A Natural Curiosity
What shall we expect of the middle-age of the middlebrow novelist? (By the term middlebrow, one seeks to describe a writer who, while disdaining the shoddy and the ephemeral, has built up a following among intelligent readers whose notions he takes care not to challenge or disturb.) After the first half-dozen books, at a point where a certain weary technical proficiency can be taken for granted, that writer may discover he is estranged from his generation. He no longer knows anyone who isn’t a writer, of some sort. He is set in the practice of his unnatural and solitary vice, and he cannot imagine what ordinary people do for a living.
It will be at this point that, perversely, he may decide to write his state-of-the-nation book. He reads the newspapers to find out what is happening, and anxiously takes the political pulse among his limited acquaintance. Time was when he used to write about real people, but now reality eludes him. His characters’ concerns are filtered through his own—by now rather specialist—perceptions. He tries to mimic real life by the accretion of convincing detail, but only succeeds in losing the rhythm of his prose. His characters remain puppets; and in these two novels, both David Lodge and Margaret Drabble have a heavy hand on the strings.
Margaret Drabble’s early novels were intimate and sprightly chronicles of the small dissatisfactions and small triumphs of young women like herself—pretty, Oxbridge-educated young women, with comfortable middle-class backgrounds, girls with a certain discreet sparkle, the usual problems with men, and emotions that were lively but decently restrained. They were sweetly written books, and assured in tone. But unlike most other writers, Drabble has grown less assured as time passes. This may be less a defect than a reason to admire her; for it indicates a recognition that life and art are not as simple as they once seemed.
In Britain Drabble was quickly pigeon-holed as a “women’s writer,” offering a jollified and mild feminism to receptive readers; even when she began to broaden the range of her work, she was not accorded the critical attention that she has received in the United States. Drabble’s heroines have aged with her, becoming solid and sour, more prone to drink and swear; yet with each successive book their earnest, moral nature blossoms. The Needle’s Eye centers on a wealthy woman who feels guilty about being rich. The Ice Age is a disillusioned, distressed picture of London life in the 1970s. Then came The Middle Ground, which the novelist Margaret Forster—not a critic hostile to Drabble—described as not a novel but a sociological treatise.
Drabble took the point: “My novels are half-way between fiction and sociology,” she has said, and she has wondered aloud if the novel is the right form for what she is trying to do. She repudiates overt political aims, but is less interested in character than in the ideas for which her characters …