10 Reasons to Love: Margaret Drabble

5th Jun 2014

10 Reasons to Love: Margaret Drabble
The talented author of The Millstone and Golden PEN Award winner turns 75 today. She's honest, witty, creates very real characters and is a champion of the humble jigsaw puzzle! Voilà! Our ten reasons to love her:

1. The way her work reflects the last 50 years of history

Without being overly autobiographical, Margaret Drabble’s work tracks her age and her era.

She published her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, in 1963, at age 24. It’s a story of two young women who are newly graduated from university, finding jobs, and discovering love in 1960’s London.  In her next novel, The Garrick Year, a young woman grapples with the changes in her life brought on by marriage and motherhood.

Later novels set in the 1980’s chronicle the lives of women in their middle years, and her most recent novels are about older women who are taking stock of their approaching final years. Read her books and witness your grandmother’s life story, if your grandmother was a brilliant observer and no-nonsense feminist.

2. Her unapologetic commitment to traditional British literature

Margaret Drabble has edited two editions of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, written biographies of the writers Angus Wilson and Arnold Bennett and critical studies of Thomas Hardy and William Wordsworth.  Whether or not you share her enthusiasm for the patriarchy, it’s hard not to be awed by her vast knowledge and her ability to organise and comment on all this material.

Some may complain about her backward looking focus, but she embraces it. She says “I’d rather be at the end of a dying tradition, which I admire, than at the beginning of a tradition which I deplore.”

3. Her sly sense of humour

Lest you be tempted to take all this scholarship too seriously, Margaret Drabble made mischief in the 2000 edition of the Oxford Companion when she included an entry for a fake author, “Pycletius, Graeco-Spanish geographer and traveler.” Drabble says she included it in the book to “make sure people look closely at the text and pay attention.” It also seems like a challenge to readers to not take it all so seriously.

Drabble’s novels can also be very funny, though not obviously so. Her humour is the kind that sneaks up on you, and you find yourself thinking “wait, is that a joke?” Kind of like how you would react if you encountered a fake entry in a literary compendium…

4. Her honesty about her depression

In a 2009 article for The Guardian, Margaret Drabble wrote candidly about her long history of depression, dating back to extreme episodes in her childhood. She also revealed that her mother suffered similarly, and spent many years heavily medicated. Drabble rejects medication and favours jigsaw puzzles.

Really? Does that work?

5. Her love of jigsaw puzzles

Apparently so. Drabble’s recent memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, alternates the history of jigsaw puzzles with memories of her youth and of her puzzle partner, Aunt Phyl, a woman of modest means but powerful spatial abilities.

Drabble uses the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle to point out that life’s events are like a series of small interlocking pieces, and that everyone desires a sense of order and strives to accomplish a goal. The knowledge of which serves to keep the darkness at bay, at least for Drabble.

6. The way she gets inside her characters’ heads

In her novels Margaret Drabble often eschews dialogue and traditional action for long passages where the reader goes inside the narrator’s head. A character’s memories, impressions, musings, preoccupations, and  theories can fill pages. Does this sound boring? It’s not. Indeed sometimes these passages are the sharpest and most trenchant.

You won’t find car chases in her books, but you will find acidic commentary and mordant wit just by listening to the narrator think.

7. The way she understands women’s need for intellectual space

A common theme that runs throughout Drabble’s novels is, how can a woman nurture her intellectual life while still performing the roles demanded of her by society? Drabble’s women are wives and mothers, professors, social workers, and scientists, but they are united by the fact that they all have deeply satisfying interior lives that they struggle to maintain and nurture.

Her women characters are thinkers and they like it that way. Often they prefer their own company to that of spouses, children, and friends. Many long for a room of one’s own, without overtly saying so.

Read our review of A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman Here.

8. Her very public family drama

Two talented sisters compete for their parents’ affection and for academic recognition, egged on and pitted against one another by their mother. Both sisters graduate from Newnham College, Cambridge with honors; both become novelists whose books are known for their intellectual merit as well as their popular appeal.

The competition between them, fostered practically at birth, continues throughout their lives. One has written more books, but the other has won more awards. They are obviously keeping score. Never close as children, as they age, their enmity increases to the point where their relationship is now “beyond repair” says one of them. They circle one another warily in the press, alternating between sarcastic remarks and studied indifference. They speak rarely, if at all.

Does this sound like the plot of soap opera? It’s also the true story of Drabble and her sister, the novelist A. S. Byatt, author of Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 1990 (a prize Drabble has never won).

9. She’s not afraid to snark

When asked to comment on her sister’s Booker prize win, Margaret Drabble points out that she “won’t allow [her own] books to be entered for it. The Booker is designed to make people cross with one another. Look what it did to Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. In the mid-eighties, I thought it was getting out of hand and how right I was ….”

10. Her sensible hairstyle

A bob, with fringe. Unchanged in 50 years except for the transition from brown to gray. An honest hairstyle for a woman with more things on her mind than fashion.