Margaret Drabble

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Margaret Drabble

Drabble in 2011
Drabble in 2011
Born (1939-06-05) 5 June 1939 (age 83)
Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England
  • Biographer
  • novelist
  • short story writer
EducationNewnham College, University of Cambridge
Years active1963–
Notable works
Notable awardsJohn Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize
James Tait Black Memorial Prize
The Yorkshire Post Book Award (Finest Fiction)
American Academy of Arts and Letters E. M. Forster Award
Golden PEN Award
RelativesA. S. Byatt (sister)

Dame Margaret Drabble, Lady Holroyd, DBE, FRSL (born 5 June 1939)[1] is an English biographer, novelist and short story writer.

Drabble's books include The Millstone (1965), which won the following year's John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, and Jerusalem the Golden, which won the 1967 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. She was honoured by the University of Cambridge in 2006, having earlier received awards from numerous redbrick (e.g. Sheffield, Hull, Manchester,) and plateglass universities (such as Bradford, Keele, East Anglia and York). She received the American Academy of Arts and Letters E. M. Forster Award in 1973.

Drabble also wrote biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson and edited two editions of The Oxford Companion to English Literature and a book on Thomas Hardy.

Early life[edit]

Drabble was born in Sheffield, the second daughter of the advocate and novelist John F. Drabble and the teacher Kathleen Marie (née Bloor). Her elder sister is the novelist and critic Dame Antonia Byatt (A.S. Byatt);[1] the youngest sister is art historian Helen Langdon, and their brother, Richard Drabble, is a KC (lawyer). Drabble's father participated in the placement of Jewish refugees in Sheffield during the 1930s.[2] Her mother was a Shavian and her father a Quaker.[2]

After attending The Mount School, a Quaker boarding school at York where her mother was employed, Drabble received a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge.[1] She studied English Literature whilst attending Cambridge.[3] She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1960, and, before leaving to pursue a career in literary studies and writing, served as an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave and Diana Rigg.[1][4]

Personal life[edit]

Drabble was married to the actor Clive Swift between 1960 and 1975; they had three children, including the gardener and TV personality Joe Swift, the academic Adam Swift, and Rebecca Swift (d. 2017), who ran The Literary Consultancy.[5][6][7] In 1982, Drabble married the writer and biographer Sir Michael Holroyd;[8] they live in London and Somerset.[1]

Drabble's relationship with her sister A. S. Byatt has sometimes been strained because of the presence of autobiographical elements in both their writing. While their relationship is no longer especially close and they do not read each other's books, Drabble describes the situation as "normal sibling rivalry"[9] and Byatt says it has been "terribly overstated by gossip columnists" and that the sisters "always have liked each other on the bottom line."[10]

When sought out for interview by The Paris Review's Barbara Milton in 1978, Drabble was described as "smaller than one might expect from looking at her photographs. Her face is finer, prettier and younger, surprisingly young for someone who has produced so many books in the past sixteen years. Her eyes are very clear and attentive and they soften when she is amused, as she often is, by the questions themselves and her own train of thought".[3] In the same interview she admitted there were three writers for whom she felt an "immense admiration": Angus Wilson, Saul Bellow and Doris Lessing.[3]

Views on the 2003 invasion of Iraq[edit]

In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Drabble wrote of the anticipated wave of anti-Americanism, saying: "My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease. It rises up in my throat like acid reflux, that fashionable American sickness. I now loathe the United States and what it has done to Iraq and the rest of the helpless world", despite "remembering the many Americans that I know and respect". She wrote of her distress at images of the war, her objections to Jack Straw about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and "American imperialism, American infantilism, and American triumphalism about victories it didn't even win". She recalled George Orwell's words in Nineteen Eighty-Four about "the intoxication of power" and "the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever". She closed by saying, "I hate feeling this hatred. I have to keep reminding myself that if Bush hadn't been (so narrowly) elected, we wouldn't be here, and none of this would have happened. There is another America. Long live the other America, and may this one pass away soon".[11]


Drabble's early novels were published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1963–87), while the publishers of her later works were Penguin, Viking and Canongate, and a recurring theme is the correlation between contemporary England's society and its people. Most of her protagonists are women[12][13][14] and the realistic descriptions of her figures often derive from Drabble's personal experiences; thus, her first novels describe the life of young women during the 1960s and 1970s, for whom the conflict between motherhood and intellectual challenges is being brought into focus, while The Witch of Exmoor, published in 1996, shows the withdrawn existence of an elderly writer. As Hilary Mantel wrote in 1989: "Drabble's heroines have aged with her, becoming solid and sour, more prone to drink and swear; yet with each successive book their earnest, moral nature blossoms".[15] Her characters' tragic faults reflect their political and economic situation. Drabble wrote novels, she claimed in 2011, "to keep myself company".[16]

Her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, was published in 1963. She wrote it, she said, because she had just got married and "the children—I had one and was expecting another—and writing was such a convenient career to combine with having a family".[3] With it she found her "informal first-person narrative voice", which she said was an unexpected discovery.[16] She maintained this approach for her first three books, having "liberated myself from the neutral critical prose of the university essay", which she nevertheless admitted she had enjoyed writing.[16]

Her second novel The Garrick Year, published in 1964, drew upon her theatrical experience.[1] Her third novel, The Millstone, was published in 1965. About a woman with a baby, Drabble made her character unmarried so as to avoid having to write about marriage or the baby's father.[16] She used the personal experience of one of her own children's diagnosis with a lesion (a hole in the heart) to inform her writing on the illness she gave the child.[16] Indeed, Drabble herself wrote The Millstone whilst pregnant with her own child, that is, her third.[16] On the book's fiftieth anniversary in 2015, Tessa Hadley described it as "the seminal 60s feminist novel that Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook is always supposed to be".[17] Drabble admitted, years after writing The Millstone: "I didn't realise until many years later that some of the medical details I invented were way off the mark".[16]

Drabble's fourth novel, Jerusalem the Golden, was published in 1967. It is also about a woman, an English woman who, not unlike Drabble, is from the north of the country and is attending university in London.[1] Her fifth novel, The Waterfall, was published in 1969. It is experimental.[1] Drabble's sixth novel, The Needle's Eye, was published in 1972.[8] It is about an heiress who gives away her inheritance.[1] Her seventh novel The Realms of Gold, published in 1975, has a lady archaeologist as its central character.[1] Her eighth novel The Ice Age, published in 1977, is set in 1970s England and the social and economic conditions of that time.[1] Drabble's ninth novel The Middle Ground, published in 1980, has a lady journalist as its central character.[1] Margaret Forster, normally one of her kinder reviewers, called The Middle Ground "not a novel but a sociological treatise".[15]

Her eleventh novel, titled A Natural Curiosity, published in 1989, continues the story of characters from her tenth novel, titled The Radiant Way, which was published in 1987. Drabble apologised to her readers in a preface to A Natural Curiosity and said a sequel had been unintended.[18] Her thirteenth novel The Witch of Exmoor, published in 1996, treats of contemporary Britain.[1] Drabble's fourteenth novel The Peppered Moth, published in 2001, treats of a young girl growing up in a mining town in South Yorkshire and spans four generations of her family.[1] Her fifteenth novel The Seven Sisters, published in 2002, is about a woman whose marriage has collapsed and off she goes to Italy.[1] The Observer referred to part of her sixteeth novel, The Red Queen (published in 2004), as "psychodrabble", noting her claim in the book's preface that she is seeking "universal transcultural human characteristics".[19] Ursula K. Le Guin compared Drabble's seventeenth novel, The Sea Lady (published in 2006), favourably with her earlier book The Needle's Eye.[20] In 2009, Drabble announced she would cease to write fiction, for fear of "repeating herself".[21] The same year, she published her memoir The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws.[1]

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, a collection of the 14 short stories that Drabble published between 1966 and 2000, appeared in 2011.[22][23] Drabble's other writing includes several screenplays, plays and short stories, as well as non-fiction such as A Writer's Britain: Landscape and Literature and biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson.[8] Her critical works include studies of William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy. She edited two editions of The Oxford Companion to English Literature in 1985 and 2000.[8]

Drabble served as chairman of the National Book League (now Booktrust) from 1980 until 1982.[1]

Awards and honours[edit]

Drabble was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in Elizabeth II's 1980 Birthday Honours,[24] and was promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2008 Birthday Honours.[1][25]



Short fiction[edit]


As editor[edit]

Critical studies and reviews of Drabble's work[edit]

  • Rubenstein, Roberta (Spring 1994). "Fragmented bodies/selves/narratives: Margaret Drabble's postmodern turn". Contemporary Literature. University of Wisconsin Press. 35 (1): 136–155. doi:10.2307/1208739. JSTOR 1208739. (20 pages)[34]
  • Glenda Leeming. Margaret Drabble (Liverpool University Press; 2004, 2020) ISBN 9781786946546

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab "Margaret Drabble". British Council: Literature. Retrieved 25 October 2022.
  2. ^ a b Drabble, Margaret (20 April 2010). "Art Thou Contented, Jew? The British novelist on England, the Jews, and anti-Semitism today". Tablet.
  3. ^ a b c d Milton, Barbara (Fall–Winter 1978). "Margaret Drabble, The Art of Fiction No. 70". The Paris Review. Fall-Winter 1978 (74).
  4. ^ Drabble, Margaret (11 September 2020). "As Diana Rigg's understudy, I never tired of watching her — she was splendid". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  5. ^ Allardice, Lisa (17 June 2011). "A life in writing: Margaret Drabble". The Guardian.
  6. ^ Johnson, Andrew (19 May 2011). "Feature: Interview — Margaret Drabble talks to Andrew Johnson". Islington Tribune. Archived from the original on 12 November 2016.
  7. ^ Silgardo, Melanie (25 April 2017). "Rebecca Swift obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 May 2017.
  8. ^ a b c d Stevenson, Randall (2004). The Oxford English Literary History: Volume 12: The Last of England. Oxford University Press. p. 541. ISBN 978-0-19-158884-6.
  9. ^ "Why Margaret Drabble is not A. S. Byatt's cup of tea". The Daily Telegraph. 27 March 2009.
  10. ^ Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 16 June 1991.
  11. ^ Drabble, Margaret (8 May 2003). "I loathe America, and what it has done to the rest of the world". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 28 April 2011.
  12. ^ "Margaret Drabble's reams of gall: the feminist writer who dislikes women" (PDF). 1991.
  13. ^ Jones, Kate (16 January 2017). "'Smiling Women: An Exploration Of Margaret Drabble's Short Stories'". TSS Publishing.
  14. ^ Cuevas, I. M. A. (January 2017). "'The sap began to flow': Nature and the quest for the female self in margaret drabble's [short story] 'the merry widow'". Through her invariably female protagonists, Margaret Drabble frequently imprints her narratives with the concerns of women from very different contexts and at various stages in their lives in their quest for identity.
  15. ^ a b Mantel, Hilary (23 November 1989). "England, Whose England?". The New York Review of Books.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g Drabble, Margaret (19 March 2011). "The Millstone by Margaret Drabble". The Guardian.
  17. ^ Hadley, Tessa (15 May 2015). "The Millstone – the crucial 1960s feminist novel". The Guardian.
  18. ^ Lee, Hermione (24 September 1989). "Psychoanalyzing Britain: A NATURAL CURIOSITY by Margaret Drabble (Viking: $19.95; 309 pp.)". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 23 March 2016.
  19. ^ Jays, David (21 August 2004). "Seoul destroying". The Observer. ISSN 0261-3077.
  20. ^ Le Guin, Ursula K. (22 July 2006). "Mermaid on Dry Land". The Guardian.
  21. ^ Wolitzer, Meg (2 October 2013). "Margaret Drabble Spins A Mother-Daughter Yarn Into 'Gold'". NPR.
  22. ^ Tripney, Natasha (14 April 2013). "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: The Collected Stories by Margaret Drabble — review". The Guardian. This collection of 14 stories, assembled by the Spanish academic José Francisco Fernández, spans four decades of Margaret Drabble's writing career, from 1966 to 2000.
  23. ^ Showalter, Elaine (30 June 2011). "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble — review". The Guardian.
  24. ^ "No. 48212". The London Gazette (Supplement). 13 June 1980. p. 8.
  25. ^ "No. 58729". The London Gazette (Supplement). 14 June 2008. p. 6.
  26. ^ "The Mail on Sunday/John Llewllyn Rhys Prize". Archived from the original on 4 December 2005. Retrieved 9 July 2009.
  27. ^ "Previous winners". James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Retrieved 26 August 2013.
  28. ^ "Website of St. Louis Literary Award". Archived from the original on 23 August 2016. Retrieved 25 July 2016.
  29. ^ "Saint Louis University Library Associates Announce Winner of 2003 Literary Award". Saint Louis University Library Associates. Retrieved 25 July 2016.
  30. ^ "Honorary Degrees 2006". University of Cambridge. 3 July 2006.
  31. ^ "Golden Pen Award, official website". English PEN. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  32. ^ Page, Benedicte (1 December 2011). "Drabble wins Golden PEN". The Bookseller. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  33. ^ "The Gifts of War".
  34. ^ Rubenstein, Roberta (Spring 1994). "Fragmented Bodies/Selves/Narratives: Margaret Drabble's Postmodern Turn". Contemporary Literature. University of Wisconsin Press. 35 (1): 136–155. doi:10.2307/1208739. JSTOR 1208739.

External links[edit]