For a few, very few, years in the ’70s it was acceptable for women not to have children. By the mid-1980s women were barraged with cruel greeting cards with the slogan, “I forgot to have children.” By the time I even considered having children, I was peri-menopausal and said, No, thank you, to infertility pills.
I ordinarily run miles from a novel about motherhood, but Margaret Drabble’s new novel, The Pure Gold Baby, intelligently, if obliquely, portrays a group of mothers in North London from the ’60s to the present.
The novel revolves around Jess Speight, an unmarried anthropologist whose child, Anna, has developmental problems. After Anna’s birth, Jess switches her focus in anthropology from Africa to England and embarks on a career of freelance journalism so she can care for Anna at home.
The novel is narrated by Nellie, a friend of Jess’s who is not an altogether reliable narrator, as we learn when she admits that parts of the narrative are constructed from her own imagination.
Who is the heroine? Is the novel about Jess or Nellie?
Nellie is fascinated by Jess’s refusal to tell her married lover, an anthropology professor, about Anna, if indeed he is her lover, because Nellie is not sure whether he exists or whether Jess made him up. Anna is an easy baby, always happy. But when her developmental difficulties become evident and Jess must take counsel from a doctor, we are reminded of Drabble’s early novel, The Millstone, in which the unmarried narrator, a scholar, has a baby who needs surgery, and she must navigate the health system, eventually playing the upper-class card so her baby will get good care.
Drabble beautifully captures Jess’s sadness on her trip to the doctor’s office, but Nellie deviously confuses us about the point-of-view of the narration, beginning in the first-person plural and then switching to first person singular:
When we look back, we simplify, we forget the sloughs and doubts and backward motions, and see only the shining curve of the story we told ourselves in order to keep ourselves alive and hopeful, that bright curve that led us on to the future. The radiant way. But Jess, that cold morning, was near despair. She did not tell us about this then, but of course it must have been so. I picture her now, walking along the patched and pockmarked London pavement, with its manhole covers and broken paving stones, its runic symbols of water and electricity and gas, its thunderbolts and fag ends and sweet wrappings and patters of chewed and hardened gum, and I know that she faltered.
We see so much here: the shining curve, the bright curve, the radiant way, contrasted with Jess’ despair, the pockmarked pavement, the broken stones, the trash.
And Drabble chooses to follow the radiant way, alluding to her 1987 novel, The Radiant Way, which was the first in Drabble’s brilliant trilogy, including A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory. There is darkness but much hope.
Jess has a normal life, despite her responsibility for Anna. She marries Bob, an anthropologist-photographer, and later has relationships with three men who, not uncoincidentally, have mental health problems: first Steve, a poet, then Zain, a gorgeous man coveted by many, and finally she has a serious friendship with Raoul, who recovers and becomes a famous neurologist. All three of these men live briefly in an exclusive progressive mental health community. Drabble charts the changes in the mental health system over the decades, ranging from Laing to homelessness. Steve was unable to thrive after the demise of the community.
Shimmering throughout the novel are Jess’s memories of a group of children in Africa, who had a rare condition, lobster-claw syndrome, their fingers or toes fused. These children were indifferent to their deformity, and Jess loved watching them. Her feeling toward Anna is similar; she loves her child’s good nature: her inability to read or write does not matter to her, as it might to some intellectual parents. At the end of the novel, Jess, now old, and Anna, middle-aged, go to Africa, and the novel comes back full-circle.
Drabble is particularly good on portraying aging as the decades fly by. Nellie, the narrator, is fascinated by art depicting aging women. She describes Rodin’s “The Helmet Maker’s Once Beautiful Wife,” which has fascinated her since a school trip to Paris.
I was unprepared for the shock of the woman’s naked body. The old woman of Rodin lacks all dignity. Her image wounds, insults, reduces. I stood, transfixed, appalled and undefended….
She is old, and scraggy, and ugly. She is a memento mori. She is worse than a memento mori, for in comparison with this condition, death were welcome. She is, I suppose, witch-like, but she lacks the malevolence and the energy of the three weird sisters from Macbeth… She is passive. She is a passive recipient of the battery, the assault of time, and of the contempt of men. Her breasts are dry and dangle, her ribs stand out, her skin hands in folds from her withering frame her back is bowed in submission.
This stunning novel is both dense and disturbing, and those of you who, like me, particularly like Drabble’s complicated novels of the ’70s and ’80s, will admire this dark exploration of family, heredity, and women’s lives in the late 20th century and the third millennium.
This book bears rereading, and I will reread it soon.
Women of Margaret Drabble’s generation had children. Most women of mine did, too, but there was that small window of opportunity for women of my age to be childless without guilt.
Drabble thinks these disabled children contribute to the culture, and we will be worse off when we have no Downs Syndrome children.
Although I personally could not have cared for a child like Anna, because my energy is limited and my freelancing certainly didn’t pay as well as Jess’s, I find Drabble’s ideas interesting. On the other hand, I am very much in favor of abortion rights.