Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesdays - Homework by Margaret Drabble

Short Stories on Wednesdays is a weekly event hosted here, at Bread Crumb Reads. The purpose of this event is to encourage people to read at least one short story a week.

Homework, tenth story.
10 pages long.
Published in Cosmopolitan, October 1973; and In the Looking Glass: Twenty-One Modern Short Stories by Women. N. Dean and M. Stark, eds. New York: Putnam, 1977.

Much of my twenties and early thirties was spent reading Margaret Drabble's books. She was just a bit older than I, as were her heroines. Very seldom did my life intertwine with her characters, but I loved reading about them all the same. I stopped reading her work somewhere along the time she began writing what appeared to me to be more sociological or political works rather than the previous focus on the personal lives of women. And I may be wrong. Maybe her later writing was still personal and I was just too busy with little children to get as involved with her books as I had been earlier. I've been thinking of giving myself a little reading project of going back to her first book, and reading right through them because when I was reading A Summer Bird Cage and Jerusalem the Golden and The Waterfall I would have told anyone that Margaret Drabble was one of my favorite writers, possibly just below Virginia Woolf on my list. I'd like to know what my older self would think about these young women making their way. And I'd like to read the newer books as well.

So, when I saw that this new book of her complete short stories was published, I bought it immediately. I also bought her sort-of memoir called The Pattern in the Carpet. I am reading it slowly and happily.

Homework features one of those people I think we all know. The adjective which, sadly, best describes them is 'pathetic.' We feel sorry for them, but embarrassedly we feel annoyance as well. The story is told in this person's voice. Her name is Meg. The woman she talks about is not named. We know her only as 'she.'
She has always been very generous to me. I always make it perfectly clear to her that all she has to do if she wants to put me off is just give me a ring. I'm always in, I say. You're the busy one, not me, I'm a nobody, I always say: just you give me a ring if you can't manage Tuesday, we can easily fix another day. I'm always free. But she never does.
The unnamed woman is a working, single mother with four children. She's always doing twenty things at once, and is quite distracted when our narrator goes to her house for the weekly supper and visit. The narrator is the kind of person who walks around to kill time so she won't arrive too early. The mother doesn't reveal much in her conversations. Mostly it is the narrator who talks. And she is full of hard luck stories.
 .... I was trying to explain about Mary [her divorced roommate] and how she couldn't go on an Easter holiday with me after all although she'd said she would be free...
Meg reminds me of "Sad-Sack-Terziak" in the movie, Home For The Holidays. Terrible things happen to him, and always have. He'll say something like, I'm the one they call to fix the boiler on holidays because I don't have anyone to spend them with. Most of us are made uncomfortable by such blatant ourpourings of emotion. We don't know how to react. The speakers are so very lonely and we don't know how to cope with them. The woman in this story drinks. Gin and plenty of it on these Tuesday visits. She is clearly stretched to her limit, having worked outside all day, trying to cook a meal while the children all need her for one reason or another. She is quite sharp with them, and in this story shocks Meg by having quite an outburst at one of the children.

But after Meg leaves, and looks back in the window, she sees the mother and son hugging one another and "laughing their heads off," which makes her think that the woman might be unbalanced and "could do with some kind of treatment." This reader wondered if they were laughing at poor, pathetic Meg.

This is an excellent story by a writer who draws these characters perfectly. So perfectly that a reader might find them, especially Meg, achingly familiar.


  1. It's been a long time since I read any Margaret Drabble (just novels, I think) but I'm tempted by the stories and the 'memoir', too.
    You may find this recent article about her interesting , Nan:

  2. I love the sound of this story. I've been reading short stories steadily lately so i might have to join in your challenge. Also, thank you for commenting on my Hedgehog review- and no, you absolutely don't need to have read the book to enjoy the movie! :-)

  3. happy to see you at farmhouse kitchen, my friend

    kary and teddy

  4. I've never read anything by Margaret Drabble, although I have intended to for years...Short stories might be a way to fit her into my busy (reading) schedule.

  5. I've never read anything by Margaret Drabble but I recently bought a copy of The Millstone so I hope to remedy that. This story sounds lovely.

  6. We've both read some very sad stories this week! I've never read any Margaret Drabble, though of course I've heard of her writing. I'm intrigued - maybe I should try one of her stories next Wednesday.

  7. Oh Nan, this looks like one for me. I too adored the early Drabble novels, I am tempted to re-read them all now, I wonder how I would respond, life is so very different to when I first read them. I haven't read anything of hers for years.

  8. Like you I grew up reading Margaret Drabble, and then stopped. I'd have to admit that I didn't enjoy the recent book The Sea Lady very much, it was an effort to keep reading and I wasn't very interested in the characters. This sounds much better, and I've ordered The Pattern in the Carpet from the library as you said you were enjoying it.

    Meg sounds infuriating, and very well-observed.

  9. I love Margaret Drabble as well, but I don't know this book. Thanks for the tip.

  10. This sounds wonderful! I've only read one of Margaret Drabble's novels (wish I could remember the title) and that was years ago. I've never read her stories.... will need to take another look at this author. I really enjoyed this post, Nan.

  11. Karen, you won't regret buying either one, I'm quite, quite sure. And thanks a million for the link. Oh, to see her, and read this article. Lovely, wonderful. I've just ordered a used version of A Summer Bird Cage so I may just do the little MD marathon. She's really so excellent.

    Marie, you should join! Go here for more info:

    Thanks for the book/movie info. I look forward to it.

    Kary, it's nice to be able to comment. Remember when I couldn't for some weird internetty reason?

    Debbie, short stories are wonderful for that very reason. I really love them, and appreciate this weekly occasion to read them.

    Che, she's a very good writer.

    Sophia, and I want to read the EW one! I just found it online.

    Carole, how I wish we lived closer. I'd love to have known you when we were both reading her. Call me madam used to read her then, too. We could have had such fun, the three of us, talking about the books. As I said to Karen, I just bought A Summer Bird Cage!

    Geranium Cat, The Pattern in the Carpet is very, very beautifully written. She says it isn't a memoir, but she does write of her life in it. I've read half. I think I put it down because I didn't want it to end.

    Common Weeder, if you already like her work, this will be a real treat for you.

    JoAnn, you might want to go to the link Cornflower provided to get a sense of Margaret Drabble now.

  12. I love strong characterizations. This reminds me so strongly of someone I know:

    The narrator is the kind of person who walks around to kill time so she won't arrive too early.

    I'll look into Drabble's stories; thanks for the recommendation.

  13. I have A Summer Birdcage, very worn and moved many, many times. Will take it down and put it on top of the to be read pile.
    Do you know of Joe Swift? He is a gardener, often appears on the BBC gardening programmes, and he is M.D's son.
    I would love to have known you then too, what fun we would have had comparing notes. Nice to know you now anyway.

  14. HKatz, Margaret Drabble is excellent at characterizations. I remember that from all those years ago of reading her early work. Sadly, I think we all know someone like the narrator in this book.

    Carol, maybe we can read Margaret Drabble together all these years later! Someone did tell me about Joe Swift, and I looked him up and was so delighted. Suppose he is like Hyacinth Bucket's 'Sheridan' seeing how he is Clive Swift's boy?! :<)


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