Francis King celebrates Margaret Drabble’s distinguished career and vividly recalls their first meeting
I first met a youthful Margaret Drabble when, already myself an established author, I was working at Weidenfeld and Nicolson as a literary adviser. The editorial director was an Australian woman called Barley Allison, sister of an MP, who constantly boasted of having ‘grabbed’ (her word) yet another new author for her distinguished list. Her latest ‘grab’ was a sometimes pensively grave and sometimes energetically argumentative woman, an admired actress when up at Cambridge, with the totally unsuitable surname Drabble. ‘You must meet her,’ Allison told me. ‘Quite remarkable.’
When the three of us sat down to lunch, I found myself facing a woman, attractive but not beautiful, with an extraordinary gaze, by turns limpid, sparkling and brooding. Eerily, the jacket of her now first published Collected Stories, designed by Vicky White, exactly conveys that gaze, although White is far too young ever to have met Drabble all that long time ago. As always, Allison, who combined an astonishing knowledge of the modern novel with a no less astonishing loquacity (‘our own Niagara Falls’, Colin Haycraft, then another Weidenfeld colleague, would call her) inevitably did most of the talking, but it was Drabble who held my attention with her all too brief but often intellectually challenging interventions. When the luncheon ended, Allison and I began to stroll back to the office together, and Drabble walked off in the opposite direction. ‘There’s someone who already knows what she’s going to do — and by golly she’ll do it,’ Allison remarked with her usual prescience where any literary reputation was concerned.
Unlike William Trevor, Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Taylor, examples of fiction writers adept at producing both a first-rate novel and a first-rate short story, Drabble has, despite the sterling merit of many of the items in this collection, always seemed both to prefer and to be more at her ease in the longer form. Nonetheless it was with a series of short stories that she first established herself, in the Sixties and Seventies, as a writer destined for outstanding achievement, despite a certain old-fashioned finicalness, discursiveness and indulgence in unnecessary description.
That at the outset of their literary careers so many authors should opt for the short story rather than the novel is perfectly understandable. You spend a year or two slaving at a novel, and then several weeks or months waiting for this or that publisher to decide whether to take a gamble on it or not. Eventually it ends up, pages rumpled and soiled, in a bottom drawer. With a short story there is little such wastage of time and effort. You write it for weeks and in a month or two it has either been accepted or, more often, repeatedly rejected, until it too is consigned with a sigh to that bottom drawer.
As the Spanish academic José Francisco Fernández records with scrupulous scholarship, most of Drabble’s stories were written during the first two decades of her writing career, the Sixties and Seventies. The editor was all too often that charming but tormented publisher at Macmillan, Alan Maclean, brother of the traitor who ended his ignominious days in Moscow. Maclean had a passion for the short story, and he particularly admired Drabble’s work in the genre. Her debut, ‘Hassan’s Tower’ was under the Macmillan imprint in 1966. It has been translated and reissued and, though her first story, has often been admired as the best ever written by her.
The genesis of this story was, as so often with Drabble at the outset of her career, a journey. She and her then husband, the actor Clive Swift, had crossed the length of Spain in a car on their way to Marrakech. Soon after the war, during which little foreign travel had taken place, Spain and Morocco were still countries so shadowy that they all too often induced a mood of awe, puzzlement and even fear in their foreign visitors. Bored, Helen and her husband decide, with a certain trepidation, that they will climb a local ruin called ‘Hassan’s Tower’. Access is free; there is no lift or doorkeeper. She has vague premonitions of rape but determinedly pushes on, even though her body is trembling at the imagined risk that she is taking. He, fearing nothing more mundane than having his pocket picked, would rather not follow her but forces himself to do so. Eventually the couple toil to the top; and then, miraculously, everything has changed. Those once seemingly hostile Arabs, with their scowls and stares, undergo a transformation. They have acquired a distinction, based not on suspicion or evil intent but on a shared humanity. A melding of the two disparate cultures has suddenly taken place.
The stories of the next decade move into a tougher world of middle-aged careers and the relationships of women with the men whose love they have difficulty in taking on trust. Many of these women have jobs in the media. There is one particularly powerful story, ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’ that gives its title to the whole collection. It is not for the squeamish like me but it is certainly masterly in its depiction of terror overcome. Jenny has made her name in television almost by chance, when, one day, she has an appointment with a gynaecologist because of internal bleeding. After an unpleasantly intrusive examination she goes on to a meeting at which she is to be the chief speaker. As she talks the blood trickles down her legs and even begins to fill her elegant boots. Terrible thoughts descend on her even as she goes on holding forth with an appearance of blitheness. Death. This must be the approach of death. But Jenny survives. Drabble’s women tend to be survivors.
It has been said of Drabble that she has been ‘the moral conscience of a generation’. It has also been claimed that, like Leo Amery at a pivotal crisis just before the last war, she has ‘spoken for England’. This last claim strikes me as a dubious one. What she has spoken for over and over again in her profoundly moral stories and novels is an educated, progressive, tolerant, humane upper-middle class, similar to the one in which she has passed all her life. In the final story here, ‘Stepping Westward’ (2000), the authorial voice, warning ‘You must not imagine me speaking to you in my own person’, is what lends her work a certain old-fashioned primness to balance the modern passion. When the author asks the reader ‘What do you think will happen to her?’ in ‘A Native Curiosity’, or remarks ‘Probably you begin to see how sensible she was’ or ‘I’d rather be at the end of a dying tradition, which I admire, than at the beginning of a tradition which I deplore’, her place seems to be alongside George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell; but when, as I have done on a British Council tour in one of the communist states, one has heard her make the case for western democracy with a cool, impeccably argued rationality, one is at once convinced that she belongs as much to the future of this country as to its past.