More than thirty years ago I was an avid reader of Margaret Drabble novels, but have neglected her of late. We’ve both grown older and the contents of her earlier novels, written as a young woman, have been displaced by the concerns of older women.
Candida Wilton, the sometime narrator of The Seven Sisters is adjusting to life in London as a recent divorcée. Not only is she getting to grips with life as a newly single woman, but she has also bought herself a ‘modern laptop machine’ into which she regularly types her diary.
Moving to Ladbroke Grove from rural Suffolk involves her in joining the health club that has replaced the evening classes where she had started to study Virgil. She gathers up friends in her new neighbourhood and adds them to those from her schooldays and her time in Suffolk as wife to the headmaster of a boarding school. She very slowly grows in confidence and eventually (after a windfall) organises a trip to Tunis and Italy to retrace Aeneas’s steps in the Aenied. Her novel switches from confessional diary through third person narration of the journey to the Mediterranean, and then switches abruptly to a section narrated by her eldest daughter. We learn later that this is Candida herself, trying to focalise her own life (and fictitious death) through her daughter’s eyes. The final section of the novel returns to the diary form as the narrator attempts self –analysis using the perspective of her daughter, Ellen.
This novel should be required reading for all women of a certain age. Drabble’s narrator is a deft observer of the life around her, but more than that, she is a reminder that we are never too old. Candida manages to adapt to life as a divorced older woman, to (partly) come to grips with modern technology, she keeps fit at her health club, makes new friendships and travels abroad. She starts to rebuild relationships with her adult daughters and with men of her own age and ends on an optimistic stance: ‘I am filled with expectation.’ She has travelled a long way from the hesitant woman who stated on the book’s first page that ‘Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again.’