I’ve bought up a few old Margaret Drabble titles over the years, all in slightly trippy old Penguin editions, but I’ve never actually got around to reading one of them before. The one I really wanted to read was The Millstone, since I’ve heard complimentary comparisons to one of my favourite books, The L-Shaped Room, but it was 1964 that needed filling on A Century of Books, so I picked my second choice – The Garrick Year. Cup-mark and all (not my doing.)
What drew me towards The Garrick Year was its theatrical setting. As I’ve mentioned over the years, I am fascinated by the theatre and love reading about it in fact or fiction. One of my Five From The Archive posts even covered the topic. So I was keen to see how Emma and her actor husband David would get on when they move to Hereford for the opening of a new theatre. And then it all went rather wrong. No, not the plot, but my enjoyment of the novel. Partly this was because of my reasons for reading it – I love to hear the theatre praised or teased, but treated always with affection, and even a little reverence. Because that’s how I feel about it, I suppose. Emma, however, just mocks it completely.
For those who have never heard actors discuss their trade, I may say that there is nothing more painfully boring on earth. I think it is their lack of accuracy, their frightful passion for generality that rob their discussions of interest. They were talking, this time, about that ancient problem of whether one should, while acting, be more aware of the audience of the person or person with whom one is playing the scene: I must have heard this same argument once a fortnight over the last four years, and never has anyone got a step nearer to any kind of illumination, because instead of talking rationally they just wander round the morasses of their own personalities, producing their own weaknesses for examination as though they were interesting, objective facts about human nature.
I don’t think I realised quite how much I do revere the theatre, until I bristled at this sort of blasphemy! And, oh, what a cow Emma is. I know some say it shouldn’t matter how likeable a character is, but I always maintain (as others have said before me) that it does matter if the author clearly sets up a character to be likeable, and fails. And, after all, I often like books because they have charming characters, so why shouldn’t it work the other way around?
I have to confess, I had a problem with Emma as soon as she admitted preferring London to the countryside. But things get worse than that. Emma is one of those miserable people who moans all the time about everything, but does nothing to change her life. She has no paid employment, and whines about looking after their two children – which would be fair enough, if she didn’t have a full-time, live-in nanny. Quite what she does with her day is unclear, but later she manages to fill the hours by thoughtlessly embarking on an affair with the producer of the theatre. She appears to have no concern at all for her marriage vows, having declared earlier that the only reason she hadn’t committed adultery was that she hadn’t had the opportunity.
There isn’t much plot or narrative drive in The Garrick Year. It’s mostly Emma’s introspective, self-pitying waffle. Thankfully it’s at least well written, which is the only reason I persevered with what is, in fact, a slim novel. Although Drabble isn’t quite as good a writer as I’d expected – I’d argue she’s not as good as Lynne Reid Banks – but it isn’t clunky or cliche-ridden or anything like that, and she creates the background characters rather well: among them is Sofy, an ambitious young actress whose talents (if any) do not lie in the direction of acting, and I rather enjoyed any moment that Emma and David’s young daughter was on the scene – she could be quite funny. In terms of structure, Drabble went (I am sorry to say) for one of those last-minute-big-events which seem the last ditch effort of a novelist who knows their novel hasn’t been very exciting yet – you know the sort?
Perhaps I’ll enjoy Drabble more when her topic is different, or her character less selfish and awful. I wondered, while I was reading this, whether it might be her second novel – and, lo and behold, it was. It has neither the inspiration of a first novel, nor the assured confidence of a later book – so hopefully I just picked up a dud, and there will be plenty more to try later. I do recognise that she is a good writer, and I’m not giving up on her yet. Any suggestions?