Authors: Margaret Drabble

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist


Since she was in her twenties, Margaret Drabble has been one of Britain’s most important writers. She is best known for her fiction. Beginning in 1963, her novels have been popular and critical successes both in Great Britain and America. These works display her gradual development as a writer. She has also been a dramatist, a reviewer, an essayist, a short-story writer, a teacher, a lecturer, a literary critic, and an editor. In the last capacity, she is responsible for the revised edition of the classic Oxford Companion to English Literature. She is also the author of acclaimed biographies of two important English writers, Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson. Her work has been the object of much adulation and critical attention.{$I[AN]9810001278}{$I[A]Drabble, Margaret}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Drabble, Margaret}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Drabble, Margaret}{$I[tim]1939;Drabble, Margaret}

Margaret Drabble

(©Jerry Bauer)

Drabble grew up in the industrial city of Sheffield (often described as “Northham” in her novels). Both her parents had risen from working-class backgrounds to obtain degrees from Cambridge University. Her father became a barrister and then a judge; her mother taught at the Quaker school Drabble herself would attend. Many critics see a Quaker influence in the emphasis Drabble places in her novels on liberal values of responsibility and service. The family was middle class and professional. It must have been an intense home, for all the Drabble children have achieved considerable academic and professional success; one sister is the famous novelist A. S. Byatt. According to the pictures Drabble gives in some of her novels, particularly in Jerusalem the Golden, she found family life (and life in Sheffield in general) joyless and suffocating.

Like so many of her characters, Drabble escaped. She attended Cambridge University (Newnham College), where she distinguished herself as a scholar–she was awarded a “double first” degree in English in 1960–and more obviously as an actress. The next step of her escape was to marry the actor Clive Swift and to join with Swift the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. Her career as an actress, mainly as understudy to Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench, was cut short by pregnancy; she filled her backstage hours and then the time at home with her baby by writing her first novel.

Her life in the decade of the 1960’s is mirrored in her early novels. Her strained rivalry with Byatt is reflected in the tensions between sisters in A Summer Bird-Cage. The problems of being a mother married to an actor are at the heart of The Garrick Year. The difficulties of escaping a Midlands background is treated in Jerusalem the Golden. Other novels seem less autobiographical. In The Millstone, the heroine is a single mother and a scholar; in The Waterfall, a very passive heroine experiences a sexual awakening. In these novels Drabble explores her own perplexities: What it is like to be a modern, well-educated young woman in the liberated world of the 1960’s? Can such a woman mix the integrity of a career with love and marriage? Can she mix career and motherhood? Drabble found many readers who responded to her concerns. Most of these readers were probably women, and Drabble became known as one of the first wave of the new feminist novelists.

The decade of the 1970’s brought much change to Drabble. She separated from Swift and divorced him. She and her three children became established in a house in the fashionable and lovely Hampstead section of London. Her three children were growing up, giving her more time to write. Her own interests began to broaden. As a result, her novels became less narrowly feminist, broader in theme and scope, and longer. The Ice Age was a “state of England” novel, one that attempted to evoke the problems of the nation and the temper of the day. In her last novel of the decade, The Middle Ground, Drabble seems to let her heroine evoke her own state: Kate is unmarried, a woman who faces an uncertain future with energy and hope. This novel makes clear that no neat explanations can define or describe life and that no patterns explain all experience.

After that, Drabble’s life and work took new turns. In 1982, she married the famous biographer Michael Holroyd. For many years they kept their own London houses, though sharing a comfortable country home in Somerset; in 1995, Drabble moved from Hampstead to be with Holroyd in west London. She spent several years producing a new edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Whereas her earlier critical and biographical books on William Wordsworth and Arnold Bennett were inspired by artistic indebtedness, her biography of Angus Wilson is a work of friendship and admiration. Her later novels have extended her concerns of the mid-1970’s. The Radiant Way and its short sequel A Natural Curiosity offer not only descriptions of England’s woes but also a diagnosis–or at least a diagnosis of the woes of liberal intellectuals such as Drabble. The Gates of Ivory could be called a “state of the world” novel, contrasting the good life in England with the life of suffering lived in the Third World. The Witch of Exmoor is part satire, part thriller, revolving around the missing Frieda Palmer, an eccentric author. The Peppered Moth is based on the life of Drabble’s mother and explores the competing claims of nature and nurture in the shaping of an individual. The Seven Sisters begins with the protagonist, Candida Wilton, dumped by her academic husband and shows her slow transformation into a different person altogether.

BibliographyBokat, Nicole Suzanne. The Novels of Margaret Drabble: This Freudian Family Nexus. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Part of the Sexuality and Literature series, this volume examines the sexual and psychological backgrounds of Drabble’s characters.Creighton, Joanne V. Margaret Drabble. New York: Methuen, 1985. This slim volume begins with an introductory overview, followed by a chronological survey of Drabble’s novels through The Middle Ground. Creighton argues that Drabble, with such contemporaries as John Fowles and Muriel Spark, has gradually changed her approach to fiction, “challenging the conventions and epistemological assumptions of traditional realistic fiction, perhaps in spite of herself.” Includes notes and a bibliography.Hannay, John. The Intertextuality of Fate: A Study of Margaret Drabble. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. Drabble’s characters sometimes think they are fated when their lives seem to imitate the patterns (or intertexts) of stories they have read. As a result, Drabble’s references to other stories are not decorations but serious allusions to the myths that shape the novels. Accidents and coincidences often signal that an intertext is in operation.Myer, Valerie Grosvenor. Margaret Drabble: A Reader’s Guide. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Myer usefully identifies allusions, sets historical and literary contexts, and summarizes critical opinions.Rose, Ellen Cronan. The Novels of Margaret Drabble: Equivocal Figures. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1980. Rose’s study seeks to “acknowledge and applaud [Drabble’s] feminist vision and encourage her to give it freer rein in the future.” Drabble’s first three novels are discussed together in the opening chapter, while each of her next five novels (through The Ice Age) is given a separate chapter. Includes a list of works cited and endnotes for each chapter.Rose, Ellen Cronan, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Drabble. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. An important collection of essays and a useful introduction to Drabble’s career.Rubenstein, Roberta. “Fragmented Bodies/Selves/Narratives: Margaret Drabble’s Postmodern Turn.” Contemporary Literature 35 (Spring, 1994): 136-155. Rubenstein treats Drabble’s novels of the 1980’s and 1990’s and shows how they are fragmented in postmodern ways.Sadler, Lynn Veach. Margaret Drabble. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Acknowledging that Drabble both “exasperates and delights” her, Sadler offers a balanced and readable appraisal. A very brief biographical sketch is followed by a chronological survey of Drabble’s novels through The Middle Ground, with a coda on “Drabble’s Reputation.” Includes notes and an extensive bibliography, both primary and secondary; entries for secondary sources are annotated.Soule, George. Four British Women Novelists: Anita Brookner, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym–An Annotated and Critical Secondary Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 1998. An analysis and evaluation of most of the critical books and articles on Drabble through 1996.Talwar, Sree Rashmi. Woman’s Space: The Mosaic World of Margaret Drabble and Nayantara Sahgal. New Delhi: Creative Books, 1997. A comparative study of Indian writer Sahgal and Drabble, exploring the effects of feminism on the writers.
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