Thursday, May 7, 2009

Origins expressed or silenced, hopes realized or buried (Books - The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble)

Along with the theme of origins in Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth that I mentioned in my first post - how our makeup, both biographical and genetic, influences what we become - is the flip side of that question, that is - can we escape? That seems very much the question for Bessie Bawtry as she grows up a Yorkshire mining town lass who qualifies for Cambridge. Now that I am halfway through, I have grown comfortable with Drabble's regular and sure prose that focuses very much on the inner life of her characters.
Bessie was depressed. She was sinking. Her body felt limp. Her mind felt limp, yet at the same time curiously overactive, with a detached hot invisible motion of its own, as though it were not really she herself who lay there. It was not Bessie Bawtry, late of Breaseborough Secondary and recently accepted at university, who lay there, in this small bedroom, in this small corner house. It was some simulacrum, some chrysalis, some meaningless waxy body contained, in which a new form of life was trying to hatch. Poor Bessie, we have been too hard on her. Our tone has been harsh and pitiless. It is the tone she taught us, it is true, but we must try to unlearn it, we must try to see her as she was, suffering, longing, vulnerable, unformed. How is she to know how to manage these hot flushes of grief, these night sweats and terror, these humiliations and tribulations? She reads for solace, for enlightenment, for escape, for a sight of the next rung upwards on the ladder, for the next gleam of light ahead that might lead her from the prison of her cavemind...But those other books, books that had seemed to lead her out into the bright air from the darkness of soot and gravecloths, they now confuse and alarm her. How can she cope with this rich world of words and language and light? She is a weak little grub. How could she have thought she could ever take part in the butterfly display of the educated world?

She lay still, in turmoil. A seething, a pregnant brewing, a splitting, a proliferation of particles. Is it as sickness, is it a fermentation, is it a couching, and what will it bring forth? Is it a growing or a dying?
On the one hand the old fashioned, omniscient narrator who speaks directly to the reader, who asks us to look down at the scene from a distance - to observe our heroine, to consider her state, to form an opinion about it. On the other this steady effusion of words that bubbles like a running brook and then occasionally cracks a smile "Poor Bessie, we have been too hard on her," and then without warning, surprisingly bursts into song.
The atmosphere of cloistered commitment suited Bessie Bawtry. It helped to distance and to neutralize the painful memory of the misconceived fun of Highcross House, fun which she had found so unfunny and so exclusive. She was not left out of things here. She was not besieged here by the threat of the strain of do-wacka-doo, oogie-oogie-wah-wah, hello Swanne, Ukelele Lady, and such rubbish. She did not have to try to shimmy like her sister Kate, or get to know Susie like we knew Susie, or imitate the vamp of Savannah, hard-hearted Hannah. Some of the young women knew some of the songs of the day, but their familiarity with them did not bring them much cachet.
I find this passage kind of odd, even given Drabble's love of play in language. It is as if she had a Tourrettic tic. There is plenty of expressiveness in the language of other paragraphs, but this sticks out as unnatural. Reading it was like watching my high school librarian dance to rock 'n' roll at a party, it's almost a little embarrassing. Aside from periodic losses of character, I am enjoying the progress of the story. Perhaps enjoying is not quite right - I am taken with Bessie and her progeny. What the attempt to escape yielded ten years down the line, twenty, a generation later, two. Whether we look through the lens of science with our knowledge of genes and inheritance or with a novelistic lens at the intertwining of events and motivations that are the life of a character, Drabble has taken the themes of how origins become expressed or silenced, hopes realized or buried, promises met or forgotten and fashioned a complex and involving novel which I am very much enjoying.


lauren said...

This is an excellent review. I've found that very same stylistic tic in her other books!

Ted said...

Thanks, Lauren. Interesting to see what you have written at your site too.