Margaret Drabble: In Defiance of Time

The Garrick Year

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

The Sea Lady

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

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