Margaret Drabble was born in Sheffield in 1939 and educated at the Mound School, York, a Quaker boarding school.
She won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she achieved a double first in English. She published her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, in 1962. This was followed by other novels including The Garrick Year (1964), The Millstone (1966), The Needle’s Eye (1972), The Radiant Way (1987), The Witch of Exmoor (1996), The Peppered Moth (2001), The Seven Sisters (2002), The Red Queen (2004), The Sea Lady (2006) and The Pure Gold Baby (2013). She has also published biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson and was one time editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.
I interviewed her in February 2000.
For most writers childhood is a fertile ground, particularly, it seems, if it has been unhappy, as yours was by all accounts. Do you think the unhappy childhood, however clichéd, helps the creative process?
Yes. An unhappy childhood gives you a lot of material, and it’s much easier to remember unhappiness than happiness. Some writers have had very happy childhoods which give them a sort of golden time to write about, but for me personally it’s been very useful to have had a lot of grievances and miseries to look back on. They may be exaggerated in later life but they give you an argument with the world.
It is only comparatively recently that you have felt able to talk about your rather dark and troubled childhood that was tyrannized over by your depressive mother. Have you managed to lay the ghosts, would you say?
I’ve just finished a novel about my mother, and I found it really hard to write because she is a difficult memory. While she was alive I was always thinking two ways: that I must keep her happy and that I must try to keep things going. And it’s taken me all these years since she died in 1983 to come to terms with everything.
Do you miss her?
I don’t miss her at all. While I was writing the novel I thought about her a lot, on the whole quite miserably. But just occasionally I would have a dream in which she was happy and we were having a nice time. Then I really felt that I was redeeming things, but that happened very rarely. I miss my father, but that’s another matter.
Did your mother have any qualities that you admired?
Yes, she had many admirable qualities. For example, she was very honest, not about herself but about other people; she wasn’t a deceiving woman, and she was very proud of her children. But she also had this depressive, manipulative quality which made dealing with her extremely difficult. It was so hard for my father, and for all of us. She imposed her sense of what was wrong with the world on those around her, and it cast a big shadow.
How did your father cope with her?
He was always trying to placate her, to make life pleasant for her, but it was never enough and he never succeeded. They both came from very humble backgrounds, but he did well in the world, becoming a barrister and then a QC, and he was always so careful; to get good domestic help, but it was never quite enough for her. He took her on holidays but she always wanted a bigger or better holiday – she could never be satisfied. My theory is that it was because she had no career. She was a clever woman who had lived in the period when you didn’t do anything but look after your children, and I think she must have resented us very much. She never said she did, but I do think that if she had been born a bit later she would have had a better time.
Your childhood is generally packaged by journalists into a neat tale of sibling rivalry with your older sister Antonia Byatt. Is the truth more complex than the stuff of journalism?
Much more complex. There was rivalry in the sense that Antonia was very jealous when I was born, but that is an absolutely commonplace situation, the older child being jealous when the second is born. What the journalists never comment on is that I have another sister and a brother, so the situation extends beyond the two sisters who happen to be in the public eye. We were a family, and I think my sister, indeed both my sisters, would agree that the problems were with our mother and not with each other. My mother was a very ambitious woman for her children, and if we slipped a bit or didn’t get the top A grade, she was very critical. There was a sense of having to do the best all the time, which is very difficult with siblings, even when they’re close and supportive of one another. A competitive situation can be made worse by praising one child at the expense of another, and that certainly went on.
But was there a time in your life when you and Antonia had a warm relationship?
Oh yes, we were very close. As the younger sister, I adored Antonia. I thought she was wonderful and I used to listen to her as if hers was the voice of the Lord. We used to play amazingly complicated games, with my younger sister as well, and it was only when we grew older that we split. But that again is normal; children do grow apart when they get older.
The family feud theory is one that appeals to those interested in the private lives of authors, but how much of the so-called ‘rift’ between you is to do with family reserve and a way of coping with fame in the same field?
Coping with fame in the same field is certainly difficult. I think Antonia said at some point that she really wished that I had stayed being an actress because it would have been much more convenient for her, but unfortunately that’s not what I ended up doing. I wanted to be a novelist and so did she, and in those early years she saw us very much in competitive terms. However, being in the same field isn’t necessarily difficult for people. For example, my first husband was an actor and his brother also became an actor. There has been the occasional mix-up when they have been cast by mistake for each other – a potentially nightmare situation – but those two brothers are close and good to each other. I wish my sister and I could have been a bit more supportive rather than allowing ourselves to be set in opposite camps. It’s a pity. I do greatly admire my sister’s work and I am always very excited when she rings me up.
You say that you and your sister followed unquestioningly the pattern which your mother had mapped out for both. Were you aware of that at the time, or was this something that became apparent only in retrospect?
It became apparent in retrospect. At the time I was quite happy to go along with the programming. My mother wanted us all to go to Cambridge University, so all four of us went to Cambridge University. I now see I should have gone to Oxford, and if I had, then all might have been different. Antonia and I would have belonged to different worlds – she would have been a Cambridge writer and I’d have been an Oxford writer. But I wanted to please my mother because she was unhappy.
How did your younger sister and brother fit into the family situation? Were their lives also mapped out?
Yes, they were. My younger sister was also sent off to Cambridge, but she made the big decision after her first year to change from English literature (which my mother had read) to art history. It was very sensible and she became a very successful art historian. My brother had the advantage of being programmed by my father. He went to Downing, my father’s college, and he became a lawyer and later a QC. He also had the good luck to be at university in the 1960s when everybody was rebellious, so he had a slightly different experience of Cambridge from the rest of us. It has worked out fine for Richard, although he had a difficult time with my mother, being very much the youngest and isolated with her for years because of the family structure.
Why do you think that you, the second daughter, became your mother’s favourite? Did the fact that you seemed to have inherited her tendency to depression have anything to do with it?
That’s a very interesting question. I never thought of it that way, but it’s possible, yes. Both Antonia and I were quite highly strung. She was a delicate child, quite dangerously asthmatic as a little girl, and I was depressive with a bad stammer, so we both had problems. My mother’s line on my sister’s asthma was very unsympathetic. She was quite Yorkshire and she just said, well, you’ve got to learn to live with it. She was hard with both of us and I really don’t know why I became the favourite. Perhaps it was because I was more patient with her, whereas Antonia got really fed up. I paid her more attention, and that lasted until she died.
Have you tried to avoid having a favourite child of your own, and have you succeeded?
I have tried passionately not to have a favourite child, and I can honestly say that my favourite child alternates day by day. At times I feel my eldest is closest because he’s intellectual; then I think my daughter’s the closest; and then I think my youngest boy with his little children is my darling.
Your mother suffered very severely from depression, yet you say you were able to control yours and even to forget about being depressed. This does not sound like clinical depression – was it perhaps straightforward unhappiness with you?
It’s possible. It’s also possible that my mother wasn’t clinically depressed; she just had no outlet. When I was at Cambridge in the late 1950s the world was just opening up in the most thrilling way, not only for women but for young people generally, whereas when my mother was at Cambridge things were difficult. She couldn’t get a job, and so she was driven in on herself. I think I am depressive by nature, but I’m never manic. I just go through black patches when things don’t seem worth doing.
Do you agree with your mother that you suffered because of heightened awareness, or do you think it is to do with a chemical imbalance?
I really don’t know. I feel in my case it is something much more spiritual, a sort of melancholy that comes over me.
You attend the Mount School in York, a Quaker boarding school. Was it something of a relief to be sent away to boarding school, would you say?
Yes, I loved it, and I was very happy there most of the time. It was a good school and I had good friends there, one or two of whom I still see. There were things that I didn’t like about it, but by and large it suited me very well.
Why were you sent to a Quaker school?
Very complicated reasons. My parents were quite left-wing and didn’t want to send us to a snobbish girls’ school where you learned to be a lady, and also they quite liked the moral seriousness of the Quakers and the egalitarian idea of decent people together. They wanted the best of both worlds really.
You have described your father as ‘a very good man’. What does that mean in your terms?
He was kind, he was fair, he was generous, and he was sensitive to his children. He was a completely unpretentious man, he thought a great deal about social issues, he believed in a better world, and he was always worrying about other people. He was also a gentle man, too gentle perhaps.
Your criticism of your mother is understandable, but have you come to feel compassion for her, perhaps as you yourself have got older?
In a way I have always felt compassion. I have always believed that she had a bad deal, both historically and personally. But, yes, I think I now understand more what it was that she suffered from. The actual causes of her feeling so unhappy are clearer to me now than they were; but I always felt sorry for her, always.
How difficult has it been to avoid becoming your mother? Is that something you have consciously resisted?
I’ve tried to, but I now hear myself saying some of the things that she said. However, I honestly don’t think I impose my will on my children in the same way – maybe if anything I’ve gone too far the other way. I think I should have watched them a bit more closely at certain points and been a bit more pushy on their behalf.
You describe marriage at twenty-one as being ‘the only way to make one’s sex life acceptable to one’s parents’. Do you think the reasons for marriage nowadays are any more soundly based?
Yes, I think that people who choose to get married have thought quite seriously about why they want to enter into this state and what it means to them in terms of commitment. A lot of my generation married just to get away from home, but marriage now is much more of a choice than an escape hole.
Your first novel, you say, was the result of loneliness and joblessness. Do you believe that if you had an interesting job and felt completely fulfilled by marriage and motherhood that there might have been no novels?
It is perfectly possible. If I had found employment as an actress or if I had been perfectly happy and busy I might never have found time to write a book. My first husband and I were both in love with the theatre in those days. We actually met in an amateur production of an Ibsen play at Cambridge – he became a very good actor and I was not a bad actress. But there were far fewer parts for actresses; it was a much more difficult career than being an actor.
Your early novels are very strong on portraying the complexity of feelings accompanying motherhood, which is presented with all its conflicting demands and frustrations. And yet you say somewhere that motherhood for you has been ‘the greatest joy in the world’. Is this a feeling which came retrospectively, as it were, once the early experience of motherhood had been lived through?
No, I think I felt it all the time. I wasn’t very keen on being pregnant, it’s true, and I thought the whole thing was a big mistake, but as soon as I saw this little creature I was completely enraptured and have remained so ever since. Of course, there are difficulties, and my early novels were written to cater for a clientele of mothers who were having a terribly time, but even the mothers having a terrible time are also having a wonderful time. What I felt when I saw that first baby was always with me; it was always the most important thing. And this is true for the majority of women – it’s the most important experience of their lives.
The heroine of The Millstone describes the experience of pregnancy and motherhood and says at one point, ‘I am sure that my discoveries were common discoveries; if they were not, they would not be worth recording.’ Was that your own experience too, that the new things you discovered about yourself were part of something universal?
Yes, it was like suddenly being part of the human race. All the way through school and college, I had been pushed into some special position and told to be different. But suddenly there was this totally common bond.
Time and again in your novels there seems to be a concern with the most ordinary experiences in life…
Yes, I think extraordinary experiences are interesting, but ordinary experiences are what make us what we really are.
Is there a deliberate attempt on your part to ‘de-intellectualize’ the business of living, to demonstrate that the truth is all around us, not simply in the scholarly pursuits?
That is absolutely correct. It’s not that I don’t respect scholarship, it’s just that I feel a lot of what is very important is not understood by scholars, not accessible to them. I particularly value the common bonds rather than things that set people apart.
Your heroine in The Waterfall, Jane Grey, says at one point: ‘I could have turned myself into one of those mother women who ignore their husbands and live through their children. But with me, this did not happen; my ability to kiss and care for and feed and amuse a small child merely reinforced my sense of division – I felt split between the anxious intelligent woman and the healthy and efficient mother.’ How much do these words reflect your own experience of those days?
They certainly reflect a period in my life when I felt that my entire milieu was being used by children, and that the woman in me was not being allowed to speak at all. When you are a young mother there are a lot of conflicts; you can’t be sexually attractive, look after a baby, clean the house, and in my case write a book all at the same time. It’s less of a problem for women now than it used to be, because women are allowed more roles, more freedom than before.
Jane Grey is an example of what has been referred to as ‘the brains and breast dichotomy’ – this was presumably something you yourself experienced rather acutely. Do you think it was resolved satisfactorily in your case?
It was resolved, yes. I have had a perfectly satisfying intellectual life and a perfectly satisfying physical life, so I guess I have no complaints at all. I think I had the capacity to be a don, in which case I would probably have read a lot more books and been able to understand deconstruction and all the things that I find quite difficult intellectually; but I don’t regret not being a don, because I have had so many other things that I might not otherwise have had.
Do you believe that what can perhaps be articulated and resolved in fiction often remains inexplicable and unresolvable in life, and in oneself?
Yes. Quite often in fiction one is describing a dilemma that is a perpetual dilemma, and one invents characters who solve it and you can feel as a result that you’ve solved it in life, but in fact it comes bouncing back at you. The business of my mother is a case in point; through fiction you can make a shape out of it that satisfies you for a while; but you can’t really resolve it.
Doris Lessing, whom I know you admire, said, ‘There is no doubt that fiction makes a better job of the truth.’ Are you inclined to agree with her?
I know what she means, but on the other hand I am also quite interested in the truths that you can’t fit into fiction. I know Doris found her mother just as difficult as I found mine, and she eventually came to the conclusion that her mother had been driven mad by the First World War. That situation fuelled all her fiction, but it was only in writing her two volumes of memoirs that Doris discovered what her mother was really like. So there is fiction, but there is also fact, and it’s very strange when the fact seems to contradict the fictions that you’ve made out of it. It’s a very rich area and constant two-way process.
You are being described in your own Oxford Companion to English Literature as being associated with early feminism. Can you perhaps elaborate on what you understood by feminism then, and what it means to you today?
With early feminism it was a question of equal rights, educational opportunities, equal pay, access to the professions, and also, absolutely crucially, it was to do with nursery-school provision. When I had my babies there were no state nurseries at all. This is still a problem but at least we know that we are thinking about it. A lot of the issues to do with providing mothers with support are exactly the same, but the process of feminism is completely irreversible – I don’t think we will ever go back. Every now and then there’s a backlash and we are all told that it is very bad for mothers to go out to work in some ways, but we are never again going to see women staying at home in the way that my mother stayed at home. The future of feminism is making it happen for the benefit of everybody, for women, for children, and for men, so that they don’t feel pushed out of the side of the frame. When I was young, feminism was very much a sense of wanting to choose your own life and that has now happened to a large extent.
But do you think it is still a man’s world?
Not totally. It seems to me that young men, my sons and their age group, are very helpful in ways that husbands used not to be, so I think that women have much less to complain about. Women are taken into account much more than they used to be.
Do you dislike what Doris Lessing called ‘the shrill voice of feminism’?
[laughter] Doris has been very much got at by feminists who tell her that she ought to agree with everything they say, and being a very independent-minded woman, she doesn’t agree with everything they say. I myself certainly get very irritated with feminist literary critics who tell me how to write my books, so that particular kind of shrill voice I dislike very much.
There is a high degree of social comment in your novels, and a concern with moral problems. Do you think that writers have a moral responsibility towards their readers?
I greatly admire writers like Proust and James Joyce, and they have no sense of moral responsibility whatsoever. I am more in the mould of the writer who worries about social inequality and the disadvantaged. I was brought up to think about these things, and to me it is a natural way of writing, to try and include in my fiction a sense of the world we live in and the injustices in it. But I don’t go to extremes – I’m not a didactic writer like George Orwell. I am a bit of a moralist in that I am always looking around and wondering if things could be better; that’s all really.
Your 1996 novel, The Witch of Exmoor, is concerned with the possibility of social justice, touching on racial prejudice, greed, factory farming, and so on…it is quite a bleak picture you paint in some ways…
That novel is a sort of satire really – it is meant to be more funny than bleak. It caricatures a number of ridiculous things that go on in our society. And I must say that I found the BSE business really shocking and completely fascinating. The whole saga was very much a product of greed, and it probably needs a real satirist, a Jonathan Swift, to deal with it. But I don’t take a bleak view at all. I think that life is very much pleasanter in Western democracies for most people than it was twenty, thirty, forty years ago; not perfect, but better.
Has New Labour done anything to alleviate your concern about social inequality, or have you been disappointed in the government?
I was very disappointed to begin with because I felt it was all talk and photo opportunities, but they have in fact increased the minimum wage, and it was they who introduced it in the first place. I feel that I now have more faith in their long-term agenda than I did at the beginning. Gordon Brown in being very clever in redistributing wealth to some degree, something which is much needed because in certain parts of England poverty is absolutely endemic. Tony Blair says there is no north and south divide, but he should go and have a walk round South Yorkshire where my parents came from. It’s dismal there, and the depression is emotional as well as economic. There are no jobs and life is quite without prospect for a lot of people. I can’t stand the jargon of phrases like social exclusion, but nevertheless they do mean something. This government is at least beginning to try to bring people into society again. So I’ll give them another term or two, and I wish them well.
According to Roy Hattersley, in a recent Guardian profile, you reject the idea of a fellowship at Newham because the cleaning woman who made your bed every day and laid your fire would have been on your conscience for life. Some people might think this a kind of snobbery masquerading as egalitarianism…
I don’t think that’s quite what I said to Roy. What I meant was that a fellowship was so seductive that if I accepted I could see myself never being able to get out of my ivory tower. I’m sure that if I had taken it I would never have written the novels, because I would only ever have seen the world with my made bed in it and my laid fire. I was really talking about the dangers of being cosseted to the extent that you can’t see what the world is made of.
The heroine of your novel The Needle’s Eye sacrifices her own happiness ‘for the sake of the children’ – that well-worn phrase – and the novel deals in depth with the lovelessness that often passes for marital love. Do you think the moral problems presented in The Needle’s Eye remain as relevant today as thirty years ago?
Even more relevant, because fortunately it’s easier to get divorced than it used to be. Sticking together for the children is not always a good idea. I know a lot of people disagree with me, but having been divorced myself, and being on excellent terms with my first husband, I just know that it was right for us and the children.
Some feminist critics, were disappointed in the message of that novel – they swathe heroine choosing self-sacrifice over self-knowledge. Would you write it differently today?
I do think today that she probably wouldn’t have made that decision. But she was a slightly masochistic character actually; she suffered from guilt through having far too much money, so psychologically it was a perfectly convincing portrait.
I think it’s fair to say that your novels are concerned with moral problems and ambiguities. Do you believe that there are any moral absolutes?
I feel very strongly about one or two issues – capital punishment, for example. I believe that the state should not kill. I also feel very strongly about cruelty; we should not ever be cruel physically to anyone, and we should try not to be cruel mentally either. The trouble is that life is full of ambiguity, and cultures are all relative.
What are your own guiding principles?
Oddly enough, one of my guiding principles comes from my Quaker background. I’m not a Quaker myself, nor even a believer, but I do agree with the Quakers when they say there is the light of God in every man. I do believe that there is arguably in every human being something good or redeemable, and if you treat them as contemptible or negligible. People become better if you believe they’re better, and I suppose that’s something I’ve clung to.
Your mother was a declared atheist, and your father a half-hearted Church of England adherent. What effect did this rather mixed-up religious background have on you?
My father did have quite a religious temperament actually, and in fact both my parents became Quakers later. And a lot of Quakerism does appeal, but it’s a very sad matter to me that I can’t believe in the Almighty God. Just occasionally I have moments of apparent certainty when I think that perhaps it isn’t just black space, and I think this comes from the Quakers. They have no dogma, just the idea that you keep striving, and any kind of movement towards the spirit is considered good. The other day I was listening to Handel’s Messiah on the way up to Sheffield, and I just knew there was a God, and then of course as soon as the music was over, it was gone; but there are moments of profound conviction.
Do you pray?
Yes, I do, but I don’t know who I’m praying to. If I think something bad is happening to the children, then I do look upwards and say, let it not happen, but I don’t try to make bargains the way I used to.
As a child you managed to convince yourself that you had committed what you called ‘a sin against the Holy Ghost’ – where did this idea come from?
I just don’t know. Children used to be tormented by hellfire a lot in those days, but I certainly didn’t have that at school or at home, so I don’t know where I got it from. It could have been an overactive imagination, I suppose, but I really did feel terrible for quite a long time. I had this sense of profound guilt and sin, which I never have now.
Don’t you ever suffer from guilt now?
Only perfectly justified guilt, when I’ve done something awful, but I never feel that sense of overwhelming guiltiness.
Have you ever had any kind of what might be termed a religious experience, any sense of the numinous?
Yes, I have that that from nature. If I got for a walk in the country, I can feel completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the world. There’s a walk I do regularly in Somerset, up the back behind our house, and in the evening it is just amazingly beautiful. Your heart stands still and you feel that the whole world is full of design and beauty and order. It also gives you a sense of eternity because you feel that when you are gone this beautiful world will still be here.
Have you ever longed for what are usually referred to as the comforts of religion?
No, because I suppose I have always felt that people who seem very secure have probably been through doubt. The religious people I respect most, like the Bishop of Edinburgh, are rather full of doubt themselves. I know that there is comfort in the natural world so I don’t want the comforts of religion. We must all find our own spiritual comfort where we can, and I can’t find mine in any kind of creed or ritual.
The Guardian reports that you have become detached from the world’s vanities, refusing to be nominated for prizes, finding little interest in reviews and giving support to worthy causes. Is this the result of a happy second marriage with your husband Michael Holroyd?
It always sounds better than it really is, because there are days when I’m absolutely full of rage and irritation and overwhelmed by petty, petty feelings. But on the whole I am much calmer than I used to be, and Michael has been a very good influence because he takes the longer view on things. When I get very upset and overwrought, he points at something just slightly beyond it, and that’s very good for me.
You have described the times in which we live as ‘a particularly pointless age’? Can you elaborate on that?
I must have said that when I was in a bad temper because I don’t feel that at all. I actually think it is rather an exciting, positive and open age. I’m a disappointed optimist in that I thought by now we would have a more even society, that the poor wouldn’t be so poor, that we wouldn’t have sink schools or terrible children’s homes. I thought all that would have vanished by now, and we would all be living in a much more egalitarian, happy, sharing world. That hasn’t happened, but on the other hand it hasn’t turned out too badly either.