Margaret Drabble, AS Byatt, and the family tea set
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I remember first coming to Margaret Drabble’s work through her 1965 novel on the choice of single motherhood, The Millstone. I found its ideas, for the time, to be refreshingly modern and somewhat surprising. Rosamund, a young academic, becomes pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to navigate pregnancy and early motherhood without the involvement of the father (by her own choice). This felt important and unusual for a novel written in that era.
I later sought out a collection of Drabble’s short stories and enjoyed their portrayal of mostly professional women’s lives in the 1960s and 70s. My interest in Drabble deepened when I discovered she was originally from my home city of Sheffield. She even wrote a memoir about her Yorkshire grandmother and jigsaws! What was not to love about this woman.
What I hadn’t yet realised at the time was that Drabble was the sister of another successful novelist, AS Byatt. I have to confess to not knowing as much of Byatt’s work, and have always promised myself to return to Possession, which has a great premise for a literary novel about literature, but when I first encountered it, it felt a little…intense.
Looking into the connection of the two writers, however, what I found most fascinating at the time was the well-known sibling rivalry between the two sisters.
Drabble and Byatt’s so-called ‘feud’ was referenced as an argument about a tea set. Surely, I thought, there must be more to the story than that! (But how wonderfully British: a feud about a tea set, no less!) It was enough to make me seek out more.
The two sisters from Sheffield, UK - Antonia and Margaret - are only two years apart (Byatt being the eldest) and both pursued writing careers alongside one another, with one scoring success, then the other. Both sisters are also esteemed scholars, and between them have dabbled in novel writing, short stories, criticism, and biography, scoring 18 awards, 57 novels, honorary doctorates, and more.
Byatt and Drabble were two of the four children of John and Kathleen Marie Drabble, a QC and teacher respectively, born in Sheffield and later moving to York at the outbreak of WWII. The girls were subsequently sent to a Quaker boarding school.
Initially, Drabble was often referenced as the more ‘celebrity’ sibling, particularly between the 1960s and 1990s, with the success of novels such as The Millstone and Jerusalem the Golden, whilst Byatt’s winning of the Man Booker Prize in the 1990s for Possession set her as the more successful sister during that decade.
Further fuel was added to the feud-fire following Byatt’s Booker win when novelist AN Wilson claimed that Drabble informed him she had bet $100 on Byatt winning the prize. Apparently she stated this was to soften the blow of resentment should she win. When asked by Wilson what she would have done if she had not won, Drabble had reportedly responded that she ‘would have been pleased’.
But what of the style of the two sisters’ work? Both have been described as realist writers, but Byatt appears to have a certain penchant for historical fiction with elements of the fantastic; she has cited Nordic myths as one of her key influences. Drabble’s prose, meanwhile, is much more rooted in the present; sparse, less descriptive, and more realist.
So it is easy to see how two such ambitious, talented sisters might veer into the area of sibling rivalry. But perhaps, as with many family dynamics, we have to look at the parenting of the two siblings.
Drabble and Byatt’s mother had apparently made clear the expectation of both girls attending Cambridge University from a young age. This dream was realised, with Drabble gaining a starred first, and Byatt coming in slightly behind with a first class honours. Drabble also published her first book before Byatt, A Summer Bird Cage in 1963, with Byatt’s The Shadow of the Sun three years later.
An indication of their rumoured rivalry was strengthened when Drabble stated that, unlike her sister Sue, who was pursuing writing but not yet published, she had not in fact wanted to be a writer. She had previously wanted to pursue acting and had been working for the Royal Shakespeare Company when she met her first husband and became pregnant. She had, she stated pointedly, ‘only written a novel because she was bored’. Byatt, in response, claimed that, had she not been a driven writer herself, she would have abandoned her ambitions to publish following Drabble’s success.
Over the years, the pair have racked up the awards and accolades. Drabble’s celebrated editing of two editions of the Oxford Companion to English Literature have become familiarly known as ‘The Drabble’ in academic circles, whilst in more recent years, Byatt has emerged as perhaps the more successful sibling, at least in terms of awards and economic rewards, with a film version of Possession.
But what of the rumoured family feud - and more pertinently, that tea set?
Both sisters have been famously silent on the full story behind the rumours. What they have confirmed is that as young girls, both felt the ambition of their mother, a domineering figure who had come from a working class background to get to Cambridge, but had given up on her dreams to teach when she had her children. Her apparent anger at becoming a housewife and mother spurred the two women on to achieve their own ambitions. This appears to have turned into a competitive striving to do well, with Byatt claiming that she felt that she could never do well enough, and that Drabble was the favourite of their mother.
Drabble saw things a bit differently, claiming that she admired her older sister, and felt that in return, Byatt saw her as in the way. She also claimed that Byatt did not enjoy sharing their father, who had left for WWII when Byatt was an only child, only to return following the arrival of Drabble, with whom she must share his attention.
Having both chosen literary careers did not help matters, causing more rivalry, with sometimes barbed comments appearing in their various works. Byatt apparently offered her sister a note of apology on the publication of her novel The Game, which features a sibling relationship, and which Drabble reportedly called ‘mean-spirited’.
And then we come to the matter of the tea set.
In Drabble’s 2009 family memoir The Pattern in the Carpet, she wrote about a treasured family tea set. The story goes that Byatt later wished to use the tea set in a book, and had not realised that Drabble had already done so. Drabble claims this caused a great deal of resentment, as Byatt felt that she had appropriated something that did not belong to her. Yes - I was disappointed, too. I had imagined some great court battle over a precious family heirloom, picturing these two intellectuals literally fighting over the pottery. But nothing quite so exciting, I’m afraid.
Researching the feud between these two sisters made me wonder though: were/are there any other siblings who shared similar rivalries over their literary success? It is a topic I may well return to in my Tuesday ‘Afterthoughts’ newsletter next week!
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