Margaret Drabble Reads My Mind

I was making my way through The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble, thinking I was really enjoying it, when I realized on about page 75 that it was utterly failing to hold my interest. I couldn’t figure out why, because I generally love these kinds of books–portraits of women rooted in a time and place, books like The Group by Mary McCarthy or Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman. This book has strong, faceted female characters and the prose is layered yet lucid. Why, oh why, were my eyes glazing over?

And then I figured it out–the book is just so very, very English. Drabble uses the political and economical climate of early 1980s Britain as a huge part of her characterizations, perhaps even the largest part in several instances that I could see. And I, being an American who was 7 years old when the events at the outset of the book took place, have little to do no framework with which to grasp the subtle distinctions she’s making. I can’t recognize these women at all.

Still, that hardly seemed a reason to put the book down, until I reached p. 79 of my copy and found this extraordinary passage:

Jane Austen recommended three or four families in a country village as the thing to work on when planning a novel. Esther Breuer might well have been expected to approve this advice, with its implication that depth rather than breadth is of importance, and intimate knowledge of a corner more valuable than a sketchy acquaintance with the globe. In fact, perversely, Esther Breuer disliked the only Jane Austen she had ever read (which was, perversely, Sense and Sensibility) and frequently boasts of her inability to tackle the others. “Too English for me,” she will sometimes add, in her impeccably English middle-class intellectual’s voice.

Really weird, right? “Too English for me” was exactly how I put it to myself when I had my epiphany four pages earlier. I took it as a sign to move on and try something a little less Englishy. Like Where Angels Fear to Tread… EM Forster’s my kind of English.

I don’t really want to give up on Drabble altogether, so I’m actively soliciting recommendations. Please leave a comment if you can help me out.

6 thoughts on “Margaret Drabble Reads My Mind”

  1. Speaking of women stories..

    I enjoyed a library copy of Judy Dater’s biography of Imogene Cunningham, a turn of the century photographer and contemporary of Ansel Adams.

    Also the artsy movie, ‘The Ballad of Little Jo’.

    For a short novella, Anne McCaffrey’s fantasy/SF world of Pern includes many stories of women. One of the best contained might be ‘Nerilka’s Story’. The young reader stories Dragonsong and Dragonsinger are about music and following a dream. Moreta is about a courageous leader, Dragon Flight and Dragon Quest are about a girl coming to be a leader. And there are others. I note that Mrs. McCaffrey signed my copy of Nerilka’s Story and Dragon Song at a signing in 1986 or so…

    Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear began the story of Ayla, the movie starred Darryl Hannah. The volume of her Earth’s Children series I really liked, though, was Valley of Horses.

    Still one of my favorites of the Sharon Lee and Steve Miller ‘Liaden Universe’ books, is Conflict of Honors. This focuses on Priscilla, and her path to finding home. Scout’s Progress is good, too, but I found the emotional journey more rewarding in Conflict of Honors.

    In the midst of her Miles Vorkosigan stories, Marion Zimmer Bradley takes time to develop a wonderful woman, in Komarr and A Civil Campaign.

    Witchdame, by Kathleen Sky, and Robin McKinley’s Hero and the Crown and her Blue Sword follow girls growing into leaders and heroic figures. Well, much of Tamora Pierces quadologies do, too. And the extraordinary McKinley novels Beauty (a wonderful story) and Deerskin (disturbing and mystical) are favorites.

    F. M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen stories, back in the day, chronicle a girl emerging from a slavish welfare bureaucracy to use vagaries of time passing in space flight to affect worlds.

    Elizabeth Moon tends to focus on women protagonists. The Deed of Paksennarion may be her best success. Her Heris Serrano stories, especially her Once A Hero novel and it’s successors, are solid SF, perhaps a bit uneven at times.

    Anyway, enjoy!

  2. My favorite of the three Drabbles I have read so far was “The Waterfall” – a novel that plays with the unreliability of narrative in a sort of (Mary) McCarthyesque way, while developing a REALLY interesting relationship to the long tradition of women novelists and novelistic heroines (“Jane Eyre” plays a crucial thematic role in the climax of the novel, if I remember correctly.

    I read the three Drabble novels for my graduate oral exams, as part of a topic on Contemporary Women Fiction Writers of Canada and Britain. It was a phenomenal topic – the authors I covered were Drabble, Pat Barker, Alice Munro, Jeanette Winterson, and Margaret Atwood – several of them completely new to me at the time. I enjoyed them all, but Barker and Munro were my most gratifying discoveries.

  3. What a fascinating topic!

    I will definitely check out The Waterfall… I am intrigued by your mention of “Jane Eyre” being used. I liked Drabble’s style, but I don’t think Radiant Way was the right book for me.

  4. Now that I come to think about it, I recall that “The Waterfall” revolves around a not always totally likable protagonist who is in the midst of a rather claustrophobic pregnancy. I thought I should warn you in case that didn’t sound like the jolliest read at the moment!

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