Margaret Drabble: A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

Why is it that I’ve never read Margaret Drabble before? Probably through some expectation of her as a dull, middlebrow producer of ‘Hampstead novels’; her status as a member of the literary establishment (sister of A.S. Byatt, wife of Michael Holroyd); and frankly, the fact that her name sounds like a cross between drab and drivel. So here I break my duck with her complete short fiction, new from Penguin Modern Classics (ahead of their publication of some of her novels later this year).

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman is subtitled The Collected Stories, which makes it sound rather more epic than it is. It consists of thirteen stories in 220 pages: Drabble’s entire published short fiction output since 1966. (The US edition, subtitled The Complete Stories, includes one, ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’, which is not included here.) A collection of stories covering a writer’s entire career – though the most recent story is eleven years old – might be a good introduction to her work, though it does present problems. First, what busy reader can justify taking two weeks over a slim volume like this, which is what would be required to satisfy Mavis Gallant’s injunction that one should read only one story per day? Second, in a collection such as this, where there is an identifiable authorial style in many of the stories, that style may come to seem overfamiliar or tiresome when the stories are read together. Moreover, this might be quite the reverse of the experience for the Drabble fan reading them as they were published over four decades: they may experience comfort and delight in settling back into the author’s familiar voice. Finally, any collected stories like this wickedly invites the reviewer to forge connections or emphasise contrasts to give the review coherence, or to trace a line of development that can only be imposed retrospectively.

Nonetheless there are similarities to some of the stories. All writers revisit the same themes throughout their career – ‘the perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn,’ Martin Amis said of Graham Greene. Drabble explores social changes affecting predominantly middle-class characters (they are playwrights, TV presenters, Nobel laureates: she is the female Ian McEwan). What’s most interesting about the way she approaches social change is that her stories both embody and challenge it. In the earliest story here, ‘Hassan’s Tower’ – the book presents them in chronological order – modern marriage is viewed starkly by a honeymooning husband who is already regretting his wedding (“he was no more able to refuse the temptations of pity than he had been able, earlier, to refuse those of an envious admiration”). His wife, a figure of boredom and contempt to him, has no voice in the story, though there is no imbalance of empathy. This in fact is the only story from a man’s point of view – elsewhere, it is the men who are off-stage or recounted in rueful memory: a bully (‘The Merry Widow’), a lech (‘A Success Story’, and the introduction by José Francisco Fernández tells us that this poor example of masculinity was based on Saul Bellow). In ‘The Merry Widow’, the resistance to social norms is even more marked: the central character is “bored” with family life, her children and grandchildren and seeks only to be “divinely, enchantingly, rapturously alone.” (“Writers, most alive when alone:” Amis again.) She decides to go alone on a holiday planned to be taken with her recently dead husband, and finds a new richness through discovery of both the English countryside and the landscape of her own personality.

Drabble’s style remains similar through many of the stories: a subjective third person narrative which comes close to stream of consciousness in its detail and absorption of the characters’ thoughts (at times I was reminded of Mrs Dalloway). This enables her to impart her characters’ histories and impressions together, in a way which can tip from showing to telling, so that the experience is like flying over a landscape rather than walking through it. The narrative style expands a little in second half of book, as though Drabble has begun to experiment. ‘A Success Story’ and the title story have an omniscient narrator – the author, or an author – talking directly to the reader in a playful way (“Perhaps I shouldn’t write [this story], perhaps it’s a bad move to write it”), though they both settle into something very like the directed internal monologue of the early stories. Later, there are a couple of first person narratives, though one of them, ‘Homework’, fell flat for me as it was too obvious an example of a classical unreliable narrator – the sort who thinks they are revealing information about someone else when in fact they are revealing slowly information about themselves. This seems tricksy against Drabble’s usually more straightforward approach, and it is clear that a social realist style is where she remains most comfortable.

Happy liaisons in these stories are a rarity. People fail to connect, or their only connection is a memory; when they do meet it is by accident, or ends unsatisfactorily. In ‘A Voyage to Cythera’, a single woman who loves to travel because she dreams of meeting a lover in every new place she visits (“Oh messages from a foreign country, oh, disquieting glimpses of brightness”), becomes obsessed with the lover of a man she helps on a train. In ‘Faithful Lovers’, former partners in an extra-marital affair encounter one another by chance in an old secret meeting place; though it is not quite by chance. The woman accidentally tells the man that she no longer sleeps with her husband, then is grateful when food arrives to enable the subject to drop. But when it does, she regrets it, and wants to tell him more. Of such astute character insights is great fiction made. The stories are not entirely gloomy, though they do cast a cynical eye in particular on social expectations of women and the masks society imposes. In ‘A Success Story’, a young woman playwright finds herself more pleased by a man’s lechery than any interest he shows in her work (“It’s an awful thing to say, but that’s how some women are,” nods the author to the reader). In ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’, there is something like a fairy story tone, including the darkness that we tend to forget about fairy stories, which Drabble brings into an account of a woman losing the will to mask her true self:

And she thought, What has happened to me is that some little mechanism in me has broken. There used to be, till yesterday, a little knob that one twisted until these people came into focus as nice, harmless, well-meaning people. And it’s broken, it won’t twist any more.

Even in the darker stories, we are rewarded with an inkling of optimism toward the end, as an agent of change comes into focus. In ‘Hassan’s Tower’, the husband who “had been afraid for years that he had come to the end of the new and interesting in life,” starts to see his marriage as a beginning rather than an ending. In ‘The Caves of God’, a woman who has never recovered from a relationship ending finds that going back is a possibility, if only for temporary relief. In the later stories, the landscape of England becomes a source of succour.

The stories collected here cover four decades, and it is possible to see the phases of life reflected in them when reading chronologically. Yearning turns to love and settlement; later, children are a subject; finally bereavement, illness and fear of death. Anxiety in the earlier stories turns to calm in the last ones. There is a shift, too, from foreign places, to English cities, to the rural landscape. There need not be any strongly autobiographical element for it to be clear that these are the subjects that preoccupied Drabble as she herself aged. In that sense, what we have here is a document of existence; a life in writing.


  1. Reading this makes me realise I haven’t read any Margaret Drabble either! It seems a shame, because from the excerpts you have here, her writing sounds like something I’d really like. Not sure why, but seems like something I should change, and this short story collection seems a good place to start. And what a great way to read about a life – maybe fiction can sometimes allow a writer to reveal more about themselves than a straight biography – a ‘document of existence’, as you say (apt phrase – I like it).

    I agree about reading a story a day, or at least allowing a gap between each one. Very good short stories need this, IMO. Maybe that is one reason why short stories are not as popular as novels – they actually take longer to read. This seems a strange idea, because my initial inclination would be to say it was the other way round.

  2. It enrages me that Margaret Drabble is considered a middle-brow novelist. I read her as a teenager in the Sixties, when she was the then Zadie Smith of her generation, the very young novelist who appears out of nowhere (Yorkshire, not Hampstead) to write novels like The Millstone which really touched something about the changing lives of women – though of course some readers and critics think that novels about women are inherently middle-brow.

  3. Penguin will be putting ‘”The Zadie Smith of her generation” – Linda Grant’ on the paperback. I don’t know why I did hold this expectation (or prejudice, to put it more bluntly). Perhaps it’s because, while for you she had appeared out of nowhere, by the time I started taking an interest in fiction, she was firmly part of the establishment. It’s a viewpoint which I think is also taken of Julian Barnes (and is equally unfair on him, even though he has written at least one really bad book). I notice in passing that three of the last four books I’ve reviewed are by women – which is something of an improvement on last year (if you measure these things).

    Clare, I hope you try these or one of her novels (I have The Millstone as mentioned by Linda, and as I said in the intro, a few of her early novels will be ‘classicized’ this autumn).

  4. Like Linda, I read all her early books as a teenager and loved them. They had a freshness and honesty which seemed unusual at the time. I particularly liked The Millstone too. At some point however I thought she lost her touch a bit and started to become very ponderous and self-important and I gave up on her after several tedious reads.

    A few years back I reread all the earlier novels and still enjoyed them.

  5. My experience is similar to Nick’s — after a very good start, the later novels seem to lack the energy that the early ones had.

    I have the same evaluation of her sister’s work. I have idly wondered whether Drabble and Byatt’s very public spat over “voice” didn’t result in both of them writing novels mainly designed to prove the sibling wrong — leaving readers less well-served by both authors.

    As one of roughly the same age, I would observe that, in different ways, Drabble and Byatt are both very good at capturing and portraying the age that produced them. If the later works have less edge to them, it may simply be a reflection that the generation which had so much promise ran out of steam (an idea that Ms. Grant explores very well in her latest).

  6. Well you arent alone in your assumptions of her John as until I read this review I too thought she might not be my cup of tea and had taken to “some expectation of her as a dull, middlebrow producer of ‘Hampstead novels’; her status as a member of the literary establishment (sister of A.S. Byatt, wife of Michael Holroyd)” it seems I am wrong and should really be giving her a try. So I think I might. Though I will have to see if I still have a copy of ‘The Witch of Exmoor’ which I so bought for the title after being told Drabble was an author ‘you just must read’ and thinking ‘really?’

    I do think short stories are a great way to test out a new author though dont you?

  7. Thanks for the comments, both from those who are old Drabble hands (as it were) and those like me, new to her. I must say Simon that although short stories are a good way of testing out an author, I’m keen to read one of her novels soon as that’s clearly where her strength (or interest) lies – after all, in her career, she’s written more novels than she has short stories!

  8. Ironically, I only came across Drabble recently also, and I’m in the middle of reading ‘The Radiant Way’. Read some of her other stuff not just her short stories, she raises some interesting social dynamics.

  9. I have long admired and enjoyed Margaret Drabble’s writing. It seems odd that so many people seem to be discovering her now. Her writing has grown with her but always touches a chord. Initially she was ahead of her time, as so many women writers have been,but with maturity her writing has changed I hesitate to say that they are women’s books but I do think that male readers could become uncomfortable in the presence of her writing. She is a formidable writer with razor sharp insight.

  10. Well this synchronicity could be related to the recent reissues of Drabble’s work, Mardi – this collection, plus Penguin’s reissue of The Millstone last year as part of their Decades series (celebrating 75 years of Penguin). And as Kevin and Nick suggest, she might not have been on the radar immediately before that if their view that her work had declined in recent years, is widely held.

  11. I can’t say the quotes particularly appealed to me. Are you comfortable now John that she’s not a Hampstead writer, or is that a lingering suspicion? Will you read more by her do you think?

    Her name is I think oddly offputting. That’s incredibly stupid, but I do think there’s some truth to it. For me anyway.

  12. I credit and thank Margaret Drabble for so much of my wonderful reading back in the early 1970s. The little 30p Penguins that would see me through night duty (quickly tuckable down the front of a starched apron when Night Sister crept onto the ward out of the shadows) and I still have them now.I haven’t enjoyed the later novels as much I must confess, apart from The Seven Sisters, and when I read The Millstone again recently it had nothing like the impact it had on me back then, which I put down to A.D. rather than Margaret Drabble’s writing.I wonder whether perhaps you had to be there to really understand the immediate impact of that book, so I’m very interested to see how a re-issue is received.

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