Margaret Drabble isn’t as well-known in the United States as she should be. Wife of biographer Sir Michael Holroyd, sister of A. S. Byatt, she is best and unfairly known for these associations, though some readers may remember 2000’s The Peppered Moth.
Drabble, who in 2008 was named a Dame of the British Empire, possesses an enviable classical education, put to use in her latest novel, The Pure Gold Baby, characterizing Jessica Speight, a young Anthropology student studying in London. Speight is also carrying on an affair with a man known to readers as the Professor. The Professor is married, so when Jessica becomes pregnant, he urges her to abort. It’s the late ‘60s, and such decisions are more commonplace. But Jessica is determined to keep the child. Her daughter, Anna, initially is the Pure Gold Baby of the title.
Her baby proved to be one of those special babies… They are the happy ones, and you notice them because they are happy. They smile at strangers, when you look at them their response is to smile… They smile in their pushchairs and in their buggies. They smile even as they recover from heart surgery. They come round from the anesthetic and smile.
Jessica Speight’s Anna is a pure gold baby, a good thing, for as she grows up amidst the Jessica’s friends’s children, it becomes evident something about Anna is not quite right.
The putative narrators of The Pure Gold Baby are a collective “we”, Jessica Speight’s friends, all married, at least to begin with. All help one another with childcare and rides and the various needs of financially strapped young couples with small children. Together they create a loving safety net for Jessica and Anna, though Jessica is bright, independent, and determined.
When Anna’s deficits come to light, effectively ruining Jessica’s chances at becoming an academic Anthropologist, she finishes her Ph.D. and fashions herself a lucrative career, writing both scholarly and popular anthropological articles: “She became an armchair, study-bound, library-dependent anthropologist. An urban anthropologist, though not in the modern meaning of that term.”
This “we” narrows down to one friend in particular, Eleanor, who admits to penning the narrative. Precisely how involved the other friends are is unclear. We learn a bit about Eleanor: she is recently widowed by cancer, has two sons, a job she no longer needs, wealth due to gentrification, and a new Honda she quite likes. As Jessica has never learned to drive, Eleanor willingly ferries her about, feeding the narrative.
As a beneficiary of the English National Health Service during the ‘70s, Anna doesn’t fare badly. Although her condition defies clear diagnosis, she’s mercifully left to be herself: her I.Q. is too high for Down’s Syndrome, yet she’s never able to master reading or independent living. She’s friendly, fond of music and rhyme, loathe to complain. She’s a complaisant child.
When the local schools are unable to educate her any further, Jessica locates Marsh Court, a residential school nearby. Jessica needs to like Marsh Court, for she’s just met Bob, a fellow Anthropologist. Bob is half-American, and not, as time will tell, the suspect character Jessica’s friends think him. Nonetheless it seems Anna must go, and she does.
Drabble makes some pointed observations about the cognitively disabled in English society that ring equally true in the United States:
The birth of children such as Anna may become rarer year by year. And that would be a loss, though the nature of that loss would be hard to describe. It is important to recognise it as a loss although we cannot describe it. An innocence, with children such as Anna, would be gone from the world. A possibility of another way of being human would be lost, with all that it signifies.”
Later in the novel Drabble will remark on cuts to the National Health Service that leave the mentally ill and/or disabled homeless. Their care in the US, or lack thereof, is a source of national disgrace, as is our treatment of physically disabled individuals. A book review is not the place for soapbox rants; suffice to say Drabble is sadly spot-on.
Jessica Speights’s marriage to Bob the Half-American, Slight-Suspect Anthropologist is brief, yet he remains in her life, stolidly supportive when this most independent of women needs him. Jessica Speight is a very Drabble creation, very English, very Keep Calm and Carry On.
Long before the Professor or Anna, as a young student, she was able to make one field visit to Africa, where she encountered a group of children afflicted with what was then called Lobster Claw Syndrome. This name was later politically corrected to “SHSF”: Split-Hand Split Foot, a genetic disorder affecting either the hands or feet. The children Jessica saw had fused toes. Knowing nothing else, they were comparatively oblivious to their deformity, but Jessica was strongly impacted and carried their image for the remainder of her life.
Later research led her to a similarly isolated group of Scottish children who, again knowing no differently, did not appear to suffer. Yet Jessica longs to make some profound connection between these deformed yet happy children, and her own terribly afflicted, seemingly cheerful daughter, whose digits work perfectly but cannot spell her own name.
Drabble writes ironically in a story spanning 50 years. Her sentences are so tight a water droplet would not get through. She describes the innocence of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when mothers unknowingly bought tinned baby food and smoked heedlessly, when a case of Scarlet Fever eluded medical diagnosis and had to be named after an elderly babysitter. She writes of unexpected changes to their old neighborhoods, the uneasy ethnic relations, and soaring real estate prices bringing unexpected wealth in old age.
Of that old age, Drabble has Eleanor writes passingly but witheringly of her husband’s death from cancer (Just as Drabble does of Michael Holroyd’s near-fatal bout with the disease in 2009’s The Pattern in the Carpet). The famed English reserve is put aside for a bittersweet recollection of a conversation Eleanor had with her father. She is visiting after her mother’s surgery; selling the family home in favor of a smaller, more negotiable bungalow is discussed. Eleanor’s father jokingly, gently tells her never to grow old. Laughing, Eleanor assures him she will not, then digs in her breakfast grapefruit. The anecdote concludes with Eleanor telling the reader grapefruit is now forbidden: it interferes with her medication.
There’s more: several characters circle around Steve, a mentally ill friend who drags Jessica unwillingly into his orbit, into the world of mental illness and those inhabiting it. These people are, at times, perilously reminiscent of Anna, something a woman of Jessica’s intelligence and training cannot fail to notice and therefore cannot stay away from, though it does her little good.
Drabble’s Eleanor concludes soberly, asking what will become of the Annas of the world, once their parents can no longer care for them. It is a fine question, a frightening question, one she leaves unanswered.
I give away nothing in saying Drabble literally leaves the fates of Anna and Jessica up in the air. They are alive and well, but they are aging. It’s the finest book conclusion I’ve read in a long time.
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