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Margaret Drabble on disability, prolepsis — and pesky editors

Margaret Drabble spent five years writing a novel based on the life of a disabled friend, but the veteran British author was riven with ethical hesitation. She worried about fictionalising the life of her friend, whom she has known since the woman was born. She took the completed novel to the woman’s family and, feeling anxious, waited for their verdict. If they hadn’t accepted it, she would have put it away forever.

But they liked the story, so it was published last year as her 18th novel, The Pure Gold Baby, which Drabble is in Australia to spruik. And as a Melbourne audience found yesterday, the book raises deep, difficult questions around the care of disabled children — and adults.

“Life is going to be very difficult, despite the great rewards,” Drabble told the crowd about Jess, the mother in the book. Parents worry about whether they caused the disability through genes or the way they treated the child; “you’re looking for reasons … and you’re always blaming yourself.”

Then, as Drabble said, there are issues around how much to protect the child, whether to explain the child’s condition to strangers, whether to send the child to a specialised school, and the ramifications of screening for (and terminating as a result of) disabilities during pregnancy. At a recent event an elderly mother of a disabled son approached Drabble and said simply: “you have three able-bodied children”. That sentence made a deep impression on Drabble.

It might sound like heavy fodder for an author who made her name in the 1960s and ’70s writing about young women’s lives — liberation, adventure, infidelities and pregnancies against a backdrop of swinging London. Drabble is best known for The Millstone (1965) — about an unmarried academic who has a baby — and Jerusalem the Golden (1967), in which Clara escapes a dull life with the help of the bohemian Denham family.

Drabble has been writing ever since and commands, in her own words, a “companionable cohort” of readers who have been with her for more than 40 years. They were out in force on a grey Melbourne day at the Wheeler Centre as Drabble was interviewed by serene former ABC books wonk Ramona Koval.

Drabble, very English in a suit and sneakers with a set of pearls — she is a Dame, after all — was on form. Thoughtful, polite and precise, the 74-year-old was also funny, drawing laughs for reminiscences about butterscotch instant whip (a hideous-sounding 1960s dessert) and her penchant for indoor fireworks.

The Pure Gold Baby is the story of anthropologist Jess, who gets pregnant from a doomed relationship with an unsatisfactory professor in the 1960s. Jess gives birth to the happy baby Anna; it’s only later Jess realises Anna is “simple”. Jess has friends around to help — perhaps more than she would today, where a sense of community has arguably ebbed.

And that’s a key link between this work and Drabble’s earlier books, which have a younger writer’s panache. She writes — then and now — about culture and society, about how the individual fits into a society. She’s interested in how communities change direction, how we “interact and cluster together … group behaviour is really interesting,” she said yesterday. And she’s interested in how women manage careers and children.

Another long-running preoccupation for Drabble is whether life has an overall pattern or meaning (which can be obscured while one is living it), or is random. She oscillates between the two views, but declared firmly that she had no desire to live a great deal longer to settle on an answer.

Interestingly, Drabble has planted what she described as a “gatekeeper” word in the first sentence of The Pure Gold Baby:

“What she felt for those children, as she was to realize some years later, was a proleptic tenderness.”

Readers have been telling her they had to get the dictionary out then and there. “What’s wrong with that?” was Drabble’s response. “At my age, if you can’t get over a word, that’s a pity.” (For the record, there are different interpretations of “prolepsis“, but for Drabble it means foreshadowing). It’s entirely unsurprising that Drabble — who read English at Cambridge, edited the Oxford Companion to English Literature and quoted Wordsworth and Keats in her speech — is testing her readers’ vocabulary. If you’ve been reading her since 1963 it would take more than that to put you off.

Drabble noted drily that she was surprised to have got “proleptic” past her editor. She referred acidly to one ex-editor, and said she thought their prime function should be to encourage authors; “mostly I just ignored editorial comment”. Her early editors changed little, but modern editors were pernickity and worried about legal issues. Drabble’s strategy is to let some changes go through but protest the more egregious ones (there is a piece of punctuation in the recent book that still pains her). And don’t get her started on Microsoft’s “nightmare” track changes function.

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