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Margaret Drabble: In Defiance of Time

The Garrick Year

by Margaret Drabble
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 180 pp., $14.00 (e-book)

The Red Queen

by Margaret Drabble
Mariner, 334 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The Sea Lady

by Margaret Drabble
Harvest/Harcourt, 345 pp., $14.00 (paper)

The Millstone

by Margaret Drabble
Harvest, 192 pp., $14.00 (paper)
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Andrew Crowley/Camera Press/Redux
Margaret Drabble, Porlock, Somerset, July 2011

It only makes sense that a novelist of such long tenure, one so preoccupied with the slippery nature of time, should actually write a novel on the subject of “prolepsis”—the anticipation of future events. Drabble uses the adjectival form of the word frequently in her new novel, beginning with the first sentence: “What she felt for those children, as she was to realize some years later, was a proleptic tenderness.” When one notices its insistent reuse, by a writer of such verbal precision, consulting the dictionary seems a good idea.

It turns out that prolepsis has several meanings, a cluster of meanings, some of them overlapping, which form a suggestive arrangement of ideas. As well as “anticipatory,” proleptic can also mean (in an apparent reversal of the first meaning) “anachronistic.” In rhetoric, prolepsis occurs when one preemptively raises objections to one’s own argument and then refutes them. Used in a medical context, it may refer to a series of “proleptic seizures,” in which the interval of time between each seizure becomes successively briefer.

It does seem that Drabble’s frequent use of “proleptic” to describe events and feelings in The Pure Gold Baby has been planted by her as a clue to what her novel is, thematically, brooding over. The narrator, and the main character whose story she is telling, her best friend Jess, wonder a lot about what they knew and when they knew it, and whether or not it would have made any difference if they had known earlier, or never learned, what they have come to know about their lives. Mostly, they find themselves looking back over the years to the 1970s, when Jess gave birth to her “pure gold baby,” Anna, who was born beautiful, blond, and sweet-natured—and, as became clear in the first few years of her life, mentally slow.

The children for whom Jess is said to have felt a “proleptic tenderness” were African; Jess was a student of anthropology conducting research in the 1960s when she encountered the curiously deformed “lobster-claw” children of a particular tribe where the genetic disposition, to what is called “ectrodactyly,” was pronounced. In Scotland, where this particular division and fusing of the fingers of the hand and the toes of the foot into “claws” is also genetically common, these children are called (in a dialect version of “clipped” and with reference to their supposed ancestor, Constable Bell) the “Cleppie Bells.” Images of the African children and the Cleppie Bells float through the pages of this novel, always invoked with affection. As Drabble carefully spells it out again: “They [the African children] were proleptic, but they were also prophetic.”

Jess’s daughter will not be born with this same problem of the body, but with an analogous problem of the mind; she will function, but with some difficulty; she will be beautiful, but different, and hampered. The care with which the narrator and Jess find themselves not naming Anna’s exact problem—the old labels of “handicapped” or “retarded” are avoided; but so are the newer labels of “differently abled” or “learning disabled”—contributes to a curious mood of baffled delicacy in the novel as a whole.

To name the child’s problem would be to restrict, to medicalize, to label the child herself. It would be to offer a proleptic version of her destiny—which Drabble is unwilling to do. It is a testament to the intensity and skill of Drabble’s writing that part of this novel’s suspense has to do with our waiting for definitions, diagnoses, and certainties that are never offered; and that part of our satisfaction lies in our acceptance that they cannot be.

The narrator, who is herself never named and who exhibits an intense, preoccupied attachment to her friend Jess (“Jess’s stories have become my stories and some of mine have become hers”), has her own children and husband and work but tells us only the bare minimum about all that, choosing instead to tell things from what she imagines to be Jess’s perspective—about Anna’s conception, birth, and upbringing to the present day.

There is no plot in the usual sense. There is story: Anna is born, Anna grows up. There is her mother’s parallel story: Jess has a baby; the baby is “pure gold” and a delight, but also a heavy burden, as gold can be; Jess worries that she will soon be too old to care for her daughter. And as I have suggested already, there is in addition the story of how much the narrator will, and will not, tell us about herself; and how much of what she tells us about Jess is from direct knowledge, and how much is speculation.

In Margaret Drabble’s early novels from the 1960s, her candid and darkly funny writing about women’s lot—chiefly, the having of babies while trying to have careers—caused them to be seen, not inaccurately, as “feminist.” Importantly, however, Drabble is no polemicist; she writes not about exemplary women, but about real ones. One of those early novels, The Millstone, is, like The Pure Gold Baby, a novel whose central story is that of a young unmarried mother. (In the case of Rosamund in The Millstone, she has the child in defiance of family and friends who cannot imagine why she does not have an abortion or, failing that, does not put the child up for adoption.) There are other similarities of subject matter, but tonally the two novels are worlds apart—The Millstone inhabits the mind of a twenty-four-year-old and proceeds with a fairly straightforward chronological narrative of events, while The Pure Gold Baby is written with the retrospective and meditative wisdom of an older woman’s view, and takes on the business of retrospection itself as one of its subjects.

Although her kinship with the great English novelists of the past (especially Dickens and Eliot) is always apparent, over the years Drabble has moved toward a more idiosyncratic use of novelistic form. Whether the voice is first-person or close third-person, the sensibility describing events often has a deliberate conversational relationship with the reader, commenting on things as they occur, unwilling to commit to a single interpretation. We recall E.M. Forster’s useful thumbnail description, in Aspects of the Novel, of plot versus story: that “the king died and then the queen died” is story, whereas “the king died, and then the queen died of grief” is plot. But Drabble offers her own peculiar variations. She would be more likely to write: “The king died, then the queen died, possibly from grief. Or was it from food poisoning, as many still claim?—though whether by accident or design they do not say.”

Her sort of “plot,” then, can take place almost entirely in the mind of the character or narrator, as a meditation or internal argument about the meaning of events. This is used to hilarious effect in, for instance, her novel The Garrick Year (1964), in which the enraged narrator tries to make the unbearable story she’s been saddled with—she must spend a year as the adjunct wife and mother to a vain actor who has dragged her to the provinces for his career—into a messily intricate plot of betrayals and bad behavior. She whines, pouts, and schemes:

That night…we had been invited to a civic reception by the town, to be held for the company. I think that it was the thought of that which kept me so tolerably gay throughout our settling in; it was certainly not David, who disappeared as soon as we had had breakfast on our first day there, saying he was called for a rehearsal, which I did not believe. He did not reappear all day. So I dressed for this public event alone. I knew that it was going to be entertaining. There is nothing that I enjoy more than watching, from some safe, anonymous position, such as that of wife, the magnificent, sprawling guerilla warfare of such absurd human functions, and I have found that where actors are concerned the gaiety for the observer is doubled. I took a great deal of trouble over my appearance, for I, too, wished to look absurd.

At least half the action, including the narrator’s own infidelities, takes place inside that speculative internal monologue—the incidents at the party themselves pale by comparison with her mental preparations. And increasingly over the years, Drabble’s novels have supplanted external action with internal drama. She has pondered sexual fidelity, history, genetics, friendship, motherhood, and ethics—and also the problems of the novel as a form, not in closely described events but in the prose narrative as it unfolds.

In The Red Queen (2004)—a novel that combines the stories of an eighteenth-century Korean princess and a present-day academic attending a conference in Seoul—Drabble all but underlines one conventional device in neon, as if to apologize in advance for obtruding anything as corny as this on her readers:

It takes her what seem like whole minutes to work out what she has done. She cannot believe it. She has taken the suitcase of a stranger from the luggage belt, and left her own suitcase at the airport. She has become one of those fools at whom all the superfluous warnings are directed. “Many suitcases look alike”—how often has she heard and read that phrase?

Perhaps the last novel of hers that one might call traditionally “plotted” was the brilliant The Needle’s Eye, from 1972. But even here, the problem of plot can be seen as muddied by her choice to “borrow” the plot of Middlemarch—not in every respect, of course, but in copying the parallel structure that goes back and forth between the lives of a man and a woman (in Eliot’s novel, Dorothea and Lydgate; in Drabble’s, Rose and Simon) and that dwells on the problem of how to do good in the world. The other significant parallel is that the reader of both books wishes, fruitlessly, that the central characters could unite as a romantic couple. Drabble almost always thwarts sentiment; but although she observes her characters with a dry eye, it is not a cold one. Here Peter, in The Needle’s Eye, realizes that his marriage, his job, and his expensive car are holding him hostage:

I am enacting those old and pre-ordained movements of the spirit, those ancient patterns of decay, I, who had thought myself different…. Corrupt, humanly corrupt if not professionally so, and humanly embittered…. He was caught. And his spirit would hunch its feathered bony shoulders, and grip its branch, and fold itself up and shrink within itself, until it could no longer brush against the net, until it could no longer entangle itself, painfully, in that surrounding circumstantial mesh.

This same dry, wry tone is applied to the sufferings of Drabble’s female characters as well. Here are the thoughts of Rose, who, in the same novel, finds that she cannot shake off her ex-husband either practically or emotionally:

There were times when she thought he would come back, and attack her, as he had done in the old days…. She dreamed often that he was threatening her, attacking her with a knife, murdering her, crushing her, trampling on her. She dreamed once that he had set wild animals on her and was watching quietly while they munched her legs, and felt little comforted when she woke to find that she had merely fallen asleep under a pile of heavy books.

The calibration of tone here is what saves both of these accounts from being merely, or only, sad; the slightly self-mocking metaphor of the bird in Peter’s reckoning, the comic word “munched” in Rose’s dream—of such tiny but precise moments of tone does Drabble build a world of human suffering and self-deception and longing that is also always ready to reach for the saving graces of satire and comedy.

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