Margaret Drabble is so well-known that I am embarrassed to confess that I have read only two of her extensive oeuvre of 17 novels, just The Millstone (published in 1965 and unsurprisingly still in print because it is brilliant) and The Witch of Exmoor (1996) which I wasn’t so keen on. Still, it didn’t put me off buying The Seven Sisters (2002) and The Red Queen (2004) and snapping up everything on offer at the Op Shop: The Realms of Gold (1975); The Radiant Way (1987) and A Natural Curiosity (1989). The Red Queen and The Radiant Way are both listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I just haven’t got round to reading them.
Now, however, I’ll be moving them up the pile. The Pure Gold Baby (as you could perhaps tell from the Sensational Snippet that I posted last week) is every bit as good as The Millstone and has reminded me what a great writer Margaret Drabble is.
Drabble has tackled an unsexy subject and made it utterly compelling. Amusing, wise and wry, The Pure Gold Baby tells the story of Jess Speight who has an ill-advised student affair with the professor at her university, and has a baby who is ‘not quite right’. Drabble traces this quiet story from the late sixties and seventies to the present through the eyes of one of Jess’s contemporaries, which enables a forensic dissection of changes in British life over time. Nellie, now in her seventies, shares a ‘getting of wisdom’ over their shared lifetimes, with all the nostalgia, cynicism, wisdom and (usually) graceful resignation that you will recognise if you listen to women of this age group.
Nellie is a wonderful creation. Ostensibly telling Jess’s story, she is also telling her own. Her nostalgia is for their shared youth, their innocence, their liberating ignorance about many things, and their stout opinions about this or that. They lived in a more innocent world where they could still be charmed by books purporting to be about The Peoples of the World rather than feel post-colonial indignation about exploitation and suspicion about the motives of the anthropologist. They let their children walk to the corner shops. They didn’t know about genetics and cholesterol because they ‘hadn’t been invented’. Their time as young mothers was only the beginnings of distrust in the professions, Dr Spock and his ‘trust-your-baby’ mantra, and now unfashionable ideas about institutions for the mentally ill. They were yet to see that even disabilities research would go through phases of fashion: Down’s Syndrome is ‘out’ while autism is ‘in’.
Jess choosing to disconnect from her child’s father was then ‘extreme and bizarre’, making her a female pioneer, but in other ways, Jess chose a very traditional kind of parenthood, devoting ‘a large part of her life to exclusive and unconditional and necessary love’. In those days (says Nellie, again and again) the euphemism ‘care in the community’ hadn’t yet been coined …
In the sixties and seventies, there were no beggars squatting in doorways on Oxford Street or nesting in pigeon-fouled sleeping bags under the motorways with hungry verminous dogs. The vulnerable were looked after/ swept away/ brushed aside/ immured in cold malevolent institutions/ allowed to lie in bed all day… (p. 76)
In pre-Thatcherite Britain Jess could have placed Anna into residential care, and chose not to.
I like to jot down examples of great writing in my reading journal. This is Jess, mulling over things on her way home from the diagnosis that isn’t, because no label can be affixed to Anna. She is a sunny, good-natured, easy-going child, lovable but developmentally delayed:
She would be what she would be – a millstone, an everlasting burden, a pure gold baby, a precious cargo to carry all the slow way through life to its distant and as yet unimaginable bourne on the shores of the shining lake. (p. 19-20)
While the other children of Anna’s generation grow and thrive, or don’t; while marriages last or fall apart; while fellow anthropologists flit around the globe becoming famous or fading away, Jess and Anna live in a kind of stasis. Anna becomes a young woman with a child’s mind. She likes swimming and soap operas, and she learns to use a mobile phone so that she can ring her mother from a day care centre and tell her what she’s having for lunch. She accepts Jess’s rare forays into relationships, as she accepts almost everything. She is becalmed, and so is Jess.
(Even so, Anna is educating Jess’s father, a dispirited architect who rues the shabby descent of Modernism into Brutalism. He likes to take Anna for walks, to tell him which buildings she likes, and bless her, she likes the ‘right’ ones).
But becalmed as she is, Jess ages, and there is the problem of what will become of Anna. Nellie records the first time she sees something that is now all too common:
I was sitting on the top of the No. 7 bus, on the front seat at the right, travelling along Oxford Street. We had just passed Selfridges, that’s when I saw him.
He was sitting on the opposite pavement, on a bench, holding a large placard, with homemade letters that were easy to read from the top deck where I sat. They said MUM IS DEAD.
He had a cap by him, for offerings.
The words rent my heart.
MUM IS DEAD.
We are familiar with the concept that God is dead. We accepted it long, long ago. The message that MUM IS DEAD is more powerful.
The bus stopped long enough for me to observe something of the man’s age and features. Stoppages on Oxford Street are what one expects, and I was given time. He was middle aged, balding, in his forties, with large ears and a receding stubble-covered chin, and he was dressed in well-worn clothes that showed touching attempts at neatness.
Wordsworth, in London for the first time, saw on the street a blind beggar who appeared to him to be an emblematic figure. This beggar held a written paper, to explain/ His story, whence he came, and who he was. And so this man appeared to me to be a portent, although his message was much briefer than the blind beggar’s.
MUM IS DEAD.
I want to describe the man without the mother as a ‘boy’ but he was not a boy. He was a man. I have to keep reminding myself not to think of him as a boy.
The bench on which he sat was a grey concrete oval slab, without a back, standing on squat pedestal legs. These benches are not designed for comfort. They are punitive, they are sacrificial. (p. 122)
I doubt if anyone can read that passage without getting a lump in the throat, and I dearly wish that those hard-faced politicians and their aiders and abettors would read it. (They won’t of course, they only read balance sheets). But The Pure Gold Baby is not a dreary book, not at all. Drabble mocks all kinds of human folly in modern life, and much of it will make you smile. Jess tells Nellie everything (or nearly everything, and Nellie makes up what she doesn’t know), and so there are droll anecdotes about anthropologists carting toilet bowls into Africa where they remained as uninstalled monuments; there are hilarious 1970s meals where food is deliberately confrontational; and there is wry acknowledgement about the messiness of life that, as the blurb says, will make you wince even as you chuckle.
This is the perfect time of the year to share this one:
Christmas isn’t a good time of the year for a lot of people. It’s worse, of course, for the single and the lonely, or so everyone always says, but it’s pretty bad for those with too much family, and most of us in our thirties fell into that category. Sometimes some of us longed to be single and lonely, as we tried to satisfy the claims of parents, children, ex-husbands, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, lame ducks, excommunicated alcoholics, lonely depressive poets and other riff raff. None of us had houses big enough to take in a tribe, or kitchens large enough to cook for a clan, yet somehow the tribal expectations of a large gathering had descended upon us. These were frenzied festivals of forgone failure. (p. 77-8)
At least in Australia people who have to do this can do it outside in the sunshine, BYO BBQ-style - it must be a nightmare cooped inside, in a British winter!
Author: Margaret Drabble
Title: The Pure Gold Baby
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
Source: review copy courtesy of Text Publishing