Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 74
An Introduction to Margaret Drabble
On graduating from Cambridge University in 1960 with a double starred first in English, Margaret Drabble had a brilliant future before her as an academic. Like her first heroine Sarah Bennett, however, she decided that “One can’t be a sexy don.” And so, rather than pursuing research, she married fellow student and actor Clive Swift after graduation and, together with him, joined the Royal Shakespeare Society, where she understudied Vanessa Redgrave and Judy Dench. While awaiting the birth of her son Adam, however, she found herself relegated to the wings. No longer in a condition to carry, let alone shake, spears, she was virtually forced to write novels instead – fortunately for us.
In the thirty years since then, Drabble has published a dozen novels, beginning with A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), The Garrick Year (1964), The Millstone (1965), Jerusalem the Golden (1967), and The Waterfall (1969) in the sixties, continuing with The Needle’s Eye (1972), The Realms of Gold (1975), The Ice Age (1977), and The Middle Ground (1980) in the seventies, and completing a trilogy in the eighties, beginning with The Radiant Way (1987), continuing with A Natural Curiosity (1989), and concluding with The Gates of Ivory (1991).
While becoming a successful novelist, however, Drabble did distinguish herself as an academic scholar as well – while raising a family and becoming a media celebrity. Author not only of twelve novels, all of which remain in print in Penguin paperbacks, Drabble also composed a monograph on Wordsworth (1966), Arnold Bennett: A Biography (1974), For Queen and Country: Britain in the Victorian Age (1978), A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature (1979), and The Tradition of Women’s Fiction (1982), as well as innumerable scholarly articles. She has also edited a group novel, London Consequences (1972), An Anthology I (1976) of short fiction, and The Genius of Thomas Hardy (1976). Should anyone still doubt her achievement as an academic scholar, she also reedited The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985), completing this formidable task virtually single-handed one year ahead of schedule. Currently, she is composing a biography of twentieth-century British novelist Angus Wilson. She is married to English writer Michael Holroyd, biographer of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, and George Bernard Shaw. Margaret Drabble was named a Commander of the British Empire in 1980 in recognition of her literary achievements.
Throughout her dual career as a novelist and scholar, Drabble has enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with Jane Austen. While writing her first novel about Bennett sisters and her second about a self-deceived heroine named Emma, for example, she confided in an early interview that she disapproved of Austen, considering her happy-ever-after endings immoral. But she has subsequently tempered her early disapprobation to the point of concluding her own novel The Realms of Gold (1975) with what she has termed a “Jane Austen ending” of happy marriage. In her scholarly mode, she has also composed a number of illuminating introductions to Austen’s works, beginning with the introduction to her own edition of Jane Austen: Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon for Penguin in 1974 and concluding most recently with her introductions to the new Virago editions of Austen’s novels.
NORA FOSTER STOVEL
Department of English, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 2E5