Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Middle Ground appears to have brought to a close at least one period of Margaret Drabble’s career. After publishing a novel every two or three years from 1962 to 1980, she has turned her attention to other tasks, including the editing of The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985). It is tempting to read this novel as the culmination of her exploration of contemporary English society. Having affirmed the value of life in the face of violence and irrationality, she has, perhaps, reached a natural stopping point.

Like The Realms of Gold (1975) and The Ice Age, Drabble’s two preceding novels, The Middle Ground focuses on men as well as women and the world of public as well as domestic affairs. It is, for these reasons, among others, a richer work than her earlier novels. Few would argue, however, that it is in every way her best or most lasting work. Even her greatest admirers may find some of her narrative techniques excessively mannered—for example, her conversations with the reader about how to handle her narrative; her long list of what-happens-next questions in the last section; her catalog of each character’s activities during the month of November; and the introduction of characters from her earlier works in minor roles. Her reliance on the minutiae of everyday life to give texture to her work may also limit its long-term appeal.

Even with its flaws, however, this novel remains an important part of Drabble’s literary achievement. It displays her comic perspective and her powers of observation as well as her sensitivity to the predicament of the middle-aged caught in the conflicts of contemporary society. More than that, it states clearly her lasting conviction that, through human connections, order and meaning can be brought out of chaos.