Margaret Drabble: Cautious Feminist

A male conspiracy to put women down? Not likely, though marriage and relations between the sexes are in a sorry state. So says English novelist Margaret Drabble, who talks here of writers’ efforts to shed light on a society in transition.

An interview by Diana Cooper-Clark

DCC: Many critics feel that the ambivalence of womanhood, a growing feminist consciousness, a search for alternatives, and a struggle for female self-awareness are major themes in your novels. Yet you have yourself pointed out more than once that your books are not “about" feminism. What is your feeling about the particular kind of labeling that goes on in the critical world, especially the feminist critical world? Are female novelists a special breed and do they therefore demand a new way of seeing, a new methodology for responding to their work?

MD: No, I don’t think so. I very much admire some of the feminist critics, such as Ellen Moers and Mary Ellmann. They’re very perceptive and they have read very widely, not only in the twentieth century but in the past. Therefore, I think they do shed a new light on the past, which is always interesting and it’s also relevant to life. I like criticism to relate literature to life and how life is lived or should be lived. But it’s not the only thing that needs to be said. When I’m writing I don’t think of myself wholly as a woman but partly as a writer. And indeed in some of my books I’ve tried to avoid writing as a woman because it does create its own narrowness.

DCC: Virginia Woolf said that the best novelists— writers such as Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence— had androgynous minds. She felt that the poor writers had exclusively masculine mentalities and she listed Kipling, Galsworthy, and Arnold Bennett. Now I don’t think you would agree with her on Arnold Bennett? MD: I certainly don’t agree on Arnold Bennett because he’s a very androgynous writer and he writes superbly about women and women’s preoccupations, domestic life, worrying about furniture and peeling potatoes. I don’t think he’s a masculine writer. And I think there are masculine writers who are harmed by being masculine: they’re the writers who go in for machismo like Hemingway. Hemingway is extraordinarily dated: his was a machismo period, which was in a way I suppose a backlash against Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury. Androgyny can be rather dissatisfying. I think E. M. Forster is dissatisfying. I admire him immensely and enjoy him very much but there’s something slightly too unaligned about Forster.

DCC: It has also been suggested that your female characters seek female self-definition. But I have always felt in reading your novels that the search for selfknowledge relies much less on their gender than on a life that is absurd and chaotic, shifting and contradictory; a life that contains great gaps between what one wants and what one gets, the idea! and the real.

MD: Yes, this is true of both sexes. I find it easier to write about my own sex for fairly obvious reasons. It’s easier to know what the details of women’s lives consist of. I think exactly the same problems confront men. We’re all looking for spiritual satisfaction or fulfillment and the gap between what you’re seeking and what you find is very great. But you’re nevertheless driven on to seek. And that’s true of both sexes.

DCC: I didn’t agree with Monica Mannheimer that The Needle’s Eye was a defeatist novel. I agreed with you that it was a novel about people in a state of continual effort, rather than in a state of despair; that happiness is not the point.

MD: Yes, happiness is a by-product and it’s a momentary by-product. In The Needle’s Eye they do have moments of profound happiness during the book. But they don’t see that that’s what they ought to be seeking.

I think the idea that you’re here in order to enjoy yourself is very wrong. You’re here in order to do the right thing and to seek the depths in yourself which aren’t necessarily very happy. It’s more important to be in touch with the depths than to be happy. And you can be happy on a superficial level while you’re estranging yourself from the most important things in life. And that presumably makes you unhappy in the long run. So, in a way, if you seek and persevere, then you’re more likely to be happy, but that’s not why you’re doing it.

DCC: Many people quarreled with the ending of The Needle’s Eye, and I tend to feel that feminist critics insist on a particular kind of ending: the superwoman who can live alone happily, who sees life’s choices logically and clearly, who can transcend life’s vicissitudes, who never makes a mistake. Do you see that tendency in feminist critics?

MD: Yes, they like positive, strong endings. I like fairly optimistic endings. I thought the ending of The Needle’s Eye was fairly optimistic, in that here were two people in an impossible situation, determined not to give in to it but to continue living as best they could in the intolerable situation that they’d been given. This is one of the reasons that in The Ice Age, which was criticized on the same grounds, I presented the female character with a truly intolerable situation. Life isn’t fair, life isn’t easy, and not everybody can be happy. If you have a defective child or if you are crushed by an appalling illness, then you just say, “Well, life is supposed to be happy, so I’ve got to turn this into happiness.” That’s a very simplistic view, I think. But I agree with the feminists in that I don’t like people to give in. I believe in continued effort. I think that my characters go in for continued effort. Sometimes they’re defeated, but all one can do is be honorably defeated.

I haven’t read as much feminist criticism as perhaps I should have done. I don’t read it because it rather confuses the mind when you’re writing. You do stop to think in terms of how this will be regarded. If I end with a marriage, it’s going to be seen as a mistake; if I end with a woman alone, it’s going to be regarded as a triumph. All you can do is write about how it seems to you to happen at the time. How it seems to you to be true to the characters at the time. I have, in fact, just finished a novel in which the woman does end up entirely alone, which may be regarded as a true feminist tract and may be regarded as a complete failure. I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is that that is what happened to this woman during the course of this book, and that it was true to her situation in life. The truth is more important than ideology.

I’m not at all keen on the feminist view that there’s a male conspiracy to put women down. I don’t think that’s true. Society is organized so that these collisions and disasters take place, which they have notably. There’s no use pretending that marriage is in a good state or that the relations between the sexes are happy at the moment. It’s no good blaming patriarchy or men for this. Both sexes are at fault. And the institution of marriage itself is at fault. This is one of the things that novels can explore without any preconceived ideas as to what the answer should be.

DCC: A common criticism about female novelists is that they do not handle their male characters well, whereas many male novelists have created strong, fully drawn female characters. Mary Gordon has told me that she agrees that her male characters are not well done. John Updike has said that your male characters are vague. I couldn’t agree less. Your men for me are most memorable when I think of Simon Camish and Anthony Keating, and Karel Schmidt and a host of minor characters in your books. Michael Ratcliffe, in a book called The Novel Today, states that the men in your books are not needed, except for making babies; they are not even treacherous, but simply absurd. How do you respond to that?

MD: Well, I don’t think it’s true. A lot of my male characters are rather admirable men and perfectly real. He must have been thinking of The Millstone, in which, indeed, there is a very shadowy man. But it’s a man whom I found very interesting. Because it’s a first-person narration, there was no possibility of telling his side of the story. If I were to write that novel now, or to write a sequel to it, I would be in a much better position to write his side of the story. I think I was conscious in my early novels of the fact that the men were shadowy characters. This was partly through a reluctance on my part to blame men, which I still feel. I think that it’s not proper to blame people for the bad situations in which women themselves have put their men. Certainly Rosamund in The Millstone is guilty of putting George in a very false situation. She behaves much worse than he does. He is vague only in that she can’t see him clearly.

DCC: Exactly. The reader sees George only through Rosamund’s eyes.

MD: Yes. It’s her fault that he is vague. If the novel had been written in the third person or written from a different point of view altogether, he could have been a completely different character, which I, at that stage, was probably not capable of doing. Now, I think Michael Ratcliffe’s view is possibly the traditional sexist view that the women seem to dispose of the men. I suppose this could be said of Jane in The Waterfall, who disposes of her husband in a rather high-handed way. And she doesn’t seem to miss him. But then, that is what the book was about. It’s a real situation, not an ideology. It’s what I have observed happening.

DCC: In Doris Lessing’s novel A Proper Marriage, Martha Quest seeks clarification of her problems through reading books. And she asks of novels, “What does this really say about my life?” Her conclusion is that they say very little about life. Alternatively, you have said that you find out about living and about the values of living from reading novels, and your characters often use literature as a means of “guidance or help or illumination.”

MD: Yes, I think literature is one of the ways of mapping out territories and problems. I think that Doris Lessing would agree with this too. She said in The Golden Notebook that women are leading the kinds of lives that women have never led before. One of the reasons that women’s novels are particularly interesting at the moment is that women are charting this ground where the rules have changed, the balance of power has shifted, and women are writing about what happens next. Often with a very vague vision of the future. But I’m trying to find out where we are going.

DCC: As an extension to what you said about the meaning of “literature,” your novels clearly echo with the literary heritage of England.

MD: Naturally, what Eve read is as much a part of what I think as the people that I meet and the problems that I encounter. And when I find myself in what seems to me to be an unprecedented situation, I say to myself things such as, “Now, what would so-and-so have written about this? What would their characters have felt in this situation?” I’m certainly not the only person who thinks in those terms. There’s a marvelous bit in H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica where Ann Veronica is assaulted. And she says to herself, “Now what would Jane Austen have thought of this?” And of course it is absolutely true that Jane Austen’s characters could never have been in that position. So, women today are finding themselves in situations, physical and emotional situations, for which there are no literary guidelines. But it’s very interesting to compare how characters in the past would have reacted. Indeed, one can find fictional models written not only by women but also by men, by Henry James for example, of women who have transgressed or stepped out of the circumscribed roles and have made discoveries. So, I don’t see it as decorating one’s books with literature. I think that literature is a part of life. I read Bunyan at a very early age. And he profoundly affected my moral thinking, but I’m not alone in that. He profoundly affected the moral thinking of the whole of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Everybody read Pilgrim’s Progress. It was a way of looking at the world. It’s like saying, “Is the Bible irrelevant?” No, it’s not. You may not believe it, you may not even read it, but it’s in your consciousness.

DCC: Why are you pleased when people call you the George Eliot of your age and not pleased when compared to Charlotte Bronte?

MD: Oh. I don’t know if that’s true. I admire them both immensely. If I ever did say anything to that effect, it could only be that I suspect that I’m a very emotional person, and therefore like the ballast that George Eliot has. She has a little wider range than Charlotte Brontë. You know, Charlotte Brontë’s range is very limited and also there’s something very distressing about her work. George Eliot does achieve a greater harmony, so I suppose she’s a better model in that way. But I think that Charlotte Brontë is a marvelous writer.

DCC: In The Waterfall, Jane Gray says that she doesn’t like Jane Austen. Do you admire Austen?

MD: Yes, I reread her constantly. I think she’s truly great but a rather mystifying writer. She misses out an enormous amount. I admire George Eliot so much because she’s so inclusive. She does tackle a very large range of subject matter. And Jane Austen doesn’t. She didn’t care what was going on round the edges of the society that she lived in. But her distinctions between morals and manners are ever fascinating.

DCC: Yes. But isn’t that perhaps one of the problems with the criteria by which we judge literature? The idea that the great novel is War and Peace, the one with the larger societal scope. Women have often been criticized on the basis that they write about the house and the room, the small and narrow. And it has been pointed out that perhaps one doesn’t need that larger, synthetic sense of society. The great novel traditionally has encompassed the philosophical perception, the historical overview, the synthetic social analysis, and books that look at one portion of life in other terms tend to be seen as inferior in some way, less clever.

MD: Yes. But there’s some validity in that; the greatest works do tackle a great range. Mansfield Park is a great work. I don’t think there’s anything diminishing in writing about home and rooms and domestic life and birth and sex and death. I don’t think these are small themes. I don’t think writing about battles is a necessary thing. One of the books I’ve never managed to read is The Charterhouse of Parma, which I know I ought to read, but I simply can’t. But my anxiety about Jane Austen is not so much the smallness of the range as the class problem that it presents; she ought to have had a slightly greater awareness of what was going on in the rest of England. It’s got nothing to do with range, it has to do with social conscience, which George Eliot had and which gave the books a greater breadth. Now Mrs. Gaskell had a very great social conscience, and although her books are narrow in a way and they’re women’s books in a way (she wrote about motherhood extremely well), she had this passionate concern for the unfortunate, which is something that I’m very much drawn to in fiction and in life. I think that novels that concentrate on a very small section of society, however brilliantly, like Evelyn Waugh for example, arc missing out too much to be truly great.

DCC: And this whole question of social consciousness is part of the reason that you like Arnold Bennett? MD: Yes.

DCC: And you have said that he has influenced your attitudes, especially in Jerusalem the Golden?

MD: Yes. He has a great respect for ordinary life and ordinary people who don’t necessarily achieve much or lead glamorous lives, although they may aspire to. He came from a very poor background himself, as did my family, and he never forgot it. And because of this grounding in knowledge of ordinary people, which Virginia Woolf, for example, did not have, Arnold Bennett tells you things that Virginia Woolf simply didn’t know. Although I suppose Virginia Woolf is a greater writer.

DDC: A long time ago, I was reading something that she had written. She said that paradise for one of Arnold Bennett’s characters was the best hotel room in Brighton. I thought two things. First, how perceptive of her. But on the other hand, it bothered me because she meant it as a negative criticism. It seemed to deny a whole world of people who, in fact, are not conscious in the way that we think of consciousness, perhaps; who are not educated; who are not tuned into the subtle nuances of the mind; and for whom the best room in Brighton is heaven. They can perhaps get genuine pleasure from this experience. Again, pleasure is such a debatable term because clearly the pleasure that some may derive from Wordsworth’s poetry is not comparable to the pleasure that some would have in the best hotel room in Brighton.

MD: Virginia Woolf’s comment about the best hotel room in Brighton seems to be the remark of a snob. She was a snob and she was malicious. And she was not very imaginative about the lives of people that she couldn’t imagine. Arnold Bennett was much more imaginative about other people’s lives; he could imagine Virginia Woolf’s life but she couldn’t imagine his. And he had a wider range. If one is thinking of distinctions, I would say that The Old Wives’ Tale is a much better book than The Waves. But To the Lighthouse is another matter. She’s a very interesting case, Virginia Woolf, because in some of her polemical writing, she did articulate very sound principles about caring for the helpless, and bettering the lot of every woman. But she couldn’t do it in fiction. And I think she was aware of that. She was absolutely right to choose Mrs. Dalloway because that suited her talent. But I think that she felt there was something a bit worrying about her fictional range, and that, in a way, there’s something much more nourishing in Bennett’s fictional range. DCC: Others have spoken of the relationship that exists between your work and Wordsworth’s, particularly The Needle’s Eye and The Millstone. What is his influence on your work?

MD: He believed in plain living and high thinking, something that always haunted me. This is what Rose tries to go in for in The Needle’s Eye. He also believed in living in the depths. He believed in those spots of time in one’s life when one is in touch with something slightly beyond the immediate. Arnold Bennett also does in a curious way. It’s the transfiguration of the everyday, which Wordsworth was so good at. And of course, Virginia Woolf is good at it too. It’s something that can be done in fiction as well as in poetry. In a way, The Prelude is a great psychological novel; it’s the most marvelous poem. Yeats does that too. He has this quality of writing about an everyday incident and making it profoundly emblematic.

DCC: When I’m reading your novels, I am reminded very often of Pascal’s “The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.”And I know you admire Hume, particularly the statement: “I might as well rely on the instincts of my heart.” Do you trust emotion and instinct over reason, even though clearly the world of the mind is important to you?

MD: Yes, I think that if your heart is dried up, your spirit is dried up; then, you can sink yourself into your grave and it will profit you not at all. You have to be in touch with your own emotional center, your spiritual center. The emotional life, even though it might be more tragic, is more satisfying than the conscious intellectual life. The conscious intellectual life is very dry. This is one of the things that Rosamund suffers from. She suffers from dryness of the spirit because she’s so clever. She doesn’t allow herself to feel. And that is a tragedy for her. But she does find happiness in the very basic human emotion, love for her children.

I see emotion as both redeeming and tragic. I’m not terribly interested in consciousness anymore. I used to be very worried about consciousness and self-consciousness, but it seems to be less of a problem when one gets older. Or it may be that when I first started writing, I was aware of certain barriers that intellect raised. But they’ve become irrelevant simply because as one grows older one seeks one’s own society and finds people who are much more intelligent than oneself. So you don’t feel cut off. You feel stimulated. I think it’s a young person’s problem, the problem of acute consciousness. Unless, of course, like Proust, you’re so neurasthenic that nobody’s at your own neurotic pitch. This is one of the reasons I admire Wordsworth and Arnold Bennett, because they do hold on to the ordinary human emotions, the ordinary human duties, the ordinary common human experiences that everybody can share in. The writers that I most admire are the people who strive to retain their links with the community and not indulge in their own consciousness to such a degree that they become very rarefied, like Henry James.

DCC: The whole idea of consciousness in the West is linked to this notion of imposing order on chaos, reason on the unreasonable, structure on the unstructurable, and boundaries on the infinite. And like Thomas Hardy, your novels often reveal a life governed by accidents where people are at the mercy of fate.

MD: Well, we certainly do live in a world of chance, there’s no disputing that. The duty of the human will is to seek to make sense of it and to resist being swamped by the arbitrary and saying because it’s arbitrary there’s nothing you can do. You have to endeavor in the face of the impossible. That’s what we were put on this earth to do: to endeavor in the face of the impossible.

DCC: To continue with the idea of accident, you have said that life is unfair. People are not born with the same hand of cards. Several characters in your novels want everything but learn that they must settle for much less. Rosamund secs “the facts of inequality, of limitation, of separation, of the impossible, heartbreaking uneven hardship of the human lot.”Emma sees that the enormity of her hope is the measure of the enormity of her failure and disappointment. But human beings do not accept this philosophical view of life. They do not go gently into the night. Are there perhaps only a few who ever could achieve the “state of grace,” given your definition of it as not fighting one’s fate, even if the “state of grace” came? Or were made possible?

MD: Yes, I think there are very few people who make the moral effort. I think everybody could make it, because everybody is given the spirit to try, but a lot of people give up. They don’t continue to strive. They make wrong choices and then they don’t fight back when they’ve made the wrong choices. It’s quite obvious that we’re all going to grow old and die. And that seems to me to be such an important and interesting fact that there’s no point in fighting it. You have to accept the possibility of tragedy. You have to have dignity in the face of the possibility of death and the death of your loved ones and soon. It’s more honorable to accept the possibility of disaster than to be a facile optimist or to shut your mind to the possibility of “grace.”

DCC: I’ve read so many contradictory interpretations and evaluations of your work. Do you read the critical response to your novels?

MD: I don’t read much of it. I find it confusing and I start worrying about what I really meant. There is no correct interpretation of the novel. There is no answer to a novel. A novel is like a person’s life. It’s full of complexities and therefore any explanation is unsatisfactory. it’s the constant flux, the going to and fro between various emotions, that makes fiction interesting to me.

DCC: Critics often discuss the use of images and symbols in a writer’s work as though they were the product of a deliberate, conscious, and coherent effort. Yet several novelists, yourself and Robertson Davies for example, have said that they write from the unconscious, and you have gone so far as to say, “I don’t know what my images mean. ... I use them because I don’t know what I mean in words.” Are criticism and art essentially at odds with each other?

MD: They are different activities of the brain. Criticism can quite validly illuminate the meaning of symbols that the writer perhaps wasn’t conscious of. Somebody will say to you, “Well, you use such an image because it suggested so-and-so,” and you look back and you think, “Yes, that’s absolutely right.” But it doesn’t arrive out of the part of the brain that makes that comment. It arises out of another part of one’s being. I can look back at a book after ten years and see what the symbols are meant to be doing. But when I’m writing it, I don’t coldly construct a symbol. Mary McCarthy has written the most brilliant thing on symbolism. She says that all the leaves on a tree are naturally all the same, and of course they are. And that’s the way symbols grow. It’s not that you’re thinking, “I’ll make that symbol fit with that symbol.” It’s just that your preoccupations are a certain area of subject matter or feeling, and therefore the symbols grow out of that. But sometimes, people’s comments are very revealing. It’s a very dangerous game, criticism, because you’re seeing things that were not necessarily in the writer’s mind, and could not have been in the writer’s mind. Now, a very interesting essay about The Realms of Gold pointed out that I clearly was quoting from Darwin, and that the bank that Frances Wingate sits on as she looks at the newts is the bank in the last paragraph of The Origin of Species. I happened not to have read The Origin of Species, so it couldn’t have been. But then I read the Darwin and she was absolutely right. I mean, there was the very bank, and of course the book is about evolution. I hadn’t thought of connecting the octopus and newts and these strange forms of life. But, from the critic’s point of view, the comments she was making were valid. She thought I had read The Origin of Species. But, for me, the connection was in the unconscious. They weren’t symbols, they were just things I’d observed and found interesting. I knew that Frances Wingate was the kind of person who’d have found it interesting.

DCC: Various critics have perceived a formidable range of “isms” in your work—Calvinism, existentialism, empiricism, determinism, and nihilism. How useful do you find these terms in response to your work? MD: Well, I try not to think about them. No, I never sit down and think, “Well, now I’ll write about Calvinism or now I’ll write about empiricism.” It’s perfectly valid to spot bits of Calvinism in my work. But we could spot bits of Calvinism in almost anybody who’d ever read the mainstream books in English literature. You’re bound to be affected by it. I find the existentialist writers very arid. I’m quite interested in the people who write to me about free will and determinism. But then I’m not the first person who found that interesting; it is just an interesting question. I suppose on that level my novels are serious and that I do try and tackle some fairly serious subjects because I think about them a lot. But, to me, a book should be also entertaining.

DCC: “Entertainment” seems to be a dirty word in the literary world. It is a word that has haunted Graham Greene’s reputation.

MD: There are some books one wants to read. There are some writers that one respects immensely and just never wants to read again. I would like to think that life itself is an interesting mixture of the serious and the amusing.

DCC: The contradictions in your novels remind me of the medieval understanding of conflict. Life’s contradictions were unified by a system of parallels in contrast. Réné Guenon has talked about the universal whirlwind which brings opposites together and engenders perpetual motion, metamorphosis and continuity, in situations characterized by contradictions. In your novels, you very often have contradictions that are part of a whole; the millstone is both a burden and a salvation; love is both destructive and nourishing; freedom and bondage go together; hardship and sorrow can be in themselves a source of great joy; our possibilities and our limitations both trap us. Is it fair to say that these contradictions are not in opposition so much as they are a part of the whole?

MD: Yes, as part of the whole. Yes. Life is a constant shifting from one extreme to the other. This is the dynamic movement of D. H. Lawrence; the fact that everything turns into its opposite or is both at once.

DCC: One contradiction that is seemingly whole is motherhood. On the one hand, it is destructive; it perverts character. On the other hand, it is fulfilling; it gives great joy. Rosamund is both destroyed and created by having her baby. You have said that your own children have given your life reassurance and regularity. Do you see motherhood still in those terms?

MD: I see motherhood in such positive terms that I feel almost embarrassed to state it. I think it’s the greatest joy in the world. But it is also a very personal thing. I just happen to like it. And it’s a relationship that, in fact, avoids the problems of sex. It’s a very pure form of loving, which sex rarely is. The accepted view today is that sex is a power struggle of some sort or other; or else it’s fragile and about to go wrong. Whereas, maternal or paternal love is permanently good. I see parental love as an image of God’s love. There’s a wonderful bit in Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus looks at a little boy and thinks that his mother loves him and God loves him, although he’s so ghastly. I think this is true, that you love your children in a way that has nothing to do with reason or with justice. It has a great deal to do with goodness and love and lack of self-interest.

DCC: Yet most of your characters are not close to their families. Families are very often paralyzing in your novels.

MD: Well the older generation are, but my mothers usually get on well with their babies. The younger women do. I think, paradoxically, being a daughter is not much fun. But being a mother is wonderful. Was it E. M. Forster who said that we can never love our parents as they have loved us? And that’s true. So you’re redeemed by your love for your children. But they never love you back quite as much. I also do think, seriously, that it’s much easier to be a good parent now than it used to be. In England, family life was frigid and rigid and difficult. Nowadays, certainly among the people that I know, it’s much more flexible.

DCC: When you wrote the introduction to The Millstone in 1970, you said that you admired the way some writers can show characters undergoing a process of change—developing, growing, softening, hardening. At the time, you felt that The Millstone was the only one of your novels that showed this process. Do you feel that you’ve shown this change in any of your later novels?

MD: Not very much. No. I tend to use rather a short time span; the characters haven’t got time to change very much really. I’m never quite sure if people do change. Somebody pointed of to me that I tend to work the time span of my novels to be almost exactly the time span I take to write the book, which is nine months to a year, sometimes even shorter than that. Also the changes are usually in the past. What I usually do is take characters who are reassessing how they’ve got to be what they are, rather than showing, as in a Bennett novel, the time span viewing how they become it. I admire people who can do the longer time span. But I tend to look back rather than carry them through the course of the book. I find it more interesting for some reason.

DCC: Your particular narrative style has really opened up the form of fiction. You shift effortlessly between the thirdand first-person narrators. In your later novels, you use a multiple narrative viewpoint also very well. Your third-person narrator never intrudes, isn’t necessarily omniscient. I find myself having consciously to register that now I’m back in the “third” person or the “first” person, because it all seems to float so beautifully together, yet still observing.

MD: I’m never quite sure who the third-person narrator is. But I do have a sense, sometimes in the middle of a novel, that there are things happening in the novel that the narrator doesn’t know about, and the narrator sometimes comments on that. My narrator, not I, is more of an observer, who is sometimes astonished by what is going on. As indeed one is in real life. One is very surprised to-hear that so-and-so suddenly left soand-so; or suddenly married so-and-so; or decided to have another baby at the age of forty-three. You think, “Good God!” And yet you know that that is how life is and your characters behave in this peculiar way as well. And I think my narrator has this slightly bewildered attitude toward some of the events of the book.

DCC: Yes. And that’s unique. 1 haven’t ever seen anybody else do it quite that way. You also often talk to the reader, which is a device we see in nineteenthcentury novels and more recently in the work of John Fowles. For instance, in The Realms of Gold, you invite the reader to “invent a more suitable ending if you can.” What are your reasons for this technique? MD: Well, I’ve got lots of reasons for it. The reason I say “invent a more suitable ending if you can” is that I was perfectly aware that my feminist critics weren’t going to like my ending the book with a marriage. It seemed to me a perfectly good ending. But, I said, “If they really think there’s a happier way of living for this particular woman and this particular man, then let them, indeed,” and I didn’t mean it ironically—“let them indeed create their own lives in which they do something different rather than telling me that I should have done it differently myself.” It’s asserting one’s own right to do what one wants with one’s own characters, but conceding that not everybody’s going to agree with you. I also intrude at times just to remind people that it’s a story, a mixture of life and reality. There’s a bit toward the end of The Waterfall where Jane says, “Goredale Scar is a real place. It exists, unlike James and myself.” This was meant to be, I suppose, a reflection on the fact that Goredale Scar is a real place. And if anybody wants to go and look at it, they can. But, in a sense, it’s less real than the passions of the characters, who, although fictitious, are emblematic in some way, or true beyond truth. True beyond the material representation. They’re not real people, but they’re true.

DCC: One last thing. Could you tell me about your new novel?

MD: I can’t find the words to describe it. Writing the blurb was a nightmare because nothing really happens in it at all. It’s about a woman journalist who has written about women’s matters. And she’s reached a stage where she’s rather fed up with the narrow little ditch that she’s got herself stuck in, which could be an analogy for the novelist who is fed up with the feminist critics. She can’t get out of this particular position because she’s got absolutely nowhere to go. She’s an uneducated girl who has been very lucky to have had a flair. She could never write a book because she hasn’t got the staying power. And so she’s really wondering what the hell to do next. Where do you go from there? Do you just repeat your life? Or do you break out and do something else? There is not a very satisfactory answer to this in the book. The book, in fact, ends up with a literary joke, a Mrs. Dalloway-type party, and ends on a note of total ambiguity. I call it “guarded optimism” in the blurb. However, some of it is quite funny. It’s called The Middle Ground and it’s about living in London. It’s not quite as gloomy as The Ice Age because the things that happen aren’t as bad. But it’s partly a feeling of discontent and malaise and middle-of-the-road. The Middle Ground is about one’s children growing up.

My children are all teenagers now, and it’s hilarious but ghastly. I’ve dedicated it to my daughter, because I use quite a lot of copy from her. It’s about being a mother to teenage children and knowing that the children are going to be gone any minute now. And you’ve done all the things in your life you meant to do—what next? She knows there’s something next and she doesn’t know what it is.

And it’s about whether or not she’s still a proper feminist. She had always thought she was a proper feminist. But she’s getting very, very sulky with all the people who go on at her about what a feminist she is. (It is in a way a response to, not so much feminist criticism, but feminist journalism. The novel is about the change of tone and consciousness. And whether feminism is still a good cause.) And she’s bored with herself. That’s what it’s about.