Penguin Classics, £20, 223pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, By Margaret Drabble

There was once this woman," the title story opens. "She was quite famous, in a way." Social smiling masks the private world. The smiling woman lives above an unspeakable abyss. Its looming presence in the round of Jenny Jamieson's day is signalled in the numb, glazed tone that characterises the fable.

In a casually shocking sentence we are told that, "Sometimes he [her husband] would wake up in the middle of the night and hit her." Why did he hit her? Jenny doesn't really know. She just carries on trying her best in the face of "the apathy of God, the random blows of fate and the force for good or ill of human love'. And all the while her mind eats itself. The self struggles in its sealed pod of introspection to right its balance and assert its dignity. As the searing story reels towards its harrowing conclusion, the reader feels nearly as consumed and concussed as Jenny herself.

I had not expected to be quite so desperately moved by Margaret Drabble's collected stories. They were written, perhaps as deposits from her major fiction, at intervals from the 1960s till 2000. Her major preoccupations – humanist, feminist, political, literary – unfold in a minor key in the choice, epigrammatic language of the short-story form. Arrestingly, Drabble exposes and anatomises the tissue of women's private pains, shames and fears.

Life deals out to the women of the earlier stories violent shocks and loads them with burdens. The narrator of the mock-heroic "Crossing The Alps" mentions in a subordinate clause that his mistress "had tried to gas herself and the child". Menfolk bully, control and grumble – but the exquisite plotting of the stories exacts subtle revenges. Man-flu undermines the lovers' stolen week on the Continent. The lover, reduced to a sweating wreck, has to be driven to Yugoslavia: "she had done it, she, who was incapable of lighting herself a cigarette in a slight draught". In later life (in one of those elegant shifts of time and perspective we recognise from Drabble's fiction), the Alps will act as a mnemonic – not exactly of the Wordsworthian sublime but of "something half-realized, a revelation of comfort too dim to articulate". He will recall the trip, in all its bathos and humiliation, as a species of obscure epiphany.

Parody and jeu d'esprit play their effervescent part and delight the reader of later tales. Drabble's exuberant wit and her metafictional playfulness are on display. Janeites will revel in "The Dower House at Kellynch", a divertimento whose narrator brings Persuasion into the modern world of Heritage. Wordsworthians and Coleridgeans will be ancient-marinered by the quotation-threaded pastiche, "Stepping Westward", with its irrepressible nod to Kellynch at the end.

Drabble uses to fine effect the form's power of ambivalence and understatement, its canny and cunning obliquities. The short story allows minuscule and transient shifts of perception. Drabble's ethical seriousness is always felt, and her fascination with fugitive mind-stuff. In "Hassan's Tower", a married pair visiting Morocco spoil an exotic holiday by bringing themselves with them – as we do. The wife wants to go up Hassan's Tower. The husband doesn't: "It'll be a long way and probably smelly"; "There won't be anything to see." Long sentences characterise the labour of his breathless ascent, cheek by jowl with Arab pilgrims; they build towards a rooftop light-headedness that brings a sudden identification with the throng as "people, nothing but or other than people".

This is a version of classic epiphany exemplified by Dorothea Brooke's intuition of "the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance" in Middlemarch. The change of heart in "The Caves of God" has a similar quality, as the fugitive becomes the hunter, and "The past forgave her, and she forgave the past." In this beautiful chiasmus, there is mutual acknowledgment and reconciliation. The epiphany of "Crossing The Alps" is perhaps more truly Chekhovian: as with the peppermint afterglow of "The Kiss", we cannot say precisely what has happened or limit its meaning – but the enigma stays with us.

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