Drabble’s 14th novel (The Witch of Exmoor, 1997, etc.), firmly rooted as always in the English class system and the trials of her intelligent, attractive heroines, but more notable for its unusually bleak portrait of an angry, unhappy woman the author freely admits is based on her own mother.
Bessie Bawtry, born into the South Yorkshire working class in the early 20th century, is smart enough to get a scholarship to Cambridge but too neurotic to withstand the university’s social and academic pressures. She’s beset by illnesses (her depressive response to every challenge), barely manages to graduate, and winds up back in her despised hometown. She marries local boy Joe Barron, whose success as a lawyer can’t assuage Bessie’s permanent sense of grievance. She inspires a mix of pity and rage in her daughter, Chrissie, who runs wild in her teens and barely survives a crash-and-burn first marriage to settle down with a kind, aristocratic fellow archeologist as her second husband. Bessie is some years dead when the story opens with a present-day conference, about mitochondrial DNA and matrilineal descent, attended by Chrissie’s daughter, science journalist Faro Gaulden. Moving smoothly back and forth in time, guiding readers with the direct authorial address so common in Victorian novels, Drabble considers Bessie’s painful impact on Chrissie and the matriarchal heritage’s more indirect consequences for Faro. Like the peppered moth, which survived 19th-century industrial pollution by evolving darker wings, Drabble’s characters are the products of both their environment and the choices they have made in response to it. Chrissie and Faro are goodhearted, fallible but not overly self-destructive protagonists of an appealing sort familiar from such previous novels as Jerusalem the Golden (1985); pinched, tormented, and tormenting Bessie is a darker, in many ways more interesting, figure about whom the author clearly still has strong unresolved feelings.
A blend of psychology and social commentary: not to everyone’s taste, perhaps, but those who appreciate its central importance in the evolution of English fiction will find Drabble a thoughtful modern practitioner of this approach.