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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Eileen Frost

In this issue:

 

 

BOOKS

In "The Peppered Moth," an absorbing semi-autobiographical account of three generations of women, Margaret Drabble tells us these moths are part of the "history of industrial melanism all the pale ones had vanished."

And Consider This

For Those Who Like Mysteries...

Kathy Reichs inherits the mantle from Patricia Cornwall with "Déjà Dead," a puzzler about a woman studying Montreal's prostitute population who disappears.

In "Fatal Voyage," set in the mountains of rural North Carolina, Reich's female sleuth, Tempe Brennan, is assigned to assist in identifying the remains of sixty passengers in a fatal air crash.

 

Books

The Peppered Moth, by Margaret Drabble. Harcourt, 2001. $25

Peppered moths are enjoying a resurgence in an area of Yorkshire, England, blighted by a century of coal mining. These survivors are the result of years and years of selection during which white moths grew darker to evade predators in an environment of dirty air and oily black soot. Margaret Drabble tells us these moths are part of the "history of industrial melanism all the pale ones had vanished."

An absorbing semi-autobiographical account of three generations of women, The Peppered Moth is a Margaret Drabble's fascinating attempt to describe her own mother's life through the medium of a novel. In an afterword, she confesses her struggle to get down in print the complexities of a life so intertwined with her own. And who would not empathize? Creating a fair and rounded portrait of arguably one's most important relative may raise enormous problems. For one thing, a daughter's memories are selective and incomplete. Supplementary evidence may be fragmentary (a few letters, a photograph, family anecdotes). Above all, a daughter's passionate involvement with her mother cannot help but skew the outcome. However, Drabble is one of England's finest writers; The Peppered Moth does not fail to entertain.

Drabble attempts quasi-scientific objectivity throughout-the novel includes many scientists or scientific reporters to lend credence to her account. But woven throughout are all-too-human breakdowns in authorly "objectivity". Her sympathies are betrayed through the symbol of the peppered moth, which "willed its own darkness." It becomes clear that the author despised her mother. Nonetheless, I agree with a critic for the Guardian that the novel's "impressive achievement is to animate the dead and to address, with bold face, their hold over us".

The novel opens with a gathering of "the descendants," some 60 people who have responded to an invitation by a biologist researching DNA. An 8,000-year-old skeleton, the Cottershall Man, has recently been discovered in a nearby cave. The biologist is seeking families whose long connection with the region around the cave suggest their DNA might match the skeleton's. This quest for genetic interrelationships sets the stage for Chrissie Sinclair's attempt at a dispassionate look back at her own antecedents in order to understand her mother.

We learn that Chrissie's mother, Bessie, was pretty and intellectually gifted but also selfish, "delicate," and prone to hypochondria. She was pushed to "attempt a mutation" by leaving her lower-middle-class family to study at Cambridge. She proved unable to adapt to this strange environment, however, with its moneyed, differently accented undergraduates. After a couple of years she retreated home. She taught elementary school for a time, but had to stop teaching when she married kind, affable Joe Barron, her high school boyfriend who had also studied at Cambridge and became a barrister. In England in the mid-1930s women who married were not allowed to continue teaching. After Bessie's children Chrissie and Robert were born, Joe departed to serve in the British army during World War II. Bessie coped well, by resuming teaching. Her children were cared for by her sister, who liked children, unlike Bessie who "did not encourage emotions" and "did not believe in pampering babies."

Major Joe Barron returned a war hero, ran for Parliament as a radical and feminist, and won. Joe wanted "a land fit for women such has his wife might have been and his daughter might yet be." The return of the soldiers at the end of the war meant that Bessie was once again deprived of her job. She relapsed into agoraphobia as well as hypochondria, gained weight, and "settled into solitude." She "sank into depression with an almost voluptuous abandon." Angry Bessie even reproached her husband for his war-related time in Europe, as if he had been traveling for pleasure. Bessie's agoraphobia meant that her children were often left unsupervised, leading them to become "independent and secretive." Her husband got no comfort from his marriage. However, he succeeded professionally, was appointed a Queen's Counsel, and gave Bessie a large house in southern England where she moldered and aged.

It is clear from the outset that Bessie Bawtry was, generally speaking, a blight on her daughter's existence. Still, daughter Chrissie reveals her ambivalence: [There is] "no need to grieve for them. They could not help their stony lives Your heart might break. And what would be the point of that?"

Where is redemption and healing to be found, but in succeeding generations? Rebellious Chrissie grows up, studies archaeology, and elopes with an attractive foreign gene pool in the person of Nicolas Gaulden, a Jewish migr from Czechoslovakia. Though of modest accomplishments, he is a magnet for women and the marriage fails. However, during their brief marriage, daughter Faro is born, and Chrissie eventually happily remarries Sir Donald Sinclair, "archaeologist, author, academic, one-time head of college and titled gentleman." She runs her own business and generally leads a comfortable, interesting life, except for intermittent contact with her mom.

Beautiful, sensitive, and compassionate, Chrissie's daughter Faro becomes a science journalist fated to cover the Cottershall Man story. She falls in love with the man who found the skeleton, and together they visit it. Because of the DNA study, Faro knows Cottershall Man is "her relative, who touches her deeply." One senses that Faro might make the occasional bad decision but on the whole will turn out all right. Drabble concludes, "I cannot sing, my mother could not sing, and her mother before her could not sing. But Faro can sing, and her clear voice floods the valley."


Margaret Drabble has been writing fiction for almost 40 years. She was only 24 when her first book, "A Summer Birdcage," was published.

In addition, Drabble has undertaken major biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson, as well as a book called "A Writer's Britain." She's also the editor of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, a position she's held for 20 years.

Drabble has three children and is married to the biographer Michael Holroyd. (What interesting conversations they must have.) In the afterword, Drabble acknowledges that "The Peppered Moth" is a novel about her own mother, but notes that she did not include her own brother and sisters, one of whom is the novelist, A. S. Byatt.

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