Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Margaret Drabble was the voice of a university-educated generation of young women, doubtless also of many who had not gone to university.
These early novels remain very good, as is the trilogy, beginning with The Radiant Way, which she wrote in middle-age. She is now in her seventies and it is tempting to see this new novel as the summing-up, or apologia, of her generation of no longer young women. What have they made of their lives in a rapidly changing world?
It is a novel, but one written almost as a memoir, not so much of her own life, but of that of a group of friends who all lived in used to live near each other in North London. Many of them, including the narrator, are still there. The tone is relaxed, even chatty, narrative mixed with reflection and observations on changes in manners and morals. Drabble frequently addresses the reader directly, as Victorian novelists often did; she takes you into her confidence. She and her friends have all become unexpectedly rich, on paper anyway, simply by staying in the same place, “sticking it out in our everyday way”, as the value of their property soared.
The novel isn’t directly the narrator’s story. She writes, and comments, as an observer. The main character is her friend Jess, mother of the pure gold baby of the title. We first meet her as a young anthropologist in Africa, fascinated by a group of children whose toes, thanks to some genetic deviance, are fused together, and also by David Livingstone. Jess will not pursue her career as an anthropologist in the field, though she will study for a PhD and become Doctor Speight, because soon after her return to England, she becomes pregnant. The father of the child is probably her professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, a married man who disappears from both Jess’s life and the story.
Her daughter, Anna, is a beautiful baby, but it is soon evident that she is, in some never exactly defined way, impaired. She is sweet and calm, but her mental powers never develop and her physical co-ordination likewise. It is clear to Jess that her life will be devoted to her daughter‘s care, and because she is a good woman, she does not repine. She has one or two affairs and a rather loose marriage, but her life is centred on her daughter. The narrator is impressed and moved by her devotion, recognizing that by living for Anna, Jess has denied herself the career and fulfilment she might have enjoyed.
The novel is discursive. Because of Anna’s condition, there are reflections on changing attitudes to mental impairment and to the consequen-ces of the closure of mental hospitals or asylums, replaced by care, or too often absence of care, in the community. We realize that Anna is one of the fortunate ones, fortunate that she has remained “tied to her mother’s apron strings”.
There is no plot as such, any more than there is in most individual lives. It really is about “sticking it out in our everyday way”. What it offers, convincingly, interestingly, and often charmingly, is a picture of a changing world as experienced by a group of intelligent, socially-conscious women – husbands and lovers playing usually subsidiary roles – over the last four or five decades. If there sometimes seems to be a degree of self-satisfaction in the tone, this is natural and, one might add, justified. The narrator and her friends have survived much – none more so than Jess – and, realizing that they have been fortunate, are nevertheless entitled to be content. They may have lost some of their illusions, but not their belief that the world can be a good place if only people behave with sympathy for others. Lives are justified and enriched by innumerable “little nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love”.
The narrator, speaking surely for her author, says she is “resigned to the random and the pointless”. Life doesn’t have shapes except what we choose to give it. In determinedly not giving a pleasing shape to the story of Jess and Anna, Margaret Drabble has written a novel in which she has resisted the temptation to form it into a pleasing work of art, instead offering a picture of life as one thing after another. Yet it is a version of a good life that she very winningly offers us, a life irradiated by kindness.
The Pure Gold Baby
by Margaret Drabble
Canongate, 291pp, £14.99