Magazine article The Spectator

A Hermit with a Handful

Magazine article The Spectator

A Hermit with a Handful

Article excerpt

Appealingly named The Witch of Exmoor, Margaret Drabble's new novel is not about a witch at all. Frieda Haxby Palmer is a distinguished thinker and writer -- Britain's answer to Simone de Beauvoir - who at the end of her days has decided to retire from the world and live as a recluse in a huge, crumbling, one-time hotel by the sea on the edge of Exmoor, there to write her memoirs or, more importantly it seems, to `get rid of thinking and of reason . . to will herself into another medium'.

Apart from the fact that Frieda might be blamed for being rather selfish, there is nothing much else the matter with her. She is a free spirit indeed, an eccentric, clever woman of enormous personality. Drabble draws her brilliantly, and, as a totally believable character, a grand woman, larger than life, she is an absolute triumph. The reader should be behind her all the way.

Frieda's horrible children are quite another matter: greedy and corrupt, products of privilege and of the unjust society in which we all live, they are each concerned with themselves and with their mother's money. They and their children think of Frieda as a witch and they are all perfectly furious with her for disappearing to Exmoor, which they regard as suspect and inconvenient to themselves. They are sure that she is plotting against them and tell each other that she is mad.

These children, all successful and rich in their different ways, are a lively bunch of the kind of unlikeable people about whom it is always amusing to read. Daniel, Frieda's son, is a successful lawyer with such a nice good-taste house in Hampshire and such a nice do-gooding wife called Patsy, who is so complacent that she can't begin to see beyond the end of her own nose. They have produced the disastrous Simon and sweet little Emily, the unexpected dea ex machina of the denouement.

Then there is Rosemary, the pretty one, married to an ugly but intensely attractive Jewish advertising man from the East End. She is a programme co-ordinator for an arts complex, whilst sister Gogo is a consultant neurologist, married to the exquisitely beautiful, dark-skinned Guyanan, David D'Anger, academic, television personality and parliamentary candidate. …

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