that allow her to return, but render her finally incapable of understanding Stephen.

But Liz takes off in response to a connection with Stephen that is quite different from the spirit of disconnectedness in which Stephen had left; and if she does not return with a message, exactly, she does return to make gestures toward reconstructing and reconnecting, which to some extent atone for her earlier failures. The means to rebuilding are those acts of love and “responsibility” (a word that recurs) that provide an alternative to the barren destructiveness of male bravado, to the heroism that is despair, and are antidote to both Stephen's and Pol Pot's deathbound idealism. Against the dead-endedness of Pol Pot and Stephen, Drabble suggests means of re-creating that have to do with relationship and community—means not so cataclysmic as Pol Pot's but (one hopes) more effective. Can there be an art that commemorates life, not death, and that builds from and toward creation and community rather than destruction? The Gates of Ivory represents the hope that there can.

Drabble is well aware of the impossibility of containing the Cambodian tragedy within “a conventional plot sequence” that offers “a moving, human-interest story, with a happy ending”:

Such a narrative will not do. The mismatch between narrative and subject is too great. Why impose the story line of individual fate upon a story which is at least in part to do with numbers? A queasiness, a moral scruple overcomes the writer at the prospect of selecting individuals from the mass of history, from the human soup. Why this one, why not another? … Perhaps, for this subject matter, one should seek the most disjunctive, the most disruptive, the most uneasy and incompetent of forms, a form that offers not a grain of comfort or repose.

And her own form is to some extent disjunctive: As we puzzle over the bits and pieces of Stephen's manuscript and move in and out of a myriad of consciousnesses, we are put in the position of the characters in the novel, cryptologists trying to decipher Stephen's text and the Cambodian tragedy.

Still, Drabble does offer comfort and repose, a focus on individuals, happy endings and a certain tendency to wind things up—and this is appropriate to the end of a trilogy though perhaps not so appropriate to the subject she has undertaken: The resolutions seem a bit pat. This may be why she ends with a gesture toward the kind of experience her novel cannot encompass, envisioning a Mitra who eludes “the family embrace”:

Mitra Akrun has been much invoked. … But he will not respond to the summons. … He will march on, armed, blooded, bloodied, a rusty Chinese rifle at his back. Many have died and many more will die in their attempt to maim and capture him. He grows and grows, he multiplies. … He is legion. He has not been told that he is living at the end of history. He does not care whether his mother lives or dies. He marches on. He is multitudes.

And this gesture toward the limits of her project is right, for there is—there is bound to be—a certain dissatisfaction with it.

What I love about this novel is what I love about the best of Drabble's works—it's rich and complex and allusive and textured and intertextual and takes on the big questions: life and art, representation and responsibility, the possibility of political action, the question of human nature. It's a novel of ideas at a time when most fiction seems deliberately lobotomized; it's major in an age of minimalism. What I find disturbing is perhaps built into a project that takes on the unknowable, the unthinkable, the impossibility of conceiving of Bad Time from the perspective of Good Time, of understanding and expressing “the horror” within novelistic form; though I also have a sense, which I wish the novel had explored, that specific political factors, such as the U.S. bombing of Cambodia in the seventies, had something to do with unleashing “the horror” onto this land. Yet, I do think that this novel is doing something important politically. After Liz receives Stephen's package, she becomes obsessed with “the unfolding retrospective horror story of skull landscapes and killing fields” and sees Cambodia everywhere; she feels that Stephen has “posted” Cambodia to her. So, too, did I feel Drabble had posted Cambodia to me: The novel is an act of commemoration, a story to pass on—to tell and remember.

Roberta Rubenstein (essay date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: “Fragmented Bodies/Selves/Narratives: Margaret Drabble's Postmodern Turn,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 136-55.

[In the following essay, Rubenstein examines postmodern literary experiments in Drabble's novels. As Rubenstein contends, Drabble employs images of bodily injury, psychological fragmentation, and narrative disjunction to express the incomprehensibility of twentieth century experience.]

Beginning with her novels of the mid-seventies, Margaret Drabble has noticeably shifted her emphasis from an earlier concentration on the moral and domestic dilemmas of her female characters to narratives that reflect—and reflect upon—a problematic, violent, and arbitrary universe. From The Waterfall, The Realms of Gold, and The Middle Ground (published in the late sixties and seventies) to her most recent series of novels, The Radiant Way, A Natural Curiosity, and The Gates of Ivory (published during the late eighties and early nineties), her characters suffer bodily injury and fragmentation as terrorism, crime, random accidents, and disasters seep into and disrupt their lives. I would like to consider the evolution of Drabble's darkening vision from two angles: first, the way in which the imagery of bodily injury and fragmentation mirrors and represents Drabble's increasingly pessimistic view of contemporary life; and second, the fact that the narratives themselves have become structurally fragmented, mirroring the author's evolution from a focus on domestic manners toward a more socially and politically sweeping and “disruptive” (Drabble's term) form that experiments with postmodernist narrative structures.

An extensive critical bibliography demonstrates scholarly efforts to delimit and categorize the slippery term “postmodernism” in literary discourse. It has been employed to define a historical period succeeding the period of literary modernism in this century as well as to delineate formal elements of narrative that diverge both structurally and philosophically from realist and modernist conventions. As Linda Hutcheon observes, the task of definition is complex because a primary feature of the postmodern is its inherently paradoxical essence. “\P]ostmodernism is a contradictory phenomenon, one that uses and abuses, installs and then subverts, the very concepts it challenges.” Regarding the postmodernist novel in particular, “fiction is offered as another of the discourses by which we construct our versions of reality, and both the construction and the need for it are what are foregrounded.” The postmodern world thus offers “an infinite plurality of representations.” A significant aspect of postmodernist narratives includes the tension between the “presentation and subversion of Realist conventions“; the texts direct our attention “not to fictions of origins and ends but to the process of consciousness itself as it constructs and deconstructs such fictions.” Brian McHale posits that the “dominant” or primary mode of postmodernist narrative is ontological, in contrast to the epistemological mode of modernist narrative. “\P]ostmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like … ‘Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?’” By contrast, “modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as … ‘How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?’”

Drabble's partial turn away from the conventions of mimesis to embrace certain of these postmodernist narrative strategies—deliberate disjunctiveness in narrative structure, narrators who subvert realistic conventions by intermittently commenting directly on the text we are reading, and other strategies to be elaborated in the course of this discussion—has its sources earlier in her work, in the recurring idea of fragmentation. That idea, initially represented through imagery and plot events concerning bodily injury or literal fragmentation, ultimately evolves in Drabble's most recent fiction into a deepening trope of disjunction that is mirrored in both the thematic and structural dimensions of her narratives.

The trope of bodily injury shapes narrative events beginning as early as The Waterfall (1969), in which a serious automobile accident dramatically disrupts the passionate affair between Jane Gray and her married cousin James Otford; James is nearly fatally injured while Jane is scarcely hurt. Yet James's injury takes the form of a coma rather than physical mutilation; he eventually recovers completely. Representations of bodily injury, fragmentation, and mutilation become more marked with The Realms of Gold (1975) and The Ice Age (1977). In the first, the central character, Frances Wingate, discovers a lump in her breast; surgery leads to the welcome verdict that it is benign. In the same novel, Frances's great-aunt dies of starvation and neglect, and another member of her extended family acts out his profound depression, killing his baby daughter and himself. In The Ice Age, the central character, Anthony Keating, suffers a heart attack at the age of thirty-eight. His close friend, Kitty Friedmann, is maimed, losing a foot to a random IRA bomb that kills her husband while they are dining out in celebration of their wedding anniversary. Keating's attempt to connect the breakdown of his own body with the breakdowns of modern urban life provides an instructive foreshadowing of concerns that have since become increasingly central in Drabble's fiction. As the narrator phrases it, Anthony “could rationalize his own misfortunes, but there was no rational explanation for the sense of alarm, panic, and despondency which seemed to flow loose in the atmosphere of England.”

Like Kitty Friedmann, Hugo Mainwaring of The Middle Ground (1980) has also been maimed by random violence (although not during the present time of the narrative); a foreign correspondent, Hugo lost his forearm to a stray grenade explosion while he was reporting a story from Eritrea. In addition to that physical mutilation, Hugo has a brain-damaged child, a fact that resonates with Kate Armstrong's discovery early in the novel that she is pregnant with what turns out to be a severely deformed fetus. Hugo's attitude toward his damaged child and his physical disfigurement seem to be deliberately contrasted with Kate's coping capabilities, as suggested by her surname, “Armstrong.” After considerable inner anguish, Kate decides to terminate the pregnancy with an abortion (at the same time deterring future pregnancies with sterilization). Afterward, she faces the “blank waste of freedom,” agonizing that she has “cut out the child, but not the malady” of middle-aged stagnation. In the same novel, Kate's good friend Evelyn Stennett is partially blinded by ammonia thrown into her eyes when she inadvertently stumbles into a domestic argument between a sexually confused girl and her angry Jamaican boyfriend in a lower-income housing project. Kate wonders if the personal violence she observes around her is an expression, “a culmination of all that vaguely directed ill-will, hatred and frustration, of the terror we each now feel when walking down a concrete underpass, when we fumble for a key on our own doorstep with the sound of footsteps behind us, when an unknown car pulls up at a kerb? Belfast, Beirut, Baghdad.”

In each of these narratives (particularly in The Middle Ground, whose title overtly signals mediation or compromise), there is an uneasy tension between the optimistic drive of the traditional narrative plot—everything will turn out all right—and its pessimistic contemporary undertow: characters who are in some way damaged, psychologically if not also literally amputees, as a result of the random misfortunes of contemporary life. Drabble's major characters manage to survive through precarious balancing acts, as suggested by Kate Armstrong hobbling uncomfortably in a pair of boots with a defective heel that she never manages to have repaired, or by Liz Headleand of The Gates of Ivory, occasionally limping because of a weak ankle that was injured in an accident and mended with a metal pin.

The tension between traditional mimetic plot and contemporary narrative strategies is also signaled, in Drabble's novels of the seventies, by her use of an intrusive narrator who periodically calls attention to the fictionality of the narratives themselves. For example, in The Middle Ground the narrator intrudes shortly after the opening scene with Kate Armstrong and Hugo Mainwaring at lunch to advise the reader, “Here is an account of Kate's past history, some, if not all, of which must have led her to wherever she now is.” Following twenty pages that summarize Kate's “history” up to the present moment, the narrator avers that “her progress was not, of course, as smooth as this pr‚cis might indicate.”

While Drabble's novels of the late seventies open up her canvas to the generalized random violence of a politically and socially divisive contemporary world, her novels of the eighties and nineties further extend that darkening vision as well as her increasingly visible deviations from traditional narration. Both The Radiant Way (1987) and A Natural Curiosity (1989) are deeply preoccupied with violations of the body and with socially aberrant behavior, ranging from pedophilia and child abuse to serial murder. One of the three central female characters, the psychoanalyst Liz Headleand, becomes an analyst in search of her own past, eventually confronting the reality of her long-deceased father's pedophilia and her own sexual victimization by him during early childhood.

Moreover, in both The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity, Drabble adds further experimental riffs in the direction of postmodern self-consciousness and disruption of linear narrative within a traditional novel form. In the first of the two, Drabble parodies the interview format of the Ithaca section of James Joyce's Ulysses. Alix Bowen, suffering from insomnia, “submit\s] herself to a version of the following questionnaire”:

Q. Did she, Alix Bowen, in December 1983, consider that London was a more dangerous, more drug-infested place than it had been when Jilly Fox was convicted of various offences way back in 1979?

A. Yes, she did.

Q. Did she blame the Tory government for this deterioration in law and order?

A. No, not really.

And so on for two full pages. Later in the novel, a minor character is the vehicle for Drabble's gesture toward narrative self-consciousness and discontinuous narrative form. The narrator observes rather wryly that Charles Headleand is “programmed to take in several story lines, several plots at once. He cannot quite unravel them, but he cannot do without the conflicting impulses, the disparate stimuli.”

By the second novel in the series, A Natural Curiosity, Drabble's ever more intrusive narrator makes even bolder references to the fictionality of the story we are reading. Observing a minor character, Stephen Cox, who has gone to Cambodia (but whose fate there is not elaborated until the succeeding novel, The Gates of Ivory), the narrator confides to us that he is “still alive, although none of the characters in this novel know it.” Later in the same novel, as Alix Bowen watches television, the narrator impersonally lists a series of atrocities that have been reported during a single month. Following the statement of such items as “A man in Hansborough had slept two nights in bed with his girlfriend without noticing she was dead. ‘I suppose I must have been drunk,’ he said,” the narrator rather sardonically challenges us to “Spot the one invented story, if you can. No prize offered.” Still later, the narrator steps outside the narrative frame entirely to address the novel's readers, teasingly inviting us to resolve a subplot involving another minor character:

I wonder if those of you who object to the turn that Shirley's life has taken are the same as those who objected to its monotony in the first place. If you are, you might reflect that it might be your task, not mine or hers, to offer her a satisfactory resolution.

Meanwhile Shirley, waiting for this resolution, turns on the hot tap once more, and lies back. …

Drabble has explained that her intrusive narrator performs the function of an “old-fashioned realist voice,” at the same time articulating her concern about what she terms “authorial imperialism”: “to whom does a fictional character belong \the author or the reader]?” In this question, which lingers either in or between the lines of her most recent novels, Drabble reveals her interest in postmodernist concerns about narration, characterization, and authorial control.

Drabble's disruptions of traditional narrative form to expose its fictionality parallel her narrative expression of disruptions within the social world that traditional fiction represents. In her most recent narratives, Drabble carries forward from her fiction of the seventies her figuring of social deterioration through bodily injuries and accidents. In fact, in the recent series of novels she seems almost obsessively preoccupied with a particular form of bodily dismemberment: decapitation. In The Radiant Way, a psychopath known as the Harrow Road murderer commits a series of shocking, headline-grabbing murders-by-decapitation, culminating in the beheading of a disturbed girl whom Alix Bowen had tried to help while teaching English literature to adolescent female felons. The image of decapitation is emotionally distanced, but nonetheless pervasively present, in the art historian Esther Breuer's fascination with its iconographic representation in classical art, including severed heads in portrayals of Salome with the head of St. John the Baptist, Judith and Holofernes, Perseus and Medusa.

As I have proposed elsewhere, in A Natural Curiosity, the sequel to The Radiant Way, Drabble not only reprises but revises several ideas from the immediately preceding novel. The grisly image of the severed head is invested with spiritual as well as sacrificial and mythological meanings. Additionally, in this “sequel” novel, Drabble even revises the character of the decapitating murderer himself: attempting to humanize the criminal (though not his crimes), she provides Paul Whitmore not only with Alix Bowen's sympathy but with an entirely respectable interest in the history of ancient Britain and a mother whose monstrous conduct almost explains his psychopathic personality.

Severed heads reappear in The Gates of Ivory, this time bluntly suggesting both atrocity and mortality. As Liz Headleand (whose name virtually encodes Drabble's multivolume preoccupation) searches in Cambodia for her missing friend, Stephen Cox, she dreams of seeing his head delivered on a platter and of her own death by beheading. Stephen and other Westerners he meets in Southeast Asia casually debate about primitive cultural practices, including head-hunting and “ceremonial decapitation.” More often, however, the figure of the severed head has decayed to a skull, signified by the characters' recurring allusions to Hamlet's “poor Yorick”; or, rather than singular skulls, “Piles of skulls, emaciated living corpses, images of our time,” as the narrator phrases it. Stephen dreams of a man who keeps a skull in a “little black bag … Alas, poor Yorick, says the skull. … The skull is one of many. Three million, two million, one million, eight hundred thousand. Who is counting?”

Other images of dismemberment and mutilation recur repeatedly throughout The Gates of Ivory. What eventually prompts Liz Headleand's travels to Southeast Asia—and her temporary assumption of the identity of a fictitious “Mrs. Stephen Cox”—is her receipt early in the novel of a package of Stephen's personal effects that contains finger bones from a corpse. Ironically, the bones were given to Stephen as a talisman of good luck (though only the reader, and not Liz, learns this fact). In Cambodia, Stephen speaks with other travelers he encounters about the Khmer Rouge despot Pol Pot; about whom he hopes to write a play. According to one rumor, Pol Pot “has lost a leg and been fitted with a prosthesis.” Stephen thinks of the poet Rimbaud—not the fictitious movie hero-killer, Rambo, whose name ironically sounds the same when spoken—who lost a leg to amputation. Rimbaud's words accompany Stephen through his travels and are interspersed in the text; the image of Rambo—the rapacious soldier—also implicitly haunts the text.

What Drabble terms the “Bad Time” thread of the narrative—battle-scarred Southeast Asia—is punctuated with descriptions of casualties of war, political division, blood, and disease: maimed, amputated, disfigured bodies are everywhere. Symbolically, Liz Headleand, who assumed she had reached the end of periodic bleeding with menopause, bleeds unexpectedly in Cambodia. Even in the “Good Time” thread of the novel—Liz's London milieu—Alix Bowen's husband Brian, who suffers from colon cancer, is “disembowelled,” although, thanks to modern medicine, doctors have “stitched him up and remade him as good as new.” Less extremely, both Liz Headleand and Stephen Cox have damaged ankles held together with metal pins.

The motif of bodily mutilation, fragmentation, dismemberment, and decapitation persists in The Gates of Ivory not only in such concrete bodily references but in figurative form. Stephen Cox, who most clearly embodies Drabble's exploration of fragmentation, confesses to the enigmatic Miss Porntip in Bangkok that he regards himself as “all in pieces. … There is no consistency in me. No glue. No paste. I have no cohesion. I make no sense. I am a vacuum. I am fragments. I am morsels.” Even his diction mirrors his splintered vision of himself. Ironically, he has traveled to Southeast Asia in pursuit of wholeness, or “simplicity.” Once there, however, he is, like the cultures he encounters, further divided: “Stephen Cox hangs between two worlds. He is a go-between. Fragments of him drift on the river, surface from the mud.” Even Stephen's personal effects, which eventually make their way to England in the parcel Liz Headleand receives, are fragmentary “notes and scribbles”: “prose manuscripts,” “attempts at a play,” “diary notebooks,” “postcards,” and “sketches.” Fragments of these fragments are interpolated as part of the text of The Gates of Ivory.

Stephen Cox's personal fragmentation thus expresses the culmination in Margaret Drabble's fiction thus far of a cluster of ideas and evolving narrative strategies that originate earlier in her oeuvre. The recent narratives are driven less by linear plot than by a self-conscious narrator who intermittently draws our attention both to the arbitrariness of events and destructive forces described within the fictional world and to the arbitrariness of the narrative form itself. Drabble's characters struggle to comprehend, if no longer to rationalize, random events, just as the narrator endeavors to indicate, if no longer to explain or justify, the randomness that interrupts coherent narrative structure. Increasingly, fragmentation functions as both social condition and narrative strategy.

As Drabble's characters from Anthony Keating and Kate Armstrong to their recent successors, Liz Headleand, Alix Bowen, and Stephen Cox, grapple with the arbitrariness of events in the public world in order to sustain meaning within their own lives, so does Drabble compel her readers to grapple with the meaning of these increasingly disjunctive, plotless narratives. In The Gates of Ivory, irrational events and monstrous images not only predominate but strongly resist both psychological comprehension and narrative containment. The atrocities Liz Headleand observes in Southeast Asia—deformed babies and mass graves piled high with bones—are so outrageous that she questions her own senses, wondering whether what she sees is real or simulated for a documentary film that Gabriel Denham (another character from an earlier Drabble novel who appears in cameo in The Gates of Ivory) is shooting in Cambodia: “How can one believe anything anyone says? How can one even believe the evidence of one's own eyes? … The bones are bones, it is true. … It would be too expensive to fake so many. … But what of the deformed babies? Could they have been got up by a special effects film team?”

The inquiry into the enigma of “human nature” begun in the preceding two novels of the series becomes, in The Gates of Ivory, an inquiry into the enigma of “the human condition,” as Drabble's central characters attempt to understand not only individual but collective atrocity and the barbarous consequences of irreconcilable cultural and political differences. Accordingly, the issues are magnified and iconized as they are displaced from England to Southeast Asia: from the serial murderer, Paul Whitmore, to the genocidal murderer, Pol Pot; from the isolated random bombings and accidental injuries or deaths that punctuate the earlier narratives to veritable killing fields of human destruction in Southeast Asia. Recurring allusions to Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses, Shakespeare (particularly the bloodthirsty Coriolanus), and Joseph Conrad (whom several characters refer to as a “racist,” despite the novel's thematic echoes of Heart of Darkness—from piles of skulls to the deeper vision of savagery and despair) demonstrate Drabble's characteristic intertextual play with literary tradition as she looks over her shoulder to classical and modern predecessors. In this narrative, however, the literary references signal her revisionist argument with previously canonized Western texts in the glare of postcolonial awareness of global complexity—a world that can be neither understood nor represented through a single moral code or vision.

The case of “toxic shock” that Liz suffers while searching for Stephen Cox in Cambodia might almost serve as a metaphor for Drabble's current social perspective. In The Gates of Ivory, the incomprehensible, splintered, and arbitrarily violent world that shocks Liz Headleand is figured in Stephen Cox's notebook of “Atrocity Stories” and further emblematized in the figure of Madame Akrun, a Khmer woman who uselessly mourns the lost, mutilated, displaced, and dead members of her war-torn family. Madame Savet Akrun's name may be seen—like the novel itself—as a linguistic collage, encoding three human responses to the atrocities of war: “save tak\e] run.” Through this emblematic figure and her eternally lost son, Mitra, Drabble dramatizes the shock that accompanies the loss of the sense of “wholeness,” whether of body, self, family, world, or narrative itself. As Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann have observed in another context, “\we are] conscious of the world as consisting of multiple realities. As \we] move from one reality to another, \we] experience the transition as a kind of shock.” In Drabble's narrative, the possibility of unity is challenged, disrupted, and ultimately rendered illusory by a postmodern consciousness distinguished by anxieties of fragmentation, incompleteness, loss, and violent and/or arbitrary death.

In her attempt to represent more faithfully the confusion and disarray of “real life,” Drabble has developed a narrative form that encompasses an agglutination of details and episodes marginal to the central threads of the narrative, as well as cameo appearances of numerous minor characters (including, as she has done in previous novels, several characters from her earlier narratives) revealed in diverse cross sections of their lives. Fragmentation and disjunctiveness produce the very texture of The Gates of Ivory.

The most notable expressions of disjunctive narrative are the intermittent interpolations of various kinds of lists that also gloss, both seriously and parodically, the distinctive catalogues of Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses. One list enumerates avenues of inquiry for Stephen's friends who want to begin a search for him. Another is a bibliography—titles of books recommended to Liz Headleand by her stepson to prepare her for her journey to Southeast Asia. As the narrator dryly observes, “Maybe the list itself would infuse her with the necessary information. Bypass reading: cut out the text: inject the title. A technique for the year 2000.” Other lists reproduce jottings from Stephen Cox's notes: a series of tableaux for a proposed historical drama about Pol Pot; a “questionnaire” like the one in The Radiant Way cited above, in which Alix Bowen queries her perceptions of England's social deterioration, but focused on absurd trivia such as “What happened to the liver of the brother of Lon Nol?”

Some of the characters even speak in lists. The Bangkok beauty queen whom Stephen Cox meets, Miss Porntip, extols what she regards as the benevolent influence of American culture on hers: “Is better life expectancy, more electrics, more saloon cars, more soap, more rice, more nice clothings and suitings, more ice-cream, more maple syrup, more Coca-Cola” and so on for an entire paragraph concluding with “more choice, more liberty, more democracy.” Later Stephen Cox recites acronyms of organizations of international altruism: “Oxfam, UNBRO, ICRC, ICRDP, UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO, FPP, FHH, WR, COER”—regarding them as “acrimonious acronyms \that] cluster like flies round the wounds of sick nations.” In fact, most of Stephen Cox's notes, interpolated in the narrative, are essentially lists: reunion stories, atrocity stories, survival stories; compilations of statistics concerning mass deaths at the hands of genocidal monsters throughout history from Egyptian pharaohs to Tamburlaine and Hitler; numbers representing tons of explosives and herbicides dropped on Vietnam by American troops during the war.

Still other catalogues in the narrative assume more ruminative form, speculating on alternative possibilities regarding the activities or fates of certain characters. In particular, this speculative mode focuses on two principal characters, Stephen Cox and Konstantin Vassiliou (the son of Rose Vassiliou, whose name is familiar to readers of Drabble's The Needle's Eye), drifting in Southeast Asia as a freelance photographer; and on two emblematic figures, Pol Pot, master of genocide, and Mitra Akrun, the off-stage subject of one of Konstantin's most memorable photographs. Mitra's mother, Madame Akrun, becomes, through Konstantin's moving photograph of her, an “icon of sorrow, the maimed Piet …” who, mourning her son lost to war and carnage, is also a victim of that destruction. “Where is Mitra?” she (and we) ask:

Mitra bends over his medical text books in an attic in a Parisian suburb and late into the night he studies the names of the small bones and the large.

Mitra lies in a field hospital of delicate bamboo, delirious, with a newly amputated leg.

Mitra in a smart pastiche uniform of white and gold and green bows low at the gateway to the Shangri-La Hotel.

Mitra in a tattered uniform of camouflage and UN cast-offs sits on the earth with a group of children instructing them in the art of throwing the grenades which they have not got. …

Mitra strolls the green level lawns of Versailles and inhales the pungent aristocratic odour of box as he watches the crystalline play of the fountains.

Mitra crouches on his haunches and shreds chicken in the back yard of the Restaurant Phnom Penh in Montreal.

Mitra works as interpreter and resettlement officer in a refugee hostel in the Yorkshire Dales.

Mitra is dead and has been dead for ten years. …

Maybe Mitra does not wish to hear from his mother. Maybe he has deliberately concealed his tracks.

In short, Mitra is everywhere—or anywhere, or nowhere—and the possibilities are endless, speculative, contradictory, and ultimately unknowable.

By means of such catalogues or litanies that express but refuse to mediate the tension between hope and sorrow, possibility and misfortune, the knowable and the unknowable, Drabble expresses the shattering of human lives through war and through individual or collective atrocity. Narratively, the catalogues of possibilities unravel linear plot into a series of strands extending in a number of directions—disjunctive, mutually exclusive alternatives that are neither resolved nor dismissed. In place of the all-knowing narrator of Drabble's earlier fiction, who occasionally intrudes to expose the puppeteer working the strings backstage and to remind us of the narrative's fictionality, this narrator can no longer be relied on to “know” and to disclose the complete—or even partial—stories of her characters. Rather, she becomes an apologist for the limits of fiction itself—for untold stories and for the inadequacy of traditional narrative to tell them. Splicing into the more or less mimetic elements of her narrative lists that range from the ostensibly factual to the presumably parodic to the explicitly speculative, Drabble deliberately gestures toward a postmodernist sensibility, signaling the fictionality of the narrative and requiring her readers' collaboration in that construction.

In The Gates of Ivory, Drabble alternately seems to invoke the epistemological dominant (recalling McHale's terms for the primary modes of modernist and postmodernist texts)—her characters' efforts to “interpret this world of which \they are] a part,” including Stephen Cox's travels in Cambodia and Liz Headleand's later quest for him amid the incomprehensible destruction she witnesses there—and the ontological dominant—Liz temporarily assuming the persona of a fictitious “Mrs. Stephen Cox” in order to discover, in effect, “Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?” At the same time, numerous other characters in the narrative, both major and minor, suggest the simultaneous reality of different “worlds,” each with its own values and assumptions, from the comic relief character, Hattie Osborne, in London to the mournful iconic piet … of Southeast Asia, Madame Akrun.

The Gates of Ivorymay be understood, then, as a hybrid of traditional and postmodernist attitudes and narrative strategies, expressed through Drabble's weaving together of several distinct geographical and symbolic domains and narrative conventions. The most realistic or mimetic dimension of the novel concerns Liz Headleand and her London milieu; what Drabble labels the “Good Time” actually functions as the “good place.” The “Bad Time,” which functions geographically as the “bad place,” is Southeast Asia, a site that literally represents extremity, personal dislocation, fragmentation, and death, while symbolically invoking the “underworld” of the Odyssean Hades. At the outset of the novel the narrator establishes the coexistence and interpenetration of these dissimilar domains: “Good Time and Bad Time coexist. We in Good Time receive messengers who stumble across the bridge or through the river, maimed and bleeding, shocked and starving. They try to tell us what it is like over there, and we try to listen. … We are seized with panic and pity and fear.” The narrator also introduces the tension between belief and disbelief that persists throughout the novel, rhetorically querying, “Can we believe these stories from beyond the tomb? Can it be that these things happen in our world, our time?”

Within that shadow zone of extremity and doubt, Drabble further juxtaposes the real (Stephen Cox and other Western travelers) and the iconic or emblematic (Madame Akrun and her lost son, Mitra; Pol Pot; the “inscrutable” Far East itself). Moreover, Stephen Cox straddles the several narrative domains: he is the bridge between the known (a member of Liz Headleand's and Alix Bowen's social milieu) and the unknowable (What is he really in Cambodia for? How does he die?). He functions simultaneously as a “real person” in the mimetic sense and a figurative journeyer in the killing fields of an imaginary/unimaginable domain.

The sweep of The Gates of Ivoryis almost impossibly broad: history, sociology, anthropology, political theory, art, literature; Hollywood, film, photography, pornography, sexual harassment, racism, cannibalism; Shakespeare, Mill, Conrad, Rimbaud, Malraux; menstruation, pregnancy, toxic shock, pollution. … The list could be considerably longer. The novel is overstuffed, almost glutted, with details. There are almost too many characters, conversations, stories, ideas, catalogues; almost too much texture, even allowing for Drabble's own explicit rationale within the text for its narrative untidiness and for her apparent abandonment of the “old-fashioned, Freudian, psychological novel”—the kind Liz Headleand prefers, that “begins at the beginning and moves inexorably to its end. She does not like confusion for its own sake. There is plenty of confusion in real life, without inventing more of it.”

Liz Headleand's objections notwithstanding, the narrator of The Gates of Ivory, in an extended comment that bears the voice of the author herself, makes her most explicit and extended intrusion anywhere in Drabble's fiction, expressing her dissatisfaction with “the old-fashioned, Freudian, psychological novel” and its conventional narrative assumptions. She enjoins her readers to accept the necessity, the inevitability, of the jumbled, “disjunctive” form she has chosen:

This story could have been the story of the search for and discovery of Mme. Akrun's son, Mitra: a moving, human-interest story, with a happy ending, a reunion ending, with music. Or it could have been the story of the search for and discovery of Stephen Cox. This too could perhaps have had a happy ending: perhaps, even, a wedding? You might well think that either of these two stories, or the two of them interwoven with a conventional plot sequence, would have made a much more satisfactory narrative than this. And you would have been right. Such a narrative would have required a certain amount of trickiness, a certain deployment of not-quite-acceptable coincidences, a certain ruthless tidying up of the random movements of people and peoples. But it should not be beyond the competence of a certain kind of reasonably experienced novelist. One may force, one may impose one's will.

But such a narrative will not do. The mismatch between narrative and subject is too great. Why impose the story line of individual fate upon a story which is at least in part to do with numbers? A queasiness, a moral scruple overcomes the writer at the prospect of selecting individuals from the mass of history, from the human soup. Why this one, why not another? …

Perhaps, for this subject matter, one should seek the most disjunctive, the most disruptive, the most uneasy and incompetent of forms, a form that offers not a grain of comfort or repose. Too easily we take refuge with the known. Particular anguish, particular pain, is, in its way, comfortable. Unless, of course, it happens to be our own.

Later, Drabble again emphasizes the strain between realist and postmodernist attitudes within the narrative. Near the end of The Gates of Ivory, the narrator excludes Konstantin and his mother Rose Vassiliou from the reception following the memorial service for Stephen Cox, insisting that these characters “belong to a different world and a different density. They have wandered into this story from the old-fashioned, Freudian, psychological novel, and they cannot mix and mingle with the guests of Liz Headleand.” It is not immediately clear why they cannot do so, since Konstantin Vassiliou, at least, has already “mixed and mingled with” Stephen Cox during significant parts of the preceding narrative.

Though there is a kind of traditional closure to Stephen Cox's story—his demise in Southeast Asia is mourned at the well-attended memorial service in London—there is no consolation in the likelihood of his meaningless death to jungle fever and despair. Nor is it clear—to hark back to expectations raised by the traditional “old-fashioned, Freudian, psychological novel”—that Liz Headleand has been inwardly changed by her journey since, though figuratively “newly widowed” by Stephen Cox's death, she picks up the traces of her life rather facilely once she returns to England.

Although the disjunctive narrative form of The Gates of Ivory illustrates Drabble's attempt to represent a postmodern, irrational, incomprehensible world “at the end of history,” her principal characters—and, I suggest, the author herself—nonetheless betray a longing for the old unities, the older verities that confirm both narrative and emotional meaning. The two novels that precede The Gates of Ivory both conclude affirmatively, with a reunion of three friends—Liz Headleand, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer. The conclusion of The Gates of Ivory is almost falsely affirmative, given the disruptive narrative that precedes it: the three women, united at the memorial service, plan for their next walking trip together, at least temporarily forgetting, as Liz phrases it, “all about ageing and death.”

The nostalgia for meaningful connection coexists and overlaps with psychological fragmentation and literal or figurative dismemberment as defining conditions of late twentieth-century experience. In fact, the longing for meaningfulness is inseparable from the postmodern attitude that critiques its likelihood. As Alix Bowen concedes during the memorial service for Stephen Cox, even if God is dead, and even if “she has utterly relinquished him, … the ache lingers on in the amputated limbs.” Indeed, the imagery of amputation that cancels the possibility of wholeness or resolution appears not only in Alix's spiritual yearning but also in the haunting emblematic figure whose image concludes the novel. The representation of all mothers' sons who are literally and figuratively dismembered by war and cultural division, Mitra Akrun and legions like him march on, “armed, blooded, bloodied.” The Gates of Ivory is Drabble's “atrocity story,” bearing witness to the deeply disturbing splintering within contemporary experience. Represented in extremis as the legacy of war and genocide in Southeast Asia, its dark significance insinuates itself into the “ordinary” lives of her English characters.

The text concludes with a final list, which we may choose to regard from either traditional or postmodernist perspectives: a two-page bibliography of Drabble's research sources on Cambodia and Vietnam. If read conventionally, it acknowledges the author's indebtedness to her sources; if read in a postmodernist sense, it becomes one last catalogue of factual information that highlights the fictionality of the narrative it concludes.

Ultimately The Gates of Ivory not only exposes but demonstrates the limits of narrative mimesis—at least, mimesis as Drabble has employed it (even as she has increasingly deviated from it)—for representing cultural and personal fragmentation on such a vast and incomprehensible scale. Drabble betrays her rather awkward position out on a limb, suspended somewhere between realism and postmodernism. The tensions between the knowable and the unknowable, the real and the imaginary—or unimaginable—inevitably elude resolution. At the same time, Drabble enjoys parodying some of the more self-conscious strategies of postmodernism: early in the novel, Alix Bowen silently regards Stephen Cox's scrambled literary effects as a “Do-It-Yourself Novel Pack.” The names of people Stephen meets on his flight from London to Vietnam include the improbable Miss Porntip, the Southeast Asian beauty queen whose friends call her “O,” and the plane's pilot, Captain Parodi. Lest we miss the latter detail, Drabble has Stephen comment to himself, “Who better to fly one into the unknown? We live in the age of parody.” With an authorial wink from Drabble, Stephen recalls another Parodi he has met during his travels, “the manager of the Grand Hotel in Cabourg, the hotel of Balbec, which Proust had made his own.” Yet, to acknowledge once again the contradictions that characterize postmodernism, parody itself is “a perfect postmodern form … for it paradoxically both incorporates and challenges that which it parodies.”

Stephen Cox, the writer who aspired not to remember things past but to write a play about the genocidal Pol Pot, may be understood, among other meanings, as an emblem for Drabble's own difficulty in giving literary form to atrocity and chaos. Her ambitious weave of mimetic and contemporary narrative strategies demonstrates her equivocal assimilation of postmodernism's challenge: to render the complexity of our historical moment through a literary structure that signifies, while it does not presume to resolve, “the mismatch between narrative and subject.”

Karen Patrick Knutsen (essay date November 1996)

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SOURCE: “Leaving Dr. Leavis: A Farewell to the Great Tradition? Margaret Drabble's The Gates of Ivory,” in English Studies, Vol. 77, No. 6, November, 1996, pp. 579-91.

[In the following essay, Knutsen examines Drabble's postmodern perspective and moral vision in The Gates of Ivory. According to Knutsen, “The Gates of Ivory is a novel about the unmasking of illusions,” including the inadequacies of postmodern philosophy itself.]


Margaret Drabble has been described as an ardent traditionalist and a symbolic moralist. In the late 50s, she was a student of F. R. Leavis, and early in her career she was explicit about her identification with the Great Tradition of English literature. She shared Leavis's belief that great literature has moral import and that a literary critic's duty is to assess the author's moral position. Like the other Leavisites, Drabble was negative about the more experimental and subjective techniques of modernism—techniques which emphasized personal perception to the detriment of moral involvement in literature. She has often underlined her personal commitment to nineteenth-century social realism. In 1967 she claimed, ‘I don't want to write an experimental novel to be read by people in fifty years who will say, oh, well, yes, she foresaw what was coming. I'm just not interested. I'd rather be at the end of a dying tradition which I admire, than at the beginning of a tradition which I deplore’. In her latest novel, The Gates of Ivory (1991), Drabble still presents social realism, but has to grapple with the tenets of the postmodern society she depicts. She is faced with the dilemma of how to create moral focus in a fictional world embedded in a pluralistic, fragmented social reality.

In this article I will argue that Drabble thematizes central postmodern philosophical views and uses postmodern literary techniques in The Gates of Ivory. Recognizing the postmodern quality of the world she describes and grapples with, Drabble still searches for a moral imperative and shows that a lack of Utopian ideals or moral vision is just as dangerous as the dogmatism which postmodernism aims to unmask.

Drabble belongs to that rare breed of fictional author who also writes literary criticism, and this duality is naturally reflected in her novels. The Gates of Ivory is the third volume in a trilogy. The trilogy begins on New Year's Eve 1979 in the first volume, The Radiant Way (1988). It follows the fates of three women, Liz Headleand, Esther Breuer, and Alix Bowen, who are friends from their university days in the 50s. The trilogy ends eight and a half years later in The Gates of Ivory. Thus, we have a document of the 80s in Great Britain as experienced by these women and their families and acquaintances.

Each volume of the trilogy invites a different analytical approach. The Radiant Way is a bildungsroman which atypically explores the development of three protagonists rather than one. It has retrospective sections that help us piece together the narratives of their lives. In the second volume, A Natural Curiosity (1989), the ‘plot thickens’ and encourages a psychoanalytic approach as it explores the mysteries of the unconscious and makes extensive use of symbols. After reading the first two volumes, the reader's expectations are frustrated in the last book. The Gates of Ivory thematizes postmodernism as an intellectual trend in the 80s. There is a seeming lack of closure, a diminishing sense of character, the form is fragmented, and the notion of reality fades away until one is left with an endless chain of substitutions; a deferral of meaning. The novel invites a deconstructive reading.

Studies of narrative techniques have postulated a psychological need for narratives in readers. However, this need requires that the ending of a novel sheds light over the beginning. At the end of The Gates of Ivory the reader is left groping for meaning and thus truly becomes immersed in the postmodern experience. The novel becomes Drabble's objective correlative in refuting postmodernism.


In literature the concept of postmodernism must be seen in relation to literary modernism, either as the continuation of the modern project or as a reaction against it. Critics have recognized two strains in postmodernism; a negative, apocalyptic strain, and a positive, liberating strain wherein humanity is freed from dogmatism and deceptive ideologies are unmasked. The Gates of Ivory is a novel about the unmasking of illusions, but it also implicitly unmasks the postmodern perception of the world. Drabble deconstructs the negative strain of postmodernism, showing that the infinite deferral of meaning is in itself meaningless.

Philosophically, postmodernism adopts an anti-Enlightenment, anti-Humanism position. Postmodern ‘discourses are all “deconstructive”’, Jane Flax explains, ‘They seek to distance us from and make us skeptical about the ideas concerning truth, knowledge, power, history, self and language that are often taken for granted within and serve as legitimations for contemporary Western culture’. Throughout The Gates of Ivory Drabble scrutinizes and questions metanarratives that, to a large extent, have become indelible parts of Western culture, thus reinforcing the culture that has created them.


One of the central ideas of Western Humanism and the Enlightenment is the notion of the unitary self and the belief that rationality is the quality which separates humans from animals. ‘Essential to all Enlightenment beliefs is the existence of something called a “self”, a stable, reliable, integrative entity that has access to our inner and outer reality, at least to a limited (but knowable) degree’. In postmodern society, many people have a diminishing sense of self. Alienation and fragmentation threaten the unitary self. Drabble reflects these feelings in the character of Stephen Cox, the protagonist who sets out to explore Kampuchea: ’“I can't stick it all together”, he said. “Sex, politics, the past, myself. I am all in pieces” … “the gaps are so great. I am hardly made of the same human stuff. The same human matter. There is no consistency in me. No glue. No paste. I have no cohesion. I make no sense. I am a vacuum. I am fragments. I am morsels”’. Such feelings of incoherence and fragmentation are symptomatic for postmodern society.

Literary modernism was strongly influenced by Freud's theories of the unconscious. In postmodern times, the theory that many of our actions are determined by unconscious impulses and drives has undermined the belief in man as a rational being. The character of Liz Headleand, the psychiatrist, is throughout the novel associated with bourgeois values. In theory Liz is very familiar with the workings of the parent-child relationship. But in practice her knowledge is useless; she is estranged from her younger daughter Stella. Freud's theories are shown to be irrelevant when it comes to ‘real life’. If anything, his model of the personality and of personality development has augmented the decentering of the self in postmodern society. Realizing this, Liz feels guilty about her high income as a psychiatrist, assuming that idealistic people must look down on her for exploiting the postmodern need to search for a coherent self.

Simplifications of Freudian theory have led Western society to blame all neurotic or pathological behavior on ‘bad mothering’. Drabble reflects on the relationships between children and parents, particularly on the relationships between mothers and sons. Stephen Cox's mother is wasting away in a nursing home. He remembers her ‘smother-love’, her preference for his older brothers, and how she tied them all to her apron strings. Madame Akrun, a Kampuchean refugee, suffers from the loss of her eldest son, Mitra, who disappeared during an ambush of the Khmer Rouge. Her second son, Kem, is ignored until he becomes an invalid, once again giving her purpose in life, and forcing him into a womb-like dependence. The war photographer Konstantin Vassiliou has a troubled relationship with his mother, as well. In fact, there are no unproblematic child-parent relationships in the novel. Has Freudian theory created problems that would not have existed otherwise? The development of an integrated self faces insuperable barriers if we are to accept the model of personality development which psychoanalysis fosters.

The exploration of psychoanalytic discourse is strongest in A Natural Curiosity. Yet Drabble is also interested in Freud's deterministic theories of character development in The Radiant Way. According to Roberta Rubenstein, Drabble uses the first book of the trilogy to explore the classical ‘nature-nurture’ debate. The characters are interested in finding out whether it is genetics or environment which tips the scales in personality development. This is a continuation of Drabble's earlier preoccupation with the concepts of free will and predestination. Her girlhood fascination with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, as Joanne Creighton has pointed out, leads her to ‘create characters, like Bunyan's who are wending their way through unchartered “moral landscapes”, a world where the old values are no longer tacitly accepted and new views are unclear’. A Natural Curiosity continues the nature-nurture debate, revises certain theories and life stories and rehabilitates certain characters. Although Rubenstein claims that Drabble's ‘revisionistic impulse’ is not always narratively successful, I would argue that her revisions are necessary for the unmasking of psychological discourse inherent in the last volume.

The Gates of Ivory's unchartered landscape is the insidious landscape of the postmodern world. The novel continues the nature-nurture debate of the first two volumes, expresses the same revisionistic impulse and even incorporates the ubiquitous Freudian imagery of severed heads, amputated limbs, and stray bones of the second novel. This exaggerated use of Freudian imagery suggests that although psychoanalytic discourse attempts to explain the workings of the self by integrating the unconscious, it has undermined the conception of the unitary self and proved that man's claims to reason are questionable. Freud never believed that understanding our unconscious motives would make us happier; only that we would be able to bear our misery more stoically. The connections between self-knowledge, freedom and human happiness which have been assumed to follow psychoanalysis have been posited by later therapists.

The focus on names and role-playing in The Gates of Ivory enhances the postmodern perception of the de-centered self. Stephen Cox has written some of his books under a pseudonym. Hattie Osborne, the actress-cum-literary-agent uses her stage name, having discarded the name ‘Kathleen’ with the unhappiness of her childhood. Miss Porntip, a beauty queen from Thailand who gets involved with Stephen, prefers her friends to call her ‘O’, a name with pornographic overtones. Names are changed, identities are changed, sometimes on impulse, sometimes for survival. The myriad of names which follow in the wake of many of today's women is also noted. Liz has three surnames; Abelwaithe, Lintot, and Headleand, and also uses Cox in her passport when looking for Stephen.

In keeping with postmodern literary practice, Drabble includes historical characters in her novel. Historical events are also incorporated, but both events and historical characters are distorted, falsified, and fictionalized. Such texts expose the fictionality of history itself, Linda Hutcheon explains, allowing us to see that history books are also constructed. In this sense history is another ‘deconstructed’ discourse. Some of the historical characters also play the name-changing game, ‘Pol Pot was once Saloth Sar. He has other aliases, Eighty-seven aliases. Some say Eighty-Seven is one of them. In Paris he wrote as “Original Khmer”. To the world he became, memorably, alliteratively, Pol Pot. At last the world remembers. He has made his point. He has entered history. Noms de guerre, noms de plume, noms de theatre’.

In Kampuchea, many refugees with affiliation to Western ideas or lifestyles had to change their identities, the roles they played in order to survive. Pol Pot's dream of a new society, starting from ‘the Year Zero’ was a nemesis for these people. Mitra, the missing refugee, had dreams of studying medicine, but had to change his role to escape the wrath of the Khmer Rouge; he pretended to be a vendor of cigarettes. He persuaded his Paris-educated mother to pose as a noodle-stall owner. These changes of identity and roles help to create the perception of the de-centered self, the personality in a constant state of flux.


A second characteristic of postmodern society is the so-called ‘legitimation crisis’; the fact that we no longer have access to principles which can act as criteria of value for anything else. There have been major transformations in our time in the structure of the economy and the family. There is uncertainty about the place of former super powers in the world system. Political groups have emerged with increasingly divergent ideas. There is no consensus concerning particular demands for equality, social legislation, or justice. Our perception of the universe, in a sense, has become de-centered and unstable, in analogy with the perception of the self. In the words of one of the characters, Alix Bowen, ‘we got over Copernicus, we got over Galileo, we got over Darwin, we have survived Einstein and the Death of God and the Death of the Family and the Death of the Novel, and what can we do now but laugh?’.

Stein Haugom Olsen claims that in postmodernism the lack of criteria for validity is often seen as positive. No ultimate explanation of the world or human nature exists. Instead there are many different or alternative explanations, and this is perceived as an enrichment, a paradise for the creative being. Under these conditions, however, every ideological argument becomes a question of convincing others to share one's own view, since rational arguments do not exist. Every argument becomes mere propaganda. In postmodern thinking no values can have ultimate validity, and therefore moral values cannot have ultimate validity, either. In consequence, postmodern criticism has no room for the ethical perspective; a fact which Haugom Olsen deplores. He calls for a radical break with this postmodern attitude. On the surface level, The Gates of Ivory describes the breakdown of ideologies and moral values which postmodernism has led to; a complexity of clashing or competing discourses, none of which is allowed to dominate. Superficially there is no synthetic or coherent viewpoint in this series of positions; it becomes a polyphony of voices. On a manifest level, however, Drabble's characters do choose standpoints which they live by and take responsibility for. Deceptive as these standpoints and values may be, they are nevertheless necessary.

Our ethical sense has been numbed by the mass media's twisted presentation of the world. Criteria for truth are ignored, for example, in news presentations. We tend to forget that the news involves ‘the selection of truth’, and that there may be many versions of the truth. Drabble's characters are involved both in the production and consumption of mass media products. As Marshall McLuhan has pointed out, we are on the threshold of a new era; the art of printing shaped our way of thinking about the world as linear and continuous, with a built-in cause/effect structure. The mass media return us to an auditive world instead of a visual world of print. Whoever watches news programs on television cannot fail to notice their fragmented version of the world. The presentation lacks a linear form with a beginning and end. It is a concoction of catastrophes, criminality, and celebrities. Furthermore, overexposure to media fragmentation makes us shut out parts of reality in self-defense. Drabble's narrator points out, ‘The dead and dying travel fast these days. We can devour thousands at breakfast with our toast and coffee, and thousands more on the evening news’. There is a limit to the amount of ‘truth’ postmodern man can endure.


Stovel points out that ‘the source of moral conflict in \Drabble's] fiction is the basic opposition between reality and illusion … Each of Drabble's novels centres on a dominant symbol which presents the major theme of the work through a skilful pattern of imagery. In every case, Drabble selects the central symbol as the title of her novel’. Thus, the title, The Gates of Ivory, has double allusions. It refers directly to Homer's The Odyssey. The preface to the novel is a passage from this work and introduces the central symbol of the ivory gates, and, by association, the gates of horn. The gates of horn also allude to Harry Levin's The Gates of Horn, a classical study of realism. This intertextuality connects Drabble's novel to the traditional debate on the realistic qualities of literature. Levin traces the ancient history of the two types of gates. One set was of opaque ivory, and the other of transparent horn. Through the ivory gates only fictitious dreams passed, whereas only truth could pass through the gates of horn. The ivory gate is slowly closing with the decline of romanticism, Levin infers, while the advent of realism has caused the gates of horn to open wider than ever.

The symbolic opposition between the gates of ivory and the gates of horn appears to be the opposition between falsehood or fiction and truth. Language has countless such binary oppositions: black/white, masculine/feminine, slow/fast—and so on. These oppositions in themselves imply a systematic imposition of order, something that deconstructive practice strives to undermine, as such analogical oppositions lead to oversimplification. Linked to oversimplification is the tendency to give one side of the binary opposition negative value and the other positive value, as in the opposition between feminine/masculine or nature/culture. One deconstructive tactic for undermining this binary thinking is the reversal of such values. Drabble's choice of title is deconstructive. We are presented with the binary opposition between the gates of ivory and the gates of horn. Earlier literary theorists adopted the gates of horn as a symbol for realism. The use of the terms real and realistic clearly implies their antitheses, like unreal or unrealistic, fantastic. We like to think of literature as revealing some sort of truth about life and humanity, yet Drabble has reversed the value hierarchy. Because both gates ultimately symbolize dreams, we are left with no ‘truth’ and no determinate ‘meaning’ with which to settle the meaning of the text. There is an indeterminate Derridean weaving, unweaving and reweaving of the fabric of discourse. A tension arises in the intersection between the two gates: ‘The worlds at times overlap and intersect. Stephen Cox meets a Kampuchean refugee who is playing the role of a Kampuchean refugee in an American semifictionalized documentary about Kampuchean refugees … The gates of ivory, the gates of horn. The shadow world’.

Since criteria for truth have disappeared in postmodern society, the choice of the ivory gates as title and central symbol is an apt one. The dreams which come through the gates of ivory are deceptive illusions. The dreams and ideologies Drabble presents often turn out to be illusory, unreal. Throughout the book she thematizes the discrepancy between the real and the false. Postmodern society has lost the ability to discern the difference because the Enlightenment idea of truth has been unmasked as just another chimera.


It has been claimed that a striking feature of literary works produced in the Western world during the present century is that they are generally susceptible to being divided between the idealistand realistphilosophical positions. While modernist literature ‘often seems to point to the existence of a set of multiple and irreconcilable realities … Realist literature … is monist rather than pluralist vis-a-vis reality …’ In contrast to this divided perception of the world, Drabble combines the idealist and realist philosophical positions in a dual vision. ‘Realism provides the perfect vehicle for the artist's moral vision’, Stovel argues, ‘for Drabble is aware that the more crass the actual, the more crucial the ideal. While the realist holds the mirror up to society, the idealist paints a vision of a golden realm to judge it by’.

Levin sees a pattern of disillusionment as a major part of what we call realism. The Gates of Ivory is a novel about the postmodern unmasking of illusions. Dreams are also illusive, and in keeping with Freudian discourse, Drabble uses series of dream descriptions to show us how the characters' daytime preoccupations invade their nightly dreams. In the following passage she explores the sleeping dreams of characters who have recently spent an evening together, ‘Liz dreams of temples and monkeys and tigers, of chattering and screeching, of jungles and ruins and an ambush on an ill-made road … Hattie Osborne dreams that Stephen Cox has come home and wants his bed back. He is standing by her bedside, saying, “Get up, get out, get up!”’ We are drawn into the dreamworlds of the characters and see how their dreams are generated, how they link with reality. A recurring dream in the novel is the dream of Mme. Savet Akrun. She ‘dreams of the thud of the spade on skull. It is like no other sound in the world. It repeats and repeats. In a dry sweat, dreaming, she wills herself to awake’. This nightmare is an instant replay of a real situation she has experienced. Drabble probes the relationship between the real and the false, the conscious and the unconscious; we see that they overlap.


In addition to the fitful dreams of sleep, the book presents a number of ideological dreams or discourses which also turn out to be from the gates of ivory and are shown to be deceptive. The prime deceptive dream is the age-old dream of Utopia, Bunyan's ‘shining city on the hill’. This is a dream which comes in many versions and distortions. It was the dream of Martin Luther King. It was the dream of Pol Pot and Ho Chi Minh. Stephen Cox and many of his contemporaries were captured by this dream in their youths, in the form of Marxist socialism. In their version of the dream lay the belief that the wealth and resources of the world could be divided fairly among the peoples of the world. The Utopian dream has become an indelible part of the social conscience of today's world, the mainstay of the defenders of socialism and the egalitarian society. Although this Utopian dream proves to be deceptive, unrealizable, many of Drabble's characters choose it willingly. In spite of their disillusionment, their actions are based on a private moral imperative.

Capitalism and competition have triumphed, religion has withered away, and there is no longer any place in the West for self-sacrifice, brotherly love, compassion, community. The agencies whose representatives now clustered round Stephen had been founded to cure this excess … But it had appeared that they had all been misguided. They had acted on false premises. For there was, it had turned out, no superflux. There was no limit to man's greed. He could eat and eat and swell and swell and yet want more and more. This was the lesson of the eighties.

Stephen Cox wanted to know what went wrong with the socialist dream. He was also basically skeptical of what he heard and read, so he started his quest to Kampuchea to see for himself. His dream was also the dream of Pol Pot. But when the Khmer Rouge tried to implement the dream, results were disastrous: ‘One million, two million dead. Corpses, skulls, killing fields. How can it all have happened? How could a French infection from the Sorbonne drive this quiet, faraway peasant people mad?’ Stephen joins the statistics of the dead in Kampuchea. His death of a fever contracted in the jungle might seem senseless. The biblical connotations of martyrdom connected with the name Stephen give his death an ironic tinge. Yet the death of this proponent of Marxist socialism foreshadows the collapse of the Marxist ideology we have witnessed, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Republic. The discourse of socialism/communism has been unmasked, but in Drabble's novel the ethical quality of altruism remains in spite of this collapse. Drabble shows us characters who are constantly searching for cohesion in their lives, some antidote to the fragmentation of the modern Western world where personal relationships are tentative, divorce prevalent, and only death certain. Like Stephen they protest, ‘All this waste. All this wasted possibility. All this suffering. All these dreams. All this cruelty. All these dead’. Her characters resist the postmodern attitude and seek moral and ethical purpose.

At the other end of the scale, the extremes of another ideological dream are presented. Miss Porntip, goddess of materialism, is a parody of this discourse. She repudiates Stephen's picture of global suffering.

‘No, is not so. Is better now. Is better life expectancy, more electrics, more saloon cars, more soap, more rice, more nice clothings and suitings, more ice-cream, more Ovaltine, more champagne, more cassette players, more faxes, more aeroplanes, more Rolex watches, more perfumes, more satellites, more TV, more microwave, more word processor, more shower fitments, more motorbicycles, more chips, more tampons, more tweezers, more cabinets, more musical, more confections, more bracelets, more prawns, more fruit varieties, more choice, more liberty, more democracy’.

The sheer excess of Porntip's speech gives it an accumulative, incantatory effect. She functions as the spokeswoman for materialism, tempting people away from reality, luring them to block out the horrors of life. As Calypso captured Ulysses, Porntip captures Stephen. She tells him, ‘Is not necessary stay in horrid places’ … ‘Is not necessary see poor people and horrid places’. This is the discourse of capitalism; advertisement, possessions, happiness on hire-purchase, which competes with the discourse of world misery, and also seems to have won. The juxtaposition of the two discourses is a moral indictment of the 80s.

Since postmodernism repudiates rational argument, all political arguments are reduced to propaganda. ‘Truth’ belongs to the party which has the greatest powers of persuasion; or should we say the persuasion of power? The novel illustrates this idea in an ironic way. In England, Alix Bowen reflects on the life of her politically idealistic parents, now dead: ‘Defeated on almost every front by the swelling materialism of the 80s and the fading of the left-wing, CND dreams, this austere and slightly ludicrous couple had found their twilight home in the green movement’. Drabble connects the ‘green’ mentality of modern society with the original dream of Pol Pot through Stephen:

Stephen had expressed his interest in his curiosity about a country which had tried to cut itself off from the forward march of what is called progress … It had returned to People Power. Men yoked with oxen pulled the plough. Men and women with bare hands built dams and dykes as in the dawn of time. They had doused one another with bitter leaves, and given one another transfusions of coconut juice.

A sort of original Green Party, Stephen had suggested to Liz, with his dubious little smile.

The juxtaposition of the British Green movement with the implications of Pol Pot's ‘green’ thinking shows how postmodern argumentation can lead to totalitarian systems when powers of persuasion become the persuasion of power. As Haugom Olsen puts it, ‘The torturer can convince more easily than the advocate of human rights’. Drabble unmasks the moral morass of postmodern thinking and proves the need for a moral imperative.

The Enlightenment belief in progress has also been questioned by postmodern philosophers. To link science and progress with happiness, becomes, at best, ironic in the light of Hiroshima or the Holocaust. Another grim irony is that the economic comfort of Westerners may ultimately be dependent on the underdevelopment of the Third World. Drabble's description of the consequences of a ‘green’ lifestyle in Pol Pot's Kampuchea is, of course, a caricature. The green movement in Britain is rather evidence of the fact that people are searching for a better way to live, Utopian in its dimensions. Stopping the forward march of ‘progress’ is no solution. Although belief in an automatic progression towards a better world is unmasked as naïve, people need to believe in world amelioration and work towards it actively and consciously.


The subject of The Gates of Ivory is postmodern society and the novel has a fragmented, non-cohesive form which mirrors and underscores this subject matter. Technically the narrative is disrupted and the levels of narrative are complicated by quick changes in focalization and by intrusive comments from the implicit narrator. The narrator self-consciously reflects on form and content, ‘perhaps for this subject matter, one should seek the most disjunctive, the most uneasy and incompetent of forms, a form that offers not a grain of comfort and repose’.

Drabble's use of metafiction in intrusive narrational comments draws us out of the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ so familiar in period realism. Postmodern fiction seeks to establish a different reading pact with the reader. As Pierre Vitoux points out, ‘Postmodern novels, by placing the narrative situation in the foreground, emphasize the relative conjectural nature of their fictional construct’. The new postmodern reading pact allows that a truth is being told, supported by facts, but we are aware that a teller constructs that truth and chooses which facts to present. Self-reflexive metafiction foregrounds the figure of the author and the act of creation. It also dramatizes the role of the reader through ‘defamiliarization’; the everyday becomes strange. The reader is forced to see a new view of reality. Defamiliarization is a carry-over from modernism and falls in with the postmodern wish to pose questions about the relationship between the text and reality.

Postmodern literature often has the effect of collage with its changes of focalization and mix of genres. In the depiction of Hattie Osborne the novel jumps from an omniscient point of view to the first person confessional mode familiar from Drabble's early fiction. Another narrative variation is fragments from the disorganized notes of Stephen Cox; tableaux from his travels in Southeast Asia: ‘The Fever Hospital’, ‘The Black Swan’, ‘The Red Road’, ‘The Leper King’, various atrocity stories and reunion stories.

Part of the frustration the reader feels about The Gates of Ivory may be due to its apparent lack of closure. Postmodernist texts tend to reject narrative closure. Purposefully shying away from closure, Drabble presents several of her characters with undecided fates. Mitra, the Kampuchean refugee, is an example of this self-conscious manipulation. His fate is open-ended throughout the book.

Mitra pushes a glittering articulated snake of super-trolleys down a gleaming corridor in Toronto, whistling as he goes. Mitra bends over his medical textbooks in an attic in a Parisian suburb and late into the night he studies the names of the small bones and the large. Mitra lies in a field hospital of delicate bamboo, delirious, with a newly amputated leg. Mitra in a smart pastiche uniform of white and gold and green bows at the gateway to the Shangri-La Hotel. Mitra in a tattered uniform of camouflage and UN cast-offs sits on the earth with a group of children instructing them in the art of throwing grenades which they have not got … Mitra is dead and has been dead for ten years.

In this manner, Mitra represents the fate of each and every war refugee; he becomes the universal refugee.

Earlier theories of narrative closure were preoccupied with ‘narratives which work towards visions which embody certain kinds of ending or conclusions, such as apocalypse or utopia’, Roger Webster says. In recent literature, ‘the concept of closure refers to the ways in which a text persuades a reader to understand and accept a particular “truth” … to accept a certain view of the world as valid or natural, and works which have apparently “open”, unresolved or ambiguous endings still contain an ideological closure’. Postmodern narratives tend to embrace ambivalence and ambiguity, to accept that there is no metanarrative of truth or morality. The ending of The Gates of Ivory appears ‘open’, or unresolved, because none of the competing discourses in the novel is given precedence. However, the characters in Drabble's novels all finally seek the protection and consolation of family and community, even though these institutions are under siege. Drabble seeks an Archimedes point from which to measure value and finds it in community. She conforms to the opinion voiced by Alan Wilde in his description of our postmodern reality: ‘an indecision about the meanings or relations of things is matched by a willingness to live with uncertainty, to tolerate, and, in some cases, to welcome a world seen as random and multiple, even at times, absurd’.

The ideological closure inherent in the actions of the fictional characters suggests that we need a version of truth to live by—a moral vision. The ability to embrace ambivalence and ambiguity—to accept that there is no metadiscourse of truth or morality—does not necessarily mean that we do not need a moral vision to live by.

The question remains whether the postmodern point of view, with its renunciation of all metanarratives, allows an ethical or moral vision. Steven Connor believes that if we examine the postmodern critique of the metanarratives of truth and justice closely, we will find that it implicitly depends on the assumption of ‘the universal right of all not to be treated unjustly and oppressively—otherwise, who would care whether metanarratives were false or not, oppressive or not, and what reason might there be for their abandonment when they no longer compelled assent?’ Skepticism toward metanarratives is, therefore, not a symptom of the collapse of ethical principles, but proof of their continuing corrective influence. The trilogy shows how far we have drifted from the ideological hopefulness of the 60s and 70s and illuminates how deeply we have sunk into the disillusionment of the fin-de-siŠcle. The confusion the reader feels in this postmodern narrative is analogous to the ethical confusion that reigns in our postmodern world. The ultimate responsibility of refuting ethical relativism lies with the individual.


In The Gates of Ivory, the ivory gates symbolize the deceptive metanarratives which postmodernism unmasks. Drabble's novel questions the metanarratives of the West, demanding that we reassess our values before exporting them to the East. We may see Connor's statement as one more persuasive argument, or we may have to admit, as Terry Eagleton does, that as students of English literature, we are all ‘Leavisites’ whether we know it or not, irremediably altered by Leavis's historic intervention. His creed ‘has entered into the bloodstream of English studies in England as Copernicus reshaped our astronomical beliefs, has become a form of spontaneous critical wisdom as deep-seated as our conviction that the earth moves round the sun’.

The Gates of Ivory is therefore not a farewell to The Great Tradition. It is a painful probing of postmodern society which reveals our innate need for criteria of validity. Great literature still has moral import.

Alex Clark (review date 1 November 1996)

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SOURCE: “State of the Nation,” in New Statesman, November 1, 1996, p. 48.

[In the following review, Clark offers positive assessment of The Witch of Exmoor.]

Over the course of her long career as a novelist, which began with A Summer Bird-Cage in 1963, Margaret Drabble has steadily widened her sphere of interest, from middle-class domesticity to the nation's social and moral dilemmas. Indeed, in her recent trilogy—The Radiant Way (1987), A Natural Curiosity (1989) and The Gates of Ivory (1991)— she broadened her horizons even further, at one point forsaking the metropolis for Cambodia. In The Witch of Exmoor, her first novel for five years, she opts for a very English setting. Yet its characters have links with Guyana, Jamaica, Denmark and the Jewish diaspora, while the narrative questions the nature of national identity—and of Englishness in particular.

The witch of the title is Frieda Haxby Palmer: social analyst, left-wing academic, author of books on such austere topics as the iron industry in 17th-century Sweden, and hailed by some as “Britain's answer to Simone de Beauvoir”. Frieda is also an unashamed matriarch, mother of three children whose adult lives form the novel's backbone.

Drabble mitigates Frieda's rather unpromising toughness as a character by making her a roguish eccentric and recluse. Sickened by the evils of contemporary society, she has withdrawn to splendid isolation in a decaying Exmoor mansion, where she plans her memoirs, cultivates the company of stray animals and forages the coastline for her supper.

Frieda is capable of some fantastically baroque excesses. She summons her family to a farewell dinner at which, to express her concern over food production, she serves shrivelled beefburgers containing “gristle, fat, chicken scraps, and water from cow's heads“. A departing lover defaces her passport by adding under “distinguishing characteristics” the words “paranoia and intransigence”.

Meanwhile, her children and their spouses go quietly mad as they contemplate what she might, in extremis, do with her considerable fortune. Through them, Drabble builds up a painstaking picture of upper middle-class professional life: a lawyer, a censor, a neurologist, an aspiring politician, an adverstising executive, an arts administrator, each representing an aspect of British society made recognisable through meticulously observed detail. These are characters pressed into service as performance indicators for the state of the nation.

To Drabble's great credit, she can address weighty issues such as homelessness or privatisation and still produce something readable. Her narrative grows almost stealthily in power and pace, while she deploys a succession of beautifully-turned phrases and delivers dialogue that convinces on its own terms. She softens the rigidities of her intellectual project by creating a good story.

Frieda disappears and her children's lives, as if released from a benevolent spell, fall apart. The abiding image is of a family whose members, although bound by a veneer of clannishness, are so self-absorbed that they have little understanding of community or loyalty. The most successful characters—Frieda's sons-in-law, a Guyanese academic and would-be MP, and a disillusioned Jewish parvenu—inhabit the margins of the family, but are central to the novel.

Drabble's recurrent theme is the just society. Does it exist as a practical possibility or simply in the pieties of a failing liberal imagination? Her authorial presence is equivocal, arch, ironic, suggesting that she views the project with some scepticism. It becomes clear that she is aware of the limits of the novel as social chronicle or vehicle for change. Nevertheless, at a time when the “political” novel often appears as either stark fable or frantic farce, her shrewd appraisals and astute observations are more than welcome.

Kelleher Jewett (review date 13 October 1997)

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SOURCE: “Matriarchal Secrets,” in The Nation, October 13, 1997, pp. 33-4.

[In the following review, Jewett offers unfavorable assessment of The Witch of Exmoor.]

Frieda Haxby Palmer is an old woman who has bought a house, a decaying monstrosity of a place perched precariously on a cliff that feels as if it's about to slide into the sea. The Witch of Exmoor is a little like that house: fascinating and full of unexpected turns, surprise vistas and intriguing echoes but lacking a secure foundation. Slip-sliding from one plot to the next, Margaret Drabble mixes elements of a Gothic novel, a mystery, a social critique of contemporary England and a realistic story about a family in crisis. Though it is loosely held together by some vivid metaphors, the center does not hold, and I found myself looking around for a banister to grab hold of.

As the novel opens, Frieda's grown children—Daniel Palmer, his sisters Rosemary and Grace—and their spouses gather among the upper-middle-class comforts of Daniel's country house (complete with rose-scented garden and tennis court, like the set for a Merchant-Ivory film) to decide what to do about their mother. The Palmers “have come from nowhere, but they look as though … they have been born to this house, this garden, this tennis court.” They are involved variously in politics, law, medicine, education, the arts and business, enjoying the rewards of professional success. They are “nice clean ambitious well-educated” people living conventional and generally satisfying lives. They are no match for their mother, the unpredictable old woman they call “the Witch of Exmoor.”

“Social analyst, prophet, sage and sybil, and author of that perennial and influential classic The Matriarchy of War,” Frieda has withdrawn from life as a public figure into a world animated by fairy tales, magic and memory. In a decaying “castle by the sea,” she's writing her memoirs. She intends “to summon her mother, her father, her sister, her husband from their graves and from their hiding places.” In setting out to tell her story, she breaks a lifetime of silence about her sister (whose mysterious death haunts much of the novel) and the disappearance of her husband. The private sorrows and secrets she stirs up bring havoc to the family she has left behind, unleashing fears and emotions that threaten the precarious stability of their lives.

The story of middle-aged siblings coping with an aging, difficult mother and the mystery of an absent father plays out themes Drabble explored in The Radiant Way (1987), but Frieda is no reincarnation of Liz Headleand's sad mother in the earlier novel. Frieda is larger than life, too grotesque to be contained in a realistic drama. She belongs in a fairy tale or a Wagnerian opera; she is the all-powerful fairy godmother, the witch who knows the secret incantations and where the skeletons are hidden.

This amalgam of realism and Gothic suspense makes for a fragmented and continually shifting narrative. Mundane details of contemporary life—whether realistically described or hyperbolically drawn for comic effect—coexist with the artifacts of other, older realities. The novel uneasily combines modern images and ancient symbols, juxtaposing the shoddiness of life at the end of the twentieth century with the stuff of legends, cutting from shopping centers and advertising slogans to the Holy Grail and ruins that stand in silent testimony to dead religions.

In one scene, Grace and her husband have brought their son, Benjamin, to see the caves at Wookey Hole. The ancient site has been trivialized by gift shops, parking lots and a tea room selling “Solstice Savories and Megalithic Rock Cakes.” But to Benjamin, it is a place of enchantment. He dreams of diving into the “green underwater world” beyond the Cave of Gloom into a “bottomless void” no one has yet penetrated.

Here Drabble critiques the tawdriness of modern life, and her contempt for the way the artificial has replaced the real and our resulting inability to tell the difference surfaces in casually savage swipes at contemporary British society. But she is also saying that a deeper reality survives in spite of us. Wookey Hole may be a cheap tourist trap, but it is also a place where a child's imagination can be fired by the call of the unknown, by the mystery that lurks in the depths of the timeless waters. Wookey Hole is simultaneously contaminated by history and able to exist outside of history.

When the metaphorical structure of the novel—images of water and drowning, magic and fairy tales, games and mysteries—is melded with psychological realism, the effect is powerful and moving. Too much of the time, however, the imagery and the realistic narrative don't fit together to make a coherent whole. Part of the difficulty lies with Drabble's tone of sardonic detachment. She is a gifted storyteller and there is a compelling story here—but she seems reluctant to tell it. The silencing of Frieda's voice halfway through the story sets the novel adrift, as though it has broken free of its mooring.

The narrative style that served Drabble so well in the trilogy that began with The Radiant Way and ended with The Gates of Ivory (1991) doesn't work here. Those works may have strained the limits of the realistic novel by relying on implausible coincidences to fit the pieces together, but they did provide some sort of resolution. The conclusion of The Witch of Exmoor, on the other hand, seems both arbitrary and unresolved. Drabble abandons some characters to the consequences of their choices while others are allowed to wander into other plots and possibilities. Though all the characters are connected, they seem to have been making their ways through several different novels. The combination of realistic novel and fairy tale is finally unsatisfying, providing too little of the narrative richness of the first or the magical inevitability of the latter.


Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 10)


Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 2)