In 2009, Dame Margaret Drabble said that she would not write fiction again. Thankfully, that has not come to pass and her first novel in almost a decade demonstrates why it would have been such a loss. It is a low-key novel based on a true story but is no less compelling for its lack of pyrotechnics.
It is the early 1960s and Jessica Speight, a young anthropologist, becomes pregnant by a married professor. Her dreams of returning to Africa are put to one side and she becomes a desk-bound anthropologist in north London while caring for her daughter, Anna, the “pure gold baby” of the title. Anna is pretty and placid with a ready smile. As she falls behind her peers, Jess realises that Anna has developmental problems and becomes even more bound to her special child. Eleanor, the narrator, relays Anna’s birth without mentioning any of the opprobrium that would have been attached to a single mother in pre-Swinging London, even if she were a well-educated, middle-class woman, which seems odd. However, Jess brings up her golden baby in the company of other mothers, professional women like herself, and a brief marriage and occasional lovers do nothing to alter her close relationship with her daughter.
Drabble has chosen to give Anna an invisible disability which in Jess’s eyes makes the girl more vulnerable in her innocent or clumsy moments. That Anna’s disability is never pinned down by the medical profession lends her an air of mystery which, for her mother, makes her difficult to place in education. Jess manages to keep Anna in primary school alongside her friends who gamely protect her. But as she falls further behind, a residential school is suggested. How Jess copes being away from Anna is even more interesting than how Anna copes away from her mother. As Eleanor wisely observes: “Anna was the apple of her eye and the thorn in her heart.”
Drabble has given Eleanor, Jess’s friend, a conversational style that sometimes slips into a conspiratorial tone. She often refers to people or events without laying the groundwork, and it is only later in the story that the full facts are uncovered and the implications are made clear, much like in fragmentary, real-life conversations. Through Eleanor, the lives of a group of north-London women are documented as they negotiate career highs and lows, motherhood, infidelity, divorce and aging. Drabble imbues them with an authentic sense of comradeship, the glue of shared experiences holding them together through the years.
In using a narrator, Drabble keeps the reader at one remove from Jess and Anna, thereby making it easier to reveal the bigger picture of societal changes over 50 years. Drabble has catholic interests and as well as anthropology she includes thoughts on Africa, Proust, Rodin, Wordsworth, and the missionaries David Livingstone, Mungo Park and Mary Slessor. Through Jess’s search for suitable education for Anna she shows how attitudes to mental disability have changed, while a poet friend’s breakdown provides the basis for a look at psychiatry in the 1960s with R D Laing’s Kingsley Hall experiment in anti-psychiatry looming large. All this is woven into the story of Jess and Anna’s life together and only occasionally does it feel like extraneous details. What is amusing is watching Eleanor, a lawyer, become skilled at documenting the histories of her female friends, a kind of lay anthropologist in contrast to Jess, the professional academic.
Drabble seems to have a curious fondness for the word “proleptic” which appears several times in the novel and she sometimes repeats phrases within paragraphs. This aside, her prose is graceful and flowing and Eleanor is an articulate and engaging narrator. Jess is an appealing protagonist and Drabble elicits sympathy for her situation but not pity. Jess is a strong woman who faces up to the challenges of Anna’s disability with pragmatic courage, never giving up on her dream to return to hands-on anthropology in Africa. Anna is more opaque, her sunny disposition and love of pleasing others mean that it is hard to discern her internal life and even as she grows older she stays the same, the still, centre of Jess’s life. Drabble does not shy away from the question of dependency. Is Jess more dependent on Anna than vice versa? Has Anna given her an excuse to shy away from the hardships of raising funds to work in the field? This is a quiet, contemplative novel, Drabble’s own anthropological study of women of her generation making their way through an ever-changing world. Everything and nothing happens in a moving testament to love, loyalty, and friendships between women. Perhaps the real pure gold baby will know she, or he, has inspired this great writer to return to fiction with a poignant but ultimately uplifting tale.