Margaret Drabble Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joan Manheimer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ellen Cronan Rose

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 914 words.)

Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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....

(The entire section is 489 words.)

William Boyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

Phyllis Rose

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

Thomas F. Staley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 590 words.)