Drabble's 'Moth': more than a story

April 01, 2001|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

"The Peppered Moth," by Margaret Drabble. Harcourt. 369 pages. $25.

This is the setting in which I read Margaret Drabble's latest novel, "The Peppered Moth": a month containing more than a dozen family birthdays, including my own; an entire weekend of four-generational family celebrations; a full day's dark sleet, scheduled to bloom any minute into a spring blizzard; a return bout with the winter's world-championship-level flu; the movie "Back to the Future" mouthing from a muted cable TV channel.

A more perfect context would be hard to imagine. "The Peppered Moth" tells the story -- brilliantly though claustrophobically, as is Drabble's wont -- of four generations of women, many of them sickly, whose DNA has gotten isolated and trapped in a grimy South Yorkshire mining village from the dawn of pre-history to the present, and is now being studied in a human genome project.

The lives of women representing the four generations -- Eva, Bessie and her sister Dora, Chrissie and finally Faro -- suggest that determinism prevails, Darwin-style. Neither the biological solution (mating outside the group), the social solution (education as a ticket out of one's class) nor the geographical solution (leaving the environment) seems to work as a means of freeing these women of their inheritance: the early bloomer's early loss of physical appeal; hypochondria; inability to go all the way with partial successes; insistence on living out the consequences of terrible decisions; a dangerous homing instinct.

On the other hand, mutation -- the random accident -- proves more effective. Chrissie, for example, the book's first hopeful character, goes into archaeology -- a study that helps free her from her personal heritage -- only because, while in thrall to her overactive teen-age sex glands, she fecklessly signed up for the wrong set of university admissions exams.

Critics tended to view Drabble's early novels, back a few decades when her work first began to be noticed, through cool prisms of modernism and feminism. Most of them found the books wanting: too conventional in narrative technique and too often inhabited by women who put up with restrictions. That her offbeat, resourceful heroines were grappling with problems like earning a living as single parents while educating themselves out of dead-ends was certainly a reason for Drabble's great popularity with female readers, but that popularity stamped her a "middle-brow," a writer of (shudder) "women's novels."

"The Peppered Moth" should make such critics happier. It loops late-Edwardian past action with 21st century plot projections in an intricately crocheted web. It flirts with the reader stylistically in a manner which is distinctly post-modern -- though also a bit like that loopy 18th century novel "Tristram Shandy." The reader is lured to the center of the web, where the present-day events seem to lie knotted -- but the reader is tricked. The secret heart of the book is not revealed in the book at all, but in a startling afterword from Drabble speaking as herself.

Of these three pages, I shall say only these three things: first, that the book was never really about Eva, Bessie, Dora, Chrissie or Faro; second, that the author's habit of asking questions about her characters rather than making statements about them becomes instantly understandable; and finally, that the comforting notion of its all being 'just a story' unravels utterly.

Clarinda Harriss, chair of the Towson University English Department, has published three collections of poetry. Her work appears in many U.S. magazines. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books Inc., Maryland's oldest continuously publishing small press.

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