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An Interview with Margaret Drabble

When Margaret Drabble’s writing began to take form, it was during the era of the second wave feminist movement and the associated radical changes that it brought to the world of fiction.

She married young and had children, and then at the age of 21, right after she graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1960, she started working on her first published novel.

In a BBC documentary that was recorded around the time of her earliest literary successes–somewhere in the 60s when she won awards for her books The Millstone and Jerusalem the Golden–she was the picture of poise and finesse.

Her Glenda Jackson-inspired style, her mini-skirt, knee-high boots, and her subtle yet glamorous 1960s look.

The first of her novels, A Summer Bird-Cage, is a collection of contradictions that nonetheless ask an important question: what can a woman do in the latter half of the twentieth century to gain personal freedom?

 This theme is also explored in her subsequent works, such as The Needle’s Eye (1972) and The Ice Age (1977), which examine social, political and gendered restrictions placed on people. 

Later novels, like The Seven Sisters (2002) and The Radiant Way (1987), delve further into the complexities of culture, history, and mythology, while The Peppered Moth (2001) considers how our personal choices are informed by the biological history of humanity.

The works of Margaret Drabble span an impressive range of nonfiction, including books on Thomas Hardy, Wordsworth, Angus Wilson, Arnold Bennett, and the editing of the 5th and 6th editions of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

Additionally, her journalism is present in the form of essays and reviews published in British newspapers, with her tribute to the late Doris Lessing in The Guardian after her death in 2013 bearing great emotional heft and political acumen as it recounts memories of Lessing as a guest and as a host.

During a writers’ festival in Toronto, I had the pleasure of speaking with Margaret Drabble about her novel, The Pure Gold Baby.

She was an incredibly generous speaker and after our conversation for fifteen minutes, it was as if we had an unspoken understanding and the formalities were no longer needed.

— Lydia Perović

Lydia Perović has been the topic of conversation for some time now. People have been discussing her accomplishments and successes for a while. Her hard work and dedication have been widely praised.


THE BELIEVER: The Feminist Fiction movement that you were part of, along with Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, A.S. Byatt, and Octavia Butler– how did it come to be?

There is nothing like it happening today and it was an incredibly powerful combination of fiction and criticism that centered around gender philosophy and politics.

MARGARET DRABBLE: The pressure to say what hadn’t been said in a while may have been the result of World War II’s effect on feminism. Women got jobs in various industries and enjoyed it, particularly during the war.

But when the men came back, the jobs went away and a sense of injustice grew. This was demonstrated in a study on the Peek Freans biscuit factory, where women lost their positions, and also in schools where the jobs went to the boys.

In the aftermath of the war, there was an increase in dissatisfaction among people, especially women, who had been offered the chance to go to college but then were expected to settle down and become mothers afterwards.

This caused a lot of confusion, leading to great authors such as Doris Lessing, Fay Weldon, Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Plath, the epitome of someone with ambitious dreams but unable to pursue them due to family commitments.

The female authors of that era made a significant impact on English-language literature by penning works that focused on different topics.

MD: The way people’s expectations have changed is something I can relate to. That shift hasn’t reversed. The people I know who are young, including my own kids and their peers, have very progressive outlooks.

I do occasionally hear of young women who have reverted to more traditional approaches to beauty and cosmetics, but I don’t come across them personally.

BLVR: To understand the significance and novelty of feminist literature, one of its distinguishing features was the presence of female characters. Nowadays, numerous female authors who have been widely acclaimed and rewarded have protagonists that are male or boys.

MD: Is that the way it is?

BLVR: Let me think for a moment… Hilary Mantel’s epic three-part series, the most recent book by A. M. Homes, the works of J. K. Rowling, Donna Tartt, Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning novel, and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers come to mind…

MD: I understand your point.

BLVR: Women were doing things that had nothing to do with centering their lives around finding a partner.

MD affirmed that the female members of his family were dedicated to their own pursuits such as their individual goals, profession, politics and the idea of contributing to life.

BLVR: Even now, as a reader, I find it remarkable that the possibility of liberation is not placed outside the realm of the achievable. In Jerusalem the Golden, which was published in 1967, the protagonist embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

She realizes that her relationships with men will not dictate who she becomes and that she will not be held captive by her past experiences. Sadly, something like this is not often seen in present-day novels with female characters.

MD: Everything was occurring back then. But perhaps it was already done–so perhaps there is no need for it to happen again?

I find your thoughts on Hilary Mantel and the traditional historical novel, featuring male lead characters, intriguing. I do not feel a necessity to read them, as I am already familiar with the stories and understand what occurred. Therefore, I do not need to read it to gain knowledge.

BLVR: Could it be argued that reading a historical novel is a form of escapism?

Last night I attended a panel featuring Rupert Thomson and Eleanor Catton. They were both authors of historical fiction, and each read excerpts of their work while addressing the importance of research and accuracy.

However, for me, writing isn’t about that. Instead, it’s about exploring my current situation, my future, and the futures of my children.

It appears to me that male authors are not particularly enthusiastic about creating stories from the point of view of female protagonists either.

MD: D. H. Lawrence had the capacity to write female characters very effectively, however, it seems we have taken a step back from the point when men could accurately capture the female character.

Philip Roth is a writer I greatly appreciate but his work often lacks finesse in its depiction of women and sexuality. Furthermore, Saul Bellow, an author I greatly admire, appeared to have a very traditional view of women, generally seeing them as objects of sexual interest.

BLVR: One of your short stories features him, though he does not go by his own name.

MD stated that he was very appreciative of the way John Updike wrote about male relationships, noting that they were very accurate. He also considers Updike to be good at portraying women, even though the portrayals were not very flattering.

Furthermore, Updike was praised for his ability to capture the details of a house full of babies.


BLVR: In your novel The Pure Gold Baby, you recount the history of psychiatry, the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the subsequent de-institutionalization. There is a chapter in the book which mentions R.D. Laing’s clinic.

Were you personally involved in this movement in any way?

MD: I was brought up during a period when the ideas of Ronnie Laing were quite prevalent. I was aware of a few stories about him and Kingsley Hall, although I couldn’t tell which ones were accurate.

Now, even though there is a heightened awareness of mental health, fewer resources are being allocated to it in the UK.

BLVR: In the past, there was a willingness to try out different types of mental health treatments with the goal of transforming society.

MD: Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad is an excellent book that takes into account the politicization of women’s health. Presently, there is no unified ideology when it comes to treatment; each case is handled independently.

In England, the cost of a “talking cure” is usually quite high, so group therapy is the more cost-effective option. One-on-one treatments are generally not covered by the National Health Service, although some people do opt for private sessions.

BLVR: Ultimately, when large-scale de-institutionalization occurred, the governments utilized it as an excuse to reduce the services provided.

MD: It is evident that the de-institutionalization process was not carried out properly. Although these big establishments had many flaws, for some individuals they were the only home they were familiar with. During the Thatcher era, there were a great amount of people living on the streets that should not have been there; both due to economic and mental health issues. This had never been seen in such high numbers before in England.

BLVR: The protagonist’s parent in The Ice Age willingly sacrifices a great deal, much like the mother in The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing. I was curious to see if the two works shared any similarities prior to reading the novel.

MD: To be completely honest, I couldn’t manage to get through The Fifth Child. I had a close connection with Doris Lessing, so I knew I wouldn’t be a fan of it.

Additionally, I’m acquainted with a couple of individuals whose kids have difficulties and they were mad at her over the book.

They believed she depicted a very bad side of being a parent. She had her own issues and they thought that she shouldn’t be depicting other peoples’ troubles in such an unsympathetic manner.

BLVR: The book centers predominantly on motherhood instead of on a kid with extraordinary requirements.

MD: Doris was certainly a difficult parent.

BLVR: I recently discovered, while reading Gold Baby, that she had a son who was living with a disability.

MD: It seems that The Fifth Child was a topic of conversation and from what I was told, I believe the author was contemplating her own personal journey with him. I consider it fortunate that he passed away before she did.

BLVR: I was a bit taken aback when you indicated that Lessing was a troublesome mother.

MD: She was well aware of the consequences of her decisions, having left two children behind while taking only one with her and keeping him very close.

This peculiar way of parenting certainly demonstrates that she has a troubled relationship with her mother, which she has publicly admitted. Moreover, it appears that the relationship between her and the boy she chose to keep was far from peaceful.

BLVR: This novel, like a plethora of your others, is not limited to the present time. It reaches back to the British colonization of Africa and even further to the archaeological history of the continent.

The Seven Sisters draws from The Aeneid, while The Peppered Moth uses matrilinear genetics and the Hellenistic period of Egypt for its basis.

MD: To me, that’s quite understandable to look at the present through the lens of mythology. From this, we gain fresh perspectives.

While some of the traditional literature may not be pertinent to our situation, female authors and poets have been able to invert it and narrate tales from a different aspect.

This is something that I find captivating. It makes sense to me to relate contemporary women’s lives to the past–either to create a contrast or to show a progression.

The Aeneid is something I enjoyed exploring through its various translations. It was fascinating to see the contrast between the mundane lives of the characters in the book and their heroic journey.

Additionally, all of the characters in the story are female. This made the story that much more interesting for me.

In BLVR’s novel A Natural Curiosity, the phrase “when we meet our Gorgon, we die” is used. A character contemplates if her sister, who had disappeared, had faced her Gorgon. This classic idea is given new life in our mundane modern day.

MD: Poets often use symbolism, but when you use it in a novel, it’s a more daring endeavor. Everywhere I look, I see symbols. Moreover, when I read that trilogy, I became particularly interested in ideas of severed heads and coming to terms with destiny.


BLVR: The books I read by you sparked my curiosity to learn more about the strategies and techniques of parenting.

When I was younger, I gained a lot of wisdom from reading other people’s works.

Have you ever checked out Mary McCarthy’s The Group? It provides some great portrayals of having kids and adapting to a life with infants–not all of which were successful, but she certainly had knowledge of what it was like to have a family and the differing issues that come with it.

I also learned a great deal from Doris [Lessing] too, particularly in regards to the struggles and difficult decisions.

BLVR: For some female novelists, there is a hesitancy to put female characters at the forefront of their stories. This was something that Iris Murdoch had to confront as well; her most prominent characters and narrators were male.

MD: Iris Murdoch was a person of exceptional inquisitiveness.

BLVR: Had you been acquainted with her?

MD: I did. Fundamentally, this individual was androgynous. They weren’t exactly female, they weren’t a male, yet they weren’t a woman. They were married to this elderly professor… he is still alive at present.

BLVR: …The author of two publications concerning the person’s deterioration in health…

MD: Writing it was a mistake. But Iris was fascinated by the way people connect with one another. Never having had kids, she never had to deal with the issues that come with a family.

She was strong and independent, and especially had a knack for understanding males. I never really looked at it that way before, but it is true, she was really good at understanding men.

BLVR: It’s amazing to come across in her writings assertions such as,”I possess the power to charm anyone.”

MD: She was a remarkable and engaging individual and was incredibly inquisitive about the world around her. Despite this, she had no ordinary domestic life.

She and her husband were very odd in their later years; if you have read his memoirs, you would know that their home was in a state of chaos. Neither of them understood the basics of housework and ate food from packets.

BLVR: She held the belief that tidiness was bad and uncleanliness was good.

MD: It is a common saying, attributed to either A. N. Wilson or Martin Amis, that younger authors have presented humorous depictions such as, “In the Oxford house, even the soap was not clean.”

BLVR: Isn’t it remarkable that she could totally reject the idea of a traditional home life?

MD: It’s obvious that she was indifferent. She had her own realm, completely independent. I think there’s a great contrast between female authors who have kids and those who don’t. During the nineteenth century, except for Elizabeth Gaskell, none of them had children.

In the 1950s, the vast majority of female authors were childless too. But then in the sixties, moms with children began to emerge, giving their own version of the story.

BLVR: In relation to your novel The Needle ‘s Eye, I see plenty of resemblances to Iris Murdoch’s work. Do you recall forming the character Rose? Is she attempting to be righteous, resembling some of the characters from Murdoch’s writing?

MD: She strives to be righteous. Indeed. Which in her situation involves relinquishing her advantage. But Rose is in fact based partly on a person I know very well, who did in reality deny a large sum of money. There is something in the honesty of her life that affects me profoundly.

BLVR: In line with Murdoch’s view, Rose’s ex-spouse expresses the idea that those who choose to strive for righteousness can often be very harsh to their families. They impose their moral beliefs and values onto their loved ones.

MD: In Britain, the topic of giving up something in order to not deprive one’s children is still prevalent. Many people are opting to pay for private schools, but my eldest son, a political theorist, is more of an advocate for not sending children to private school.

Nevertheless, his children enjoy the benefits of living in Oxford, having an articulate father, and access to someone well-versed in the educational process. I often think about the concept of privilege that is passed down, as well as the potential for social mobility and progress.

BLVR: In _The Needle ‘s Eye _Simon’s circumstance is depicted as progressing in comparison to his family–however, the audience is exposed to the times when he believes that matters will never improve.

MD: The Ice Age is probably my greatest work, as it contains the aspiration to be good, and the joy of the mundane.

The dog show at the conclusion brings back the blissful memories of being with friends and kids when life was idyllic. Unfortunately, in England, it’s hard to find such optimism nowadays. It’s become so divided. When I wrote the novel, I was convinced that it would make a turn for the better. But as the 1990s came and went, I saw that it wouldn’t.

In fact, the situation has only become more dire socially and economically since I released the book.

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