Jerusalem The Golden by Margaret Drabble was published over fifty years ago. Reading it now, for this particular reviewer, is the equivalent of reading Arnold Bennett in the same year that Margaret Drabble’s novel was written. Bennett’s quintessential late Victorian and Edwardian identity was then and remains almost foreign territory to the contemporary reader, but – even given the fifty year time shift – one might expect that the reader who actually experienced the 1960s as a teenager might suffer no culture shock whatsoever in reading Margaret Drabble’s essentially 1960s novel. That assumption, however, would be quite wrong.
The mechanics of Jerusalem The Golden’s plot can be described without spoiling the experience of reading the book. Clara is a lower middle-class girl growing up in Northam, which is clearly not far from Margaret Drabble’s own Sheffield, despite being described as being fifty miles or so further from London than its real-life manifestation. Clara clearly rather despises Northam. In her third person narrative that always feels like it wants to inhabit the first, Margaret Drabble has her principal character regularly refer to the dirt, the lack of sophistication and general ugliness of the place, factors that convince Clara – and no doubt the author herself – that life should transfer to London at the first opportunity.
Clara’s family is far from dysfunctional, but then the jury might be out on this because it hardly displays any function at all. Mrs Maugham, Clara’s mother, seems to live her life at arm’s length behind a wall of collected prejudice and panic if experience gets too close. Clara seems determined not to be like her mother.
Clara is successful at school but ignores received opinion as to what she might study, preferring her own judgment to the conventional pragmatism of offered advice. Before she leaves school, Clara has already shown significant signs of maturity. Not only does she develop an obvious but inwardly not perceived independence and individuality, but she also matures physically, developing an early and fine bosom, which she soon realises can be used as a source of power.
In London, where she attends university, Clara meets the unlikely-named Clelia, whose family turns out to be precisely the kind of befuddled, messy, propertied, sophisticated, if rather unclean lineage that would forever be diametrically opposed to her own Maugham household. One feels that if Clara’s mother were invited to the Highgate pad of the Denham family, her nose would turn up in silence as she reached for a mop to disinfect the floors. Strangely, Clelia is rather similar to Clara, both physically and personally, though we do not appreciate this until late in the book, when consciously or otherwise Clara seems to morph into the very identity of her friend.
Clara is a thoroughly credible 1960s character. This misunderstood decade, for most people, was not about free love, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll or protest. Ideologically, it may have become so, but day to day life was school uniforms, dance halls largely segregated by sex, social conservatism and conformity, allied to a newly won, for most people, glimmer of opportunity for self-betterment. Clara exhibits the values of her age, but also gnaws gently at the edges of the constraints, as the era appeared to expect one ought. She surprises herself on a school trip to Paris, but she does retain total control, a facility she learns to cultivate.
And it is this aspect of Clara’s character – its desire and ability to control, to extract exactly what she wants from life in general and circumstances in particular that comes to the fore. Clara desires, Clara gets. She is always self-deprecating, but she even learns to use this flawed confidence to focus attention and facilitation from others when she needs it. Gradually Clara is revealed as someone who ruthlessly uses her physical, personal and intellectual advantages to achieve precisely what she wants, despite the fact that she often tries to deny any conscious plan.
Margaret Drabble’s style throughout is both complex and backward-looking. Clara could easily be a character from fifty years earlier – an Arnold Bennett society debutante, aware of social niceties, protocols and conventions, but needing to make her own way through life’s challenges. But Clara is always ready to assert her presence in a way a woman from fifty years earlier might not have done and thereby she achieves her ends, often irrespective of any potential damage done to others. Her potentially self-destructive success in achieving her wishes is increasingly quite disturbing. Hers is an individualism that also could easily become self-defeating, as evidenced in the author’s assessment that Clara “thought nothing of” being sick in a Paris toilet when she decided to leave her married lover behind. We are left thinking that there is something unsaid to follow. And, if that were to be the case, perhaps a more general parallel with the 1960s decade is possible, in that it might have felt like a liberation for the individual, but also that it might eventually have threatened something that was both longer lasting and longer term. One feels by the end that Clara is set for some pretty rude awakenings.