The Middle Ground

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The reader who likes a novel to be tightly constructed with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end will be thoroughly frustrated with Margaret Drabble’s latest book. It has very little plot, enough characters to people a volume three times its length, and a narrator who periodically pauses to discuss the proper handling of the story. Those willing, however, to allow the author to take them where she will—from East London sewers to surrealistic plays to suburban dining rooms and into the minds and lives of dozens of individuals—will find themselves richly rewarded. Since 1962, when she published her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, Drabble has been analyzing contemporary English society, particularly as it affects the women of her generation. As she has passed from her twenties to her forties, so have her central characters, the young mothers and career women of Jerusalem the Golden, The Garrick Year, and The Waterfall giving way to the more mature and established Frances Wingate of The Realms of Gold.

Like The Realms of Gold and Drabble’s most recent novel, The Ice Age, The Middle Ground probes the dilemmas of characters in “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.” The book focuses on the lives of four men and women who are struggling to make sense of this difficult period—Kate Armstrong, Evelyn and Ted Stennett, and Hugo Mainwaring. Kate’s story is the central one, but her problems with her parents, her children, her work, and her sense of self are universalized as they are mirrored in the experiences of her friends.

All four grew up in an era when life seemed to hold order, meaning, and the possibility of progress. They threw themselves into causes that provided salvation of one kind or another and achieved affluence in the process. Kate escaped the confines of her East London background as a journalist writing about women’s issues. Evelyn became a social worker, fulfilling the expectations of public service handed to her by her prosperous, well-established parents. Ted elected to be a doctor, an expert on world health problems. Hugo embarked upon a career as an anthropologist, but after three months as a prisoner of the Kurds in Iraq, he found a more promising future as a writer on Middle Eastern affairs.

Facing middle age, all four question in one way or another the value of what they are doing. Kate confesses to Hugo early in the book that the women’s issues that have been her bread and butter now profoundly bore her: “I used to enjoy the smell of battle, but I’ve got sick of it, I’m really sick of it. I’m worn out.” Evelyn, too, comes to doubt her sense of vocation as she faces her instinctive distaste for the helpless elderly people she encounters and wonders why she goes on pushing herself to the point of exhaustion when she could so easily settle down in her comfortable home. The restlessness of the two men is less tied to their work but no less real. Ted, who has broken off his relationship with Kate, his mistress for several years, and with the Cambridge woman who succeeded her, feels, as he flies to one in an endless series of international medical conferences, “a black cavern of growing dislike, largely for himself.” Hugo has recently lost an arm in an encounter with a grenade in Ethiopia. He refuses to have an artifical limb, preferring, Drabble suggests, to appear helpless. He feels a sense of relief that he no longer has to prove his manhood; “nobody expected him to play at being a limbless war hero.” He is in a kind of limbo, however, marking time by acting as confidant to Kate and worrying over his once beautiful and still possessive mother who is suffering from severe arthritis.

As Drabble moves back and forth between past and present events in the histories of these characters, she interweaves fragments of the lives of their children, their parents, their brothers and sisters, acquaintances, colleagues—even characters from at least two of her earlier novels. In so doing, she gives the reader a sense of the density of “real” life, of the multiple, multi-generational ties that bind most people during their middle years.

These minor characters, almost Dickensian in their eccentricities, provide much of the vitality that makes this novel such a delight. Among the most memorable of Kate’s companions are her father, a retired sewer worker fanatically committed to the value of his work; her agoraphobic, obese mother, imprisoned in front of her television set by her passion for respectability; the drunken, aging bohemian, Hunt, who helped Kate escape her East Romley origins and periodically appears on her doorstep intoxicated; Mujib, her serious, inquisitive Iraqi boarder, a student she has taken in at the request of an old friend, his Lebanese fiancée’s mother; little Rubia Subhan, an eight-year-old Pakistani girl, streetwise and mature beyond her...

(The entire section is 2065 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Middle Ground is the story of two months in the lives of Kate Armstrong and her friends. Kate is returning to Romley, an eastern London suburb, to interview her old schoolmates for a television special on what effects the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) has had on women’s lives during the five years since its passage. The assignment leads Kate, a forty-three-year-old divorced career woman with teenaged children, to think about her family background, the personal and professional directions that her own life has taken, and where she should go from here. Drabble is concerned with issues that are of vital importance to working women and single parents: handling relations with one’s aging parents, balancing career and parental duties, being a good friend to other women, and handling romantic involvements with men.

Drabble’s primary focus in this novel is the tension caused by the many demands on women in late twentieth century society. She believes, as she put it in an interview, that “[i]t’s extremely difficult for a perceptive woman to survive in modern society, but it is possible, and we have to try, and to present too many images of neurosis and despair and breakdown would to me be an irresponsible thing to do.” The Middle Ground paints a grim picture of unhappy marriages, urban squalor, neglected children, and death, all linked by the recurring image of feces. Yet Kate Armstrong, who is somewhat indecisive, is unsure of the wisdom of her choices but courageous,...

(The entire section is 618 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Middle Ground deals directly with several major women’s issues: abortion, life choices, and the direction of the feminist movement. On the surface, Kate Armstrong appears to be liberated. Beholden to no man, she successfully balances her family duties with her thriving career. Yet some critics question her feminist credentials, observing that she still exhibits unliberated attitudes: yearning for romantic love, finding her greatest fulfillment in her maternal role. Drabble gives Kate these attitudes because of her ideas about how the past shapes people; Kate, after all, grew up in a lower-middle-class environment and read downmarket women’s magazines that exalted romantic love as woman’s goal in life. Moreover, Drabble makes Kate choose the maternal role rather than accept the role as a social given.

At the novel’s heart lies choice—the necessity for it and the constraints that limit it. This theme first appears when Kate, who is past forty, gets pregnant. She thinks that Ted will help her, perhaps even marry her, but she knows that neither wishes marriage. She thinks about having an abortion. She supports the right of women to choose for themselves, and she fears the prospect of disturbed nights and financial worries. Yet part of her sees the pregnancy as a visitation to be accepted, especially because she is a self-sufficient woman who is capable of rearing the child alone. In addition, having the child might lift her from her apathy. So she decides to keep it. Tests show, however that the fetus has spina bifida. Kate struggles for two nights, but in...

(The entire section is 650 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Greene, Gayle. “Feminist Fiction and the Uses of Memory.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16 (Winter, 1991): 290-321. A comparison of five writers (Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Laurence, Doris Lessing, and Toni Morrison) who deal with the questions of how memory differs from nostalgia and how it promotes or hinders liberation. Includes The Middle Ground.

Moran, Mary Hurley. Margaret Drabble: Existing Within Structures. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Analyzes Drabble’s views of human freedom, choice, and constraints, using all of her novels published up to 1983, including The Middle Ground. Moran argues that Drabble sees human lives as being determined by a variety of forces, including fate, nature, and the family. Hence, she rejects the existentialist idea that one is free to become what one will.

Myer, Valerie Grosvenor. Margaret Drabble: A Reader’s Guide. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. After a brief introduction, each novel, from A Summer Birdcage (1963) to A Natural Curiosity (1989), is discussed. A useful introduction to Drabble’s fiction.

Packer, Joan Garrett. Margaret Drabble: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988. A comprehensive annotated bibliography of all Drabble’s writings, major and minor, and of English-language secondary works about Drabble published before May of 1986.

Rose, Ellen Cronan, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Drabble. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. Eleven essays tracing the evolution of Drabble’s themes, including the lack of choice for women and the effect of equality on women. Five of the essays were written especially for this volume, and none of the six reprinted essays is older than 1977. One is devoted to The Middle Ground.

Sadler, Lynn Veach. Margaret Drabble. Boston: Twayne, 1986. An examination of the fact that Drabble’s vision is primarily autobiographical, focusing on the themes of young women, independent women, marriage, and coping with middle age. Includes the novels up to The Ice Age and The Middle Ground.