I have an admission to make: sometimes, however unfortunately, life gets in the way of a good book. This week, I would have found it difficult to get through the simplest of storybooks, let alone one as seemingly intelligent as Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth, selected for my South Yorkshire stint. As hard as I’ve tried to concentrate my attentions on it, pre-Christmas events have conspired to prevent me from doing so. Although I have at least read every page, what has gone in one eye has almost completed flown out the other…if you’ll pardon the gruesomeness.
Even so, the fact of its setting is impossible to miss. Much like Kate Atkinson with Behind the Scenes at the Museum (which I found absolutely mind-blowing), Margaret Drabble tells the story of several generations of women through the 20th century, following their difficult and disappointing lives and their unpleasant or unbearable personalities – and yet, in both novels, it is the most dour characters that pique our interest and our sympathy.
Bessie Bawtry is Drabble’s primary antiheroine; she is born on the coal-mining town of Breaseborough, where “repressive” (13) misery lurks around every corner. Zolaesque descriptions of this northern wilderness show it as “brown and grey and navy and nigger and fawn and tan” (55): “This was the coal belt, and coal was its bed and being. Coal seamed the earth, coal darkened the daytime air, coal reddened the night skies.” (5). The very place pollutes, plagues and cripples its inhabitants with hard work and the results of dust inhalation, bringing “respiratory diseases” (7) and other, unnamed strife.
“The very earth was mined. Beneath the streets, a mile down, toiled the employees of Bednerby Main, in dark tunnels supported by wooden pit props. The ground might give at any moment and let one down into the darkness…They were of another race, an underground race. They were the scum of the earth, the dregs of the earth” 15
Suffice it to say, our impression, from beginning to end, from practically the turn of the 20th century to turn of the 21st, is bleak. We are in the heart of “spoiled industrial England” (162), and no matter how many political “Clean Air Acts” are brought in to deal with the dirt, grime and resultant illnesses, nothing can mitigate “the smell of the past [that] lingers and loiters in cushions and soft furnishings” (132).
Bessie hates it. Since childhood, she has considered herself an outsider to this environment, despite the fact “her ancestors had bred upon this spot for eight thousand years” (5); she is “alien”, “a changeling”, “smells offended her, grit irritated her”, “she was of a finer breed” (5). She tries to get out; as an intelligent girl, she gets a place at Cambridge and flees, vowing never to return. She goes back on this promise to herself far too easily, scurrying home to teach in a local school and marry local Joe Barron as soon as she finds herself unsupported. “So,” the narrator sighs at this point, “we cast ourselves in castes, even when society fails to provide them” (28). Upon marrying and having two children, the family move “to another world. A million light years away, all the way to Surrey. That’s in the south of England, you know” (149). Once again Bessie gets the chance to disentangle herself from her detested roots, to glory in her life in “tame and suburban Surrey” (191), but yet again she fails to do so; she goes back to Breaseborough when she hears of her mother’s illness, despite her fear that she will be “entomb[ed]” (200) there too.
The novel continues in such a vein with Bessie slowly learning that “she cannot conquer place” (79) or the ties her ancestors have on her. Her dependence on what she hates about herself dominates her character. It is fascinating that in a time of great change and excitement and political freedom, when everything was opening up and “restlessness was sweeping around the glove like influenza” (50) and “machinery had begun to click and whizz, and in the wake of the industrial revolution came movement, displacement […] global travel” (59) – that in a time such as this, Bessie Bawtry cannot even bear to leave her home: she is “agoraphobic” (172), she “felt safe only in her own nice thirties suburban home, with its pale wood, its cream paint, its nice broad shallow stairs” (172).
As I said, the women in this novel are, at times, unbearable, ruled by selfishness, stern tradition or by suppressed emotions that make them hard and unfeeling. And yet, astonishingly, they are still of interest, still memorable, still mesmerising; the language is quick-witted whilst being symbolic and – for wont of a better word – academic. This is a novel worthy of study, and I wish I’d had more chance to study it. For now (and although my gut tells me to score it higher I haven’t gathered enough evidence to do so), it’ll have to be a fairer 3/5 stars.
Over the next couple of days I’ll be reading (thoroughly, this time!) Late by Louise West. Join me.