Margaret Drabble

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Margaret Drabble 1939–

English novelist, biographer, essayist, screenplay writer, and former actress.

Drabble achieved acclaim with her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage. Her early novels were private, interior pieces, while her more recent works reflect woman's successful search for identity and Drabble's concern for social and political issues. She has adapted many of her novels for film.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Walter Allen

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[A Summer Bird-Cage] is told by Sarah Bennett, just down from Oxford, working at the BBC…. Her ambition—to write a novel as good as Lucky Jim—is itself enough to predispose one in her favour. Miss Drabble's novel takes in effortlessly many background scenes—Paris, Oxford, suburban Warwick-shire, backstage theatre and the London of bed-sitters and bottle-parties. It is bleakly informative about such things as the horrors of sharing flats with other girls; but what is really impressive in it is the continual sense of the heroine's efforts to achieve genuine relationships with other people and with the world about her, efforts high-lighted in the contrasting account of the failure of her beautiful and predatory elder sister's marriage, which is the heart of the book. A Summer Bird-Cage seems to me very close to the grain of immediate contemporary life. (p. 466)

Walter Allen, "All for Art," in New Statesman (© 1963 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXV, No. 1672, March 29, 1963, pp. 465-66.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

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[A Summer Bird-Cage] is a joy. Miss Drabble displays good sense, good judgment and good humour, and she writes with a vigour and a lack of affectation which make the novel a pleasure to read. The story is about Louise, who uses her spectacular beauty to make a marriage which is materially brilliant and emotionally disastrous; Louise's beauty and her husband's psychological eccentricity are sympathetically and convincingly created, and Sarah, the younger sister who tells the story and who makes the novel, is altogether enchanting. This is not a great novel, nor meant to be one; the author knows her limits and keeps within them with a rare assurance. But one day she will write a very funny book; the compassionate comedy she has produced in this one is meanwhile to be warmly recommended.

"Other New Novels: 'A Summer Bird-Cage'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1963; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3189, April 12, 1963, p. 253.

P. N. Furbank

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There is not much to the action of [The Garrick Year], a sexual foursome (successful young television actor, smart wife who wants to be a television announcer, famous producer, false ingénue actress) played out at a provincial drama festival. The interest (and the novel has some interest) lies in the wife's efforts to define a character for herself. She hasn't much material to hand—a penchant for factual precision, a taste for Victorian hats and Liverpool teapots, a gift for staring people down at parties. It is all pretty thin, and though the author does some defining on her own account, the novel is a bit thin too. The texture is not loose, indeed the author has a taste for precision, but it is flimsy, as any texture must be when there aren't enough threads. (pp. 80-1)

P. N. Furbank, "Novels: 'The Garrick Year'," in Encounter (© 1964 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XXIII, No. 3, September 19, 1964, pp. 80-1.

Daniel Stern

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Margaret Drabble has written a gravely intelligent novel ["The Garrick Year"] on a familiar theme, the situation of the contemporary young woman, well brought up, well schooled, with enormous vistas promised to her by her family and by her society, who finds her horizons shrunk to diaper-size, all her possibilities reduced to a task...

(This entire section contains 489 words.)

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that could, essentially, be done by any competent servant. This dog-eared problem, this subject of the self-pitying outbursts of Doris Lessing and the corruscating complaints of Simone de Beauvoir, is treated here as freshly as if it had just come up for the first time.

The young woman in question is a gawkily attractive English girl, married to a Welsh actor (and egomaniac) David Evans…. David, hungry for parts on which his non-meteoric career can rise, decides to play a season in the provinces, at the newly endowed Garrick Theater in Hereford. It is the story of this period in exile, this "Garrick Year," that Emma, herself, tells. And she tells it in a style all her own; full of bite, wit and cool poetry.

As stories go, it is not wildly eventful (until the end, when the action moves like a speeded-up film). But it is unfolded in such a way that nuances of character and observation have all the surprise and dramatic impact normally reserved for unusual external events. In short: it is written with extraordinary art.

All the predictable things happen, never in the predictable way. Emma has an affair—but it is almost unique as such affairs go. David, as expected, also has an affair—with the superbly-drawn Sophy, an ingénue in whom vacuity becomes almost a solid state. The director, who is Emma's lover, is the only shadowy character in the book, and even he is presented with such charm that we keep with him, hoping to understand. By the end of the Garrick Year, Emma has attained to a sort of wry firmness; trapped in a marriage that is virtually without communication, still refusing to sacrifice her ironic detachment from the world around her, she has learned to accept her lot. (pp. 4, 14)

Yeats has said: "Of our conflicts with others we make rhetoric; of our conflicts with ourselves we make poetry." One of the reasons this novel is successful is that Miss Drabble understands her protagonist's conflict with herself. Emma's adventure, in the end, is not with her environment but with her own rebellious ego—and one sees that her rebellion is against a fate toward which she feels a strong, contradictory attraction. Out of that conflict, the author draws an act of the imagination, by which she defines, once again, what it means to be a woman. Her witty, beguiling novel performs that act so quietly it seems, in retrospect, a conjurer's trick. (p. 14)

Daniel Stern, "What Emma Learned," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 4, 1965, pp. 4, 14.

The Times Literary Supplement

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Miss Drabble makes her books, carefully and consciously, as her heroines make their lives. She tells rather than shows, and she always knows very clearly what she is doing. [Jerusalem the Golden], like her others, goes over some very familiar ground, and persuades us that we never looked at it closely enough before: the everyday stuff of contemporary middle-class life is both funnier and more serious than one might think…. [Miss Drabble] is never condescending or dismissive.

Such coolness has its dangers. Her style is sometimes too formal, almost mandarin…. Miss Drabble is too good to be judged by any but the highest standards, and by the highest standards [some of the writing] is altogether too soft and singsong. Luckily it is exceptional. Most of her sentences are lucid and elegant: intelligence shines out of every paragraph.

For all its comedy, Jerusalem the Golden is in some ways an austere book, quite lacking the diversions which modern readers almost take for granted. (Whole conversations are reported in indirect speech.) The inconclusive conclusion, however deliberate, is unsatisfying; eventually it seems a pity to have evoked so perfectly two different sets of characters and then to do so little with them. But the evocation itself is an achievement of which anyone could be proud…. It would be overgenerous to compare Miss Drabble with George Eliot, but not totally ridiculous. If people in fifty years' time want to know what it was like to be a young woman in London in the 1960s, this novel, like her others, will tell them: not the whole truth, but a large part of it, and truthfully.

"Women's Mirror," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3398, April 13, 1967, p. 30.

David Gordon

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Jerusalem the Golden will surely help place Margaret Drabble among the best women novelists in England today. Written with a cool precision of diction and tone that gives pleasure on every page, it is a sophisticated version of the traditional story about a yearning provincial who comes to the big city and is corrupted. Clara Maugham's corruption, however, is a fulfillment. The world of Northam, dominated by her mother, is a kind of hell—cramped, petty, predictable, loveless, and ugly—whereas the world of the Denham family in London is a kind of heaven—open, generous, complicated, intimate, and beautiful. Revolting against a puritan background like her literary cousin, Sister Carrie (though she is more self-aware and less pitied), Clara discovers that Vanity Fair is not an obstacle to salvation but the Heavenly City itself, Jerusalem the Golden. The contrast of the two worlds is finely developed in terms of houses, mothers, names, etc. (There is much interesting play with names, with their emotional as well as symbolic meaning.) Clara's interest in her adopted family leads to an affair with the "beautiful," unhappily married Gabriel Denham, climaxed by a week in Paris during which each betrays the other. In Northam again, on a visit to her dying mother, Clara is awakened from a dream of her own dying by a telephone call from Gabriel, whereupon she "felt safe and warm once more, back at home in the realm of human treachery and love and infidelity."

This ironic pattern is crossed by another, profounder one. Endeavoring above all to become as unlike her mother as possible, Clara succeeds in entering an opposite world at the cost of becoming equally proud and unable to love. Her keen intelligence tells her that there are limits to her designs, that she is still bound to her mother by an unannihilable sense of guilt…. She perceives also, in glimpses, that her sense of special destiny is an illusion…. But Clara cannot surrender the illusion of a private exemption from the common fate of disillusionment, decay, and death.

From the opening sentence Miss Drabble maintains perfectly the delicate balance of receptive wonder and prideful self-regard that marks her heroine's character. Clara in adolescence is moved and pleased by the new sense of power she acquires with her rapidly developing mind and body…. She cultivates an "interested indifference," intending to learn the rules she must observe in order to "win." We skip then to her twenty-second year so that her character may be seen immediately in an adult world of consequences. At about this point I began to worry that Miss Drabble was too sympathetic to her heroine, but she proved to be in full control, subtly modulating to a minor key as Clara's nonresponsible passivity becomes irresponsible activity. Not that she quite withdraws her sympathy either: responsibility for Clara's inability to love is justly balanced between mother and daughter. The only fault one might find (aside from a disconcerting shift in point of view from Clara to Gabriel in a few later chapters) is that Miss Drabble, like her heroine, is too watchful, that the energies of her book are too controlled. But this seems like carping in view of the fact that she handles an interesting subject with superlative intelligence and grace. (pp. 110-12)

David Gordon, "New Books in Review: 'Jerusalem the Golden'," in The Yale Review (© 1967 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LVII, No. 1, Autumn, 1967, pp. 105-15.

The Times Literary Supplement

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History as well as temperament apparently summoned Miss Drabble to the role of a contemporary George Eliot: to write about work, society, morality in the widest sense; to indulge an "unfeminine" intelligence in a world where women were at last allowed to be as critical as men. Instead, she hugged the domestic shore with a graduate's outboard motor, and wrote about the "new woman's" uneasy inheritance of traditional charts. She spoke for those who secretly feared they had the worst of both worlds: education without a career, inferiority without love. Duty loomed large, to fill large gaps.

[Jane, the heroine of The Waterfall,] takes a new step—though whether forward or backward is hard to say. She is the first of Miss Drabble's characters to live mainly, if briefly, in and for love. And it is love of a very old-fashioned romantic kind: an infatuation, a madness, a disease. It is cloying and deranging, undignified and doomed. [Jane's] husband has left her seven moths pregnant. Her cousin and her husband [James] come to look after her; but as soon as the baby is born the cousin's husband is lying in her childbed, declaring a (temporarily) unconsummatable passion in the steamy heat recommended by the midwife. It is a Keatsian image of sweetness verging on corruption, and promises well. But it also sounds a warning note of similarity with the arbitrary extremism of Iris Murdoch's later novels—an example Miss Drabble might look at with foreboding.

The promise is, in one sense, fulfilled. The waterfall of the title is a metaphor for the female orgasm…. James finally gives Jane the sexual pleasure she has missed in a lifetime of superior frigidity…. But such pleasant triumphs do not make a book…. [Miss Drabble] cannot do much with James and Jane together: with the happiness, in fact, which might be the book's theme. "I did not know how to write about joy", confesses Jane. Nor does Miss Drabble; she borrows from women's magazines….

There are too many ahs as well, and too many lovelys; in jumping to meet her talent, Miss Drabble has avoided it.

"Female and Male Subjects," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3508, May 22, 1969, p. 549.∗

William Trevor

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[In The Waterfall the] dense introspective style that accompanies Jane when she's being truly honest sometimes reads like an argumentative thesis, but this is hardly a fault because Jane is a girl whose mind operates like that. Only once or twice does introspection seem unduly bothersome in this brilliant novel, and that's when it's too long indulged at a dramatic moment. Otherwise, The Waterfall seems to me to be a skilful, subtle achievement, a woman's novel that should be read, above all, by every man who's ever likely to have love for a woman on his mind. Contained within the limits of an everyday adulterous affaire, it is evenly perceptive and revealing throughout, and, if it makes less compelling reading than some of Miss Drabble's earlier novels, that lack is more than compensated for by the greater riches of a greater truth. Miss Drabble's strength is that she never seeks to overreach herself or attempt what is alien to her imagination; and for that reason I believe it's unlikely that she has it in her to write a bad book. The Waterfall is built upon the foundations of all she has written before: what she builds upon The Waterfall may well be sheer magnificence.

William Trevor, "A Life in Limbo," in New Statesman (© 1969 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 77, No. 1993, May 23, 1969, p. 738.

Roger Sale

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Margaret Drabble is the current English Lady Novelist, the one you have to read now as you had to read Iris Murdoch ten years and Elizabeth Bowen thirty years ago. Those who claim The Waterfall is her best so far are right as long as they concede she is doing wonders with very thin material. The story is both standard and dreary, an affair that does and doesn't come off, and Miss Drabble can do nothing new with it outside of having the lovers survive the ritual automobile accident. Throughout, though, and especially in one truly stunning meditation in the middle, she knows how to be sensitive, careful, and brutally honest about her heroine, and in general she writes better about women than anyone I know now writing….

[The section about the real and metaphorical effects of childhood games on maidens and women as they choose and are chosen] is not only lovely writing, it also allows me to see what in other books and contexts many others have been trying to say. (p. 713)

Roger Sale, "Its Discontents," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1970 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXII, No. 4, Winter, 1969–70, pp. 706-16.∗

Susan Spitzer

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The Millstone [published in the United States as Thank You All Very Much] treats the theme of failure in a seemingly straightforward manner: the knowledge the voluntarily unwed mother Rosamund gains, her growing self-awareness, are charted for us by the heroine herself as she moves from innocence to experience. (p. 227)

Rosamund learns to deal with reality precisely in order to protect her child. She must abandon her tendency to deny herself—perhaps the strongest feature of her personality—whenever her baby's well-being is called into question….

The pregnancy is crucial in Rosamund's secret war with her unconscious desires; it forces her, to some extent, to face up to her female identity, to the fact that she is a woman, a fact she has rather violently attempted to deny without always being aware of the intensity of this denial. (p. 228)

Whether we say that the baby's affliction and the concomitant fear of loss of her beloved child teaches Rosamund about life; or that her love, by compelling her into painful self-assertion, deprives her of her right to "simple" self-denial; or that her entire experience, as she comes to admit, has been programmed for her by her "nature"; or that her pregnancy, by stripping her of her total self-sufficiency, makes it imperative for her to seek the aid of others (a necessity she finds more than distasteful), we are left, in all cases it would seem, with a symbolic expression of moral growth, which is accomplished at the cost of abandoning certain cherished illusions.

This qualifies The Millstone as a novel, a work of realistic fiction. As an agent of mature moral discovery, however, Drabble's novel cannot be counted. The truths Rosamund arrives at a close reading of the text will reveal to be shabby, partial truths that only barely camouflage the more vital current of self-deception flowing through the novel. Self-knowledge is, finally, too easily acquired to be worth much, and the seriousness of the events in the novel serves only to disguise the deeply childlike nature of Rosamund's unconscious fantasy. (pp. 228-29)

[The] novel is informed by a singularly persistent desire, on Rosamund's part, to remain a little girl, with a girl's body and freedom from the strictures, both physical and moral, of adult womanhood. This wish may come up against certain "reality" obstacles—her pregnancy, above all—but it is never given up. Rather, reality in The Millstone is denied again and again. (p. 229)

In The Millstone dependency needs are denied efficiently in reality—Rosamund fears intimacy largely because she fears needing—while her unconscious gives them free rein in the person of Octavia. The baby will love her the way she can trust no adult to do: utterly and exclusively…. Rosamund's unconscious has effectively grasped this fact well before her conscious intelligence has: it is one of the major causes for her having desired a baby in the first place—to be guaranteed love, which would enable her to express love in kind. (pp. 231-32)

It is finally through Rosamund's friend and virtual doppelgänger in The Millstone, the novelist Lydia Reynolds, that we are granted our most penetrating glance into the protagonist's deep ambivalence concerning womanhood…. Lydia is, in a word, woman, the adult woman who has difficulty adjusting to reality, who is "neurotic" (ironically, Rosamund's term for her), who gets involved with men, whose moodiness and depressions are common knowledge to her friends. Her literary productivity moreover tends to ebb and flow, unlike Rosamund's thesis-writing which daily progresses in a straightforward manner. In all this Lydia appears radically different from Rosamund, whose flat she is sharing…. (p. 243)

Lydia intuits all Rosamund's secrets, for she is finally nothing other than a splitting-off of Rosamund's psyche: the repressed female-identified part…. [The female novelist] is enviable for her ability to see what Rosamund most fears, to be in touch with deep currents of feeling. Rosamund knows somehow that she is alienated; yet she struggles to maintain her facade of control, and this struggle is symbolized by her ambivalent relationship with that other part of herself, Lydia, the woman. (p. 244)

[Rosamund] is the symbolic expression of our own resistance to truth, to the reality of unconscious motivations. By identifying with her, the ego of the reader succeeds in triumphing, in however illusory a fashion, over the dim yet fearful conflicts that are so much a part of our psychic make-up. In this sense, The Millstone has a fairy-tale quality to it, for Rosamund's claims to new awareness through pain strike us as protesting a bit too much; she gets her wish, after all, without paying an exorbitant price…. The Millstone is by no means a milestone in mature moral fiction if we identify too quickly with its heroine. If we resist that temptation, however—and it is not at all clear Drabble intended us to do so—we are offered an admirable portrait of character the very "rightness" of which, in every detail of its execution, reveals its origin to be in Margaret Drabble's intuitive grasp of the workings of the unconscious. (p. 245)

Susan Spitzer, "Fantasy and Femaleness in Margaret Drabble's 'The Millstone'," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction (copyright © Novel Corp., 1978), Vol. 11, No. 3, Spring, 1978, pp. 227-45.

Joan Manheimer

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The novels of Margaret Drabble tell an old story, the struggle of the individual toward identity, and her version of the tale is extreme. Her heroines suffer confusions about the self that, at times, border on the pathological….

Like children, Drabble's women struggle. Her stories emerge from the anarchy in which Freud locates the origins of human consciousness. Awareness of self develops, according to Freud, as the infant first identifies with the human figures surrounding it. The child wakes into confusion and learns, slowly, of the difference between self and other. Insofar as the problem of her heroine (to separate from the other and achieve a clarity about the self) is the problem of the child, Drabble's novels suggest the extent to which our society has succeeded in infantilizing its female members. Drabble's fictions posit the family as the source of this infantilization: they also posit, as the crucial experience threatening destruction of the self, the fluidity with another which the family offers the female. The author recognizes an intensity in relationships between women which invites a real confusion about the boundaries of the self. She attempts to circumvent the dangers of that intensity with ample respect for and attention to the story-tellers who have preceded her. (p. 127)

A close examination of the novel tradition suggests, however, an equal and perhaps more dangerous threat to female autonomy levelled by other women. Women in the novel frequently suffer a division of the world; they often are paired in an unrelenting complementarity which insists that whatever quality one possesses, the other, by necessity, lacks. (pp. 127-28)

The most extreme form of this symmetry is suggested by the numbers of motherless literary heroines: that the centrality of women in the novel is often conjoined with the absence of a maternal figure suggests motherlessness as a prerequisite for significance. (p. 128)

The novel traditionally presents women as molded into a complementarity so profound that they are dependent on each other for identity. They are shackled by an inverse double; and in order to achieve autonomy, they must discover ways to dissolve that bond. This problem Margaret Drabble sets out to solve in her novels. Her first four novels approach the problem variously, but she fails to imagine a solution. In her fifth novel, The Waterfall, Drabble successfully assaults the problem; and her success liberates her from the constraints of voice, structure and imagination evident in her earlier work. (pp. 128-29)

In Thank You All Very Much Drabble creates a heroine to challenge standard conceptions of female identity…. Against the background of a dreary catalogue of female characters whose happiness depends on their fortuitous union with the proper man, Rosamund offers a refreshing image of a woman successful and satisfied without one. The presentation of a woman who is not, nor is destined to be, half of some whole represents a significant achievement for a writer who previously had imagined only women with such fluid boundaries that they threatened to lose themselves entirely in union with another.

Still, this achievement signifies not a solution to the problem Drabble addresses, but an evasion of it. The cost of Rosamund's integrity is such that we must finally balk at the expense. Rosamund is a disappointingly asexual creation. Her pregnancy is the result of her having slept with one man once in her life; she herself acknowledges "my suspicion, my fear, my apprehensive terror of the very idea of sex."… While we may admire the imaginative energy and courage requisite to create a heroine so blatantly athwart the spirit of our times, we must regret the limitations such a creation implies. (pp. 132-33)

Drabble suggests that Rosamund continues her life of abstinence not only out of fear, but as a result of motherhood….

[Rosamund] characterizes her deep love for Octavia as "A bad investment, I knew, this affection, and one that would leave me in the dark and the cold in years to come; but then what warmer passion ever lasted longer than six months?"…. (p. 133)

[The] persistency with which Rosamund turns to the language of finance to convey the workings of her heart lends her discourse a metallic ring. Rosamund's refusal to entertain any confusion of identity with any other leaves her more calculating than intuitive, more intelligent than emotional. She is deficient, in fact, in all the traditional female graces. An alternativity more profound than the choice of sexuality or motherhood is at work in this novel: the alternativity of the traditionally-defined male and female worlds. (pp. 133-34)

In The Waterfall Drabble finally is able to imagine the potential fruitfulness of a confusion of identity. She creates a heroine who, through her experience of various doubles, discovers the boundaries of the self and achieves a meaningful independence of her varied reflections. (p. 135)

What Drabble offers Jane [in an affair with her cousin's husband, James] … is not simple romantic escapism, but the experience, via James, of seeing and eventually being able to constitute a true image of herself. (p. 136)

Herself a poet, [Jane] repeatedly measures her story against earlier fictions…. Drabble both illuminates certain features of the tradition and suggests a critical perspective on the advances enjoyed by women over the last century.

Recognizing the power of the literary tradition in shaping female identity, Jane invokes the works of major nineteenth-century female novelists as potential paradigms for her own story. She recalls Jane Austen only to dismiss "her desperate wit."… Austen represents the same social values Jane deplores in her family; and Austen evidences a disregard for passion which Jane bitingly questions: "What can it have been like, in bed with Mr. Knightley?"… Jane next considers the world as conceived by Charlotte Brontë and, similarly, finds it lacking…. The literary tradition is full of restrictions which Jane refuses. Even in Jane's consideration of Eliot's Maggie Tulliver, a literary predecessor more suggestive than those offered by Brontë or Austen, she insists that her mold be more generous. Both Jane and Maggie have cousins named Lucy; both fall in love with and go off with their cousin's man; the fates of both involve water (in Maggie's case, literally; in Jane's metaphorically); but here the parallelism stops. What Maggie renounces, Jane enjoys. Where Maggie dies by water, water imagery surrounds Jane's giving birth to her daughter, her sexual pleasure, and her creation of an active self. By means of the numerous parallels between the two books, Drabble underscores the contrast in their resolutions. The unconventional structure of her novel implies that Jane's life is different, not just in scope but in kind, from that of her literary ancestors. The old fictional forms do not fit her.

To mistake these changes, however, for evidence of female emancipation, is to invite the shock that while the old forms may be irrelevant some of the old realities are not. That Jane is successful in wresting an identity from an environment of falsifying mirrors is true, but her success is limited. Although Jane enjoys what her literary predecessors were forced to renounce, Drabble presents her gain as tinged with loss. Jane concludes her story not with the magnificent title image but with remarks on her narrow escape from a pulmonary embolism: "The price that modern woman must pay for love. In the past, in old novels, the price of love was death, a price which virtuous women paid in childbirth, and the wicked, like Nana, with the pox. Nowadays it is paid in thrombosis or neuroses: one can take one's pick…. I prefer to suffer, I think."… (pp. 137-38)

[The] implications of this conclusion are disturbing. Even when contemporary heroines survive their love, they suffer the slow torture of the mind….

[Drabble] discovers in The Waterfall a passage to selfhood through the act of repeatedly distinguishing the self from the others who threaten to absorb it. (p. 138)

The novel's narrative structure implies that the development of identity (story) is a function of a dialectic between the self as object and the self as subject. It also implies that the self as subject arises from the felt necessity to distinguish the self from the other. The counterpoint of the two voices in The Waterfall records Jane's increasing maturity as she explicitly claims more and more of her own experience. Jane's first-person narration, which begins with a statement of incapacity, becomes the dominant voice as the novel progresses; and it is the voice of the "I" which concludes the narrative.

With the conclusion of The Waterfall, Drabble achieved a cathartic response to the question that has haunted her since the beginning of her career as a novelist. She finally was able to discover in the threats to female identity, which she so acutely perceived and understood, the potential for the construction as well as for the destruction of the self. (p. 139)

Joan Manheimer, "Margaret Drabble and the Journey to the Self," in Studies in the Literary Imagination (copyright 1978 Department of English, Georgia State University), Vol. XI, No. 2, Fall, 1978, pp. 127-43.

Ellen Cronan Rose

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The Waterfall is "the most female of all [Drabble's] books" not because, as she suggests, it begins with childbirth and ends with a thrombic-clot induced by contraceptive pill-taking, but because it considers the situation of a woman who does not deny her generic femininity, whose first words in the novel, far from asserting her will, announce her essential passivity: "If I were drowning I couldn't reach out a hand to save myself, so unwilling am I to set myself up against my fate."

Fate is a word and a concept which pervades Margaret Drabble's fiction…. The "fate" that Jane acknowledges has something to do with her "nature," and she claims to be powerless to resist it…. Jane is governed by her female sexuality. (pp. 83-4)

Perhaps the most obvious formal feature of The Waterfall is the split in its narrative structure…. The Waterfall alternates between sections of first- and third-person narration, some of them long enough to beguile the reader into believing she or he is reading a conventional, straightforward novel in either the first- or third-person narrational mode. Then, when the reader's guard is lowered, the narrative mode shifts. The effect continues to be startling. (p. 87)

That is because the whole story of The Waterfall is not simply what it means to be female. What it is is suggested by … [Drabble when she says]: "My favorite experimental novelist is Doris Lessing—The Golden Notebook, actually." The Golden Notebook is about a protagonist who is a woman and a novelist. As a woman she feels, like Jane Gray, divided—her word is "fragmented." This sense of inner division affects her ability to write; she fragments her experience into various notebooks and projects aspects of herself and her experience onto several fictional alter egos in the novels she is attempting to write. The Golden Notebook is a great novel, comprehending much more than the experience of being a woman. (p. 88)

[The] whole story of The Waterfall is the same as one of the stories The Golden Notebook tells, what it means not only to be a woman but to be a writer. Like The Golden Notebook, The Waterfall is a metafiction, a novel about writing novels. But while there are uncanny similarities between the two novels, there is one crucial difference. Lessing's metafictional speculations are not gender-specific; Drabble's are.

Lessing's Anna Wulf is a novelist, quite possibly a surrogate for the novelist Doris Lessing….

Drabble's Jane Gray is a poet. She is also, by virtue of the "experimental" form of The Waterfall, a novelist, quite possibly a surrogate for the novelist Margaret Drabble. As the first-person sections of the novel reveal, Jane is writing about her experience with James and writing as a novelist…. (p. 89)

But although many of Jane's meditations and reservations about art and the fictional process echo Anna Wulf's, The Waterfall is not another Golden Notebook. Anna Wulf mistrusts art because its inherent order is false to reality as she perceives it in her experience. Jane Gray mistrusts art because the only art she knows is masculine, and it is false to her female experience. The Golden Notebook calls for a new kind of mimesis; The Waterfall for a feminine aesthetic.

The odd, if not exactly experimental, form of The Waterfall helps Margaret Drabble to tell "the whole story," the story first—as I have indicated—of what it means to be a woman, and second of what it means to be a woman novelist. What Drabble has done, intuitively it seems, is to find a form that expresses the divisions not only within the woman but within the artist who is also a woman. (pp. 89-90)

Jane's task as woman and as artist is the same: to acknowledge the existence within her of the Other, and not simply to reconcile but to encompass that division. As a woman, she does this by discovering, with James, her essentially passive sexuality and then refusing to be defined solely in terms of it. For it is important to see that Jane does not remain in sexual bondage to James, that by the end of the novel she has reasserted her rational, productive, "masculine" aspect (she cleans up her house, hires an au pair girl, writes and has published "a very good sequence of poems,") … while at the same time keeping in touch with the passive, sexual, "feminine" self that James has aroused. As an artist, Jane Gray must find a way of incorporating into her shapely, Apollonian, "male" fiction some of the inchoate, liquid "femininity" of her experience. The form of Drabble's fiction, with its alternation of first- and third-person sections, enables her to show the merger of these two aspects of Jane Gray. (p. 92)

In The Waterfall, Margaret Drabble examines female nature and discovers it to be divided between rational and animal, personal and impersonal, mind and body, "male" and "female." In order to be whole (and wholly a woman), Drabble suggests, a woman must reconcile these divisions. And if a woman writer is to articulate this experience of what it is to be a woman, she must devise a form, as Drabble has done in The Waterfall, which amalgamates feminine fluidity and masculine shapeliness. The Waterfall is "the most female" of Drabble's books because, paradoxically, it is the most nearly androgynous. (p. 99)

Ellen Cronan Rose, "Feminine Endings—and Beginnings: Margaret Drabble's 'The Waterfall'," in Contemporary Literature (© 1980 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 81-99.

Francis King

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[In The Middle Ground, Kate, a journalist] is sick to death of women but women are all that she really knows about.

After this beginning, there follow some 60 pages in which Kate's previous history … is summarised in detail. The writing itself is swift and sure; but one wonders if, technically, it would not have been more effective to have cut back and forth between present and past, rather than to have served up to the reader this solid chunk of the past to digest, before feeding him even a scrap of the present.

Kate's friends belong to the professional classes…. They are comfortably off … but they are also concerned about the impoverished and the underprivileged.

Margaret Drabble defines these people—and also an Arab guest of Kate's—with all her usual perception and sympathy. She also skilfully suggests their awareness of how precarious is the metaphorical palisade that separates their lives from those of such people as the ignorant, often unhappy women about whom Kate is making a television film entitled Women at Crossroads. (pp. 21-2)

There are a great number of characters, both within the palisade and outside it; and for even the most peripheral ones Miss Drabble provides histories as meticulous as that which she has already provided for Kate. A reader may well complain that, as in the case of Anthony Powell's sequence of novels, it is impossible to find any pattern in this carpet; but this is precisely the point that the book is making. 'The past stretches back too densely, it is too thickly populated, the future has not yet thinned out. No wonder a pattern is slow to emerge from such a thick clutter of cross-references, from such trivia … Modern life is in some mysterious way too fragmented to be comprehensible …'

What Miss Drabble seems to be saying is: 'Here is the life of London in all its bewildering complexity.' (There are a number of passages describing, with impartial brilliance, both its beauty and its squalor.) 'It is useless to seek for a pattern, and dishonest to impose one.' (The book has a theme but is wholly without a plot, in the conventional sense of that word.) 'There is much that is appalling, much that is wonderful.' (Lying in her hospital bed, Kate's injured friend can console herself by looking out of the window over a magnificent panorama of the city.)

At the close of the book, the tide of confidence that had ebbed in this sharp, eager, generous-hearted woman, has begun to flow out again. What ultimately makes for salvation is the realisation that each day and even each hour 'Anything is possible'. There is apprehension of course; but there are also excitement, joy, anticipation. A crisis of confidence has been passed; hope has reasserted itself. (p. 22)

Francis King, "Awkward Age," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 245, No. 7930, July 5, 1980, pp. 21-2.

William Boyd

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[The Middle Ground] takes the form of protracted flashbacks, filling us in on the essential details of the characters' lives and the way they interact in their close friendships….

These thematic objectives are capably and seriously approached, but dissatisfactions with The Middle Ground arise over its unnecessary complications of structure. The haphazard temporal shifts Drabble employs in the narrative … bring their own stylistic problems….

Here the syntactical demands of the language only get in the way, giving the narrative a somewhat breathless anecdotal tone and producing a strong inclination in the reader to skip the toiling flashbacks and return to the more direct dramatic flow of the present.

However, the irritation with this method wears off as most of the lengthy reminiscences are dealt with and as the novel progresses. The elisions between past and present, reflection and action, are achieved more smoothly as the gap narrows between them. Indeed, it seems to me that The Middle Ground gets very much better as it goes on….

The novel ends on [a] positive note: a recalcitrant faith in the holiness of the heart's affections in full knowledge that the future—unplanned, unpredictable and inevitable—beckons ahead. What is also particularly impressive in the final half of the novel is the way Margaret Drabble inserts and pinpoints key symbols and images. Her touch here is especially fine and discreet—a deliberate misquotation from Wordsworth, a Russian folk tale in an old school book, or a painting of "Psyche locked out of the Palace of Cupid"—they all function in exactly the way allusion should: unobtrusive yet complementary, and with no hint of pretension….

The Middle Ground is a bold and serious attempt to tell the truth as Margaret Drabble sees it. The book's aspirations are large but its conclusions essentially humble and consoling.

William Boyd, "Margaret Drabble: 'The Middle Ground'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4033, July 11, 1980, p. 772.

Phyllis Rose

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"The Middle Ground" concerns itself generally with the crisis of British urban life and particularly with a crisis in the life of its protagonist, Kate Armstrong, a 40-year-old journalist who has ridden the wave of the women's movement to fame and riches—away from Romley, the seedy outlying area of London in which she grew up, and away from marriage, which she now scorns on principle. After years of manufacturing opinions on an ever-shifting range of fashionable subjects, Kate is tired—of media hype, of the shallowness of her own opinions, of the effort to maintain the sprightliness and good cheer on which her success and identity rest. She is tired even of feminism.

Miss Drabble, with her unfailing insight and intelligence, does a marvelous job of presenting Kate's plight….

[A] passage of acute psychological characterization is followed by a transition of provoking awkwardness: "Here is an account of Kate's past history, some if not all of which must have led her to wherever she is now."

The lengthy account of Kate's history which follows reads like a sketch for an intriguing novel, but it remains a sketch. Cumulatively, the retrospectiveness is numbing. Miss Drabble is too skillful a novelist to have done this unintentionally. She sets off, stylistically, the parts of her novel that have to do with action, the outer life, who did what when, from the thoughts and inner life of her characters. I would suggest that "The Middle Ground" is not a case of artistic fatigue, but of failed experiment….

"The Middle Ground" offers little action in the present, keeps diving off the narrow and perilous brink of the present backwards into the past. The most moving parts of the novel are the Woolfian or Proustian reveries in which the author seems to swim happily inside her characters' consciousness. It's a disappointment that she seems impelled repeatedly to return to the surface clutching an insight, or a fact….

If you are able to separate the content of a novel from its form, you will find "The Middle Ground" fascinating. If, esthetically, it hurts the novel that it is so mercilessly topical, the topics are in themselves engrossing. (p. 32)

Vast and unglamorous, Miss Drabble's Britain is her most important character.

At the core of the novel is the question: Is progress possible? Or do improved social conditions merely clothe, in a trivial way, the ancient sequence of emotional states which constitutes the inner life? Put another way, has the heroic age passed, or have "we," Miss Drabble's protagonists and the generation of readers which identifies with them, passed our heroic age? Between the possible answers to this crucial question—between Freud and Marx, Woolf and Bennett, psychology and sociology, between an allegiance to inner and outer reality—"The Middle Ground" hangs, not so much balanced as immobilized….

Miss Drabble could have continued to write sensitive, perfectly crafted novels about women, but her career, in retrospect, would have been minor. There is nothing minor about the burden she has shouldered instead: welfare-state Britain. If "The Middle Ground" represents a faltering step in her development, her widening scope should still be appreciated, her courage applauded. (p. 33)

Phyllis Rose, "Our Chronicler of Britain," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 7, 1980, pp. 1, 32-3.

Denis Donoghue

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The pleasure of reading a realistic novel is the satisfaction of verifying that the world we think we know is known in common….

You know you're reading a realistic novel when you find yourself thinking about its themes and characters as if they also existed apart from the novel. Margaret Drabble's Kate Fletcher [of The Middle Ground] is a product of the Sixties, a feminist journalist now getting tired of her calling. She has sexual dealings with various men, for reasons most people would find uncompelling. The differences between her husband Stuart and her lover Ted are trivial. London, a pregnancy, an abortion, a dinner party, a TV program about women from Kate's hometown: these matters make chapters in the novel and episodes in Kate's life. The novel certainly invites us to ask: would it be like that, given the circumstances and the people? The official theme of The Middle Ground is the middle years, "caught between children and parents, free of neither: the past stretches back too densely, it is too thickly populated, the future has not yet thinned out." Kate's most intense relation is with herself, and especially with her feelings of irritation, pointlessness, her sense of being the victim of the rhetoric she has turned into a career; feminism, as it happens, but it wouldn't matter or change things if it were something else….

Drabble's theme is not boredom but the morbid nervousness that goes with it.

Realism asks you to take an interest in this theme and in the characters who deal with it…. Drabble invites us to read [the characters'] minds, but those texts are not very interesting. (p. 20)

The problem the writer of a realistic novel faces is that if the reader gives up believing in the fiction, all is lost: the same effect is reached by giving up caring. Reading The Realms of Gold, I gave up believing when Drabble offered me the … proof of Frances's feeling for her lover Karel…. In this passage Drabble has merely conspired with Frances's pretentions, she has not exerted any intelligent pressure upon them. The reader is urged to swoon with the prose, and to let the swoon take the place of earned belief or valid conviction. The empurpled equivalent of the passage comes in The Middle Ground mostly near the end, a difficult place for many novelists and requiring more vigilance than Drabble brings to it:

Excitement fills her, excitement, joy, anticipation, apprehension. Something will happen. The water glints in the distance. It is unplanned, unpredicted. Nothing binds her, nothing holds her. It is the unknown, and there is no way of stopping it. It waits, unseen, and she will meet it, it will meet her. There is no way of knowing what it will be. It does not know itself. But it will come into being.

It is hard to avoid calling this trash. But Drabble has also written well, within severely restricted limits of merit, and there is no reason to think that she is permanently afflicted with the gaucherie of her high style. It is nicer to assume that the air of forced significance which disables her writing in The Middle Ground is a symptom of her false relation to the realistic novel. On the evidence of this book, she is in bad faith with the realism she professes. She merely goes through the motions of belief, and winks at the reader from time to time to indicate that she is not taken in by the rhetoric she practices. I can't think of any other reason to explain why she has given the reader so many occasions not to believe and not even to care about not believing. (pp. 20-1)

Denis Donoghue, "You Better Believe It," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 18, September 20, 1980, pp. 20-2.∗

Thomas F. Staley

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The Middle Ground is Margaret Drabble's … most complex and technically ambitious work. It is both an extension and an elaboration of her sustained chronicle of urban life over the past two decades—a period for women of hope, freedom, and challenge amid enormous tension and struggle. The Middle Ground, as its title suggests, is a novel of temporal and spatial perspective. While its characters explore their past and present and seek to assess their lives from the vantage point of early middle age, the novel more generally expresses a sustained commentary on the complex social and moral world they inhabit. (p. 91)

The Middle Ground reflects a struggle for form, an attempt to accommodate the author's impulse to probe deeply the individual consciousness and at the same time look more broadly at the pulse of society at large. This is an ambitious challenge that Drabble has set for herself, for she runs the risk of having her characters become fragmentary and even dissolve into the dismal exterior landscape she paints. The risks are worth taking, but only marginally successful.

Kate Armstrong, the central figure of The Middle Ground, is a widely read journalist, a well paid observer of the chaos of contemporary life…. [For her] professional success and recognition has little to do one way or the other with personal and domestic stability.

Kate's personal life bears the cumulative scars of Drabble's earlier heroines; she looks back on a broken marriage, an abortion, a succession of lovers, with guilt and wonder. Because Drabble attempts to raise such large questions and touch on so many topics, Kate comes dangerously close to becoming a type rather than an individual…. [The] narrative shifting between the individual consciousness and the wide range of social issues in The Middle Ground is not well fused, even jarring. It is as though at times the author cannot make up her mind just how she wishes to render reality in the novel, through the individual consciousness or with a broad panoramic sweep.

The major metaphor of The Middle Ground, on the other hand, is a remarkable construction, the sewer system, the subterranean network that carries away the waste of civilization. As a trope the sewer is effective in its humor, irony, and thematic implications. The exterior world of this novel, the London metroscape, is a world that seems to consume and digest itself so rapidly that man can no longer dispose of the overwhelming effulgence that he produces. Kate remembers how eloquently her father used to speak of the efficiency of the London sewer system. But now we seem to have progressed beyond our efficiency—the implications are both comic and horrifying. The sewer's incapacity is only a symptom of a growing inability to cope.

Through Kate and a small group of other characters whose lives are very close to hers, Drabble attempts to locate the general malaise of the present from the prospect of the middle ground of early middle age where one cannot turn exclusively to the past for clarity or look with illusions to the future. To entertain this prospect Drabble borrows a page or two from the techniques of Virginia Woolf, and they are well used. Through Kate she is able to extend past and present and broaden the themes of the novel and at the same time create a character of wit, intelligence, and deep sympathy. (p. 92)

Thomas F. Staley, "A Larger Orchestration," in Commonweal (copyright © 1981 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVIII, No. 3, February 13, 1981, pp. 91-2.


Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 2)


Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 3)