Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

"Jerusalem the Golden" by Margaret Drabble (Penguin, 1969)

I'm struggling again. The heroine, Clara, is affected by words that are "phrased with some beauty" (p.31). I wonder what she'd feel about the start of this book. Early on she uses big words in conversation - "And now you can see that I can substantiate my disadvantage" (p.24) The following extracts of narration (3rd person privileged though they are, and interpretable as expressions of Clara's personality) are too wordy to me.

  • Sometimes she wondered what would have happened if she had missed them, and whether a conjunction so fateful and fruitful could have been, by some accidental obtuseness on her part, avoided: she did not like to think so, she liked to think that inevitability had had her in its grip, but at the same time she uneasily knew that it had in some ways, been a near thing (p.9)
  • In the following, the repetition of "although" and "quite" seem accidental - Although she was quite ignorant of the etiquette of such occasions, she rightly took this to be her duty; she could tell that she was right by the way that Peter, after introducing her, politely echoed her sentiments, although he had expressed quite other sentiments whilst sitting beside her in the auditorium (p.10). How about this rewrite? - Though ignorant of the appropriate etiquette, she took this to be her duty; she could tell she was right by how Peter, after introducing her, politely echoed her sentiments, contradicting what he'd said during the performance
  • Clelia was a name with which she had no acquaintance. She did not think it likely that she would ever need to use it, so she was not unduly uneasy about her ignorance. How about this instead? Again, it reduces the word-count by at least a third - She hadn't heard the name Clelia before, which didn't worry her because she didn't think she'd use it

The paragraph starting near the bottom of p.10 begins with a sentence containing "but". Subsequent sentences hinge about "but", "but", "but", "but", "but" and "nevertheless", "however, though", "though", "and yet" until the pattern's broken by the none too elegant "She liked to like things, if at all, for the right reasons. And all in all, she was glad".

Once the text has something to narrate and more dialogue interjects, the style loosens up. Naive, Clara emerges into a mileau she's longed for - the "Jerusalem the Golden" hymn elevated the heroine, Clara, "to a state of rapt and ferocious ambition and desire ... where beautiful people in beautiful houses spoke of beautiful things" (p.32). She trusts the first interesting family she meets - "Clara was impressed by the way they all managed to talk intelligently, yet without strain, without intensity, without affection" (p.136); "She took them on trust so completely, the Denhams, for as far as she could see they were never wrong" (p.156). She identifies with Clelia - when Clelia was 8 or 9 she once "confessed that she was weeping because she feared she would never be an artist" (p.137). Later, finding some of her own dying mother's letters, Clara identifies with her as she was in her 20s. In chapter 7 we have Gabriel's point-of-view. Later, Clara's and Gabriel's points-of-view alternate. At the end, events happen rapidly, and Clara, without experience, perhaps oversteps the mark. Coincidences play in her favour. I like the last hundred or so pages.

I probably used to identify with her characters - heroines from a sheltered upbringing who have the basic brain power but lack cultural conversation and challenges to their beliefs. They meet someone who opens the door onto a new life, shows them London. They're not ready for it, they idealize their new friend, they run before they can walk, feeling there's so much time to make up.

In a Paris Review interview by Barbara Milton, Drabble says "Most people have a rival figure or model figure while some of us have lots of both. I suppose in my case this was either my older sister, or my best woman friend whom I've used again and again in my novels. The friend was very much a Celia figure to me in that she came from a more sophisticated background." and "The problem in my early novels was that I simply hadn't the ability to express the range of my feeling. I couldn't technically do it. When I wrote my first novel I didn't know how to write a novel at all. ... In the fourth [Jerusalem the Golden], I tried to write (not very successfully) in the third person". On enotes it says that "The Millstone, and Jerusalem the Golden are semi-autobiographical". So maybe my doubts about this book match her own doubts, and the reasons I liked the books were to do with the reasons she wrote them.

In the Paris Review she says she finds it difficult writing "about very stupid people. I'm aware that my characters tend to be not only intelligent, but intelligent about themselves." The characters do all seem equally self-literate, plot turns tending to happen when a character becomes suddenly more or less self-aware than usual. Jon Self on his The Asylum blog says "Drabble’s style remains similar through many of the stories: a subjective third person narrative which comes close to stream of consciousness in its detail and absorption of the characters’ thoughts (at times I was reminded of Mrs Dalloway). This enables her to impart her characters’ histories and impressions together, in a way which can tip from showing to telling". Maybe, but the initial style in this book still seems too stilted.

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