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Puzzling out the past

The Pattern in the Carpet, by Margaret Drabble

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

The Pattern in the Carpet Margaret Drabble

Atlantic, pp.349, 18.99

How do you write an autobiography without referring to almost anyone else in your life? In The Pattern in the Carpet, Margaret Drabble has done just that, using her interest in jigsaw puzzles to create a ‘hybrid’ book, part memoir, part history. The device allows Drabble to reveal more about herself than any exposé or biographer’s dissection, whilst leading us through the museums and galleries of the world in the search for puzzle trivia. The mildest of pastimes is Drabble’s ostensible subject, but the book is lively with an anguish only partly alleviated by the correct placing of a cardboard shape.

As a child, Margaret Drabble would lie on her back and contemplate infinity ‘quite faint with my own stupidity and desire’. The vastness of space, of large numbers, the fear of chaos, drives her to seek order where she could find it. Drabble despises the sentimental and ‘inauthentic’ renditions of the past, those artists and illustrators beloved of the heritage industry whose work lends itself so well to the jigsaw reproduction. Yet, there is in her memories of a depressed and painful girlhood, a yearning for the solace she found at the house of her maternal grandmother in Long Bennington, on the Great North Road. There, with her ‘Auntie Phyl’ she ‘felt able to be a child and to enjoy childish things’. The house ‘was a calm fixed point in a restlessly ambitious world’ and it is Drabble’s relationship with her aunt, nearly 50 years later, that brings her back to the world of puzzles and to thoughts of childhood.

The Pattern in the Carpet charts the history of games, such as the Royal Game of the Goose, as amusements for the aristocracy throughout 16th-century Europe. Many children’s toys originated as playthings for Royal nurseries and Drabble investigates the changing attitudes to children and their toys through the centuries, using paintings and literary sources to discover popular tastes. She wonders whether the high infant mortality rate was linked to the detachment often demonstrated by parents to their progeny, and thus the lack of a childhood ‘industry’. In any case, boxed games were beyond the purchasing power of most families and such ‘play-things’ were disapproved of by leading pedagogues such as John Locke for their corrupting influence.

With the advent of the ‘dissected map’ (credited to John Spilsbury in 1766), the lines between an educational occupation and an amusement were blurred forever. Maps mounted on mahogany board and cut into pieces with a marquetry saw, laid the foundation for the 10,000-piece cardboard puzzles of today. Her quest to understand the many aspects of the jigsaw puzzle finds Drabble assembling an original Spilsbury Map of Europe Divided into Kingdoms in the Map Room of the British Library, most thrillingly, without gloves. Here, Drabble muses on the reasons for her pleasure in jigsaws, partly acknowledging the relief it brings to her ‘word-based’ brain, and confiding that for her ‘writing is a protection, a cure, an affliction’.

The consolation of reading is not dismissed, however. Drabble shares her own book list, from childhood primers to a love of John Clare and an intricate appreciation of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, with ‘the jigsaw as a central metaphor for the tragic futility of human endeavour and the tedium of existence’. Drabble is unafraid of the jigsaw as metaphor, indeed she explores every possible aspect of the puzzle, even, with the help of Kevin the taxi-driver, hunting down a subterranean mosaic. She looks at the idea of the puzzle in nature, finding Shackleton’s descriptions of pack-ice as ‘a giant and interminable jigsaw puzzle’ a starting point for considerations of natural and unnatural phenomena. If the connections are occasionally obscure, the pleasure of the book is in enjoying Drabble’s company. In her discreet and elegant way, she has assembled a puzzle from her own life and invited us to share some quiet moments on the solution.

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