Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Drabble’s later novels place her characters into an increasingly troubled world of political and social unrest. Kate and Evelyn, Ted and Hugh are all affected in one way or another by events found daily in the headlines. Evelyn’s work involves her in the violence of London’s poorest immigrant neighborhoods. Ted specializes in the study of epidemics, and Drabble notes that “he has a new apocalyptic vision of the end of the world, of a world united not by brotherhood or multi-national combines, or oil crises, but by illness.” Drabble seems to be suggesting here, as in The Ice Age (1977), that being part of the affluent professional class does not isolate one from the realities of the late twentieth century. Nor are her characters safe from the blows of fate that strike at random—the improperly administered anesthesia that destroys the brain of Hugo’s son or the spina bifida of Kate’s baby, for example.

Against such a background, the characters’ midlife self-examination takes on deeper shades. How are they to make meaning for their remaining days? One of Drabble’s answers reflects her early interest in Wordsworth: by making connections with nature. During the autumn in which the book is set, Kate finds herself for the first time enjoying “this spectacularly gracious dying fall,” and her purchase of the bay tree at the end of the novel is a strong affirmation of her commitment to go on living.

Drabble seems to alternate between optimism and fatalism. At one point, Kate reflects, “Maybe an Indian summer was in store for each, a contented old age? Though perhaps we do not lead the lives proper for such a conclusion.... We gamble on the present, what else can we do?” Age and death are part of life, as Drabble’s multigenerational perspective shows, but so are youth and renewal. What her characters learn is the necessity for connections, compassion, and mutual interdependence.