Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Sea Lady by Margaret Drabble

Maybe to fall in love with certain writers you have to read them at a certain moment. The characters become more than characters-- they become embodiments of pathways towards living.

When I was in college, Frances Wingate, in Margaret Drabble's The Realms of Gold was such a character. In 1979, the year I entered Yale College, there had been women there for exactly ten years, but I felt that we had made but a superficial impression. There were no women in the secret societies that mattered. Few women professors. Girl students did not tend to win prizes. It was hard to be "hail fellow, well met" and when you weren't a fellow at all.

Frances Wingate was a full-grown woman, and she seemed to know how to behave in the world, and I took full note of her particulars: she had a lover with an accent who was sometimes with her and sometimes not. He had long tapered fingers stained with nicotine. She checked into hotel rooms alone. She travelled, rode in Jeeps in the desert, came down with dysentery, drank something called bitters. Frances Wingate was sometimes called into the kitchen to do tasks such as chopping vegetables, but when angered she picked up crockery and hurled it across the room.

The women in Margaret Drabble's books never hesitated to seem as smart as they felt. They were not afraid to use the word "teoleological." They were not afraid to get divorced, go to parties alone, have sex, drink too much, and look in the mirror and notice that their lipstick was smudged.

So, the joy of meeting Ailsa Kelman, now in her sixties and looking fabulous scooped into a metallic dress, is not inconsiderable. Another confident, smart, headstrong Drabble woman. Again, she is alone in a moving vehicle. Again, she is a reassuring twenty-some years older than I am, still barreling along, smart, determined hard-minded and thinking things over.

I don't drink Campari, ride Jeeps across the desert, or look good scooped into a metallic dress. I've never been as brave, or as articulate as a Drabble woman, but at least I've always had a sense what I was shooting for.