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 how.” As for Breaseborough, poor thing: “Those that may not enjoy, let them not seek enjoyment. That thousandfold increase in the nineteenth-century population of Breaseborough had not come there to have fun. It had been dragged in by need, as a servile workforce.”
Drabble is unsympathetic toward that population’s late-twentieth-century descendants: “What are we to do about these dreadful people?” she demands apropos of the congregation at Bessie’s mother’s funeral. “Is there any point in trying to make sense of their affectless, unnatural, subnormal behaviour? Shall we just forget they ever existed, bury them, get as far away from them as possible? Put our foot down on the accelerator, jab our finger onto fast forward, and scroll on to join Dr. Hawthorn in the electronic age?”
Bessie Bawtry’s granddaughter Faro Gaulden has come up from London to attend Dr. Hawthorn’s lecture. Faro is beautiful, dangerously kind-hearted, and clever. She has written a thesis on evolutionary determinism. The Breaseborough lecture gives her an opportunity to visit her lonely old great-aunt Dora in her squalid little house (Dora is Bessie’s sister; Bessie is dead by now). But her main purpose is to write up Dr. Hawthorn’s material in the scientific magazine for which she works. His lecture has been organized by the Cudworth One-Name Society, and Faro’s maternal great-grandmother was born Ellen Cudworth. So she has a double interest.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Ellen Cudworth married Bert Bawtry, an electrician in the mines. They were upper-working-class, respectable, poor, but not destitute. Their elder daughter Bessie’s talents were discovered and encouraged by Miss Heald, one of those discerning, encouraging schoolmistresses who figure in so many autobiographies. Bessie’s school days are the most entrancing part of the novel as she wanders along the river with her friend Ada, a doctor’s daughter—middle-, not working-class—and they talk about Keats and Milton and iambic pentameters and boys. One of the boys is Joe Barron, the son of a well-to-do local manufacturer. He is not as clever as Bessie, but much nicer. Bessie is very pretty as well as very clever, and Miss Heald programs her to think of herself as exceptional. Unfortunately this helps to develop her innate sense of superiority and the contempt for other people that goes with it.
Miss Heald encourages her to apply for admission to Newnham College, Cambridge. Not many working-class girls did that in the Twenties. Bessie is accepted by the principal, Miss Strachey (a real-life character, the sister of Lytton Strachey). But Miss Strachey humiliates her at her entrance interview, “addressing her with insulting condescension: So you have a county scholarship to support you, I see?” The tone burns. And “petted Bessie, who had been so proud of that scholarship, saw it held up for inspection like a damp kitchen towel, a servant’s dishcloth, instead of a laurel wreath.” Bessie never gets over the injury. “The pain of upward mobility” ruins her life and casts its shadow over Joe Barron, whom she marries without much enthusiasm, and over their children Robert and Chrissie. Joe has read law at Cambridge and become a barrister. When he is made a judge, he settles with his family in Surrey—a southern county despised as suburban by posh people, but still many steps up the social ladder from the derelict, depressed mining town of Breaseborough. Bessie’s self-destructive anguish about her social standing combines with her contempt for other people to turn her into a grumpy recluse. She hardly ever sets foot outside the grounds of her large house except to shop, and her children are not fond of her.
Unlike her mother, Chrissie wants pleasure, “lust, adultery and alcohol please.” In the Fifties she follows her to Newnham College:
She went to an ancient university because that was what she was programmed to do…. It takes a lot of effort to break the pattern. It costs a lot. A hundred pages back, Chrissie’s future, like her past, was utterly unformulated. Anything was possible. But the nearer she got to the future, the more her past filled in with acquired and inherited characteristics, and the further that freedom fled.
Chrissie reads archaeology and anthropology, and falls in love with Nick Gaulden, the devastatingly handsome and charming son of an East European, part-Jewish refugee family. When the relationship seems to be going nowhere, she tries to get away from him by joining an archaeological dig on the island of Faro. He follows her, they marry, have a daughter, and call her Faro. After that Nick moves on through a string of adoring women, some of whom he marries, all of whom turn up at his funeral (he dies young). The funeral is the occasion of one of Drabble’s many entertaining set-pieces of social commentary:
Conveyor-belt cremation, five in a day, and the other four today all Asian, if one could judge by the names on the wreaths and cards and markers. The old European diaspora was dying out, and members of the new diaspora were already leaving their subcontinental signatures on the walls of memory: “Love Always Dad,” exhorted Shanti Ramesh Patel, claimed by the new wave of death. The generation of traumas and deathcamp tattoos, of Finchley Road accents, of chicken soup and Viennese pastries and pickled cucumber, would soon be completely extinguished, leaving a heritage of semi-assimilated survivor guilt. The old tearooms and cafés had been converted into Thai restaurants, pizzerias, Chinese takeaways and sushi bars. The Jewish landmark of Bloom’s with its chopped fish still survived, outliving its more famous East End ancestor—but for how long, she wondered.
Chrissie, meanwhile, has to bring up Faro on her own, and it isn’t easy for either of them. After a long, rackety spell in bohemia, Chrissie marries a nice professor of archaeology called Donald Sinclair with whom she lives in a country house outside Oxford. Bessie is pleased that Donald has a knighthood.
Joe Barron dies, and then the genuine diseases of old age begin to replace Bessie’s chronic hypochondria. She becomes more querulous than ever, and obsessed by the idea that her husband has never taken her on a cruise. So Chrissie sacrifices herself and arranges to take her to New York on the QE2. The trip is a huge success, both as another sociological set-piece and—to Chrissie’s amazement—for Bessie as well: she enjoys every minute of it. Three quarters of the way across the Atlantic, however, she dies in her sleep. It’s the best happy ending that could be imagined for her.
Faro seems set for an even happier one. On her trip to Breaseborough, she meets Steve Nieman. He is Jewish, vegetarian, funny, charming to look at, and almost as irresistible as Nick Gaulden, though thoughtful instead of thoughtless; very kind, in fact, like Faro herself. He has gone to a kibbutz and trained there as a carpenter; now he works on the millennial Earth Project, reclaiming the polluted landfill sites around Breaseborough by creating nature parks, theme parks, arts centers, and so on. It was he who discovered Cotterhall Man, a prehistoric skeleton, now in a glass case in the local museum. Faro has her DNA examined and finds she is the skeleton’s direct descendant. “Her genes had dwelt in Hammervale since the end of the Ice Age. ‘Good God,’ says Faro, “I knew it.’” Meanwhile her relationship with Steve begins to thrive, and one agrees with Chrissie that he seems “just the right kind of chap for Faro.”
The Peppered Moth is all about things people are interested in now—seen, valued, and judged from a progressive, liberal point of view in 2001. Reviewing James Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow recently in these pages, Charles Simic praised Bellow for being “always topical. Whatever intellectual fashion was all the rage at the time of the writing is dissected in the novels.”* This is true of Drabble’s work too, not just in The Peppered Moth, but in many of her earlier novels as well. But it is a risky thing for a novelist to do: what was all the rage in 2001, all that stuff about ecology and genomes at that particular moment in their development, might seem tiresomely passé by 2010: thoroughly modern Millie would find herself an old fogey.
Drabble takes the risk deliberately. She has written a deliberately traditional historical novel, unexperimental except for the experiment of choosing to be old-fashioned in the way she describes characters, intervenes using the author’s own voice, and has outbursts of staggering sentimentality. The most reckless of them occurs after an explosion caused by the undeclared presence of depleted uranium in the landfill material at the Earth Project. There are no casualties, but most of Steve’s work is destroyed. Steve and Faro watch the fire from her car with the doors wide open, the radio at full volume playing Handel’s Messiah, and the tears pouring down her face. After quoting the “I know that my Redeemer liveth” passage, Drabble writes:
The trumpets sound, and the ashes stand upright at the latter day. The joyful voices of the dead rise in impassioned and glorious unison. Cotterhall Man hears them in his glass coffin. Their voices harrow hell and pierce the firmament.
You have to admire Drabble for her guts.
The writer whom Drabble most resembles is not Dickens, though, but George Eliot. She has the same moral drive, though she drives much faster. She deals with provincial milieus, and milieus are one of her great strengths. Her evocations of them can be wonderfully tactile. The sooty air of Breaseborough scratches you inside your nostrils; your fingers recoil from the furry, dusty, sticky, greasy surfaces in great-aunt Dora’s grotty cottage; you enjoy gliding through the pampering gloss of the QE2: “So, while Bessie Barron spends her first night on ice [in the ship’s mortuary], Chrissie Sinclair drank pale pink iced soup from an iced goblet, followed by a large rare steak and a glass of Burgundy. Emotion had rendered her ravenous.”
The Peppered Moth is not particularly subtle or profound, except for its insights into Bessie’s character. But it thinks its way along, and is aimed at a thinking, educated readership. Drabble’s is a great technical achievement in planning the narrative when we consider her huge generosity in including such a variety of themes. She has a gift for encapsulating a lot of meaning in a crisp phrase that sticks in the mind and will be useful for a long time—like “the pain of upward mobility.” It’s a novel with pace and brio, and it’s fun to read. And upbeat: in the last few lines, it even makes its peace with Bessie, and gives her a mini-apotheosis. Faro remembers that “Grandma Barr always made a good Christmas pudding. Faro had always enjoyed the Surrey Christmas. She felt safe there, in that large, bright, clean house. Like a proper child.”