Why do I enjoy Margaret Drabble’s books so much? I realised one day, when I was reading a passage in one of her books, it’s partly because she’s not Jane Austen. I started off, a young man, enthralled by Jane Austen, read and re-read her books until I knew them by heart. I played the Jane Austen game with like-minded friends: what did Mr Woodhouse recommend that Mrs Bates should eat at his evening party; what did Anne Elliot and Captain Benwick discuss at the dinner at the Harville’s house at Lyme Regis? But doubts creep in. Would I have liked to be married to a woman like Lizzie Bennett? She was rather conceited, not something in a woman’s character that can easily change. Then Margaret Drabble opened my eyes. In the Waterfall, she has her central character, a woman, saying “How I dislike Jane Austen. How I deplore her desperate wit. Her moral tone dismays me. Emma got what she deserved, in marrying Mr Knightley. What can it have been like, in bed with Mr Knightley? Sorrow awaited that woman: she would have done better to steal Frank Churchill, if she could.” The pseudo-closure, the false happy ending of Jane Austen, there’s nothing like that in Margaret Drabble’s novels. Jane Austen’s characters are flawed, and flawed in a way that is unconvincing. Lizzie Bennett, in Pride and Prejudice, is fundamentally a nice woman: she has to be redeemed from her savage wit by an unpleasant, proud man who turns about to be a nice man in disguise. The central characters of Drabble’s novels are often women who share the same characteristics. They are clever, intelligent, educated women, often professionals. They live in a man’s world, and they are ambivalent about their relationships with men, whether lovers or husbands or friends. They are ambivalent about their children, or the possibility of children, and they are ambivalent about themselves, and what they can achieve in life. Very often they are not really likeable, but they are real women. Drabble does not shy away from unsympathetic characters. Drabble’s novels span a lifetime, her own lifetime, starting off with her first protagonist, published in 1963, a brilliant young woman just graduated from Cambridge, as Drabble was herself, and growing older with Drabble, going through the usual histories of marital breakdown, young children, trying again.
We can start off with the joke. Candida Wilton is the central character of The Seven Sisters. Candida means white, and there is the implication of reliability, truth-telling, and that’s just about the last thing that Candida Wilton is. She is the ultimate unreliable witness.
As Drabble’s books progressed she explored more and more the way in which different points of view can tell the story and throw light on her protagonist’s character, and The Seven Sisters took this on to a new level. The first section of the novel is a diary, written in the first person, but the authorial voice begins to intrude. ‘I’m quite interested,’ she writes, ‘in the whining resentful martyred tone I seem to have adopted. … I will try to shake it off. I will try to disown it.’ And later she writes ‘I see I have mentioned Andrew three times already in this diary. I think that means I should try to give some account of him and of my marriage to him. I’m not sure I will be able to tell the truth.’ This isn’t strictly an authorial voice, but it’s an authorial slant on the first person.
The second part of the novel is written in the third person, and it portrays Candida as rather more likeable. She was rather harsh on herself in the first section. She isn’t quite as negative as she seemed to be, the story picks up, we meet some interesting characters, and the story develops.
The third part of the novel is a shock. We read that this is her daughter Ellen’s account, based on something found on Candida’s computer after her death. How did she die? We are beginning to wonder if she killed herself, and then we are told that she killed herself by drowning in the canal. Did she identify with Dido, Queen of Carthage, who killed herself, deserted by her lover Aeneas, just as Candida was deserted by her husband? This reaches near certainty with Candida’s musings about the Cumean Sybil, who tells her to be still, submit, this is the last height. But it isn’t so. It is not the last height. And she cannot submit. The third part was an exercise in self-criticism, and not very successful self-criticism either. Candida didn’t die, however. In an interview several years before she wrote Seven Sisters, she said ‘this is what we were put on earth to do, to endeavour in the face of the impossible.’ She’s the Quaker-educated child of left-wing middle-class parents with a strong social conscience. And the child of a neurotic mother.
The fourth part of the novel alternates between first person and third person, taking the story forward in a more modern way.
Some readers find this switching of points of view difficult. To me it illuminates how we understand someone, let’s call her Athene. We pick up hints from what Athene tells us herself, what other people say about her, what Athene herself says about what these other people have said, we frequently get it wrong, and we realise that Athene often does not understand herself anyway. And sometimes she is deliberately misleading. Did the Sibyls always tell the truth? We can’t know.
And what of the story? There isn’t actually much of a story, just about enough to hang the musings of Candida and her sisters on. Candida and her sisters follow the travels, and the travails, of Aeneas. The story of Aeneas is a terrible story, full of betrayal, failure and death. Why was this suffering inflicted on Aeneas and his companions? The Aeneid starts off with that question: “Tell me, Muse, how it all began. Why was Juno so outraged? Why did she force a man, so famous for his devotion, to brave such rounds of hardship, bear such trials?” And it isn’t just Aeneas who suffers. His lover Dido suffers so much that she kills herself. Everyone within Candida’s circle suffers, to some extent. Her children, and most of all, herself. Even her husband, shocked by Candida’s unexpected resilience, falters. Candida knows that this is her fault, at least in part.
A common feature of Drabble’s novels is that there is no closure, and, again, many readers find this difficult. But there isn’t closure in life. Many people who go through separation and divorce, and union with another partner learn in time that you don’t leave your problems behind, you take them with you, there’s no happy ever after. Many men move on to a new partner, to find that they’ve joined themselves to a woman who is more or less identical to the woman they left behind. There’s a rather charming touch in the fourth section when Candida is thinking about the man who has shown his interest. ‘There would have to be rules about bed,’ she thinks, harking back to ambiguities about her marital relationship with her husband. You wonder about this. Candida is no fool. She knows what her new man will want, and she’s wondering if she wants it herself, and she’s probably doubting if she does. In Jane Austen’s novel there is a false closure. Lizzie Bennett, and all the other heroines, find happiness, escaping from the cardboard villains, who turn to clever amusing, immoral women, but Jane Austen doesn’t even allow her heroines to have fun.
Drabble has come in for some very savage criticism from feminist writers for her persistence in seeing the relationship between men and women as more nuanced than some feminists maintain. ‘It’s no good blaming men for everything,’ she said in an interview. ‘Women are to blame as well. And there is something seriously wrong with the institution of marriage.’ She also persists in seeing peoples’ problems as a result of their past experience, particularly the influence of parents, rejecting the view that the problems a woman experiences are entirely due to a patriarchal society, or capitalism, or the commercial pressures to be slim, attractive, and so on. Candida is much given to musings about this.
Seven Sisters is a very literary novel. It isn’t necessary to know who the Seven Sisters are, the Pleiades, goddesses, daughters of Ajax and the sea nymph Pleione, who are proto-feminists, having affairs with many men and gods, and rejecting even Zeus’ overtures, not a wise thing even for a goddess to do, but if you do know this it enlarges understanding. At the end of the novel are the words ‘Stretch forth your hand, I say. Stretch forth your hand.’ This is Matthew, chapter 12 verse 13, Jesus healing the leper. ‘Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thy hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, as the other.’ Has Candida been healed? Candida would probably doubt that the leper had been healed. But in a sense Candida has been healed. She is reconciled to her daughters. She has begun to understand herself. At the end of part 2 there is what looks like a quotation: ‘Who is that waiting on the far shore? Is it her lover or her God?’ I’ve never been able to track this down, if it is a quotation. Is it Dido, meeting Aeneas in the underworld, and turning away from him, unforgiving?
Drabble shows us the sisters’ struggles, rather tired, slightly drunk, with the Latin of Book Four of the Aeneid, and the reproaches that Mercury addressed to Aeneas. They wrestle with the byways of Latin grammar and discover what oblite means. And then, the words fall into place. ‘Alas, you, of your kingdom and fortunes forgetful,’ a reproach to themselves as well as to Aeneas, for they have not achieved all that they wished. But they have struggled, they have persevered. That is what they were put on earth to do.