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Margaret Drabble: Resolutely Herself

Sunday, September 20, 2009

There's a kind of story that is undeniably "Margaret Drabble." In it, an ordinary woman faces extraordinary circumstances. She is fiercely intelligent, her dilemma bracingly modern, her surroundings bristling with life. Drabble's novels have been compared to those of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf -- writers who might seem laughably dissimilar, if the associations weren't so apt: Drabble's England is as intricate as Dickens's, her characters as headstrong as Austen's, the morals at stake entirely Waughian, her powers of observation positively Woolf.

Now in her 70th year, she's a veritable literary institution. Apart from her store of acclaimed novels (among them, "The Millstone" and "The Needle's Eye"), Drabble has produced an impressive array of nonfiction, ranging from biography to social history.

She was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire. Her parents were the first in their families to attend college. She has described her father as a loving man, her mother as angry, even emotionally abusive. That household dynamic was explored in her highly autobiographical novel "The Peppered Moth," which caused quite a stir when it was published in England. But Drabble's fiction has never strayed far from life: Her fraught relationship with her older sister, A.S. Byatt -- the Booker Prize-winning author of "Possession" -- has been addressed in novels by both women. Drabble freely admits that every one of her novels has a firm foot in experience.

Perhaps that is why she never imagined she'd write a memoir. Her latest book isn't one quite. "The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History With Jigsaws" is half cultural history, half recollections of her beloved Auntie Phyl. In it, she deals sensitively with family melancholy and the difficult business of childhood.

As a child, she didn't think she'd be a writer. She set out to become an actress. But soon after the birth of her children, she decided to write a novel. "A Summer Birdcage" was released just as London spun into the dizzying '60s. The story of two sisters, one marriage and a devastating affair, the book was an instant success. Drabble was 24 years old.

Last year, after the publication of her 34th book, she was made a dame of the British Empire for her contributions to English literature. Even so, she prefers her garden to a bustling salon, her jigsaw puzzles to any glittering prizes. She refuses, by the way, to be nominated for the Booker.

Just like a headstrong woman in a Margaret Drabble novel.

-- Marie Arana

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