Margaret Drabble

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Margaret Drabble has combined literary scholarship with her career as a novelist. Among other works, she has published a short critical study of William Wordsworth, Wordsworth: Literature in Perspective (1966), and has edited a collection of critical essays about Thomas Hardy, The Genius of Thomas Hardy (1975). Over the years, she has edited or written introductions for most of Jane Austen’s works for various publishers, including Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. She has also edited editions of Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Poems. In 1989, she published her Gareth Lloyd Evans Shakespeare Lecture at Stratford-Upon-Avon as Stratford Revisited: A Legacy of the Sixties. She has also written two major biographies: Arnold Bennett (1974) and Angus Wilson (1995). Her literary travelogue A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature was published in 1979, and she is well known for editing the fifth edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985, revised 2000).

In addition, Drabble has had a long-standing connection with drama. Her works include Bird of Paradise (pr. 1969), a stage play; A Touch of Love (1969), a screenplay based on her novel The Millstone; and Laura (1964), a play for television. Drabble has also written a fair number of short stories that are as yet uncollected and only partially available to American audiences. In 1978, she published the children’s book For Queen and Country: Britain in the Victorian Age.

Achievements

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Margaret Drabble’s novels charm and delight, but perhaps more significant is that they reward their readers with a distinctively modern woman’s narrative voice and an unusual blend of Victorian and modern structures and concerns. Although there seems to be critical consensus that Drabble has, as Bernard Bergonzi has said, “devised a genuinely new character and predicaments,” the exact nature of this new voice and situation has not been precisely defined. Bergonzi sees the new character as an original blend of career woman and mother, yet Drabble’s career woman begins to appear only in her seventh novel, The Realms of Gold. Her earlier, equally freshly portrayed heroines are often not mothers—for example, Sarah in A Summer Bird-Cage or Clara in Jerusalem the Golden. Most of the mothers who precede Frances Wingate in The Realms of Gold can in no way be considered career women. Rose Vassiliou in The Needle’s Eye does not work; Rosamund Stacey in Thank You All Very Much works only sporadically to support her baby, and her job can hardly be considered a career.

Other critics have claimed that the new voice involves an unprecedented acquaintance with the maternal attitude toward children. This is the voice Erica Jong predicted would emerge once motherhood was no longer thought incompatible with literary artistry. In fact, only three Drabble novels can be said to contain this voice—Thank You All Very Much, The Ice Age, and The Middle Ground—yet all the novels seem to present something original in their female point of view.

Female characters have illuminated literature for more than a thousand years, but until relatively recently they have appeared as secondary figures. The female has been present, but her point of view and voice have been lacking. Drabble seems to be able to evoke not only the female point of view but also the cadence of the female voice. Her ear for speech rhythms is exceptional, and each central female character has a distinct speech pattern and cadence. This is, of course, more intensely true in the first-personnarratives of Drabble’s earlier novels, but it is also true of her later novels in which the heroine’s interior life is rendered by an omniscient narrator who mimes her...

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speech in order to discuss her feelings and thoughts. Perhaps Drabble’s artistry in portraying the sound of the female voice is among her most significant accomplishments, more simple and more complex than the evocation of a maternal career woman or of the mother-child bond.

Drabble has also begun to experiment with the return of the outspoken omniscient narrator. Drabble’s rediscovery of an old literary technique seems timely rather than regressive. She does not embed the characters in the amber of the narrator’s point of view, preventing them from dramatizing themselves. Drabble’s omniscient narrator gives the reader a sense of place, a sense of location and history, without forcing the characters to bear the burden of carrying all that perception in their minds. It frees the characters to notice only what they perceive within the confines of their personalities, for there is a narrative voice to create the density of the social and physical scene.

The narrator’s involvement in place and history has important thematic implications for Drabble’s fiction. Drabble departs from the prevalent modern emphasis on the centrality of the individual sensibility, reaching back instead to the tradition of two authors she admires, Arnold Bennett and George Eliot. She explores modern fragmentation as a function, to some extent, of human choice. She explores the consequences of choosing to submit to centrifugal forces as opposed to struggling against them in an effort to be true to one’s roots. This original blend of a deep concern for society’s conventions and origins and an unusually sensitive evocation of the individual female sensibility gives Drabble’s works their particular flavor.

Drabble’s novels have won many prizes, including the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Award (1966), the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (1968), the Book of the Year Award from the Yorkshire Post (1972), and the E. M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1973). Drabble has received honorary D.Litt. degrees from many universities, including Sheffield, Manchester, Keele, Bradford, Hull, East Anglia, and York. She was made an honorary fellow of the Sheffield City Polytechnic in 1989. In 1980, she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire; in 2008, she was promoted to Dame Commander.

Discussion Topics

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What does Margaret Drabble’s choice of Arnold Bennett as a subject and her interpretation of the value of his work suggest about her own theory of fiction?

Consider the theme of making the best of one’s lot in Drabble’s fiction.

Are there ingredients of Drabble’s novels that will probably enable them to outlast the circumstances of the time in which they were written?

What does Drabble’s practice of focusing on one day or episode in the life of her characters owe to earlier efforts of the same sort by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce?

Does Drabble’s view of the conflicts and dislocations of professional women change over the course of her writing career?

Bibliography

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Bokat, Nicole Suzanne. The Novels of Margaret Drabble: This Freudian Family Nexus. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Part of the Sexuality and Literature series, this volume examines the sexual and psychological backgrounds of Drabble’s characters.

Creighton, Joanne V. Margaret Drabble. New York: Methuen, 1985. This slim volume begins with an introductory overview, followed by a chronological survey of Drabble’s novels through The Middle Ground. Creighton argues that Drabble, with such contemporaries as John Fowles and Muriel Spark, has gradually changed her approach to fiction, “challenging the conventions and epistemological assumptions of traditional realistic fiction, perhaps in spite of herself.” Includes notes and a bibliography.

Hannay, John. The Intertextuality of Fate: A Study of Margaret Drabble. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. Drabble’s characters sometimes think they are fated when their lives seem to imitate the patterns (or intertexts) of stories they have read. As a result, Drabble’s references to other stories are not decorations but serious allusions to the myths that shape the novels. Accidents and coincidences often signal that an intertext is in operation.

Myer, Valerie Grosvenor. Margaret Drabble: A Reader’s Guide. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Myer usefully identifies allusions, sets historical and literary contexts, and summarizes critical opinions.

Rose, Ellen Cronan. The Novels of Margaret Drabble: Equivocal Figures. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1980. Rose’s study seeks to “acknowledge and applaud [Drabble’s] feminist vision and encourage her to give it freer rein in the future.” Drabble’s first three novels are discussed together in the opening chapter, while each of her next five novels (through The Ice Age) is given a separate chapter. Includes a list of works cited and endnotes for each chapter.

Rose, Ellen Cronan, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Drabble. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. An important collection of essays and a useful introduction to Drabble’s career.

Rubenstein, Roberta. “Fragmented Bodies/Selves/Narratives: Margaret Drabble’s Postmodern Turn.” Contemporary Literature 35 (Spring, 1994): 136-155. Rubenstein treats Drabble’s novels of the 1980’s and 1990’s and shows how they are fragmented in postmodern ways.

Sadler, Lynn Veach. Margaret Drabble. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Acknowledging that Drabble both “exasperates and delights” her, Sadler offers a balanced and readable appraisal. A very brief biographical sketch is followed by a chronological survey of Drabble’s novels through The Middle Ground, with a coda on “Drabble’s Reputation.” Includes notes and an extensive bibliography, both primary and secondary; entries for secondary sources are annotated.

Soule, George. Four British Women Novelists: Anita Brookner, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym—An Annotated and Critical Secondary Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 1998. An analysis and evaluation of most of the critical books and articles on Drabble through 1996.

Talwar, Sree Rashmi. Woman’s Space: The Mosaic World of Margaret Drabble and Nayantara Sahgal. New Delhi: Creative Books, 1997. A comparative study of Indian writer Sahgal and Drabble, exploring the effects of feminism on the writers.

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