Book Reviews, Volume 30

Margaret Drabble
The Peppered Moth
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2001. Pp. 369. $34.99

Reviewed by Nora Foster Stovel

The Peppered Moth, Margaret Drabble's latest publication, is a novel. Or is it? The book opens with the dedication "For Kathleen Marie Bloor" and ends with an afterword that begins, "This is a novel about my mother, Kathleen Marie Bloor" (367). The author goes on to explain that, following her mother's death in 1984, writer friends suggested she write a novel about her. One novelist friend advised: "Use your mother's blood for ink" (367), to which Drabble adds: "Maybe I should have tried to write a factual memoir of her life, but I have written this instead."

Drabble is very frank in her afterword about the problems involved in writing a novel about her mother: "I encountered great difficulties. The worst was the question of tone. I find myself being harsh, dismissive, censorious. As she was" (367). Perhaps because of the factual basis of this fictional text, Drabble indulges rather more than usual in the authorial intrusions that have distinguished her novels ever since The Realms of Gold (1975) and that have intrigued some readers while irritating others. This sample parallels her afterword: "If this story were merely a fiction, it would be possible to fill in these gaps with plausible incidents, but the narrator here has to admit to considerable difficulty, indeed to failure. I have tried--and I apologize for that intrusive authorial 'I', which I have done my best to avoid--and I have tried to understand why Joe and Bessie married, and I have tried to invent some plausible dialogue for them that might explain it" (122). She asks rhetorically: "What are we to do about these dreadful people? Is there any point in trying to make any sense of their affectless, unnatural, subnormal behaviour?" (198).

When she wrote The Radiant Way, Drabble expressed her interest in some day writing a novel about inherited depression in a Midlands family. And that is precisely what she has done a quarter of a century later in The Peppered Moth. With her finger, as usual, on the pulse of the times, Drabble couches this theme in an up-to-date, technologically based concept introduced in the prologue: descendants of the Cudworth clan have gathered in the hall of a Wesleyan Methodist chapel in South Yorkshire to listen to a lecture by Dr. Robert Hawthorne on the subject of "mitochondrial DNA and matrilineal descent" (2). The occasion for this lecture is the discovery of Cotterhall Man, a Stone Age man killed eight thousand years ago, around 6000 b.c., who lies in a glass coffin in Northam's Natural History Museum--"Like Sleeping Beauty, awaiting the Resurrection" (66).

At the lecture, a stout old woman is observed sitting with a young "bobby-dazzler": "who is the beauty?" the narrator inquires at the end of the prologue; "Is she the one who got away? Is she a freak, or is she the future?" (3). This chronological narrative of a matrilineal line, unrelieved by chapter divisions, explores how we (or rather she) got from there to here (since she is the one who got away).

No fairy-tale beginning "Once upon a time," but rather an all-too factual account of her mother's life, the narrative begins, "Back in the slow past, Bessie Bawtry crouched under the table…plotting her escape" (5), for she believed that she was special, elect. It proceeds doggedly through the major events of Bessie's life, which are all rooted in the life of Marie Bloor: from her scholarship to Cambridge, her marriage to her childhood sweetheart, the good-natured, hen-pecked Joe Barron, QC (modeled on Drabble's father, Frederick Drabble, QC, and latterday novelist), and her brief teaching career, through her gradual transformation into a frustrated, embittered woman, to her ultimate death at sea aboard the Queen Elizabeth II--where she lies in her bed, "as in a chrysalis, a white grub in her girlish white nightdress" (294), awaiting her metamorphosis.

The peppered moth of the title, "Biston betularia, the Manchester moth" (251)--a mutant that adapted to its grimy coal-mining environment by transforming itself from white to black, but that formed an easy prey for predators when it tried to move away--symbolizes the gradual darkening of the depressive Bessie Bawtry Barron as she finds herself buried back in the grim Yorkshire mining country she so loathed as a child. This motif turns out to have an unlikely origin, as her granddaughter Faro discovers Regency romance writer Georgette Heyer's novels The Black Moth and Faro's Daughter (361-62). Faro also discovers a silver sixpence, recalling the one Bessie hid in Faro's Christmas pudding on their last family Christmas, triggering a memory that concludes the novel. In her afterword, however, Drabble reflects: "It's all very well, imagining a happy ending, imagining Faro Gaulden's happy memory of a happy Christmas. It wasn't like that"(369). But Faro also discovers her Great-Aunt Dora's gold bracelet, Dora's father's silver pocket-watch, Dora's mother's engagement ring, and a photograph of Dora and Bessie on Bessie's wedding day. And the watch still ticks: like Briar Rose, "It has waited patiently through all this time for her to come to discover it and reawaken it" (364).

The narrative itself comes to life when the chronological account moves on to the next generation in the person of Bessie's daughter Chrissie, who has all the vitality of her contemporaneous creator. "There was a perverse, wicked, rebellious streak in Chrissie, which was to lead her to a kind of liberation" (163). Drawn to "lust, adultery and alcohol" (199), Chrissie follows in her mother's footsteps to Cambridge--as did Drabble and her sister A. S. Byatt, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel Possession (1990), who is reportedly not pleased with her sister's portrait of their mother in The Peppered Moth.

Chrissie studies Archaeology and Anthropology, and specializes in "Prehistory.… The Old Stone Age" (234). Married to the Don Juanish Bluebeard type Nick Gaulden, whom the reader first encounters at his funeral--"let us celebrate Nick Gaulden. Let us meet him at his funeral, and play the scroll backwards" (202)--Chrissie remarries to one "Sir Donald Sinclair, archaeologist, author, academic, onetime head of college and titled gentleman" (246). Thinking how odd it is that she should have married an archaeologist, Chrissie reflects, "you just can't get away from your own past, can you?" (329).

Chrissie's daughter Faro Gaulden, the golden girl of the prologue--a history of science major who writes a woman's section called "'Pandora's Box'" (137) for a scientific magazine called Prometheus (136)--decides to write an article on Cotterhall Man and thus meets Steve Nieman, the chap who discovered him. Their relationship encounters a cataclysm after an explosion at the old Bednerby mine site. As they watch the fire burn, Faro climbs into the car and inserts a tape of her grandfather's Northam Choir's recording of Handel's Messiah's rejoicing in the raising of the dead: even "Cotterhall Man hears them, in his glass coffin. Their voices harrow hell and pierce the firmament" (353).

Drabble reported a parallel incident to Elizabeth Grice of the Daily Telegraph. Driving to her hometown of Sheffield on the eve of All Souls, she heard The Messiah playing in her car and was convinced "that everybody would be resurrected, including my mother" (reprinted in the Edmonton Journal Books Section, 25 February 2001). Drawn back to her childhood home, she encountered a couple who said, "It's All Hallows Eve. Are you a ghost?" She agreed she was and visited the house she had not entered for forty-five years. "It was as though she'd made her whole journey north to look for the ending of her book," concludes Grice. Indeed, The Peppered Moth is an attempt to lay her mother's ghost to rest.

Drabble concludes her afterword by alluding to a myth in which a woman rubs herself with dead rat water in order to disguise herself as one of the dead so that she can pass through the gates of hell and enter the underworld to seek for her loved one. Drabble writes, "I feel, in writing this, that I have made myself smell of dead rat, and I am not sure how to get rid of the smell" (369). In interviews, Drabble has acknowledged that she still smells of dead rat. And a whiff still lingers about the text of The Peppered Moth.