Adapting, or Not, to Coal Country

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 29, 2001 | Go to article overview

Adapting, or Not, to Coal Country


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Well past the halfway mark in Margaret Drabble's new novel - her 14th, as I count, since "A Summer Bird-Cage" in 1963 - a middle-aged wife pauses a moment in her country garden. The air on the Oxford-Northamptonshire border is fresh and sweet-smelling. "This was rural England, pretty England the England of second homes and donnish retreats. Chrissie loved it."

The picture is not unlike that in another pleasant garden scene, the one which opened Miss Drabble's last novel, "The Witch of Exmoor." That was the Hampshire home of Daniel Palmer, a barrister, and it was depicted in the voice - let's call it ironic omniscient - that readers have come to associate with the writer. It is additionally indicative of the Drabble method that in the new novel Joe Barron, the character Chrissie's father, also is a barrister, as was Miss Drabble's father in life.

Both fictional gardens are in the southern part of the country, and Chrissie is all the more appreciative of hers since she is from the north of England - as is Miss Drabble too, born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, and speeded by a first-class degree at Newnham College, Cambridge, to the London life and accomplished husbands that such an education makes possible.

This novel, unlike its predecessor, which focused on the lives of an affluent younger generation lifted by the tide of a brilliant and high-achieving mother, harks back to the North Country, using the links between three generations of women in a single family. Their lives span most of the 20th century. If that makes "The Peppered Moth" sound like a "saga" of the cheaper sort, do not worry. As usual with this novelist, moral questions that in the present instance include choice versus determinism are at issue in the linking of mother, daughter and granddaughter in what Miss Drabble, in her novel's central conceit, calls "mitochondrial matriarchy."

This technical terms relates to the genetic testing made possibly by DNA research, and it has a role to play in the novel through the agency of Dr. Robert Hawthorn, a visiting microbiologist. On the ground, the drama concerns the lives in a changing England of Chrissie's mother, born Bessie Bawtry in 1906, Chrissie and her daughter, Faro.

The star of the show, if that be the right word for her, is Bessie, the first in her line to break out of the cycle of hard and repressive mining-family life and go to an "ancient university." Bessie is based on the writer's mother, to whom the book is dedicated. So, this is a novel but only up to a point - or perhaps after a certain point inasmuch as Miss Drabble says the latter parts of the book are entirely fictional. The appeal of Bessie Bawtry, later Bessie Barron, to both her daughter, and now the book's readers, is in large measure troubling, for her liberation from the dreary little town of Breaseborough was only partial and the motivation that governed her life mysterious in more ways than one.

As a small child Bessie seemed cut out for finer things, inexplicably given the setting, and in sharp contrast to her placid younger sister, Dora. Where did Bessie get her ideas? people asked. Who did she think she was? The girl also was very fastidious, which in a sooty coal-mining town where washing got dirty hanging out on the clothesline to dry, could only cause pain.

Bessie went to an excellent high school, where her cleverness, preoccupation with words and a discerning teacher, Miss Heald, combined to set her on the road to a Cambridge exhibition. Which she won, but then promptly collapsed for the rest of the summer before leaving home. Her first year at university went well, but signs of trouble began to crop up in a cycle of nervous collapse, and effort to catch up followed by a new bout of prostration. There was a love interest involving a "large-toothed" young man at Pembroke College, but it came to nothing.

The upshot was that Bessie, pretty and graceful and so promising, whose teachers included vaunted names like Strachey and Leavis, got a good but not distinguished degree. …

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