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.
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).
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.
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.