Although she has more than 20 books to her name – 17 novels, literary biographies, and most recently a memoir – Margaret Drabble this month publishes her first collection of short stories, A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. It includes nearly every one she has ever written. Printed in chronological order, they span more than 40 years. There are surprisingly few, only 13 in all, but together they make up a compelling document of social history. She is delighted to see them published in one volume, which is dedicated to her agent, the late Pat Kavanagh. As with her novels, over the years the characters get steadily older, each story capturing a different stage in a woman's life, from youthful uncertainty, through the intensities of infidelity and marital disillusionment, to the freedom and regrets of maturity. "People age," she says. "I've always been interested in what is happening to my contemporaries and what is still happening."
Drabble is now a very youthful 72 (it was her birthday last week). We talk in her study, a sunny yellow room on the ground floor of the large house in Ladbroke Grove she shares with her husband, the biographer Michael Holroyd, who works on the second floor. On the wall is a colourful picture of them in her Somerset house, both reading manuscripts, her daughter as a young girl, looking attentively on. From the London study there is a view out to the garden, serenely landscaped around a small pond by her son, the TV gardener Joe Swift. At one end is her desk and at the other a large table with a semi-completed jigsaw of a Klimt painting, "much harder than you'd imagine". Jigsaws are one of her favourite pastimes and were the starting point for her memoir The Pattern in the Carpet, a hybrid book subtitled "A Personal History with Jigsaws", written mainly as a distraction while Holroyd was seriously ill a few years ago.
The previous week, Drabble read at an event hosted by the Literary Consultancy (which is run by her daughter, Rebecca Swift), along with Helen Simpson. She was struck, she says now, by the similarities between their stories, even though Simpson's were written much later: "they are both tragi-comedies of marital relationships, and it is as though nothing has improved over 30 years. Men and women are still fighting for precedence and knocking into one another and thoroughly annoying each other in the same way they always have."
When Simpson suggested there are few sympathetic men in Drabble's stories, Drabble retorted that it was surely true of them both. Simpson reflected on the predictability of the "F question" in interviews, and it is one that Drabble will have heard often. Like Doris Lessing, a long-term friend and influence, she denies (although much less stridently than Lessing) that she set out to write explicitly "feminist" books. But, like Lessing, she will always be associated with the fledgling years of feminism, as she was one of the most assiduous chroniclers of female experience in Britain during that time.
Drabble's work has always been characterised by astute social observation, a realism borne out of her admiration for Victorian fiction. At one point, her novels, with their clever conversations and adulterous intrigues, were synonymous with the now unfashionable "Hampstead novel"; although she did live there for many years and "represented a particular point of view", she points out that she didn't actually set many novels there, as she was worried about identifying her neighbours. But what Joyce Carol Oates describes as her "seemingly infinite sympathy for 'ordinary women'" ensures that her work will endure; indeed three of her early novels are being reissued as Penguin Classics this autumn. And so it is with the stories.
The title – taken from the longest story – was chosen by her American publisher, but she agrees it works well for the collection as a whole. Nearly all these "snapshots of women's lives", as she calls them, show the protagonists attempting to put a brave face on the disappointments of everyday life, or the schism between their public and private selves. She is candid about drawing on personal experience and often disguises real people as characters: one is based on her ex-husband, the actor Clive Swift, another on a manipulative friend, now dead. "The Merry Widow", about a woman's sense of liberation following the death of her domineering husband, was in fact written just after her mother's death.
And what about "one of the biggest American writers of his generation" who tries to seduce a successful young playwright from the north at a smart London party? "Oh, that was Saul Bellow," she says immediately. "He was a hero of mine, and I didn't at all mind him making a pass at me. In fact I felt really pleased. But then I realised as a feminist I shouldn't have been so amused. But I did like him very much. I still read him with admiration." Antonia Fraser tells a similar anecdote about Bellow making advances to her in a taxi when they were Booker judges in 1971. "We are not alone in that," she says, laughing. "Find me a woman he didn't make a pass at!"
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