Margaret Drabble Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 129) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joan S. Korenman (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anne Golomb Hoffman (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lucy Ellmann (review date 22 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Henry Fairlie (review date 27 November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brina Caplan (review date 4 December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Harrier F. Bergmann (essay date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lawrence S. Friedman (essay date June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Victoria Radin (review 25 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Roberta Rubenstein (essay Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gabriele Annan (review date 28 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Hermione Lee (review date 8 June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Judith Grossman (review date July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Suzanne Keen (review date 14 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Roberta Rubenstein (essay date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Karen Patrick Knutsen (essay date November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alex Clark (review date 1 November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kelleher Jewett (review date 13 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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....

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