Drabble's 'Witch': family eccentricity

September 07, 1997|By J. Bottum | J. Bottum,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Witch of Exmoor," by Margaret Drabble. Harcourt. 288 pages. $23.

England, George Orwell once observed, is more a family than a nation -- a wrangling, peevish family with crazy uncles locked in attics, poor cousins scrubbing floors and the worst siblings left in charge of the silver, but possessing nonetheless a family's shared feeling about right and wrong.

It shouldn't be much surprise, then, that Margaret Drabble casts as a family drama her latest novel, "The Witch of Exmoor," a fable about what the Victorians called the "Condition of England." The story of Frieda Palmer -- wealthy intellectual, aging radical and world-class eccentric -- as she battles her children, Drabble's tale falls squarely within an old literary tradition. From Thackeray to George Eliot to Trollope, 19th-century novelists routinely used family relations to comment on British society.

But things have changed since the Victorians, changed even since Orwell wrote in the 1940s. And, as Drabble sees it, the most significant change is the final breakup of that quarrelsome but still united family that was England -- a breakup she blames on Margaret Thatcher, or at least on what she considers an ugly, middle-class selfishness that made Mrs. Thatcher prime minister and left the Conservatives in power for more than a decade.

The novel's heroine, Frieda, seems always to have despised her children, their jobs, their spouses, their eating habits and their stuffy, complacent lives. But only now in old age has she decided to desert them and their modern England: abandoning her car in a traffic jam, selling the family house and taking up reclusive residence in a semi-ruin overlooking the sea. There, recovering from her last book's bad reviews, Frieda gradually learns to accept both the brokenness of England and her own apartness -- as a feminist icon of self-sufficiency, the last of the true British eccentrics, and the "witch" of the book's title.

"The Witch of Exmoor" has its telling moments, but the children are such cardboard hypocrites -- suffering through a variety of misfortunes caused, in Drabble's caustic view, entirely by the middle-class life they embrace -- that they seem worthy neither of Frieda's full-blooded scorn nor Drabble's literary skill. And the author's widely admired prose too seems graceless in her latest work, a jerky present-tense narration that quickly becomes exhausting: "In the kitchen, we find Patsy. ... She is tired, and Daniel too looks tired. She thinks he may drop dead from a heart attack. He works too hard. They both work too hard."

Publishing "A Summer Bird-Cage" in 1963 at age 24, Drabble found enormous success over the next 20 years with her novels about women. But her attempt to cover broader swaths of culture with a trilogy begun in the late 1980s was coldly received and she has since been in the uncomfortable position of watching her sister, A.S. Byatt, move from a much slower start as a novelist to much higher critical and popular acclaim.

"The Witch of Exmoor," Drabble's first novel in five years, received in England some pleasant notices from reviewers happy to celebrate who the author was. But the book does not provide her many fans sufficient occasion to celebrate who she is.

J. Bottum is associate editor of the journal First Things and the fiction critic for the Weekly Standard. He is a former professor of philosophy at Coppin State College and Loyola College.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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