At the conclusion of the story ‘A Voyage to Cythera’ (1967) contained in this edition, the protagonist, Helen, has to walk ‘carefully, because her ankles were so brittle from the cold that she feared that if she stumbled, they would snap.’ (40)
‘Brittle’ is a good description of these carefully worked and structured stories that follow the trajectory of Margaret Drabble’s career from the late ‘60s to the present. Not principally known as a short story writer, the award-winning author of such novels as The Sea Lady and The Witch of Exmoor experimented consistently with the form, testing out voices and characters. Many of the examples in this edition read as a sort of philosophic prose poetry.
Her gradual refinement of structure is on show and she moves from male to female voices, the latter of course in the majority, with considerable ease. The man on his honeymoon, in ‘Hassan’s Tower’, benefits from his moment of sublime revelation that could forecast a more optimistic future: ‘… as he gazed he felt growing within him a sense of extraordinary familiarity that was in its own way a kind of illumination, for he saw all these foreign people keenly lit with a visionary gleam of meaning …’ (20).
Where the fragile but hopeful prospect of new understanding and revelation might be on the ascendancy for some characters, the fracture of misunderstanding and discord is more tragically demonstrated for others. This is never more apparent than in ‘The Gifts of War’ in which two women, one an abused working-class mother and the other middle-class with aspirations and university bound, encounter each other. Their lives collide in a toy shop, over the politicisation of the mundane and domestic, as the mother tries to buy a toy for her son.
She has anticipated this act for some time, Drabble endowing it with a ritual significance: ‘… she began, at last, to enter upon the day’s true enjoyment: slowly she took possession of it, this day that she had waited for, and which could not now be taken from her.’ (90) Her humble actions are contrasted with the stridency and aggression of her husband and the male-dominated anti-war protest happening in the town. Drabble shows that battlefields are sited not only in the global context, but that belligerence and dominance overwhelm the communication possible between those who should be natural allies, such as the women from two different generations and backgrounds.
Drabble’s trademark, I suppose, is this precise examination of intimate worlds in poetic and contemplative style. Some of these stories act as a form of meditation upon the characters’ lives. In ‘A Success Story’ we are confronted with the self-examination of the central figure, Kathie, a playwright who discovers her idol has feet of clay (probably drawn from a direct experience in Drabble’s own life): ‘What did she think about this episode?’ the author enquires. At some level this is perhaps operating as a form of exorcism or cleansing for encounters she wishes to resolve.
The title story, ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’, blends satire with a bleak and compelling vision of a woman confronting bad news and facing the potentiality of illness and death. It’s an ironic vignette of self-discovery, disillusionment and commentary upon the hollowness of public profile.
Whilst there might be an alienating effect from the class-conscious voices; mostly we are in the territory of the English middle and upper-middle classes, moderately wealthy and part of an identifiable social and professional ‘set’, there is nevertheless enough emotion and humanity for a wide readership. If not necessarily universal they are relevant and offer the opportunity to chart the progress of one of modern literature’s most significant writers.