Margaret Drabble’s writing emerged from the turbulences of the second wave feminist movement and the radical demands and changes it brought to contemporary fiction. She married young, had children, and started work on what would become her first published novel at the age of twenty-one, soon after graduating from the University of Cambridge, in 1960. In a BBC documentary about the young Drabble, recorded around the time of her first literary successes—mid-to-late sixties, the time of her award-winning novels The Millstone and Jerusalem the Golden—she appears the embodiment of cool: the young Glenda Jackson style, the mini-skirt, the knee-high boots, the effortless, understated 1960s glamour.
Her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, is a joyful bundle of contradictions, in which the chatty musings about clothes, popularity, and men do not distract from the historical question at hand: what can a young woman do with her life in the latter half of the twentieth century? All her young novels have in common this urge to crack open, even if just a little, the windows to personal freedom: what if, terrifyingly, we women are freer than we thought? The seventies novels, like The Needle’s Eye (1972) and The Ice Age (1977), grow in sociological and political density and display an acute sense for limitations put on humans—not only gender but also class, ethnicity, family structure, the complex web of relations into which we are born. Some of her later novels explicitly strike up a conversation with history and mythology: The Seven Sisters (2002), while describing how a group of older women overcame their differences and mutual mistrust and found a common mission, is also retelling of the Aeneid. The Radiant Way (1987) is a wide-ranging exploration of culture and arts through the lives and minds of its three protagonists, while The Peppered Moth (2001) brings into close relationship the biological history of the human species and the personal life choices of its central characters.
Drabble’s range in nonfiction is equally formidable: books on Thomas Hardy,Wordsworth, Angus Wilson, Arnold Bennett, and the editorship of the 5th and 6th editions of the venerable reference book The Oxford Companion to English Literature, are just some of the publications. There is also journalism, if all too infrequently—a handful of essays and reviews may appear every year in the British broadsheets. Her personal in memoriam to Doris Lessing that The Guardian published right after the Nobel Winner’s death, in 2013, is of extraordinary emotional power and political wisdom while seeming a simple recollection of Lessing as a visitor and as a host.
I spoke with Margaret Drabble in Toronto, during her brief stay at a writers’ festival, where she came to talk about her most recent novel, The Pure Gold Baby. She is a generous interlocutor, and after the first quarter-hour it felt like a basic understanding was tacitly established, many of the formalities left aside.
I. THE PRESSURE FOR THINGS TO BE SAID
THE BELIEVER: The big Feminist Fiction wave that you were part of, together with Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, A.S. Byatt, Octavia Butler— how did it take shape? That kind of critical mass of fiction and criticism that focused on gender philosophy and politics can’t be matched with anything happening today.
MARGARET DRABBLE: Maybe it’s just that there was a lot of pressure for things to be said that hadn’t been said for a long time. I tend to look at it as a side effect. World War II put feminism on hold for a long time; the men went away to fight, a lot of women in those years got jobs both in teaching and in factories—at all social levels—which they enjoyed very much. A lot of them were quite happy during the war. When the war ended, they all lost their jobs. There was a very famous study done on the Peek Freans biscuits factory, where women had good employment during the war. As soon as the men came back, they all got the sack. The same happened to teachers in schools, the jobs were for the boys. And a feeling of injustice began to well up.
During the war we all hung together, but in the fifties there was a growing feeling of discontent. Especially as women were being educated. They weren’t shut out of education, they were encouraged to go to college, but then when they got out, what were they supposed to do: have babies, and stay at home. And the misfit was so huge that you got writers like Doris Lessing and Fay Weldon and Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Plath—a perfect example of somebody who had the highest ambitions and yet found herself looking after children.
BLVR: The way the women of that generation wrote and what they wrote about changed English-language literature.
MD: I think it changed the way people hoped; they now hoped for better things. That’s how I felt about it. And that hasn’t rolled back. The only young people I know are my children and their friends, and they’re all quite liberated people and don’t have the old fashioned views about women. But I hear there are young women who are going back to makeup and cosmetics and very old-fashioned views about the importance of looks for women—but I don’t ever meet them.
BLVR: But if we want to break down, what it was that made feminist literature so important and new… first of all, you had female characters. And I see today that among the most successful, publicized, awarded women authors of the last few years, many have men or boys for protagonists.
MD: Is that the case?
BLVR: Off the top of my head: Hilary Mantel’s historical trilogy, A. M. Homes’s latest, J. K. Rowling, Donna Tartt, Eleanor Catton’s Booker winner, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers…
MD: I see what you mean.
BLVR: You also had women who were doing things other than obsessing about getting a man.
MD: Yes, my women were interested in other things… their own lives and calling and politics and what they could give to life.
BLVR: What is still unusual to me as a reader today is that you don’t put the liberation in the realm of the impossible. In the 1967 Jerusalem the Golden, we follow a complex change of consciousness. The protagonist arrives at a realization that her relationships with men will not define her, nor will she be enslaved by her childhood. I really don’t find this in a lot of novels with female characters today.
MD: That was when it was all happening. And maybe it happened—and maybe it doesn’t need to happen any more?
I’m interested in what you say about Hilary Mantel and the historical novel with male protagonists. Because I just don’t feel any need to read them. I know the plot. I know my Shakespeare. I know what happened. I don’t need to read it to find out.
BLVR: Is it fair to say that the historical novel provides a sort of escapism?
MD: I went to this panel last night with Rupert Thomson and Eleanor Catton. They have both written a historical novel, and they both read passages from their historical novels and talked about research and authenticity. And I… it’s just not why I write a book. I write to think about what’s happening and why I’m here and where my children and I are going to.
BLVR: To go back to the question of female characters— it doesn’t seem to me that male writers are eager to write through female protagonists either.
MD: D. H. Lawrence did write women well. But it’s as though we’ve regressed from a point when men could write women. Philip Roth as a writer I greatly admire, but when he gets on to certain areas of women and sexuality, it’s just crude and ignorant. And Saul Bellow, another writer whom I enormously admire… he was just a very sexual person in a very heterosexual way and he saw women as sex interest.
BLVR: He appears in one of your short stories—not under his own name.
MD: Yes. He would make a pass at anybody. Which is I guess fine, no harm done. And he’s wonderful on male relationships, he’s wonderful on man-to-man, and it’s important to be able to do that. But the women are always vixens or monsters. They can’t just be normal people in the book. John Updike was good on women. I think he did some quite good portraits. Not very flattering, but quite interesting. I also think he understood what being in a house full of babies was like. He’s good on domestic detail.
II. R.D. LAING LIVED DOWN THE ROAD
BLVR: In The Pure Gold Baby you lead us through the history of psychiatry and the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the later de-institutionalization. R.D. Laing’s clinic is discussed by the characters in one chapter. Were you involved personally in any way in this movement?
MD: It was very much around in the intellectual climate when I was young. And Ronnie Laing lived sort of down the road, and I knew people who knew him. There were all kinds of stories about him and about Kingsley Hall, only some of which were true. Now we tend to refuse to accept that quite a few things he said were absolutely correct. Today, although there is much more raised consciousness about mental health, there are fewer resources—certainly in Britain—put into mental health.
BLVR: There was eagerness to experiment with mental health treatment back then—as a way of changing the society.
MD: There’s a good book by Lisa Appignanesi, Mad, Bad and Sad, about just that—very conscious of the politicization that was going on, particularly the women’s health. I think now there doesn’t seem to be an overall ideology, you just treat the case. In England it’s very difficult to get a “talking cure” that’s not very expensive. Group therapy is popular because it’s cheaper. Anything that’s one-on-one is hard to get the National Health Service to pay for, but of course people do it privately.
BLVR: And when the big de-institutionalization eventually happened, the governments used it to cut the services.
MD: Yes, the de-institutionalization happened very badly. There was a lot wrong with the big institutions, but also for some people they were the only home they knew. There was a bad period in the Thatcher regime when there were a lot of people on the streets who shouldn’t have been there, both for financial reasons and for psychiatric reasons. We’d never seen numbers that high in England before.
BLVR: The golden baby of your novel has a mother who decided to give up a lot. The mother in The Ice Age also, and they both do it quite happily. Before I read the book, I wondered if it was in any way like The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing.
MD: To tell you the truth, I couldn’t really read The Fifth Child. I knew Doris Lessing quite well and I knew I wasn’t going to like it and I know one or two people with children with problems who were cross with her about that book. They thought she’d shown a very bad side of care. She had not been without her own problems and they felt she shouldn’t perhaps be describing other people’s problems in this harsh tone.
BLVR: And the book is almost more about motherhood than about a child with special needs.
MD: Well, Doris was a problematic mother.
BLVR: I didn’t know this before reading it in Gold Baby, but she also had a son with special needs.
MD: From what I’ve learned about The Fifth Child through the grapevine, I imagine she was reflecting on the experience she had had with him. I think it’s lucky that he died before she did.
BLVR: A bit surprised to hear you say that Lessing was a problematic mother.
MD: But she would know that. She left two children behind and brought one with her and clung on to him very close. It’s a strange pattern of mothering. She has also said on the record that she hated her mother. I think the whole area of mothering is to her extremely problematic. She really loved the boy who stayed with her but it was not a calm relationship.
BLVR: And as many of your other novels, this one isn’t just about our own time. It’s also about the period of the British colonization of Africa, and goes back much further, into the archaeological history of the continent. The Seven Sisters has The Aeneid in its basis. The Peppered Moth has the matrilinear genetic history of the species and Hellenistic Egypt.
MD: For me, that’s entirely natural, to interpret what’s happening now in terms of the mythology. We get new insights. Some of what we read in classical literature is not relative to our condition, but then many women novelists and poets have turned it upside down and told the stories from the other point of view. I find that fascinating. But it seems natural to put women’s lives today in the context of what went before—either as a contrast or as a development.
I remember I had a lot of fun looking at various translations of the Aeneid. I enjoyed having a sort of background structure that is so far removed from the characters’ lives. In their real lives, a lot of them are quite washed up, really. And then they go off on this heroic journey. And yes, they’re all women.
BLVR: And in your novel A Natural Curiosity it is said that “when we meet our Gorgon, we die”—one character wonders if her sister, who had run away, “had met her Gorgon”. The ancient stuff comes to life in our otherwise mundane present.
MD: It’s very common in poetry, but in the novel you’re being a bit more adventurous when you do it. But it’s just that—I see symbols all around me. And apropos that trilogy I got very interested in things about the severed head and confronting the fate.
III. IRIS MURDOCH WAS AN ANDROGYNOUS FIGURE
BLVR: Another thing about your novels is, they made me really interested in reading about the logistics and tactics of mothering.
MD: I learned a lot when I was young from other people’s novels. Did you ever read Mary McCarthy’s The Group? It has some great descriptions of having children and adjusting to life with babies—not always successfully, but she certainly knew what it was like to have a family and all the conflicts that arise out of that. And I learned from Doris [Lessing] of course as well. About the conflicts, and about the hard choices.
BLVR: This reluctance by some women novelists to make female characters central in their work … Iris Murdoch had this obstacle, too. Her best characters are men, and most of the narrators are.
MD: She was a very curious character, Iris Murdoch.
BLVR: You knew her?
MD: I did. Basically, she was an androgynous figure. She wasn’t really a woman; she wasn’t a man, but she wasn’t a woman. She was married to this elderly professor… he’s still alive, actually.
BLVR: …Who wrote two books about her physical decline…
MD: Shouldn’t have written them. Really, really wrong. But Iris was interested in a sort of pattern of human relationships. She never had children; she never had to lead a domestic life with a conflict. She was always self-sufficient and self-providing. And she was more interested in the autonomy of men. I haven’t thought of it in those terms, but it’s true. She was very good on men.
BLVR: It’s wonderful to find in some of her personal writing statements like,“I can seduce anybody.”
MD: She was an amazingly vital and interesting person. And she had tremendous intellectual curiosity. She was curious about absolutely everything. But she never had a normal domestic life. She and her husband were such an eccentric couple in later life. Well, you’ve read his memoirs; the untidiness of their lives was indescribable. Neither had the faintest idea how to Hoover the carpet or clean the sink. They lived on meals out of packets.
BLVR: Yeah, she was of the view that cleanliness was evil and impurity was good.
MD: There’s a good line by either A. N. Wilson or Martin Amis, I can never remember which, various younger men have written rather satiric portraits—along the lines of,“In their house in Oxford even the soap was dirty.”
BLVR: But isn’t it fantastic that she could completely repudiate domesticity?
MD: Yeah, she just didn’t care. She lived in her own world, autonomously. I think there’s a big difference between women writers who have children, and women writers who haven’t. And in the nineteenth century none of them have children, apart from Elizabeth Gaskell. They were all single women. And indeed in the fifties most of the women writers didn’t have children. And then in the sixties suddenly all these mothers with children started to write back and tell the other story.
BLVR: I introduce Iris Murdoch, by the way, because I see a lot of her in your novel The Needle’s Eye. Do you remember writing Rose? Is she trying to be good, the way some of the Murdoch characters do?
MD: She is trying to be good. Yes. Which in her case means giving up her privilege. But Rose is in fact based partly on somebody I know very well, who did actually renounce a fortune. There is something about the integrity of her life that touches me profoundly.
BLVR: You show, as Murdoch does, that trying to be good is a tricky business. Rose’s former husband at one point says in the book: They can be awfully evil to their families, people who get it into their heads to be good. Their dependents will have to adopt their priorities.
MD: This today is still very current in Britain: what you yourself can give up without depriving your children. Can you send them to the local school, which isn’t very a very good school? And more and more people are buying their way out to private schools. My oldest son, who’s a political theorist, is more extreme than I am about not sending your children to private school. And yet his children have all the advantages of living in Oxford, and having a very articulate father and having somebody well placed to make sure that they know what they’re doing. The idea of inherited privilege is something that I think about a great deal. And about social mobility, and the possibility of advancement.
BLVR: Simon in The Needle’s Eye did advance relative to his family—but we get to see him at his darkest moments, when he is absolutely sure that things never get better.
MD: I think that’s my best book, actually. In it, I got something of the aspiration to be good, and the pleasure in the ordinary things. I really loved the dog show at the end. It brings back to me all those moments with children and friends when the terrible ordinariness of life was completely transcended because everything was all right for a moment. But it’s hard to find that kind of hope now, in England. Everything has become so divided. When I wrote The Ice Age, I thought it would all get better again. And then come the nineties, and I realize that it isn’t going to get better. It will get worse. Since I wrote that book, things have gotten worse, socio-economically.