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.