The Peppered Moth is part fact, part fiction—“the later parts of the story are entirely fictitious.” It is the story of four generations of women. Margaret Drabble’s grandmother belongs to the first, her mother to the second, she herself to the third, and her daughter to the fourth. The chief character, though, is her mother, called Bessie Bawtry in the novel. In an apologetic afterword, Drabble explains that her dead mother haunts her, and that friends—“mostly novelist friends”—suggested she write a novel about her: “Maybe I should have tried to write a factual memoir of her life,” she says ruefully, “but I have written this instead.” In doing so, she found herself being “harsh, dismissive, censorious. As [her mother] was.”
The passage echoes one in the novel itself, which is full of statements addressed to the reader: questions, warnings, injunctions, pronouncements, cries of joy and anguish. Here she apologizes for her treatment of Bessie at the age of eighteen, when she had a fit of depression: “Poor Bessie, we have been too hard on her. Our tone has been harsh and pitiless. It is the tone she taught us, it is true, but we must try to unlearn it, we must try to see her as she was, suffering, longing, vulnerable, unformed.”
The novel deals with all sorts of demanding topics as it goes along: DNA; the genome concept which is displacing traditional genealogy; the British class system; the Industrial Revolution and its dire aftermath as it runs out of steam in the Depression; ecology; archaeology; Lamarckism; Darwinism; funeral customs in ancient Egypt; the growth of tourism; feminism. Drabble’s achievement is a tour de force: she manages to make all these subjects not only absorbing, but truly relevant to her solid, lively, unfashionably Dickensian, though mostly well-educated characters. The amount of research, sociological and scientific, that has gone into this novel feels formidable. Drabble’s only failure is the failure to make us like Bessie enough to feel sorry for her. Maybe she didn’t really want us to.
The story begins with a lecture on mitochondrial DNA and matrilineal descent. It is given by American microbiologist Dr. Robert Hawthorn in an underused Wesleyan Methodist chapel in Breaseborough, a dismal town in the derelict mining area of Hammervale in South Yorkshire. Breaseborough is Drabble’s fictional name for Mexborough—a place to get away from. In this it resembles Strether’s home town of Woollett, Massachusetts, in The Ambassadors. Both places are puritanical and judgmental; but Woollett is fastidious and middle-class, while Breaseborough is working-class and grim. Nor could anything be less Jamesian than Drabble’s energetic vernacular, sometimes interspersed with pulpit-speak like “so may it be” or “Death is not vanquished yet.” Still, Woollett, no less than Breaseborough, suffers from “a failure to enjoy,” as Maria Gostrey puts it. “Woollett isn’t sure it ought to enjoy,” Strether replies. “If it were it would. But it hasn’t, poor thing, anyone to show it …