My first encounter with Margaret Drabble occurred in a British Women Writer’s class at Rowan University and again in graduate school. We read a few of her novels as well as several by her sister, A.S. Byatt. A rift developed between the two sisters, because of biographical elements in their books. They do not read each other’s novels. Drabble describes the situation as “normal sibling rivalry,” Byatt says the rift has been exaggerated by gossip. She claims the sisters have always liked each other (Wikipedia). Drabble has written 19 novels, and Byatt has authored 11 novels, 5 short story collections, and 7 miscellaneous works of non-fiction. Working through all these books will eat up a lot of my retirement. Drabble has also written a number of short stories. I never knew she wrote short fiction until now.
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman claims to include her complete short stories. An introduction to the collection by José Francisco Fernández says, these “are fine examples of well-made stories: neatly constructed, carefully contextualized, focused, unified in tone, elegantly climactic, at times tinged with the seriousness of a moral dilemma” (ix). I loved these stories, and it is one of those exceedingly rare books that provoked me into a second reading beginning the moment I finished the first read. Four of the stories are, writes Fernández, “representative cases of the woman who has to divide her time between her duties at home and the demands of a job […] a husband and children” (xii).
The later stories, “The Merry Widow,” “The Dower House at Kellynch: A Somerset Romance,” The Caves of God,” and “Stepping Westward: A Topographical Tale” all describe woman later in their lives when they are free of a husband, family, and work. As I said, I loved them all, but these four were undoubtedly my favorites—a “best of the best” if you will. I also credit these four stories as my impetus for an immediate rereading.
In the first of this “final four,” stories, “Merry Widow,” Drabble writes, “When Philip died, his friends and colleagues assumed that Elsa would cancel the holiday. Elsa knew this would be their assumption. But she had no intention of canceling. She was determined upon the holiday. During Philip’s unexpectedly sudden last hours, and in the succeeding weeks of funeral and condolence and letters from banks and solicitors, it began to take an increasingly powerful hold upon her imagination. If she were honest with herself, which she tried to be, she had not been looking forward to the holiday while Philip was alive: it would have been yet another dutifully endured, frustrating, saddening attempt at reviving past pleasures, overshadowed by Philip’s increasing ill-health and ill-temper. But without Philip, the prospect brightened” (151). I hope this tidbit will draw you to either--or both--of these exceptionally talented women.
All of the works of these two amazing women writers are interesting and powerful stories. I have read a few of the novels by each woman, and finishing them off will be a large part of my sunset days. If you want to lose yourself in reading of the lives of these women in the late 20th and early 21st century, you could not find a better start than Margaret Drabbles A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. 5 Stars