Six Questions — October 7, 2013, 8:00 am

The Pure Gold Baby

Dame Margaret Drabble on the essayistic voice in fiction and North London anthropology

Margaret Drabble. Photograph © Ruth Corney

Margaret Drabble. Photograph © Ruth Corney

Dame Margaret Drabble is an institution — the editor of the fifth and sixth editions of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, and the author of eighteen novels, several works of non-fiction (including studies of Arnold Bennett, Thomas Hardy, Angus Wilson, and William Wordsworth), and a collection of short stories. Her most recent novel, The Pure Gold Baby, out this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and excerpted in the October issue of Harper’s Magazine, follows Jessica Speight, an anthropology student who, after an affair with an older, married professor, gives birth to a daughter, Anna — a beautiful, happy girl with severe learning difficulties, who will remain, in a sense, a child all her life. The Pure Gold Baby is a closely observed group portrait of female friends, a patient insight into the joys and pains of motherhood, and an image of how society has changed and how it has not. I wrote to Dame Drabble with six questions.

1. How did The Pure Gold Baby take shape in your mind?

[1] “Split Hand Split Foot” or ectrodactyly is a rare congenital disorder involving the absence of one or more of the central digits of the hand or foot. 

I saw the SHSF[1] children (if that’s what they really were) in Zambia, in the marshes of Lake Bangweulu, I think in 1986, when I was researching a journalistic piece. They haunted me, and all of us who were in the group that saw them. They seemed an image of something important, but I didn’t know what. Independence and difference, self-sufficiency and vulnerability — all mixed up together.

The novel began with that image, of the children, and with the character of Anna, and with the nature of maternal love. Are some of us naturally maternal, others not? I don’t know. I have a good friend who, like me, has three children, and she thinks loving one’s children is the natural default position, but that it doesn’t happen for everyone — she has worked with some very difficult children and adults in her career.

The novel evolved; it hasn’t really got a structure. I just left all (or most) of the essay reflections in, filtered through Jess’s consciousness, wondering if my publishers would tell me to take them out again.  I wrote it over a long period. The narrative problem lies with the fact that Anna doesn’t develop or change. She lives in the present. So a conventional plot wasn’t going to work anyway.

2. The novel’s essayistic reflections include passages on the treatment of mental disability and mental illness through history, on changing styles of parenting, on anthropology and exploration, on art and literature. What kind of research did you conduct for the novel, and how did it change the book?

I’ve always been interested in both anthropology and mental disability, encouraged by a college friend who studied archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge. We used to talk a good deal about her studies as well as mine, and on holidays together, with our small children, we would explore sites and talk about prehistory. When I began to think of writing the novel I read widely round the subjects, in the British Library and in the Wellcome Library in London. I also visited one or two institutions that cared for children with learning disabilities. I had a friend (dead now) who was happiest when in the avant-garde NHS Mental Health Unit described in the novel. I also had an au pair girl, a very nice young woman, who had been in Kingsley Hall during the R. D. Laing period, and I met her friend Mary Barnes.  Mental-health issues were very much in the air in the 1960s and 1970s, not only among professionals.

The treatment of mental disability in fiction is a subject in itself. Charlotte Brontë thought nothing of referring to a child as a “cretin,” a word we wouldn’t use now, though it was as she used it technically correct. I find the subject of the political correctness in language very interesting, and also very important.

I don’t know why I’ve always been so interested in Livingstone’s mission in Africa, but have twice walked in his footsteps. All these themes came together very, very slowly.

3. In several of your early novels, female protagonists balance the demands of family with ambitious careers, romantic lives, and travel. This novel presents a more sober portrait of women’s lives and, in particular, of parenting. Why do you think you felt compelled to write a story of constraint and consequence, rather than of freedom and adventure?

The answer to this very pertinent reflection and query lies in the fact that I am aging, and now that I am old I am more and more aware of the sadnesses of things that didn’t happen, of things that went wrong. We all live under constraints, and at the end of life we look back at them and wonder how they have shaped our destinies. Several of my close friends have died, or are gravely ill, which is in the way of things, and must be accepted or confronted. I do still travel, and enjoy travel, but for obvious reasons no longer have that sense of boundless hope and expectation. So yes, I think this novel is more sombre, more reflective, more backward looking. But that’s not surprising. 

[2] Joshua is the son of one of Jessica’s best friends in the novel, who serves time in prison.

Some of the more sombre tone about children and parenting may come from my acceptance that nature is as powerful as nurture. This is clearly so in the case of Anna, but much more widely true than we used to believe. There are some things that just cannot be helped — like the tragic fate of the little boy who went into the lion’s cage. I still believe in what we might call progressive parenting — allowing children choice and freedom, letting them play in the street, not pushing them toward success or career choice. Many of today’s children are over-protected, and their parents over-anxious and over-ambitious for them. Or so it seems to me. Each generation has its own habits, its own attitudes. We (or the group that I describe here) were sexually tolerant but financially scrupulous. Young Joshua[2] is probably now doing very well in the City.

4. To what extent do you think of yourself as a “North London anthropologist,” as Anna Speight calls herself?

From The Pure Gold Baby:

The children appear to us on that journey through Sussex, our own children, not the poor stranger children of Jess’s catalogue, or the children of the lake, but our own North London children, whose stories are not yet finished, whose stories no proleptic twist of plot can pre-empt. The spirit trembles before the leap of prophecy, of guesswork, of staring into futurity.

I do know North London and its manners very well. Two of my children still live there. I think North London has changed in very interesting ways, and perhaps its self-awareness makes it even more interesting. I’ve often been accused of writing “Hampstead novels,” and it’s true that I lived happily in Hampstead for many years, but in fact I haven’t set much of my fiction there, and this novel is more a Highbury/Finsbury Park novel. As was The Needle’s Eye. 

I think many novelists are in part anthropologists — writers as diverse as Edith Wharton and Saul Bellow, for example. They study society as well as the individual. I have always been intrigued by social change, by the rise and fall of neighbourhoods, by the evolution of place as well as of people. I walk around observing, making notes, eavesdropping. I love public transport. You learn a great deal about social groupings and behaviour on the buses, tubes and trains. You can be anonymous, yet submerged in what is happening.

5. The narrator of The Pure Gold Baby tells the reader that she hasn’t “the right” to tell the story of her own family, and worries about betraying Jessica and Anna Speight. Have you ever felt that you hadn’t the right to tell a story?

Yes, of course, I worry a great deal about the right to use material from other people’s lives, and when it seems appropriate, I ask permission. There are many stories I shall never tell, because they would invade the lives of others. I think I am more scrupulous about this than some writers, but most writers do worry very much about these issues. The story of Anna raised particular problems, as Anna and those like Anna cannot read, but I think she would not object to having her story told. I’ve known several families with children with learning difficulties, and used them as touchstones for my descriptions of Anna’s education, her capacities, her likely responses in given situations. I don’t think I could have written about her without first-hand knowledge. Her goodness and unselfishness are drawn from life.

I’ve generally found that it’s easier to be truthful in memoir about easy relationships, easier to be truthful in fiction about hard ones.  I know I wrote the memoir while my husband was very ill and I was trying to keep calm. The constraints of writing memoir are very obvious, of writing fiction much less so. Fiction is more painful and more difficult, more open-ended, more frightening. My memoir project was very limited and left out a great deal, very deliberately.

6. After writing your memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet, you told interviewers you were finished with writing fiction. Why did you change your mind?

I changed my mind, I think, because when my husband recovered and returned more or less to normal I began to feel underemployed. I tried to find a non-fiction project that would occupy me, but failed to find anything compelling. But writing The Pure Gold Baby was very slow and uncertain; it took me years, much longer than any other book I’ve worked on. Maybe that’s just the slowness of age. I don’t feel a sense of urgency about the next project, as I used to do. I’ve written a good deal, over the years, and don’t feel the need or the pressure to continue. I am more interested in enjoying (while I still can) walking, exploring, looking around me. I no longer feel the need to turn everything I see into words.

Share
Single Page

More from Emily Stokes:

Conversation October 24, 2013, 8:00 am

Darling: A Conversation with Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez on the essay as biography of an idea, the relationship between gay men’s liberation and women’s liberation, and the writerly impulse to give away secrets

Weekly Review April 2, 2012, 5:47 pm

Weekly Review

Weekly Review January 10, 2012, 12:00 am

Weekly Review

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Men at Work·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“You’re being reborn,” the voice says. “Exiting the womb of your mother. Coming into the earth as a small baby. Everything is new.” It is a Saturday morning in mid-March, and right now I’m lying on a yoga mat in a lodge in Ohio, surrounded by fifty other men who’ve come to the Midwest for a weekend of manhood-confirming adventures. The voice in question belongs to Aaron Blaine, a facilitator for Evryman, the men’s group orchestrating this three-day retreat. All around me, men are shedding tears as Blaine leads us on a guided meditation, a kind of archetypal montage of Norman Rockwell boyhood. “You’re starting to figure things out,” he says, in somniferous baritone. “Snow, for the first time. Sunshine. Start to notice the smells, the tastes, the confusion. The fear. And you’re growing. You’re about ten years old. The world’s huge and scary.”

Even though it’s only the second day of the Evryman retreat, it’s worth noting that I’ve already been the subject of light fraternal teasing. Already I’ve been the recipient of countless unsought hugs. Already I have sat in Large Groups and Small Groups, and watched dozens of middle-aged men weep with shame and contrition. I’ve had a guy in the military tell me he wants to be “a rock for his family.” I’ve heard a guy from Ohio say that his beard “means something.” Twice I’ve hiked through the woods to “reconnect with Mother Nature,” and I have been addressed by numerous men as both “dude” and “brother.” I have performed yoga and yard drills and morning calisthenics. I’ve heard seven different men play acoustic guitar. I’ve heard a man describe his father by saying, “There wasn’t a lot of ball-tossing when I was growing up.” Three times I’ve been queried about how I’m “processing everything,” and at the urinal on Friday night, two men warned me about the upcoming “Anger Ceremony,” which is rumored to be the weekend’s “pièce de résistance.”

Article
To Serve Is to Rule·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The WASP story is personal for me. I arrived at Yale in 1971 from a thoroughly mediocre suburb in New Jersey, the second-generation hybrid of Irish and Italian stock riding the postwar boom. Those sockless people in Top-Siders, whose ancestors’ names and portraits adorned the walls, were entirely new to me. I made friends with some, but I was not free of a corrosive envy of their habitus of ease and entitlement.

I used to visit one of those friends in the Hamptons, in the 1970s, when the area was about wood-paneled Ford station wagons, not Lamborghinis. There was some money in the family, but not gobs, yet they lived two blocks from the beach—prime real estate. Now, down the road from what used to be their house is the residence of Ira Rennert. It’s one of the largest private homes in the United States. The union-busting, pension-fund-looting Rennert, whose wealth comes from, among other things, chemical companies that are some of the worst polluters in the country, made his first money in the 1980s as a cog in Michael Milken’s junk-bond machine. In 2015, a court ordered him to return $215 million he had appropriated from one of his companies to pay for the house. One-hundred-car garages and twenty-one (or maybe twenty-nine) bedrooms don’t come cheap.

Article
The Bird Angle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I slept for a good seven hours on the overnight flight from Spain to Peru, and while I slept I dreamed that I was leading American visitors around a park in Berlin, looking for birds on a hazy, overcast day. There wasn’t much to see until we noticed a distant commotion in the sky. Large raptors were panicking, driven back and forth by something threatening them from above. The commotion moved closer. The clouds parted, an oval aperture backed with blue. In it two seraphim hovered motionless. “Those are angels,” I told the group.

They were between us and the sun, but an easy ­I.D. Size aside, no other European bird has two sets of wings. The upper wings cast their faces into shadow. Despite the glare I could make out their striking peaches-­and-­cream coloration. Ivory white predominates, hair a faint yellow, eyes blue, wings indescribably iridescent. Faces blank and expressionless, as with all birds.

Article
The K-12 Takeover·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last May, the families of students at Cypress Academy, an independent charter school in New Orleans, received an email announcing that the school would close when classes ended the following week and that all its students would be transferred to another nearby charter for the upcoming year. Parents would have the option of entering their children in the city’s charter-enrollment lottery, but the lottery’s first round had already taken place, and the most desirable spots for the fall were filled.

Founded in 2015, a decade after New Orleans became the nation’s first city to begin replacing all its public schools with charters, Cypress was something of a rarity. Like about nine in ten of the city’s charter schools, it filled spaces by lottery rather than by selective admission. But while most of the nonselective schools in New Orleans had majority populations of low-income African-American students, Cypress mirrored the city’s demographics, drawing the children of professionals—African-American and white alike—as well as poorer students. Cypress reserved 20 percent of its seats for children with reading difficulties, and it offered a progressive education model, including “learning by doing,” rather than the strict conduct codes that dominated the city’s nonselective schools. In just three years, the school had outperformed many established charters—a particular feat given that one in four Cypress students had a disability, double the New Orleans average. Families flocked to Cypress, especially ones with children who had disabilities.

Article
Five Stories·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

how high? that high

He had his stick that was used mostly to point at your head if your head wasn’t held up proudly.

I still like that man—Holger! He had been an orphan!

He came up to me once because there was something about how I was moving my feet that wasn’t according to the regulations or his expectations.

The room was a short wide room with a short wide window with plenty of artificial light.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Sebastian Gorka, the former deputy assistant to the president who now hosts a radio show called America First, was banned from YouTube for repeatedly uploading audio from the rock band Imagine Dragons without copyright permission.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today