The Sea Lady, by Margaret Drabble

A fishy tale of a feminist icon
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The Independent Culture

In the 1960s, Ailsa dyed her pubic hair red to sing a cabaret monologue about menstrual bleeding. Since then, she has boasted publicly of affairs with both sexes, told of abortions, sported on her neck-chain a plastic-coated foetus (hers), appeared in court defending oral sex and sodomy, and agreed to a cervical examination on live TV. The great British viewing public has looked up her vagina. Ailsa Kelman is also a leading intellectual and women's studies guru, a feminist "personality" writing books important to many generations - on women artists, literature and cultural studies. Everything interests her.

Ailsa is an ardent self-publicist. Thought incorruptible, she is in reality only endlessly buoyant, finding ideological reasons for each view she defends. Her violently self-assertive energy makes her a key part of her age, as well as somehow separate from it.

Since Margaret Drabble's first novel in 1963, her books have helped many of us navigate each decade. Among her many gifts is the ability to spotlight the apparently merely topical, and find there something universal. Like all good writers, she is in search of truth. And so Ailsa has the style of this age: exhibitionistic, hysterical, vain, aggressive, celebrity-obsessed. She is partly a monstrous creation, bad at growing old, or even growing up.

Drabble passes on her own appalled delight in Ailsa, the Sea Lady who starts this novel giving a prize for a publication on marine biology, "working" a room for its usable inhabitants. A meeting with a malevolent gossip-columnist starts the book's pilgrimage, which, like Bergman's film Wild Strawberries, entails a journey to a degree ceremony in a Northern resort where she will accept an honorary doctorate. Once there, Ailsa starts to exhibit the symptoms of late-onset humility.

All the graduands know one another, but have not met for decades. Humphrey Clark is a masochistic marine biologist who knew Ailsa half a century ago, and married her, and at first was happy. He is bad at anger, and at living out the consequences of his actions. He regrets much. His profession offers Drabble the chance to meditate about the sexual indeterminacies of sea-life, to think fishily, to offer informed digressions about how Darwin lost his religious faith watching some disturbingly cruel insects; and to note with what humility Darwin judged his life. Drabble has an omnivorous curiosity, collecting facts because of their poetry.

We learn about marine sex-change, pearls and much, much more. Marine biology offers one way of thinking through human change. For this is a playful novel about how we make sense of our own history by telling stories that need to be revisited and revised. Drabble evokes England from the distant 1940s to the present, with a witty eye for unexpected detail.

"Hoc Opus, Hic Labor Est": a recurrent Latin tag stays untranslated. It comes from Virgil: "The descent to hell is easy/ the gate... stands open night and day./ But to retrace one's steps and return to the upper air/ that is the toil, that is the difficulty". The real topics of the novel are the corruptions of public life; the failures and compromises of age; and the long quest - as in Wild Strawberries - for purity of heart. Once you have visited even briefly, staying out of hell proves tough. Drabble is generous even to her nastiest characters, offering a resolution that is earned, and a moment of forgiveness that rings true.

Peter J Conradi's life of Iris Murdoch is published by HarperCollins