28th Jul 2011
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble
“People long to write their short stories but they don’t want to read anyone else’s” – Margaret Drabble.
The cover of A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, a brown smear topped by an exhausted wraith, optimises all the misgivings and prejudices the majority of readers under thirty bring to any Margaret Drabble title.
Eternally condemned to be aggressively marketed as the grande dame of English literature (a phrase guaranteed to put crosses in even the most committed reader’s eyes) the sheer volume of Drabble’s output only adds to any initial misgivings.
Seventeen novels. Seventeen novels and multiple awards. Seventeen novels and multiple awards and a wealth of non-fiction, poetry and screenplays.
The relief offered by her short stories, therefore, is palpable from the first pages. Here we have a ‘Drabble for Dummies’ provided by the author herself. Thirteen short stories, spanning four decades of her life and each a perfect springboard to one of her novels.
It’s easy to question the contemporary validity of stories written over 50 years ago, about a group of middle-class women, but Drabble remains vibrant and engaged throughout this collection.
Topics such as the super-woman complex and annoyance at a high restaurant bill are depicted with rueful humour without detracting from the flashes of grief in highlights like The Merry Widow.
A great deal is made of Drabble’s depiction of the English manners and idiosyncrasies but her true abilities lies in talking about people. As illustrated in the above quote from Radio 4’s Open Book, Drabble has the rare ability to illuminate people’s foibles, without making them or herself unlikeable. Her characters are easy to invest in, to sympathise with, even when they behave in petty, selfish ways.
With a name that resembles a reject Beatrix Potter character and an undeniable sympathy for the underdog, Drabble still manages to avoid the stilted, dated fiction often associated with tales of The English being Very English.
Stories like Crossing the Alps, written three decades ago, contain enough insight on the contemporary human condition to exorcise any such associations. Instead we are given stolen enjoyment in self-sacrifice, a love story conducted by a bored commuter with a fellow, unsuspecting, traveller.
Drabble adds a warm, wry sheen of glamour to life’s normalcies simple by drawing our attention to them and this collection will hopefully help her to become accessible to a whole new generation of readers.
Rating: 4/5. A great introduction to a fascinating writer.