Margaret Drabble is probably best known for her extensive range of novels, dating from her 1963 A Summer Birdcage, (1963, Weidenfeld & Nicolson), to her latest The Dark Flood Rises, (2016, Canongate). In particular, many readers of literature will know of her seminal novel The Millstone (1965, Weidenfeld & Nicholson), a novel portraying a young, single, female PHD student who falls pregnant after a casual one-night stand and chooses to have the baby alone. Drabble has never been one to shy away from the big issues, nor of challenging stereotypes, and documenting the state of women’s lives.
Like many, I read and enjoyed The Millstone many years ago, and came to her short stories much later. In the introduction to her collection A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman (1966) , Penguin), Jose Francisco, the editor of this edition states, ‘Drabble had published more than a dozen stories in journals, magazines and anthologies. There’s often a general lack of awareness surrounding the author’s short fiction’. (1966).
“The stories here are imbued
with Drabble’s characteristic themes of
class conflict and a cautious feminism.”
The collection here contains some fine examples of well constructed short stories, focussing on different areas and points in women’s lives. There is often a hint of moral dilemma about the stories; a point of change and stasis, decisions to be made or times when no decisions can be found. The stories are set out in the edition to run chronologically as to when they were first published, and illustrate the development and process of ageing of Drabble herself, with examples showing young women climbing career ladders, thirty-something mothers, to meditations on ageing and starting again. Though none of the stories are strictly autobiographical, many are based on Drabble’s own experiences and the places she’s visited and people she’s encountered. The stories begin in the 1960s, and end as far reaching as the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, the later stories mainly portraying middle-aged women escaping mundane burdens and obligations, seeking peace and solitude.
The other thing about these stories is that they are very English, they encapsulate values and ideas associated with England, yet Drabble pulls this off both with affection and wit. The stories here are imbued with Drabble’s characteristic themes of class conflict and a cautious feminism. There are uses of metafictional devices which work seamlessly, and there is a generally more subdued feel to the issues raised, less global concerns than in her longer works, more intimate portraits of the individual.
I am concentrating here on the title story ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’, because for me, it pulls together the strands of the collection, but also, in a more personal way, I feel it signifies how little has fundamentally changed in the life of women aiming to combine successful careers and raising a family.
Being one of the stories written in the 1970’s, as opposed to the first stories in the collection written during the 1960’s, it introduces the idea of the brisk, busy, highly efficient and professional woman emerging in the workplace. Similar to other characters in the collection, such as Kathie Jones in ‘A Success Story’, and the unnamed TV presenter and mother of four in ‘Homework’, the character in ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’ is representative of the successful career woman who must divide her time between work and family demands. The stories of this period feel like Drabble’s attempt to reconcile the idea of the modern woman juggling the demands placed on her, as well as trying to maintain an independent voice at the same time, in a way that hadn’t necessarily been done before. Definite influences of Doris Lessing appear within these stories. Francisco asserts in his fascinating introduction to the stories that Jenny Jamieson ‘makes a relevant precedent for future heroines’ within this story.
The title story opens with a brief introduction of facts: Jenny Jamieson, in her thirties, is married with three children. Getting bored when the children start school, her husband asks around – he is an editor of a weekly – and gets her a job at a TV station, where she quickly progresses to being in front of the camera, presenting her own show. We are told she is popular, quite famous, in a way, and pretty.
Drabble goes on to give us a rounded illustration of the woman here, telling us ‘She always had been efficient, a mother who always picked up her children on time, remembered swimming things, cooked well, never ran out of lavatory paper’. (p110) It was at this point early in the story that I began to nod in recognition. Drabble is portraying the parody of how mothers are expected to perform: nobody wants their child to be the one who forgets their PE kit, or lunch money. What unfolds then is a portrayal of how Jenny Jamieson has carried this aim at ‘perfection’ in her home duties over into her work life, being the constantly smiling, happy, interested and intelligent TV presenter that she feels is expected of her, whilst still realising that it is equally important to maintain the same level of efficiency within her home.
Jenny tells us ‘I’ve been lucky’, both getting and maintaining the job, never acknowledging that it is perhaps her talent or likeability which has got her the accolades she has. Always luck.
“This story is so poignant in its reflection of
how women take on the tasks of trying to
be everything to everyone, smiling through it all.”
What unfolds through the story is that her husband, originally finding the position for her, is unhappy with how successful she has now become. He responds childishly, jealously, either not coming home or turning up unexpectedly in the evenings, bad-tempered, not helping with the children, nor even making a drink for Jenny when she arrives home after working late. He makes unpleasant comments about her work colleagues, and in an almost astonishingly casual way, the narrator lets out that he sometimes wakes in the night, hitting her, accusing her of neglecting her children and him. (p111). This casual mention of violence is striking, more so when Jenny gives her opinion as ‘She supposed it must be her fault’, an eerie echo of many sufferers of domestic violence. We are further told ‘in the morning, she would get up and go on smiling’. (p111)
There is a general sense I think to the story as the background to her professional and home life unfolds that there must be some kind of revelation; some point at which Jenny will finally falter in the face of perfection she shows to the world.
Partly, this comes in a scene following her late return home from work one night, exhausted, her husband lying across the sofa reading and listening to a record. Anticipating whether she even had energy to make a hot, milky drink before falling into bed, a sarcastic retort from her husband sends her into a rage, forcing her to begin shaking and screaming at him. He, meanwhile, ‘lay there morosely, watching her, as though satisfied that he had by accident pressed the right button’, (p112). The narrator tells us ‘She was a different woman. She went to bed a different woman’.
In the morning, she considers staying in bed all day, not really seeing the point of carrying on, feeling she cannot possibly win. She decides it is more honourable, however, to fight to the death, and carries on. This picture of a woman trying so hard to be perfect, to be ‘good’, not to complain, being ashamed of her almost breakdown is as relevant, I think, now as it was in the ‘70’s.
But it feels at this point that this minor breakdown cannot be the end of this story. And it isn’t. Throughout, you get the sense that something is waiting around the corner for Jenny Jamieson, some kind of moral or warning that will slow her in her tracks.
Faced with a hospital appointment to deal with a problem she’s been avoiding for some time, and having to give a school presentation she agreed to attend straight afterwards, she pauses at her wardrobe to find something suitable to wear. Racked by indecision, she stands there, and thinks: ‘Is this it? Is this where I stop?’ (p115). Drabble shows here the tiny, seemingly innocuous minutia of everyday life that can sometimes tip us over the edge, that it is these small everyday decisions that can break us.
She eventually makes it to a committee meeting, thinking, ‘some little bit of mechanism in me has broken’, as she can no longer find it in herself to like these people, to keep smiling. She concludes she has been expecting the mechanism to do too much work, straining it for years, (p118), ‘She was so tired these days’ (p119). Thinking of the upcoming hospital appointment, she suddenly thinks of her children with intense yearning, saying she loves them ‘with a grand passion’. This is perhaps the first time she relates the powerful devotion she has to them, and feels significant.
At the hospital, she acknowledges how she has ‘ignored her body’ in a sad reflection of women’s beauty and ageing, and it feels that Drabble is transferring her views to the reader here. Reflecting how she doesn’t think of her body with any pleasure, or fear, as although she is considered momentarily beautiful, she expects the decay, and in an act of ‘splendid ignorance’, she reveals she has allowed herself to ignore the fact that she has been bleeding when she ought not to be. Her doctor is concerned and wants her in for an operation, and though we are not party to the discussion, we are told she asks all the right questions, all the while thinking back on an interview she conducted for her TV show whilst crumpled up with bellyache, unable to take in her guest’s responses, in a desperate effort to maintain professionalism.
As Jenny leaves the hospital, she thinks of her children again, of how she’s made herself indispensable. As a mother, she has surely wanted to make the world safe and pleasant and as easy to navigate as possible for them. And yet, when faced with a calamity as she is now, the reality of making her children so dependent on her seems like the biggest folly imaginable.
In the toilets, before her speech at the school, she has a moment of intense panic when she realises she is bleeding heavily now, probably set off by the doctor’s examination. She decides to carry on, ignore the bleeding, and give the speech. This description of Jenny’s predicament is written in straight-forward, non-flinching prose by Drabble, refusing to turn from the truth of the situation for Jenny.
On stage, as a girl presents her with a bouquet of flowers that remind her of death and cemeteries, she convinces herself that she will once again ‘Smile until the muscles of her face grew rigid and stiff’, (p131). Listening to the headmistress speak, she resolves that she will never let anyone inside her again, saying that she has ‘Too often, politely opened my legs. It shall not happen again. Too many meals I have politely cooked, too many times have I apologized’. (132).
She goes on to give the twenty minute speech, blood soaking out of her, down into her boot, and smiling, feeling glad she wore the long dress and boots, thinking she would look back on this day ‘as both a joke and a victory, but at whose expense, and over whom, she could not have said’. (p135). At this point, I confess, I wanted more. I wanted a whole novel about Jenny Jamieson, of whether this sudden indication of her mortality would drive her to leave her husband and begin making changes, or whether she would simply carry on, dealing as ‘efficiently’ with this dilemma as she had everything else, smoothing everything out for everyone else around her.
This story is so poignant in its reflection of how women take on the tasks of trying to be everything to everyone, smiling through it all: I see it in my own mother’s generation, which is the point of reference used by Drabble when writing this story back in the 1970s. But sadly, I still see an element of Jenny Jamieson in every woman I meet, trying to juggle work and family, and to maintain an independent voice above it all. Trying to do it all, be it all, and carry on smiling all the while.
Kate Jones is a freelance writer based in the North of England and has published features, reviews and essays in various places online including Thresholds, The State of the Arts, The Real Story and Skirt Collective. She has a passion for the short form, and has published many of her own flash fictions in places such asSpelk, Firefly, SickLit and Café Aphra, as well as winning the quarterly Flash500competition and three times winner of AdHoc Fiction. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.