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.

Stevie Davies's latest novel is 'Into Suez' (Parthian)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering