Three well-off, middle-class, middle-aged English couples gather in the Hampshire countryside for a pleasant weekend of conversation, tennis, good food, and relaxation. There is only one problem, which dominates the weekend, even though no one really wants to talk about it: What should the Palmer family do about their formidable, eccentric mother—a noted author and thinker—who has abandoned her old life and without explanation has gone to live in a run-down former hotel by the sea in Exmoor, in the West Country? Why has she done this? Is she mad? What is she plotting? How is she going to allocate her money in her will? These are the questions to be considered by Frieda Haxby Palmer’s three offspring—Daniel, Grace, and Rosemary—who have never been very fond of their mother, nor she of them.
Such is the opening scene in Margaret Drabble’s fifteenth novel. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the Palmers, in spite of their relative affluence, are not a family to be much envied. In fact, the ominous first two sentences of the novel, “Begin on a midsummer evening. Let them have everything that is pleasant,” suggest as much, at the same time drawing attention to the godlike powers of the narrator. Drabble enjoys doing this. Throughout the novel, as in many of her previous novels, she adopts the role of intrusive narrator, thus providing herself with a chance to explore, usually with a caustic and disparaging eye, the state of mid-1990’s, post-Thatcher Britain, in which the ruthlessness of the free market has triumphed and few people bother to talk anymore about social justice. This is a left-leaning view of the “state of the nation” that will be familiar to anyone who has read previous Drabble novels. Indeed, The Witch of Exmoor is in some ways an update, ten years later, of The Radiant Way (1987), which examined, unfavorably, the Thatcherite Britain of the 1980’s.
The Palmers are professionally employed, complacent about their comfortable position in the scheme of things, and unwilling to change. Daniel is a lawyer, Grace is a neurologist, and Rosemary is in arts administration. Of the spouses, two are outsiders: Nathan Herz, Rosemary’s husband, is Jewish, an advertising executive from a lower-middle-class background; and David D’Anger, Grace’s husband, is an aristocratic, expatriate Guyanese, a charming, ambitious academic, journalist, and parliamentary candidate. It is through David that one of the novel’s main themes is brought out. At the Hampshire weekend, David initiates a game he calls the Veil of Ignorance, in which participants have to decide whether, if they were to discover the principles on which a just society were to be founded, they would be willing to accept these if they did not already know what place they would occupy in the society. Would they press the button to make it happen? Their response is for the most part summed up by Daniel, who says, “I gave up any hope of any kind of social justice years and years ago. What I have, I hold. That’s my motto.” Drabble, as narrator, pours considerable scorn on this notion:
The middle classes of England. Is there any hope whatsoever, or any fear, that anything will change? Would any of them wish for change? Given a choice of anything more serious than decaffeinated coffee or herbal tea, would they dare to choose?
The narrator’s view of the current state of Britain is equally plain and censorious. After informing the reader that David is haunted by his vision of a fair society, she breaks in, “Is this possible, you ask, in the late twentieth century? . . . Surely we know better now? . . . Lecturers and professors still discuss the concept of the fair, the just and the good. But they have no connection with a world of ring-roads and beef-burgers, with a world of disease and survival.” This point is forced home later when it transpires that Nathan has taken on a project to “update” the image of the National Health Service. The assumption is that, political realities being what they are, there is no chance of providing adequate health care for everyone, so advertising wizards must use their tricks to ensure that people simply expect and are happy with less.
Such social commentary aside, the tale that unfolds around the mad “Witch of Exmoor” and her eerie castle is admirably gothic. Frieda is in fact not mad at all, although her family might be forgiven for thinking her so. After all, she has been behaving strangely: She has taken up smoking, discovered a sudden passion for Wagnerian opera, and abandoned her car in the middle of a London traffic jam and tried to give it away. On top of that, she has produced an unreadable, overresearched historical novel that departs completely from...
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