In the early 1980s Margaret Drabble wrote a novel entitled The Ice Age. It began with the protagonist watching a bird drop dead and fall out of the sky in mid flight having suffered a heart attack. I found this curiously odd as the reader was expected to suspend belief and accept that a bird that haphazardly dropped dead at ones’ feet would necessarily have been a victim of cardiac arrest… I mean, wouldn’t you need an autopsy to know for sure? I may have been a bit nit picky back then and even so, I was mildly impressed by the author’s animated imagination but at the time I filed her away mentally under the general heading of quirky. Then came The Radiant Way followed by A Natural Curiosity and finally The Gates of Ivory, a trilogy about the lives of three strong female characters living through the social turmoil initiated by Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms (this was the era of Thathcer! Thatcher! baby’s milk snatcher). I loved these novels as by then Margaret Drabble had definitely come into her own and I wished at the time she could have kept on creating books for this series out of her dark humour and her strong characterizations. The series ended with the main character travelling from London all the way to the Cambodia of Pol Pot and into the sinister world of the Khmer Rouge.
I picked up the present novel, The Peppered Moth some twenty-five years after that excellent trilogy and was prepared for a very good read; for the most part I was not disappointed but it is a very different sort of book. Margaret Drabble is still interested in women’s issues but with this piece of writing she was trying to understand the development of a bitterness that consumed her mother’s life eventually turning her into a difficult and disagreeable old lady. Her mother was born in a small coal-mining town in Yorkshire but escaped the ranks of the working poor and ascended into the world of the affluent middle class by way of education and marriage. However, while the story is roughly based on the life of the author’s mother it is still a work of fiction. In her afterword, Margaret Drabble explains that she had started the research for this book with the idea of writing her mother’s biography but soon discovered that she needed the freedom of fiction in order to imagine the details of her mother’s early life.
So the character Bessie Bawtry was created; a child who grew up as a sort of prodigy within her family as neither of her parents exhibited any bookish tendencies. They looked upon their daughter with awe, astonished by her achievements in school. It also helped that Bessie was somewhat frail and at times took to her bed like an invalid so that she was never expected to do heavy work and could stay in bed reading her books while her mother and younger sister tended on her. Mentored by her teachers she earned a scholarship to Cambridge where she managed to obtain an arts degree but was not a brilliant scholar. Margaret Drabble imagines that Bessie would have been intimidated by Cambridge and hence was often sick and depressed as she would have had the double disadvantage of being a woman in what was still at the time a man’s world and because she did not have a support system around her as students coming from comfortable well to do backgrounds would have enjoyed.
To give this novel some direction Margaret Drabble weaves the story of Bessie’s daughter Chrissie and her granddaughter Faro into the mix and poses the question of whether one ever escapes one’s ancestry. Faro is a freelance journalist specializing in popular science and is following up a story of an anthropological study being done on the DNA of the population in an area where Bessie grew up. In a nice little touch of irony Margaret Drabble has engineered the fictitious discovery of a prehistoric hominoid skeleton near Bessie’s hometown on the site of a new housing development. A rather over enthusiastic anthropologist adds to the story as he tries to convince the locals to give up a little of there DNA to see if there is a connection with these ancient remains through the study of something called the mitochondrial DNA. This term is new to me I have to admit but demonstrates how Margaret Drabble though in her late seventies still keeps up on the more contemporary and controversial issues. I resorted to Wikipedia and found that mitochondrial DNA involves the study of the evolutionary connections of the DNA material through the matrilineal line… this is my simplistic and imperfect understanding so let me quote the novel to explain: first what Margaret Drabble is driving at and second: to demonstrate her mastery of the language. The context is that of Faro wondering in amazement how members of her grandparent’s families could have scattered far and wide beyond the borders of their tiny coal- blackened mining town to many different places of the world and she concludes:
“Human beings were opaque, amazing in their leaps, their motivations. And yet there were links reaching backward into the cavernous recesses of time itself, into the limestone, into the potholes, into the caverns. How could one follow the leaps? Did families remain static for centuries, then suddenly, in an instant, in a generation, mutate? Did whole cultures leap and surge? How many jumped and fatally missed their footing? How many brave attempts were hit on the head by a spade?” (T.P.M. p.150)
Bessie returns home from Cambridge but does not find the teaching career she hoped for and instead marries the son of a prominent Yorkshire entrepreneur. During the Second World War she is briefly and happily employed by a private school but when the war is over she is obliged to give up her job to allow returning soldiers reintegrate into civilian life. Margaret Drabble entwines the stories of Bessie’s rebellious free spirited daughter Chrissie and her career minded granddaughter Faro through skillful use of flashback and flash-forward. The novel is plotted carefully and is linked to this whole question of whether we as humans can move beyond what we inherit from our ancestors be that by way of biology or environment. Ultimately the threads of the novel are somehow drawn together to make sense until we arrive at the last third of the book when there is a sort of emotional crash. Margaret Drabble’s voice becomes very shrill as she recounts her mother’s latter years. It is obvious that this part of the story cuts very close to the bone as we are introduced to the mother that Margaret Drabble remembers most. This is the widowed mother who had become agoraphobic and who would continually list all the injuries she had or imagined she had experienced in an oft-repeated litany of complaint about her married life and what her late, long suffering husband, Joe did and did not do:
“…Item: that he never took her on the world cruise that he had promised her. Item: that he had refused to convert the second bathroom into a shower room. Item: that he had bought a rhododendron of a sort she particularly disliked and deliberately planted in full view of the drawing room window… Item: that on their last holiday in Greece the hotel hadn’t provided proper puddings, only fruit, and not very good fruit at that. Item: that Joe had always asked her to endorse her state pension of £68 a month and had paid it direct into the housekeeping bank account without letting her touch it. Item: that he had made her cash her Granny Bonds. Item: that she was expected to survive on half his pension, whereas if he’d outlived her he’d have got the lot. Was she as a woman worth only half a man? “(T.P.M. p 247-248)
Lucky Joe, to be dead: poor Margaret Drabble how painful to have had to listen to such a diatribe over and over again.
I should probably talk about the story of the Peppered Moth which I have known about for so long I do not know when I first came across it so that I had to dredge it up from murky depths of those memories sitting in a deep pool of miscellany. (Also, I have to insert a disclaimer here, as my version is more fiction than science). In the early days of Britain’s industrial revolution brought about by the happy invention of the steam engine, the towns around Manchester became the cradle of the cotton industry. There were already competent weavers working in their home cottages to provide a ready workforce and the expansion of the British Empire provided sources of cheap raw cotton shipped from overseas. In addition, northern England possessed a key element to the success of the cotton industry that being an abundance of coal to drive the ingenious steam engines. As proof of the success of these enterprises coal billowed and belched its way out of hundreds of chimneys as it drove the machinery that ran the looms that wove the cotton fabric. Beyond the cotton factories way out on the fens and moors there lived a little moth called the Peppered Moth named for its distinctive white and grey speckled wings. The speckles allowed the moth to evade its enemies because at rest it blended into the motley grey green colored lichen and the dwarfed fauna of the moors. However as the soot from the cotton factories settled over the land the speckled design of the wings of the peppered moth did not allow it to blend into the coal darkened background and so over a few generations those moths that were darker in color had a better survival rate and consequently the peppery sprinkled moths died out while their dark winged progeny replaced them. Eventually, through a few generations of natural selection the peppered moth turned jet black. That development would have been remarkable enough in and of itself except trumping it was the whole process winding in reverse as the cotton factories declined in the nineteen fifties when countries such as India gained their independence from Britain and realized they had more to gain in processing their own cotton rather than shipping it out for little or nothing to the mother country. In addition, as the years passed, the politics of global warming forced those industries still burning coal to clean up their act. As the surrounding environment lost its sooty coating the lacey filaments of lichen and the variegated colours of the leaves emerged sloughing off the dirt of industry and as this happened miraculously, the wings of the peppered moth regained its speckled camouflage.
The allegory then would have Bessie Baudry be the moth that did not change it’s colours, the daughter Chrissie the one that adapted and eventually thrived (read; lived happily ever after) while Faro, the beautiful granddaughter came to appreciate a transmigration of family that returns full circle to the geography of its origins.
Margaret Drabble is a very fine, clever writer, supremely confident in the power of her craft as a storyteller.