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Margaret Drabble: In Defiance of Time

Many readers are grateful to Drabble for her editorship, in 1985 and again in 2000, of the superb fifth edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Since 2000, Drabble has published five more novels (including the new one), a memoir, and an edition of her short stories. Of her recent novels, perhaps the most striking is The Red Queen, a beautifully structured, though again not conventionally plotted, book. It concerns the late-eighteenth-century Korean crown princess of the Choson dynasty, the Lady Hyegyong, whose story Drabble has fictionalized from her memoirs; and a wholly fictional twenty-first-century English academic, Babs Halliwell, whose trip to Seoul for a conference about bioethics is relentlessly observed and indeed narrated (not always sympathetically) by the disembodied ghost of the same Korean princess.

The princess’s story (“Part One: Ancient Times”) is one of court intrigue, madness, and survival in the face of terrible violence and fear. The princess’s husband, the Crown Prince Sado, slowly goes mad, chafing under the bullying of his father, the king, and develops a complicated phobia about his clothes. The princess says:

“Himatiophobia,” I have seen it called, in English, in one of the translations of my works. But I do not think that this is a word commonly recognized in the medical or psychoanalytical lexicon.
I had my own theory about Sado’s phobia. Its source lay in his father’s wrath. To me this followed, as the night the day. The craziness with which Sado slashed his clothes was caused by King Yongjo’s incessant criticisms of his son’s appearance.

Drabble has chosen to make the Lady Hyegyong a mysterious spirit, apparently narrating her memoirs from a timeless ether: she has access to libraries and the Internet, she ventures anachronistic explanations for what she once could not name, suggesting elsewhere that her husband was “obsessive-compulsive,” and her father-in-law “neurotic,” and pondering the implications of the kind of genetic advances that the conference on bioethics debates.

Babs Halliwell’s story (“Part Two: Modern Times”) is funny and serious and satiric by turns. The Lady Hyegyong—accompanied by a host of other spirits—appears to be hovering in the air above the action, and narrates Babs’s activities, and possible thoughts, in the present tense:

We watch her, but she does not know that we watch. She ignores our intrusion. Why are we summoned to her bedside?… The woman wears a scarlet nightshift of light, loosely woven muslin, which has ridden high over her round belly.

Later, watching Babs deliver her conference paper:

Is the auditorium full enough? Has she been boycotted because she is a woman? This, as she has been so many times warned, and as dear Dr. Oo has confirmed, remains a sexist society…. But the room seems to be respectably full. Although she is an inferior woman, she is also something of a freak and a peep show. On the Western circuit, she is well known as a lively and controversial speaker….She has appeared, effectively, on television. Her lofty stature, such a disadvantage in some social situations, is an asset now. She draws herself up to her full height, adjusts her tortoiseshell-rimmed varifocal glasses, and launches herself upon her discourse.

Unaware of the hand of fate, unaware that she is being “haunted” by the spirit of the Lady Hyegyong, by the end of her brief time in Seoul Babs Halliwell will have fallen in love, visited the historical palaces and grounds where the Lady Hyegyong lived, and, after the death of her lover, be driven to take on the task of keeping the princess’s story current in the academic world, and in print. The way the puzzle pieces of this novel click into place as one reads is deeply satisfying.

Drabble is very good at reminding us how insufficient most metaphors are. To turn to her memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, may be to seek the pattern of her art-making in what is only a partial “explanation.” Combining a memoir of an aunt with a series of anecdotes and speculations about the history of the jigsaw puzzle, this moody, erudite book makes the reader feel that she is listening to one of the most fascinating talkers she ever met. In a gentler, less acidic voice than many of her fictional narrators deploy, Drabble describes the first such puzzles, probably instructive map puzzles whose pieces were shaped by national borders. She spends a lot of time talking about old master paintings, both as the source of information about the playtime activities (games and puzzles) of the aristocracy, and then in their later incarnation as the template of a commercially produced jigsaw puzzle one might “work” on at home.

All of this is entertaining, but what also may strike the reader of Drabble’s fiction is her repeated reference to the importance, when working on a puzzle, of setting the edges in place first. “We always started with the frame.” She dismisses “trick” jigsaw puzzles whose makers decided to raise the level of difficulty by eschewing those straight-edge pieces that enable one to make the frame. She needs the frame.

This setting of the “frame” in place first does appear to be something she does in the novels discussed here. While we don’t know the details of the ending from the outset, we do have a fair certainty about the essentials of “where the novel is going.” Somehow we know, from the first pages of The Needle’s Eye, that Rose and Simon will not find love together. We know, from the first pages of The Garrick Year, that our narrator will make a terrible mess of things; and in The Red Queen that the Korean princess whose story is being told and retold has willed it all from the beginning. And this is because the “events,” the “plot” of the novel is never really the point.

Another way to say this is that Drabble, as a moralist, seems to believe that it is less important what and why we do what we do, than how we think about it—before, during, after. (In her memoir, Drabble makes it clear that she is not a believer herself, but that she carries with her many habits of her Calvinist-Methodist-inflected childhood. Perhaps this way of thinking about fiction comes from those roots. If the reason that a man always sins is that he is sinful, what matters can only be what he does, spiritually, with these hard facts.) And to dispense with the trivialities of “mere” plot, she sets the frame in place early, so that the discoveries made subsequently are those of the spirit. The puzzle’s frame is a proleptic container for the picture that will emerge.

In The Pure Gold Baby, the “given” of the baby who is both “pure gold” and imperfect is the blessing of life itself. All children are pure gold, and all are imperfect; having this particular child is the frame that sets Jess’s life in place, as the loving, burdened, blessed mother of a child she will have to care for until she dies:

Jess has worked so hard to protect and fortify Anna, but at times her courage fails her. Anna cannot be protected at all times. Anna is friendly and cheerful, but at times she stumbles into insults, rejections. She stumbles down the stairs. She stumbles as she boards the bus. She brushes against a stranger on the pavement and is reprimanded for her clumsiness. “Look where you’re going,” she hears shouted at her. And she hears worse words than those.

Jess did not foresee this when she got pregnant, by accident, in an office-hours liaison with one of her professors. No one, the narrator suggests, can see in advance the frame that will enclose and shape their life. Rosamund, the narrator of The Millstone, states it baldly: “I did not realize the dreadful facts of life. I did not know that a pattern forms before we are aware of it, and that what we think we make becomes a rigid prison making us.” Assembling the frame for a jigsaw puzzle, or for a novel, is our way toward the artificial understanding that art, or a game, can provisionally provide.

In interviews, Margaret Drabble stated that she intended not to write more fiction after The Sea Lady came out in 2006. She called that marvelous book, in which old lovers are reunited, “A Late Romance,” and drew on imagery from The Tempest, among other sources, to write a novel of recognition and inheritance—and the science of mitochondrial DNA—that rings of finality. Then, in her 2009 memoir, she suggested that she might not yet be done with fiction; and now we have The Pure Gold Baby, which though a novel of maturity, even of old age, is by no means an ending. I am happy to see her intentions, her own proleptic intimations, so thwarted.

One more passage from The Pure Gold Baby—when the narrator is remembering something from her own, usually shadowed, life—is telling. She recalls her encounter, as a girl, with a sculpture of Rodin’s, the hideous ancient figure called “The Old Courtesan” or “La Belle Heaulmière,” and also “She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife.” Unable, on her visit to the Louvre in this century, to find that particular piece, she goes to look at work by Camille Claudel, who

like Rodin, also sculpted images of youth and beauty, but the process of ageing obsessed her when she was herself yet young. Her work was proleptic. She foresaw her fate. Her older lover thrust it on her, and she fought back, fiercely and at times obscenely. The ageing man in the centre of her massive three-figure sculpture of Maturity is Auguste Rodin, naked, grim, doomed and tragic, caught between his two mistresses, Youth and Age, torn from Youth’s imploring grasp and impelled ever and forcefully onwards into the swirling, grasping, enfolding bronze arms of Age. I don’t often like such crude and overt symbolism, but the power of this piece was overwhelming. It struck me as the Belle Heaulmière had struck me when I was seventeen. It had been waiting for me.

Of course Drabble does not end her meditation on the Rodin and Claudel pieces there. She goes on:

Camille Claudel went mad, or so her family said. She sank into a life of squalor, amidst broken furniture and peeling wallpaper, growing fatter and fatter.

Then, she remembers an actress friend who is aging very well:

Maroussia defies time. Rodin would have done her proud. And proud Maroussia is, proud she remains. She is too proud to have had her portrait painted, her bust sculpted. She talked about this to me when we had supper at Chez Simone…. Some people succumb to being painted through vanity, said Maroussia, they succumb through self-importance, but I am too vain and too proud to sit.

These are characteristic Drabble maneuvers: to take us all the way to death and madness and then back, to life defiant and friendship itself defying time by living fully within it.

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