Sister act

They are two of our most celebrated novelists, but for 50 years they have also been bitter rivals. Now Margaret Drabble is writing a novel about their family life, and A S Byatt doesn't like it one bit...

John Walsh
Friday 07 April 2000 00:00 BST

In 1850, Charlotte Brontë contributed a curious introduction to a new edition of Wuthering Heights. She had just re-read the book, she said, and, for the first time, had a clear grasp of its "faults". To people who didn't know her late sister Emily, she observed, the novel "must appear a rude and strange production". She wouldn't be surprised, she went on, if the manners and language and behaviour of the characters were, to most readers, "unintelligible and - where intelligible - repulsive". Charlotte felt she should explain that Emily knew about the outside world only through tragic myths and terrible events. "I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry among whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gate..."

Well, thanks a bunch, sister dear, you can hear Emily seething from her last home under the heath and the hare-bells; and we are surprised to read such a silken posthumous sisterly put-down from one fine novelist to another. Where would you find such a delicate piece of literary sororicide today?

One answer is: somewhere between Dame Antonia (A S) Byatt CBE and her sister Margaret Drabble. The two writers have rarely commented on one another's work, but there seems to exist between them a constant, low-level hum of irritation. In a century full of sisterly spats - Virginia and Vanessa Bell, Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland, Jackie and Joan Collins, Jane and Anna Campion - their dispute, whatever the exact nature of its provenance, outclasses the rest. It has become, in one commentator's words, "a sibling rivalry which over the years has taken on the dimensions of a public contest".

This week, the contest moved into a higher gear when Ms Drabble announced that a three-year project was nearing completion: a new novel, her first since The Witch of Exmoor in 1996, will be published early next year. It's called The Peppered Moth and will amount to a fictionalised life of her mother, Kathleen Marie Bloor, a tragic and domineering figure. Ms Drabble said her novel was an attempt "to exorcise all the old ghosts which have festered inside. It's a very difficult therapy, but through it I hope to put the past to rest and find some sort of peace."

Antonia Byatt was put out. She feared, she said, that Margaret's account would be "one-sided", adding, "I would rather people didn't read someone else's version of my mother... That is her [Drabble's] experience. Mine belongs to me. I wish her every good luck with it."

Back to Ms Drabble: "It's got nothing to do with her," she retorted. "I don't read my sister's books, and for all I know she's written about my mother herself. She's got nothing to worry about." Note the combination of politesse and irritation; the way your sister is called "someone else", and the mother you share becomes "my mother"; the insistence that your experience "belongs" to you, as if someone were trying to take it away; and the suggestion that a work of fiction might be "one-sided" and so untrue, when, of course, all fiction is a calculated untruth.

The sisters' dispute has been going on for more than half a century. They grew up in Sheffield during the war. Antonia is the elder; she was born in 1936, Margaret in 1939. Their father, John, was a barrister who became a circuit judge and instilled into them a sense of life's seriousness. What their mother, Kathleen, gave them, by contrast, was a sense of trauma, an expectation of unhappiness. She had a Cambridge degree and was able to teach during the war (when the rules that forbade married women to teach were relaxed) but after it she went back to housework and hated the waste of her talents. Her husband filled the kitchen with labour-saving devices. She cooked pies, cakes and spaghetti dishes and seethed with frustration.

When the family moved to Sevenoaks, Kent, the mother's pent-up storms burst out. "She'd get out of her mind with rage, always about nothing," Drabble recalled. "I realised it wasn't us she was shouting about, but it was a torrent of unhappiness. We were constantly living with uncertainty, not knowing when it was going to happen." In such an atmosphere, the asthmatic Antonia spent much of her early life in bed, reading classic works of literature. Margaret remembers being allowed to wander the Sheffield streets alone, aged seven, where she was pinched by dirty old men in Woolworths. Her mother alternated between neglecting the children and requiring them to be brilliant. She praised their cleverness but expected great things of them, the kind of achievements she couldn't have herself. Margaret was left, she said later, with a chronic fear of letting people down.

Her mother also fostered a growing rivalry between the girls. "She displaced a competitiveness on to us," Margaret reported. "I felt everything Antonia did I had to do better."

Those looking for the key reason behind the sisters' disaffection often locate it in the girls' teenage years, when Margaret worshipped her elder sister, envied her boyfriends and high heels and lipstick and tried to be just like her. Some look further back, to the nursery, where the toddler Maggie would trail whiningly after Antonia, demanding she play with her. It was when they hit university, however, that the competition became intense.

As the press has never been able to let Antonia forget, she gained a first-class English degree, while Maggie, three years later, got a starred first. Springing to fame like a whippet from the traps, Margaret Drabble published her first novel in 1963, was reviewed with enthusiasm and instantly became a Sixties face at 21. The book was A Summer Bird-Cage; it opens with the bright, sassy Sarah and her "lovely, shiny, useless new degree" returning from Paris for the wedding of her sister Louise. "My sister, I should say, is an absolute knock-out beauty," confesses Sarah. "Louise has a real old aristocratic, predatory grandeur. As tags go, she is grande dame while I am jeune fille."

The book was about their rivalry. At the time, the real grande dame was teaching in London, raising children and writing her own fiction. Her debut, Shadow of a Sun, came out in 1964, followed three years later by an extraordinary follow-up, The Game, in which Cassandra, an Oxford don, and Julia her sister, a best-selling novelist, are thrust into remembering their peculiar childhood and their rivalry. It ends with Cassandra killing herself after being satirised in one of Julia's novels.

Antonia returned to academe, teaching at the Central School of Art and Design, then at University College London, until the Eighties. Margaret's novelistic star rose and rose, but took a dive with the publication of her "social conscience" trilogy, The Radiant Way, A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory - the right-wing press had her down as a typical chattering-class complaining leftie. Meanwhile, Byatt's reputation was growing as the nation's foremost exponent of the densely charged novel of ideas. The Virgin in the Garden and its sequels, Still Life and Babel Tower, investigated the old theme of sibling hostility through Byatt's alter ego, Frederica Potter. The sisters were now competing (though neither would admit it, just as neither admits to reading the other's books) for fiction's highest prizes - Margaret as politically engagée social anatomist, Antonia as intellectual polymath and subtle symbolist. (You could see them as competing in literary criticism, too, when Margaret published her Oxford Companion to English Literature in 1985.) Then Antonia won the Booker Prize in 1990 for Possession, sold 75,000 copies in hardback alone and spent her prize money, triumphantly, on swimming pools for her homes in Putney and Provence.

And that was that. Antonia had won, hadn't she? The older sibling, the teenage fighter for her rights, the brilliant academic, the "difficult" novelist, she was triumphantly vindicated. Margaret had had the more striking début, sure, and got marginally the better degree, but she hadn't had the stamina for the long haul...

Ten years after the Booker, is that how it stands? Think again. The prospective publication of The Peppered Moth has opened up a whole new vat of snakes. Look at the words the sisters used when they talked about incorporating the mother into a novel; then cut to a similar discussion, four years ago, when Margaret told an interviewer that she had put off reading Antonia's Possession for six years. She was glad she hadn't read it before, because Byatt "uses a great deal of the place we used to go for our childhood holidays, which I'd never have been able to use if she used it". She was also afraid of reading Antonia's short-story collection, Sugar, because one story described their father's last illness - and "I just didn't want to read about my father's illness unless it had been written by me - and I wasn't going to write about it".

The lifelong dispute between two supremely talented and competitive sisters is being rekindled over the flesh-and-blood equivalent of "intellectual copyright". After the academic striving and the creative brinkmanship, they are locked in a final, terminal dispute about the biggest things of all - about who owns the rights to their father's death, their holiday pony-rides in Filey, their mother's howling misery. Margaret and Antonia are not just competing to be Top Literary Brain. They are fighting for possession of the life they once shared.

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