Margaret Drabble - World Literature

World Literature

Margaret Drabble


BORN: 1939, Sheffield, England


GENRE: Fiction


The Waterfall (1969)

The Needle’s Eye (1972)

The Realms of Gold (1975)



Margaret Drabble. Drabble, Margaret, photograph. AP images.



A respected editor and writer, Margaret Drabble made her reputation in the early 1960s as the preeminent novelist of the modern woman. She is best known for her novels that chronicle the negative effects of dramatic changes in contemporary British society on the lives of well-educated women. Critics generally distinguish two phases in Drabble’s career as a novelist: Her first five works focus on young women who struggle with professional, sexual, maternal, and social conflicts as they attempt to establish careers and discover their identities, while her later novels combine commentary on women’s concerns with panoramic views of modern England. Drabble’s realistic fiction often shows how fate and coincidence are important to how we understand and accept our individual destinies. She has also written well- regarded works of criticism and biography and has edited several influential volumes, including the fifth edition of the esteemed Oxford Companion to English Literature.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Days of Illness and Books. The second of four children, Margaret Drabble was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, on June 5, 1939, to Kathleen Bloor and John Frederick Drabble. Her parents broke from family roots by attending the university and separating themselves from strong religious practice. Drabble had a diverse religious upbringing: She attended Anglican services with her father because her mother, raised in a repressive fundamentalist tradition, had become a devout atheist. Drabble was also very much affected by the Quakers and attended a Quaker boarding school.

Drabble grew up in a household that embraced books and learning. Her father, also an author, was a lawyer and then a circuit judge; her only brother is also a lawyer. Before and after childrearing, her mother taught English; her younger sister is an art historian, and her older sister, Antonia, is a famous novelist who writes under the name A. S. Byatt.

Despite being part of a large and interesting family, Drabble has described her childhood as lonely. Often ill, she once wrote: ‘‘I had a bad chest and was always rather feeble—hated games. I certainly did not feel I was part of the main stream.’’ She spent much of her time alone writing, reading, and ‘‘just being secretive.’’ She had an early and constant love of literature, and she was profoundly affected as a child by John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

At the Quaker Mount School where Drabble was educated, she made many friends and became more socially oriented. Like her father and her older sister, she went on to Cambridge University with a major scholarship. She studied English literature at Newnham College and ‘‘enjoyed it so much,’’ she claimed, that it ‘‘took me a long time to get over it.’’ While at the university, she stopped writing stories in her head and started acting, with some success, because ‘‘it was so much more sociable.’’

Feminism’s Second Wave. Though the struggle for women’s rights goes back centuries, many of the most important advances in the rights of women have taken place in the past one hundred years. This included earning the right to vote in many countries, gaining representative positions in government, and achieving greater equality in the workplace. After these gains were made, however, women still struggled to reach full equality with men. This led in the 1960s to the ‘‘Second Wave’’ of feminism, in which feminists struggled to attain completely equal rights. This also led to a flowering of feminist art, nonfiction, and fiction, with many female authors gaining popularity for their unique and insightful views on the place of women in modern society.

From Stage to Page. In 1960 Drabble graduated with honors, and she might have stayed on as a lecturer if she had not wanted to be an actress. She married Clive Swift the week after she left Cambridge and went with him to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, understudying Vanessa Redgrave and doing occasional walk-ons. Drabble has described her life at this point as without an objective, consisting of ‘‘jumping over obstacles: marriage, having babies.’’ Bored with such small roles as a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and expecting her first child, she began writing her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), to fill the time and disprove the myth that ‘‘one kind of creativity displaces another.’’

Other factors contributed to her becoming a novelist. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex—a detailed analysis of women’s oppression and a foundational work in contemporary feminism—presented her with information and inspiration that was personally relevant to Drabble. She did not feel personally or directly committed to the women’s movement or feminism, however. In one interview, she said, ‘‘The women’s movement is a phenomenon that got started after I got started, so I don’t really see where I fit into it.’’ She has in recent years, however, become much more politically engaged and has been a powerful spokesperson against the American and British war in Iraq.

Drabble has expanded the range of her writing, now including screenplays and dramas, and brought her extensive knowledge of British literature to works of criticism, essays, reviews, and journalism. She was made a Citizen of the British Empire in 1980, and Cambridge awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2006.



Drabble's famous contemporaries include:

Betty Friedan (1921-2006): American feminist, activist and writer, best known for starting what is called the ''Second Wave'' of feminism through the writing of her book The Feminine Mystique.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928—): American post-painterly abstraction artist. Originally influenced by the work of Jackson Pollock, Frankenthaler was deeply involved in the 1946-1960 abstract art movement.

Truman Capote (1924-1984): American writer whose stories, novels, plays, and nonfiction are recognized literary classics, including the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) and In Cold Blood (1965), which he labeled a "nonfiction novel.''

Gloria Steinem (1934—): A writer and editor who, during the 1960s, appeared as a leader in the women's movement in the United States. In 1970 she cofounded Ms., which grew to be a leading feminist magazine.

A. S. Byatt (1936—): This postmodern poet and author of the award-winning novel Possession (1990) is Margaret Drabble's older sister.


Works in Literary Context

Margaret Drabble’s rise as one of the most important and well-known British novelists writing today has been steady and sure. She has received serious attention in Great Britain since the appearance of her first novel, and ever since the publication of The Needle’s Eye (1972) she has established an impressive reputation in America as well. She is a traditionalist in form and a pioneer in subject matter. From her first novel, written immediately after graduation from Cambridge, Drabble has recorded the conflicting sensibilities of the new, educated woman seeking her place in the modern world. Her heroines are self-aware, articulate, intelligent, career-concerned; they are also wives and mothers caring for and redeemed by their children. Her key themes tend toward the contemporary woman’s struggle for emotional, moral, and economic independence. She also explores the individual’s search for identity; the particular self-awareness of womanhood; the individual’s relationship with the personal and national past; the interaction of fate, chance, and character; and the guilt and anxieties of the liberal conscience.

Women and Society. In her early novels, including A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), The Garrick Year (1964), and The Millstone (1965; republished as Thank You All Very Much), Drabble drew upon her personal experiences to present psychological portraits of intelligent, sensitive young women in the process of adjusting to social roles and fate. This theme appeared in some of her subsequent novels, as well. In The Waterfall (1969), for example, Drabble’s characteristic topics of maternity and sexuality are united in the story of an unconventional love affair. The heroine, an unfulfilled housewife who has been abandoned by her husband, is nursed through childbirth by her brother-in-law. Through the brief, passionate romance that develops, the lovers are awakened to a stronger sense of freedom and self-awareness. The Needle’s Eye (1972) initiated Drabble’s use of more varied themes, concerns, and characters, and especially reflected both Drabble’s deep interest in ethics and morality and her lack of orthodoxy. Like her, the novel’s heroine, Rose Vassiliou, is unsure of her theology but possessed of a conviction that she must do right. An altruistic, upper- middle-class woman, Rose hopes to achieve spiritual grace by renouncing material wealth and embracing a working-class lifestyle in a poor section of London. Although fateful events continually frustrate her plans for salvation, Rose’s verve and idealism, coupled with her talent for self-analysis, which is demonstrated through interior monologues, allow her to gain a sense of direction in her life.

Social Issues. Drabble’s interest in social issues became particularly evident in her succeeding novels, including The Ice Age (1977), The Middle Ground (1980), The Radiant Way (1987), Natural Curiosity (1989), and The Gates of Ivory (1991). In these novels, the author puts forward an apocalyptic vision of Britain. England is presented as a bleak, alienating environment in social decline where sudden calamities and random violence are commonplace. In The Radiant Way, in particular, Drabble made a sweeping indictment of England, writing about grisly crimes committed by a serial murderer, crimes meant to symbolize the country’s social chaos.

Influences. As she has often reiterated in interviews, Drabble’s models have been the great British novelists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—George Eliot, the Brontes, Arnold Bennett, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. Like George Eliot and Arnold Bennett, in particular, she writes in the realist tradition.



Drabble writes about her women characters' actions in the face of limitations beyond their physical, social, familiar, psychological, and spiritual control. Other works that focus on this idea include:

The Scarlet Letter (1850), a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Set in puritanical Boston in the seventeenth century, this is the fictional story of Hester Prynne, a woman who commits adultery and subsequently refuses to name the father of her illegitimate child. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne explores the issues of grace, legalism, sin, and guilt, while describing Hester's struggle to create a new life of repentance and dignity.

Madame Bovary (1856), a novel by Gustave Flaubert. This influential work of realism focuses on a doctor's wife, Emma Bovary, who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of domestic life.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a novel by Margaret Atwood. This novel explores themes of women in subjugation and the ways they find identity and self-definition against a backdrop of an oppressive and totalitarian religious political structure.

Pride and Prejudice (1813), a novel by Jane Austen. The smart and spirited heroine of this novel finds romance and self-determination by negotiating the complex codes of social manners required in England at the turn of the nineteenth century.


Works in Critical Context

Although Drabble is most often praised for her unblinking portrayal of the uncertainties women feel about motherhood and the enforced domesticity that usually accompanies it, critical reviews of her work have been mixed. Feminist reaction to Drabble’s work has perhaps been the most negative.

The Ice Age. Nancy Hardin, for example, wrote that ‘‘Drabble’s novels are studies of human nature with the emphasis on feminine nature. That is not to say she is a feminist writer.’’ Similarly, Ellen Cronan Rose acknowledged that ‘‘what Drabble seems to find difficult, if not impossible, is giving her whole-hearted support to female characters who are radically feminist in their critique of patriarchy.’’ According to Rose, by not consistently condemning male domination, Drabble seemed to endorse aspects of it. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese severely criticized Drabble’s treatment of women, suggesting that Drabble’s novel The Ice Age ‘‘ends chillingly with a simple and total condemnation of female experience.’’ According to Fox- Genovese, ‘‘Drabble’s women offer a picture of predatory narcissism, their occasional victimhood and suffering being ... no more than another way of getting what they want.’’

The Waterfall. Drabble’s The Waterfall, in particular, dealt with an egocentric heroine. As the author’s most  “experimental’’ work, the novel’s primary stylistic characteristic is a divided narrative point of view. The main character is Jane Grey, the mother of a small child, whose husband has left her. After Jane begins a love affair with her cousin’s husband, which Drabble presents as the highest and most consuming of passions, the novel switches to first-person narration. The first- and third- person voices then alternate throughout the remainder of the story, a convention that received divided reviews from critics. Caryn Fuoroli wrote that the split results from Drabble’s ‘‘inability to control narration’’ and that the novel fails because the technique keeps her from realizing the ‘‘full potential of her material.’’ Valerie Myer, on the other hand, wrote that The Waterfall is Drabble’s ‘‘best expression of her central concern, that there is no true solution to the conflict between instinct and morality.’’

The Needle’s Eye. One of Drabble’s more acclaimed books, The Needle’s Eye, reflected both Drabble’s deep interest in ethics and morality and her lack of orthodoxy. Like Drabble, the novel’s heroine, Rose Vassiliou, is unsure of her religious convictions but certain that she must do right. She gives up her inheritance, marries an unsavory and radical young immigrant, gives away a thirty-thousand-pound legacy to a dubious African charity, and then refuses to move out of the couple’s working class house into a more fashionable middle-class neighborhood. Valerie Myer pointed out that Drabble’s fatalism in the novel is actually a kind of religion that brings about salvation: ‘‘For Margaret Drabble the true end of life is to reconcile flesh and spirit by accepting one’s own nature and living with it, in a context of love and responsibility for others.... This reconciliation, the author hopes, can come about by involvement in society.’’


Responses to Literature

1. How does Drabble introduce and develop her theme of reconciling instinct with morality in The Waterfall and The Needle’s Eye?

2. How are motherhood, and the duties attached to it, defined by contemporary media? How does Drabble seem to define motherhood? What similarities and differences do you see between those definitions?

3. Write a brief essay explaining the corrosive nature of infidelity in A Summer Bird Cage and The Middle Ground.




Allan, Tuzyline Jita. Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.

Bokat, Nicole Suzanne. The Novels of Margaret Drabble: This Freudian Family Nexus. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

Creighton, Joanne V. Margaret Drabble. London: Methuen Publishing, 1985.

Moran, Mary Hurley. Margaret Drabble: Existing within Structures. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Myer, Valerie Grosvenor. Margaret Drabble: Puritanism and Permissiveness. London: Vision Press, 1974.

Quiello, Rose. Breakdowns and Breakthoughts: The Figure of the Hysteric in Contemporary Novels by Women. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

Rose, Ellen Cronan. The Novels of Margaret Drabble: Equivocal Figures. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980.

Schmidt, Dory, and Jan Seale, editors. Margaret Drabble: Golden Realms. Edinburg, Tex.: Pan American University, 1982.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Wojcik-Andrews, Ian. Margaret Drabble’s Female Bildungsromane: Theory, Genre, and Gender. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

Web sites

Contemporary Writers: Margaret Drabble. Retrieved March 3, 2008, from