I think Jess is looking for meaning where there isn’t any. She’s just a bit too inventive about causation. I’m more resigned to the random and the pointless than Jess. – Margaret Drabble, The Pure Gold Baby
I didn’t expect to like this book. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t set out with any agenda and had very few preconceptions but I still didn’t expect to like the book. I didn’t love it but I did like it and by liking it I don’t mean that I didn’t hate it; I actually enjoyed reading it; I looked forward to the next day when I could pick it up again; I wanted to know what was going to happen next; I invested something of myself in the book. After I’d finished reading it I was talking to my wife about it as I often do—trying to get my ducks in a row before beginning to write my review—and one of the things I said to her was that nothing really happened in it to which she replied, “Well, you like that kind of book normally,” and she’s right, I do. Of course stuff does happen—lots of stuff—but it’s all very ordinary stuff even though it happens to people who in real life I would probably have little in common with. And yet a connection was made. And it kept my attention to the very end which despite there being a couple of wobbles along the way that might’ve made this a very different read ended pretty much as I expected and quietly at that. `
I knew of Drabble before I picked up The Pure Gold Baby—I had her pegged as a ‘woman author who writes women's books’ or perhaps an intelligent woman who writes intelligent books aimed at other women—but I’d read nothing else by her and I’d read next to nothing about her latest offering beforehand (and what little I had I’d already forgotten when I opened it) but I still didn’t expect to be the book’s ideal reader despite the fact I’m probably more in touch with my feminine side than most blokes. Nevertheless I approached it with an open mind.
Although called The Pure Gold Baby—Anna is the pure gold baby—the book is more about her mother, Jess. It’s narrated by one of her friends—Jess is at the centre of a small circle of friends who actually manage to stay friends from the sixties right through to the present day—and a friend who is privy to all sorts of details about Jess’s life including a lot of the time what’s she’s thinking. At the end of the book Jess’s friend, who remains nameless for a long time, writes by way of explanation:
I haven’t invented much. I’ve speculated, here and there, I’ve made up bits of dialogue, but you can tell when I’ve been doing that, because it shows. I’ve known Jess a long time, and I’ve known Anna all her life, but there will be things I have got wrong, things I have misinterpreted. Jess and I talk a lot, but we don’t tell each other everything. There are things in my life of which she knows nothing, and she has her secrets too.
Had that paragraph not been there I would’ve accused Drabble of bad writing but even bearing in mind what the friend says there’s just a little too much detail in the accounts and I don’t simply say this because I’m not crazy about lengthy descriptions but because whenever I read them I kept trying to imagine Jess describing the events to her friend and no one but no one would include as much often trivial detail; they would cut to the chase; they would say, “We had a bottle of fizzy water,” not a bottle of San Pellegrino as in this excerpt:
In the restaurant just off Queen Square, Raoul and Jessica talked about the Lebanon and the Sudan and Mongolia. (We don’t use those definite articles now.) They ate fusilli and farfalle and drank a bottle of San Pellegrino. They spoke of Steve Carter, who had retreated to the comfort of the Wendy House, but had found no comfort there, or thereafter. They spoke of Zain and his long heroic journey north from the oasis. They spoke of Dr Nicholls and R. D. Laing. They spoke of phantom pain in missing limbs, and of the neurology of the traumatised bladder. They spoke of Sylvie and her son Joshua. They had a lot to talk about.
Perhaps they spoke of me, their obliging facilitator, but if they did, Jess did not report it.
The friend is called Eleanor and she’s old enough to have a bus pass as she’s writing this and yet her recollections are always most precise which I find a tad unbelievable because as Eleanor herself notes:
As we grow older, our tenses and our sense of chronology blur. We can no longer remember the correct sequence of events. The river is flowing, but we don’t know on which bank we stand, or which way it flows. From birth, or from death. The water and the land merge. We lose our sextant, we follow the wrong compass. The trick of proleptic memory, towards the end of life, confuses us. The trope of déjà vu becomes indistinguishable from shock, sensation, revelation, epiphany, surprise. It is hard to live in, or even to recall, an unforeseen moment.
Granted she does repeat herself from time to time in that absentminded way old people do but I would’ve liked her to get more confused over the facts. So, although Eleanor writes with a sense of assuredness—I was going to say ‘writes with a sure foot’—and she’s clearly a bright and articulate woman I’m not sure we can necessarily trust her account one hundred percent, but that doesn’t really matter because she actually misses out so much about Jess and Anna that, in the end, they still didn’t feel like completely fleshed-out individuals but proxies, excuses for the author—Drabble this time, not Eleanor—to muse on bigger issues, the state of the country and in particular the state of mental health care in the UK. Anna is the chief pawn here but (wisely I think) Drabble also ropes in other characters with various mental health issues to enable her to widen her discussion. Jane Shilling in her review in The Guardian called the book “a novel of themes, rather than character” and that, for me, hits the nail on the head.
Jess’s story is a simple enough one. She moves from the north to London, falls pregnant as a young student to a forty-four-year-old she refers to simply as “the Professor” although as it happens he was only ever a doctor which is what Jess herself becomes, a Doctor of Anthropology. The baby is a little girl, Anna, but her father takes no real interest in either of them. He had been willing to pay for an abortion but as Jess declines he ends up basically paying her off with an odd amount:
‘He gave me some money,’ said Jess. ‘I made him cancel the abortion and the clinic, but he insisted on giving me some money when he left. He gave me £1,325 precisely, he paid me off with £1,325. That was a lot of money in those days. I was going to invest it for Anna. He called himself a Marxist, you know, but I think he came from quite a grand family. I did invest it at first, but then I thought it was more sensible to use it as a deposit to buy this house, so I did. I had some from my father too, but it was his money that made me think of it, that made it possible.’
The house is in London and most of the action—I use the term loosely (no car chases here)—takes place, in places that are just names to me: Bloomsbury, Tottenham Court Road, the (apparently) “timeless” Russell Square and Gordon Square and Bedford Square. Bloomsbury is, it seems, notable for its array of garden squares; so says Wikipedia.
What exactly is wrong with Anna is never made clear. Lots of mental ailments are mentioned—a couple I’d never even heard of—but if there is anywhere that Eleanor states for the record this is what’s up with Anna then I’m sorry I missed it. Anna is … now we have to tread carefully here … the current most politically-correct term would be ‘a special needs child’ I suspect. She’s feebleminded, simple, but she doesn’t appear to have any physical issues apart from clumsiness which rules out Down’s Syndrome. She’s fond of lists but that’s about it.
Picture books and stories she loved, particularly repetitive stories and nursery rhymes with refrains, which she could memorise word for word, and repeat back, expressively, and with a fine grasp of content, to her mentors. ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, ‘Polly, Put the Kettle On’, ‘Curly Locks’ and ‘Incey Wincey Spider’ were part of her considerable repertoire. But letters remained a mystery. She learnt to draw A for Anna, but produced it in a wobbly and uneven hand, and was slow to get to grips with n.
Anna knows her alphabet by heart, and can recite it as correctly as Jess, but its higher uses still remain largely mysterious to her.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that she’s dependent on adults and will continue to be dependent on them for her entire life:
There was no suggestion … that Anna would be a normal child. She would be what she would be—a millstone, an everlasting burden, a pure gold baby, a precious cargo to carry all the slow way through life to its distant and as yet unimaginable bourne on the shores of the shining lake.
Considering the fact she is the pure gold baby, as I’ve said, we don’t really see that much of Anna. She’s there, she’s always there, if only on the end of a phone, and she and her mother are inseparable for years:
Anna remained intimate with her mother, shadowing her closely, responding to every movement of her body and mind, approving her every act. Necessity was clothed with a friendly and benign garment, brightly patterned, soft to the touch, a nursery fabric that did not age with the years.
Eventually, however, a suitor appears in the guise of Bob:
The chap [Jess] found, without too much difficulty and after one or two more unsatisfactory overtures and experiments, wasn’t a neighbourhood man at all. There was nothing incestuous or even adulterous about him. He was new blood. He was half American, and he had long black curly hair, a hairy chest, and very smooth gleaming brown shoulders. He beautifully combined the hairy and the smooth. He had a child of his own from a previous marriage, but he’d left his wife and child behind in Chicago. He was divorced, and seemed keen to marry Jess. He was exactly the same age as Jess, take a couple of months. He was an ethnologist and a photographer, quite successful, and he took life lightly. He was a populist, and he made Jess laugh. Jess found his eagerness in itself seductive. Why not? He was an American citizen and he didn’t need a passport to settle in England. He didn’t try to borrow money from her. He wasn’t serious, but that seemed to Jess at that stage in her life to be an advantage. She was prepared to give him a try, to have a marital fling, and see how it worked out. Anna was for life, but Bob needn’t be. If it didn’t work out, never mind.
As it happens Bob isn’t for life, not as a husband anyway, but there’s no huge falling out; they stay friends and are still friends at the end of the book. Although wary of him at first he soon gets absorbed in the group along with Eleanor, Jim and Katie, Michael and Naomi, Maroussia, Steve (the group’s “own depressed poet”), Sylvie and Rick Raven and their hordes of children most of whom become pretty interchangeable if I’m being honest, just one of the gang:
‘Jim is married to Katie, Jim is Katie’s husband, Katie is Jim’s wife, Becky is their daughter, Nicky is their daughter, Ben is their son, Ben is Becky and Nicky’s sister, Jane is Ben’s aunt. Sylvie’s sons are called Stuart and Josh. Tim’s dad is called Jeremy.’ Anna enjoyed these listings. And she was happy to add the name of Bob, a name which in itself appealed to her through its round simplicity. ‘Bob!’ she would say, proudly, making the twinned consonants bounce from her lips like balloons. ‘Bob is married to Mum. Bob is Mum’s husband, Bob is my Step Dad.’ The phrase ‘step dad’ also pleased her. Its monosyllables were cheerful, like coloured bricks.
We get to watch this lot grow over the years and the world grow (and in some cases shrink) around them. Jess is a good choice in this regard because of her chosen career:
She was an anthropologist by disposition and by training and by trade, and she managed to earn a modest living from these shifts and scribblings. She wrote quickly, easily, at an academic or at a popular level. She became an armchair, study-bound, library-dependent anthropologist. An urban anthropologist, though not in the modern meaning of that term.
although at time you’d think it was Eleanor who was the anthropologist; I guess some of our friends’ traits rub off on all of us over time. You’ll notice that Eleanor comments on the expression “urban anthropologist” and its changing meaning. She does that a lot, words that have fallen out of use—simpleton, chorea, Mongolism—and new words or at least words that have been repurposed—downsizing, cohort, partner—and it’s a simple and effective way to remind us that the world is not what it used to be, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. And looking at the changes in the mental health system we see that just as things can improve they can also get worse again albeit a different kind of worse to the way things once were. Halliday Hall is a good example of this. Early on in the book Eleanor writes:
Halliday Hall in Essex was a new 1960s therapeutic unit housed in a refurbished wing of an old purpose-built mid-nineteenth-century institution which occupied the site of an eighteenth-century manor and farmhouse called Troutwell. There were still vestiges of the old farm buildings standing, though the manor house had long gone. (From potato farm to funny farm, that had been one of the old jokes.)
Pioneering work into the causes of mental defect had been done there in the old asylum in the early twentieth century, in the days when politicians and statisticians and eugenicists had publicly worried that the swelling numbers of the mentally subnormal would overwhelm the normal population, and sought (though not through infanticide or Swedish programmes of compulsory sterilisation) to counter this falsely perceived tendency.
Halliday Hall is, however, eventually closed down on grounds of cost and by the end of the book the place has fallen into disrepair:
The asylum that had housed Halliday Hall … has succumbed to time. It has been invaded by squatters and subjected to arson. Some of its buildings are listed and therefore cannot be demolished, but it cannot be developed either. It stands, a vast monument to institutional paralysis, to the inertia of mind and matter to which a campaigning and reforming minister of health called Enoch Powell had referred way back in 1962. It is a brownfield site awaiting a revelation, a new world order. All the optimism that built it has drained away. Someone has written in huge red dripping bleeding letters upon an inner corridor wall MY WOUNDS CRY 4 THE GRAVE. This is a fine biblical message of despair. Unplumbed sinks and baths and lavatories stand around, as though construction or renovation had been arbitrarily halted one day as funds ran out.
There is a newish lavatory bowl, still swathed in its dirty builder’s yard Lazarus bandages. It stands alone, like a throne, in a derelict courtyard.
It reminds Jess of something she has seen, long ago, and it comes to her that in Africa, all those many years ago when she was young, the anthropologists had been shown just such a bowl, standing surreal and abandoned on a concrete platform on a little brownish grassy African slope by a giant anthill. It had never been, would never be, installed. There was no need for it, no call for it. It was a symbol.
The book is full of symbols like this but for me the one that will haunt me the longest is this one:
A proleptic flash. I think this happened about ten years ago, perhaps fifteen years ago, long after that visit to plague-stricken Marsh Court, but it comes back to me vividly now, and in that context, in the context of remembering the sick schoolchildren. I was sitting on the top of the No. 7 bus, on the front seat at the right, travelling along Oxford Street. We had just passed Selfridges, that’s when I saw him.
He was sitting on the opposite pavement, on a bench, holding a large placard, with homemade letters that were easy to read from the top deck where I sat. They said MUM IS DEAD.
He had a cap by him, for offerings.
The words rent my heart.
MUM IS DEAD.
We are familiar with the concept that God is dead. We accepted it long, long ago. The message that mum is dead is more powerful.
Prolepsis is another thread that runs through the book: foreshadowing, preconceptions. It was a new term to me and it’s not the easiest to grasp. How, for example, can you have a proleptic flash looking back ten years? Or maybe the flash was what happened on the bus, a glimpse into one possible future. One day all our mums will die and most of us will have to go on without them. Anna most certainly will have to go on without hers. Horrible to envisage her sitting in the street like that.
“Schopenhauer said (and I'm paraphrasing here), he said that once a man reaches a certain point he should be able to look at his life and it should read like a well-crafted novel, that everything that happened had to happen exactly the way it did.” (Believe it or not I’m actually quoting from the TV show Shattered here.) Real lives don’t have plots but looking back it’s hard not to imagine plot points to read a little foreshadowing into events that in reality are nothing but coincidences. So there’s an unplumbed toilet pan sitting somewhere in Africa. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all. Not everything comes with a meaning attached. But what is the point to a life lived without meaning? Novels don’t need plots—which is good because this one has a very thin plot—but they do need points; sometimes, as in the case here, the point is actually a question mark because we’re not left with the answer to the meaning of life but it’s hard not to look back on our own lives and wonder. I think why this book chimed with me was that it focuses on decades that were important to me even though I’m a good ten years younger than the main players here and twenty years younger than Drabble. I’m not sure a younger person would appreciate the nuances but then I’m not sure youngsters are a part of Drabble’s demographic.
Looking back on this article I see I’ve quoted quite a bit from the book, possibly a bit more than one ought under the “fair use” rule but the reason is obvious: she’s eminently quotable. There are some authors—Jeanette Winterson is one—who, it doesn’t matter what they’re talking about, it’s just a pleasure to hear them string words together. Well, Drabble’s in that league and I’m very tempted to see what else she has. The Millstone is probably her best known work. First published in 1965 it’s about an unmarried young academic who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand and, against all odds, decides to give birth to her child and raise it herself. Just like Jess in The Pure Gold Baby. Maybe give that one a miss then although a part of me is curious to see how she would’ve handled the material at the time and without the benefit of hindsight. Or what about Jerusalem the Golden in which Clara, another northern girl, wins a scholarship and heads to London and yearns to become part of the smart, arty London set? Definitely a bit of a theme here. Or I might just wait and see what she writes next.
Margaret Drabble was born June 5, 1939 in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England. Her father, John Frederick Drabble, was a barrister, a county court judge and a novelist. Author A.S. Byatt is her older sister.
She attended the Mount School, York, a Quaker boarding-school, and was awarded a major scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read English and received double honours. After graduation she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford during which time she understudied for Vanessa Redgrave.
In 1960 she married her first husband, actor Clive Swift, best known for his role as the henpecked husband in the BBC television comedy Keeping Up Appearances, with whom she had three children in the 1960's; they divorced in 1975. She subsequently married the biographer Michael Holroyd in the early 1980's. They live in London and also have a house in Somerset.
Her novel The Millstone won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize and she was the recipient of a Society of Author's Travelling Fellowship in the mid-1960's. She also received the James Tait Black and the E.M. Forster awards. She was awarded the CBE in 1980 and she was promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2008 Birthday Honours.
She is often described as being the author one should read to get a clear view of what it's like to live in England. This is true not only because of her non-fiction books For Queen and Country and A Writer's Britain but also for her novels. The English personalities of her characters are tangible in her novels which, through the decades, have also reflected the dramatic political, economic and social changes that have taken place in Great Britain.