Monday, February 19, 2007

The Witch of Exmoor

There is a particular kind of social milieu that Margaret Drabble often explores in her novels. She writes about the British middle-classes, usually intellectuals who have perhaps risen from working class backgrounds to have successful careers, raise families and who, in middle age, are forced to confront issues of family and the past. This is probably an unfair generalisation but having read The Peppered Moth and The Radiant Way last year, and having just recently finished The Witch of Exmoor, these kinds of characters and issues seem central to Drabble's work.

It occurs to me to wonder why I keep coming back to Drabble and why I enjoy her work so much given these preoccupations of hers. I'm not particularly interested in the British upper-middle classes and I'm hoping any mid-life crises are a way off yet. But Drabble's writing still resonates with me.

The first Margaret Drabble book that I read was The Millstone. This is a short, early (1965) novel of hers about a young, single woman who falls pregnant. It is a youthful novel and one to which I could immediately relate. The characters and situations were so vividly drawn that I felt I would follow Drabble wherever she might do after that. And I have, perhaps despite of her choice of subject matter.

The Witch of Exmoor is a wonderfully female novel. By that I mean that Drabble writes such realistic female characters and particularly excels at depicting the relationships between women. At the centre of The Witch of Exmoor is the monstrous mother figure of Frieda, who has retreated to a decrepit mansion on a clifftop overlooking the ocean, from where she continues to terrorise her family of grown up children and grand children. Frieda is a typical Drabble character. She has pulled herself up by the bootstraps from an ordinary beginning in northern Britain to become a successful writer. She weds and has three children but then divorces and begins a life of international travel and exotic affairs. She manages to wipe away nearly every trace of her children's father, leaving them with only her and her enormous personality; a personality that continues to oppress her family, despite Frieda's self-imposed exile.

Frieda manipulates her family from afar, playing favourites with her Guyanese son-in-law and exposing the flaws in her children's lives and relationships. Despite this she is still a likable character- a powerful woman who has chosen the path her life has taken and is essentially guilty of little more than revealing to others the truth about themselves. A softer side of Frieda is revealed when her children discover a friendship of hers with another elderly women which seems utterly normal, even mundane, suggesting that Frieda may not entirely be the monster her children believe her to be. Drabble explores what it means to be a mother- Frieda is certainly not a conventional maternal figure to her children but is this a crime in itself? To what extent can we continue to blame our parents for problems we experience in adulthood? What does a mother owe her children once she has raised them and sent them into the world?

I think these are interesting and probably universal issues. Drabble writes about a very particular demographic but it is her ability to ask big questions and raise issues that have broad implications that will keep me reading her work.


Rambling Rose said...

I enjoy stories where the women show such strengh of character, especially in a society where it is usually frowned upon.
I have read a number of similar books but not by this author. The next visit to a bookshop will include a search for 'The Witch of Exmoor'.
Thank you for bringing this author to my attention.

Anonymous said...

the witch of exmoor is the first margaret drable s book i read. in fact i could hardly finish it. English is my second language and maybe that is the reason i found it so extremely boring and difficult to understand what was the book about. and her writing style is so descriptive that you may read 5 whole lines of adjectives before any noun she is describing.and finally, in the last chappters, when some action appeared and i started to enjoy it, she ends it abruptly in a few pages and by the way, i could not understand the end. i m sorry, i might be totally wrong, but i would never buy another margaret drable book in my life

Anonymous said...

Margaret Drabble made her mark upon England with the early novels such as The Millstone because she dealt with women's issues. In Millstone the woman decides to keep her baby even though the sisters try their best to talk her out of it. She also doesnt accept the hospital nurses' shush shush when her daughter has heart surgery and we have a very funny and memorable scene there. She doesnt even inform the child's father when she meets him again. That was quite revolutionary in those days. I love Drabble, have all her books and most of them are signed by her. I have attended classes by her (in Greece, seminars (in Singapore) and she is a wonderful mentor for aspiring writers. Glad you enjoy her work so.

Laurie Brown said...

I love the writing of both Drabble and her sister, and just finished reading Witch of Exmoor. I think it's my favorite of what she's written; I enjoyed the 'monster' Frieda immensely.

Juan Burgos said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juan Burgos said...

I have been reading Drabble's novels on and off over the decades. She is the quintessential upper middle class English writer, forever writing about a class which so many English writers of her inclination seem to be obsessed with - think Galsworthy, think Forster, oh, we could go on forever. And more recently think McEwan. I go along with Anonymous above, who found the Witch of Exmoor a boring and ploding novel, and like Anonymous I had to make an effort to get to the end. The postmodern intrusions of the author got on my nerves and the only enjoyable moments are when Frieda is on stage, so to say. Then all of a sudden - halfway through the novel - Drabble kills her off. The rest of the book is more of the same and when things seem to get interesting, it abruptly ends.