Meeting Yourself in Someone Else's Story

I went to hear Margaret Drabble at the Words by the Water book festival a couple of weeks ago and, after listening to her talk about short fiction, bought her collection of short stories, A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. She talked about the struggle she'd had to persuade her publisher to put them into print, which gives an idea of the state of publishing these days.  It's an interesting selection, ranging from 'Hassan's Tower' written in 1966 to 'Stepping Westward' in 2000.

Many of the stories are classic Drabble, with the prose style that is so distinctive.  The circuitous sentences that wind round the sense, balanced by colons and commas, repetitions, clauses and sub-clauses.  Some people hate it, but I find it mesmerizing. In 'A Pyrric Victory' a young girl, dragged out of her comfort zone on holiday with a boyfriend and unsympathetic friends, deliberately defiles a rock pool as an act of defiance and provocation.  It's a victory of sorts, very quickly qualified. This is the last sentence - vintage Drabble:-

'But of the nature of that victory she was never sure: she had thought to destroy, in one last unnatural effort, her admiration for that gaudy picture postcard set, but even as she sat there amongst the debris, imprisoned, exiled, yet victorious, she wondered whether she had not perhaps left herself, more clearly than ever, but in less painful isolation, with that moment, poised beautifully before the ugliness of its own ruin, poised there before the destruction of sharing and articulation and definition, which was as necessary, as painfully necessary to its existence as water, rocks, and sea, and fish, and faces.'
Margaret Drabble as she looked around the time she wrote this story.
When I got to story No.7, 'A Success Story', I was intrigued to come face to face with a character called Kathie Jones.  Now, you may not know, but among family and friends I'm Kathie Jones (with an ie not a y).  More intriguingly Kathie Jones is a writer, from a working class background in a cultural wilderness. Worse and worse, 'she was quite a nice-looking woman', but 'she had rather a long, large-featured face, with a large nose: she had big hands and large bones'.  Which just about sums up my physical appearance.  Of course it isn't me.  Margaret Drabble had never met me when she wrote it (I hope) and if she had would have had more sense than to give her character my name. But it has eerie resonances.  I liked the bit where Kathie Jones meets a famous writer at a party and, although she is respectably married, she goes back to his hotel room where nothing much really happens.  Something like that once happened to me and I was similarly virtuous (regretted it later!). Apparently Saul Bellow thought Margaret had based Howard Jago on himself and sued.  So that settles it.  I have never met Saul Bellow (as far as I know) . . . .

Jane Davis is tackling the difficult question of basing your characters on real life people over at 'Pills and Pillow Talk' today.  Getting it wrong can be expensive for a writer, though we all do it from time to time.

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, by Margaret Drabble,  is a Penguin Modern Classic available in paperback and on Kindle.


  1. I found this really interesting, Kathleen, as I loved Margaret Drabble's books in my youth and she does seem to have had a bit of a resurgence of late. I appreciated that lengthy and robust final sentence.

    Strange to find your name and description in her story (though it doesn't actually look the least bit like you!) and how childish for someone to sue because they feel a character is based on them - thus drawing more attention to it!

    I'm fascinated by the fact that you live in Cumbria and Italy (tempted to hope it might be Umbria!) as I wrote a novel set in Yorkshire and Carrara, where the protagonist worked as a sculptor. I love finding these coincidences and links.
    I'll go and read the Jane Davis post now, Jane.

    1. Hi Jane - glad you like Margaret Drabble. She had a lot of critical flak at one point, but I think some of her books are very good and will last. I actually flit between Cumbria and Versilia (which is at the northern end of Tuscany where it meets Liguria). and yes, very near the Carrara marble quarries. My other half is a sculptor working there. Aren't these coincidences strange? What's the title of the novel?

    2. My novel is 'Tantalus: the sculptor's story'. I remember my first sight of the marble mountains - wondering how I could be seeing snow on a sweltering summer's day, and being so inspired by the area that I sent the Yorkshire sculptor off to spend half his life in Carrara!

      Discovering the coincidences with your lives gave me goosebumps, and I am, of course, very envious!

    3. Got it, Jane! Looks interesting.

  2. That's lovely to hear, thanks Kathleen x


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