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Book Review

Writer's Bitterness Tinges the Tale of 3 Generations of Women

April 09, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE PEPPERED MOTH

A Novel

by Margaret Drabble

Harcourt

$25, 370 pages

*

At 24, Margaret Drabble appeared on the literary scene in 1963 with "A Summer Bird Cage," a novel about a pair of siblings loosely modeled on herself and her older sister, A.S. Byatt (who would soon be writing novels of her own).

Three years earlier, upon graduating from Cambridge with high honors in English literature, Drabble had married an actor and begun working as an actress. But her attraction to literature was clearly too hard to resist. In the decades that followed, she went on to write a dozen more novels, a critical study of Wordsworth and biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson, not to mention serving with discernment and flair as editor of "The Oxford Companion to English Literature."

Now an officially honored woman of letters, married to biographer Michael Holroyd, Drabble is an odd (or perhaps not so odd) mix. On one hand, she is steeped in great literature: Her novels ring with echoes--wistful, casual, ironic--of Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Lawrence et al. On the other hand, she seems to have become somewhat mired in a shallower, more facile mode that glibly skims the surface of current events and contemporary lifestyles: for instance, her trilogy of novels about three women friends unhappily witnessing the depredations of the Thatcher years--"The Radiant Way," "A Natural Curiosity" and "The Gates of Ivory."

Increasingly, Drabble has come to rely upon telling at the expense of showing. Her latest novel, "The Peppered Moth," is a case in point. Inspired by her own family history, it tells the story of three generations of women. Like Drabble's own mother, we're told, Bessie Bawtry is an intellectually gifted, physically delicate, emotionally fastidious girl who longs to escape the rough environment of a Yorkshire mining town. Thanks to excellent local schooling, a scholarship to Cambridge and marriage to a promising, likable young man, escape she does. Her daughter Chrissie rebels against Bessie's snobbish, disapproving attitude toward life. Although she too goes to Cambridge, she marries a reckless, if glamorous, bad boy, Nick Gaulden, by whom she has a daughter, Faro. Fortunately, a sensible second marriage and a thriving career have made Chrissie a successful woman by the time we meet her and her by-now-grownup daughter, who is bright, cheerful and open. Faro's work as a writer for a popular science magazine brings her to the ancestral realms of Yorkshire where a prehistoric skeleton has been discovered, and where Faro submits to a test to determine if she and the skeleton share the same mitochondrial DNA. Not surprisingly, we hear a lot in this novel about heredity, environment, mutation and evolution.

*

According to Drabble's "Afterword," this book represents an attempt to come to terms with her own mother, the model for Bessie Bawtry. That Drabble / Chrissie has a great antipathy for her mother is clear: What's less clear is why she seems to regard her as the worst catastrophe since bubonic plague. Yes, Bessie does develop into a self-pitying, hypercritical, hypochondriacal kvetch. But her story is narrated in such a sneering tone, it is hard not to feel she is getting a raw deal. Almost no effort is made to sympathize with how disappointing it must have been for a clever, well-educated girl coming of age in the 1930s to find so few opportunities beyond marriage and motherhood. Plenty of allowances are made, however, for Chrissie's first husband, the faithless Nick, who at several points is favorably contrasted with Bessie.

"Poor Bessie," the narrator admits at one point, "we have been too hard on her. Our tone has been harsh and pitiless. It is the tone she taught us, it is true, but we must try to unlearn it, we must try to see her as she was, suffering, longing, vulnerable, unformed." "It is not pleasant to use this tone," she remarks elsewhere. "But if we were to find another tone, the heart might break."

And the tone persists, like a vinegary marinade overwhelming the characters and incidents steeped in it.

"What are we to do," exclaims the narrator, "about these dreadful people? Is there any point in trying to make sense of their affectless, unnatural, subnormal behaviour? . . . If you think too hard of them and the waste of it all, your heart might break. And what would be the point of that?"

The point, perhaps, would be to have written a novel that grappled with human emotion rather than one that uses everything from mitochondrial DNA to defensive irony in order to avoid it.

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