Before I focus on the novel, I have to flag the wonderful shop in which I bought it: the Eagle Bookshop in Bedford, one of the largest and most welcoming second-hand bookshops I’ve visited in quite some time. Having recently moved to bigger premises, it’s thriving, with creative writing sessions, poetry readings and other literary events. If you live in or near Bedford, or find yourself in town with half an hour spare, I thoroughly recommend it. I came away with a modest stash, which allowed me to tread the fine line between supporting physical bookshops (on one hand) and (on the other) respecting the fact I have no book space left in my flat. It required great self-control. The first to catch my eye was this slim volume: Margaret Drabble’s second novel, written in 1964 when she was only twenty-five. Following a group of London actors as they decamp to Hereford for an arts festival, it’s a sharp and merciless tale of boredom, pretension and infidelity, notable for its acerbic and entitled narrator.
Emma Evans is not impressed when her actor husband David announces that he’s accepted the offer to perform in a summer festival season in Hereford. Part of her resistance is based on simple metropolitan disdain for anything outside the M25 (‘the provinces have never appealed to me, except as curiosities’), but part derives from a deeper sense of frustration. Having spent three years being pregnant, giving birth and breastfeeding their two children, Emma is desperate to regain her sense of herself as an independent intellectual. She has been counting on a job as a newsreader, which now she must relinquish in order to follow her arrogant husband halfway across the country, to a place where she expects no stimulation, no decent conversation, and the kind of stifling self-important small-town society that she remembers from her girlhood in Cambridge. With a scream trapped in her throat, Emma gathers the children – Flora and baby Joe – the au pair Pascal and a judicious selection of their belongings, and heads west to Hereford, determined to be utterly and entirely bored.
In some ways, the book is a clear-eyed assessment of marriage gone wrong – a liaison formed on a whim precisely because Emma was bored, and wanted to shock everyone who’d made comfortable, bourgeois, safe assumptions about her life. Having decided that a marriage full of drama was exactly what she wanted, she can now repent at leisure – occasionally seeing flashes of the man she fell in love with, but largely dragged down by the tedious minutiae of everyday life. Their two egos struggle for dominance through the crushing experience of everyday wrangling: ‘I knew David would be quite clear about where I stood on the subject… But being clear about my position has never influenced David as much as I think it should‘. There is an ongoing theme about the gulf between expectation and reality: the dream of marriage as a dramatic, exciting, elegant prospect turning out to be much less congenial in the actual living of it: ‘under one’s tired feet the aspect of a distant landscape changes, and becomes endowed with human exhaustion, with blisters and sweat and broken nails‘. Emma may still enjoy knowing that she’s married to a handsome, impulsive actor – but she’s also married to a man who sulks when he doesn’t get his own way, casually belittles her (this is the 1960s, after all) and enjoys letting his eye be caught by any pretty girl who wanders by.
And this is the other theme: infidelity. In Hereford, this jaded and fraying couple are thrown together with a host of other theatrical types. Emma immediately takes a superior position, as she is emphatically not an actress and is therefore clearly far more sophisticated than this silly lot: ‘And may I make it clear that I was connected [to the theatre] only by marriage, I have no aspirations in that direction myself, though I have aspirations towards gloss, which can be mistaken for the same thing.‘ Her voice is so pitch-perfect: so cutting and pompous sometimes, that you almost wince for her. She’s clutching at straws, dealing with her loneliness by insisting that she’s better than everyone else and, besides, never cared anyway. While David cheerfully throws himself into rehearsals, and organises late-night drinking sessions for his fellow actors, Emma finds herself standing on the outside – not where she likes to be. But perhaps more amiable company is at hand – for Emma soon catches the eye of the mercurial Wyndham Farrar, celebrated director and philanderer. With her own husband so blind to her brilliance, Emma can’t help being tempted by the promise of being seen again.
My feelings about Emma really defined my feelings about the book as a whole. Certainly, I didn’t like her much, but I did sympathise with her. She’s full of herself, demanding, precious and self-consciously bohemian – filling their ghastly rented flat in Hereford with appropriate drapes and pieces she’s brought from Islington – but she’s just as hard on herself as she is with others. A smashed piece of china in the removal boxes moves her to fury (‘It is frightening, how little I can bear any slipping off of my own perfection‘) and she’s constantly stepping back to assess what others think of her as a woman, a wife, a mother and an object of desire. She is a Type A personality stuck in a life which doesn’t allow her to fulfil her dreams, and she’s a gifted woman stuck in the 1960s. Of course she’s frustrated! But there are also, very often, times when Emma is quite frankly just a bit of a bitch. Consider her assessment of an old schoolfriend who drops by, who has ‘one of those small-featured, smiling faces which are thought tremendously pretty at school, in one’s home town, and on the continent’. Anywhere, in short, without real sophistication. You can almost feel the claws raking across your neck. For Emma, other women are either sexual rivals or measures by which to judge her own progress and social cachet – with the schoolfriend, it’s a case of, who married first? Who has children? Whose husband is more impressive? And let’s face it, we’ve all experienced that feeling.
At first, I thought I was going to dislike this book. It promised to be about a lot of self-consciously artistic people bed-hopping and being languidly, self-consciously mean to one another. And it was, in a way – very much of its time – but it also turned out to be a finely-drawn psychological study of a trapped woman. Not a pleasant woman, but a fiercely credible one. And I really warmed to it, because it felt real and vital. I liked the fact that we only have a snapshot of Emma’s life: I can well believe that she and the other characters carried on living their lives after I’d looked away. And I enjoyed the hothouse atmosphere of the festival, which reminded me of A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden, the brilliant first book in her Frederica Quartet. (That may not be surprising, of course, since Drabble and Byatt are sisters and, supposedly, spirited rivals.) It’s been an unexpectedly engaging first enounter with Drabble, which has definitely left me wanting more. Sharp, unsentimental and prickly, it offers a rather tart view of human nature for such a young author – along with merciless domestic vivisection – and I’d love to see how Drabble’s take on this develops in her later books.