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May 21, 2020

A Summer Birdcage, by Margaret Drabble

I started reading Margaret Drabble in 2004 when I bought The Radiant Way from a used bookstore in Kobe, and I don’t remember why I picked up the book, or if I’d known anything about Margaret Drabble before I did, but I became obsessed with that novel, and the wonderful thing about reading Margaret Drabble in 2004 (even in Japan) was that she had 14 other books I could read after that, many of them readily available in tattered paperback. And so I read them, mostly her 1970s’ novels, which I also loved, but which have blended together, stories of single mothers in London, stories that led directly to The Radiant Way where Drabble’s vision moved from the individual to society, which was pressing in the age of Margaret Thatcher, no matter what Margaret Thatcher thought.

The 1970s novels are fat and the books only got fatter (the final book in The Radiant Way trilogy is huge, and Drabble’s vision has expanded so much more that it’s all about Cambodia now). I was not able to read the more recent books (1990s on…) until I’d returned to Canada, and so most of my later Drabbles are not weirdly stained paperbacks, and I’m a little bit sorry about that.

Her 1960s books, however, compared with the next decade’s, are slim, with those distinctive orange Penguin spines (and many of their covers, oddly, feature Drabble’s own face, which is weird for a novel—but more about that in a moment) and they were never my favourite. Some of those reads that were blessedly short, but I don’t recall enjoying them. They didn’t resonate, and the theory I came up with about that was that they were very fashionable and of their time…which meant they were certainly not timeless.

And so when I decided that I was going to reread all the fiction Margaret Drabble had ever published (what better way to measure out these days, I guess?), her earliest books were what I was most intrigued about, the gap in my Drabble knowledge most need of filling. And, blessedly, they were short, at least.

So I started (naturally) with her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, published in 1963, a book whose only detail I could recall was that there was a whole lot about coming down from and going up to Oxford, which I always found confusing. And what I realized upon rereading it again was that a) it still wasn’t really my cup of tea but also b) its use of words I kept having to look up in the dictionary had perhaps kept me from understanding that this book was meant to be relatable.

A young woman, Sarah, just out of school (down from Oxford, natch) who has come back from a sojourn in Paris to be a bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding, her sister who is marrying the celebrated novelist Stephen Halifax, and no one really can understand why. Sarah has a boyfriend herself, but he’s away studying in America, and she meets with friends who’d married just out of school, and it’s all gone a bit wrong, Bohemian husbands expecting wives to cook them dinner on a nonexistent grocery budget. 1963: it was such a long time ago. This was even before the Beatles.

But also this story of being single in the city, weddings and bridesmaids: this is chick-lit, Bridget Jones diary, I wrote in a DM to a friend, and I didn’t mean it in a bad way. But I felt guilty too, because this novel is bending over backward to be exceedingly literary, which is partly why it’s so annoying—it never just out and says what it means, instead gestures vaguely, and I had a hard time discerning the point. Whereas the parts that were supposed to be obscure (whatever was going on between the bride and the best man) was obvious at the outset.

What would young Margaret Drabble think—aged twenty four, and married “since 1960,” it reads, curiously, in her author bio—about the comparison to Helen Fielding?

And here I return to the books with Drabble’s not exactly glamorous face on the cover—I think she was a famous young thing, married to her actor husband, and her personality was very much used to market these books, the same way that women authors complain of today. So we’re really not so apart from Bridget et. al after all…

And now I’m doing it too, reading fiction as biography, when I decide the key to the thing is the line where Sarah confesses, “Beyond anything I’d like to write a funny book. I’d like to write a book like Kingsley Amis, I’d like to write a book like Lucky Jim. I’d give the world to be able to write a book like that.”

But Lucky Jim, if Jim were a woman, would be decidedly chick-lit, slight and commercial, and I’ve always thought that—so my comparison to Bridget feels justified. Moreover the mention of Amis suggests that young Ms. Drabble is writing in the shadow of fashionable male authors, instead of firmly in her own vision, which would explain why this book is just slightly out of focus, doesn’t land perfectly, the way her later books do when Drabble isn’t trying to write like anyone but herself.

And I think this book actually is funny, but the humour doesn’t land right either, because of the way she so particularly captures a moment—between the 1950s and the 1960s, with the advent of feminism—that really was only a moment, before a cultural revolution came along and reshaped the landscape, in a way that Drabble would document in her later novels. So that what she captured here is hard for me to understand so many years after the fact, plus, yes, she is also writing about a very specific social milieu, and maybe she nailed it, but all these years later it’s hard to tell.

2 thoughts on “A Summer Birdcage, by Margaret Drabble”

  1. This was the first of her books that I read too, back in university (for an independent project, of course she was never assigned reading here!), and I think very fondly of it, as my introduction to her work. I’m not sure what I would think on rereading, but I did reread The Radiant Way a couple of years ago and loved it even more than I did for the first time. This current situation has me rereading too, but Shields, not Drabble. Rereading rocks in general, but now more than ever. I’m curious to see what you’ll think of another Drabble reread!

    1. Kerry says:

      I am really excited for the books ahead. And have only EVER found my Shields rereads extremely rewarding. Her books are so full of riches!

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