Thursday, November 29, 2007

A review of The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble

It’s almost 40 years since Margaret Drabble published The Waterfall, a novel, therefore, of the swinging, liberal, liberated sixties.. The scenario is simple. Jan and Malcolm and Lucy and James are two (heterosexual) couples. Then Jane initiates a shuffle of the cards and has an affair with James. By 2007 standards, this might provide enough material for page one of a contemporary inter-relationship novel. In Margaret Drabble’s hands it is more than enough to sustain a substantial book.

The narrative is seen entirely from Jane’s point of view. Alternately written in the first and third persons, we get to know Jane’s character from within and from without. She is not always honest, either with us or herself. She admits manipulation, duplicity, selfishness and infidelity. But they were the right things to do at the time, she convinces herself, the right things, that is, until she later reassesses what she did. So she justifies her inconsistencies, her whims, her foibles, her weaknesses through a belief that they were the right thing to do in the circumstances, at least as they unacceptably presented themselves. She is sometimes assertive, sometimes vulnerable, both satisfied and frustrated, accomplished and bereft. She hates sex, cannot cope with the physical contact of marriage, yet she finds herself with two children, and those after a first miscarried. It seems that for Jane every position is a default.

She is intensely analytical, however, extruding every aspect of her own psyche in every direction possible through the needle-eye of existence. And sometimes she meets herself going in the opposite direction, offers a greeting as she passes and remains unimpressed by the concept of contradiction. So in Jane we are presented with a character who appears to analyse every aspect of her life, of her very being, in forensic detail, only to ignore any conclusion that might arise. And for Jane, life changes on the day she discovers that James can give her what her husband seemed to promise, but was unable to fulfil. The Waterfall takes us through the minutiae of their relationship, examined from every possible angle, analysed down to the particulate. But we see everything from Jane’s point of view and, as I have already stated, this is not a consistent perspective.

Margaret Drabble provides the reader with some exceptional observations. Jane’s family, she tells us, believed in the God of the Church of England, and a whole host of other unlikely irreconcilable propositions, such as monogamy, marrying for love and free will. An aunt married a tradesman (Lord save us!), but she cultivated him so that he was at home with his professional relatives, and as capable as them of verbal malice. Jane describes herself as drifting sensibly into marriage. The class difference between Jane’s family and her husband’s was enjoyed by her own parents because it allowed them to indulge their passion for condescension. And these were the same parents who ate their hearts out in Surrey as they contemplated the forbidden fruits of prestige.

Margaret Drabble ostensibly presents Jane – and indeed Lucy, her cousin – as vulnerable females. Overtly – even internally – they are weak, perhaps wavering, unsure, forever unconvinced. But ultimately it’s the men involved who carry the weight, who become the tragedies. It seems that, at least in Margaret Drabble’s Waterfall, there exists in women, within an overtly vague vulnerability, a paradoxical and contradictory stern steel resolve which eventually endures.

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