Margaret Drabble's Smiling Women
An exploration of Margaret Drabble's short fiction & its relevance today
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Margaret Drabble is probably best known for her extensive range of novels, starting with her 1963 A Summer Birdcage, to her 2016 The Dark Flood Rises. In particular, many readers may have come to her, as I did, with her seminal 1965 novel The Millstone, a novel ahead of its time, portraying a young, single, female PhD student who falls pregnant after a casual one-night stand and chooses to have the baby alone. Drabble has never been one to shy away from the big issues, nor of challenging accepted stereotypes, and documenting the state of women’s lives.
I came to her short stories much later, and I’m not alone. In the introduction to her collection A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman (1966), the editor of my edition, Jose Francisco, states that ‘Drabble had published more than a dozen stories in journals, magazines and anthologies. There’s often a general lack of awareness surrounding the author’s short fiction’.
The collection here contains some fine examples of well-constructed short stories, focusing on various points in different women’s lives. There is often a hint of moral dilemma about the stories; a point of change and stasis, decisions to be made or times when no decisions can be found.
The stories are set out in the edition to run chronologically as to when they were first published, and illustrate the development and ageing process of Drabble herself, with young women climbing career ladders, thirty-something mothers, and meditations on ageing. Though none of the stories are strictly autobiographical, many are based on Drabble’s own experiences and the places she’s visited and people she’s encountered.
The stories begin in the 1960s, and end as far reaching as the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, the later stories mainly portraying middle-aged women escaping mundane burdens and obligations, seeking peace and solitude.
Something I observed about these stories are that they are very ‘English’; they encapsulate values and ideas associated with England, yet Drabble pulls this off both with affection and wit. The stories here are imbued with Drabble’s characteristic themes of class conflict and a cautious feminism. There are uses of metafictional devices which work seamlessly, and there is generally a more subdued feel to the issues raised, making less room for global concerns than in her longer works, and more for intimate portraits of the individual.
I am concentrating here on the title story ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’, because for me, it pulls together the strands of the collection, but also, in a more personal way, I feel it signifies how little has fundamentally changed in the life of women aiming to combine successful careers and raising a family.
Being one of the stories written in the 1970’s, it introduces the idea of the brisk, busy, highly efficient and professional woman emerging in the workplace. Similar to other characters in the collection, such as Kathie Jones in ‘A Success Story’, and the unnamed TV presenter and mother of four in ‘Homework’, the character in ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’ is representative of the successful career woman who must divide her time between work and family demands.