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.