This new novel with the strange title (more about that later) is by Dame of the British Empire, Margaret Drabble, sister of novelist and “Babel” series visitor A.S. Byatt. Drabble has written 17 novels as well as a volume of short stories.
Add to that her biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson and her work editing “The Oxford Companion to English Literature.” She has written more perhaps than even a hyperactive book-lover might have a care to read.
Two of her more recent novels, “The Witch of Exmoor” and “The Seven Sisters,” were earlier reviewed on these pages.
Her latest is an exploration of motherhood. Jessica Speight, a young anthropologist in 1960s London, is just beginning her career when she has an affair with her married professor. Thus does she become a single mother with Anna, “a pure gold baby with a delightful sunny nature.” The novel raises issues of what our author calls “proleptic tenderness,” that is, the anticipation of an act of tenderness before it occurs.
It soon becomes clear that something is wrong with Anna, and Drabble circles questions of responsibility, potential, even of such a circumstance with her usual understanding, thoroughness and compassion.
The reader gets a first inkling of this when this remark is passed by a friend: “We all saw Anna as a pretty, friendly, good-natured, smiling little thing, with a touching spirit of sharing and helpfulness … so it came as a shock to be told that she had problems.”
Jess’ attitude toward Anna’s father and his obligations, according to her neighbor, Eleanor, was extreme and bizarre. She simply “disconnected” him from responsibility and we’re not sure why, Eleanor relates.
Part of the answer may have been the attitude in the early 1960s among enlightened university types, according to Jess’ confidant.
Eleanor discloses that Jess had sex whenever it was on offer from someone whom she was “mad” about, noting “Love excused and gave permission to adulterous sex, but really it was sexual desire and straightforward bodily lust that possessed her …”.
This seems a lot to tell a neighbor after a teatime child-minding session. But, we are told, Jess had an intensity that mesmerized those to whom she spoke and listened. Eleanor mentions that she told Jess things about herself that she never expressed to anyone else. Look for these in a future Drabble novel.
So Jess saw herself as a forward-looking anthropologist with liberal views, and this activity seemed acceptable to her. The result was Anna, who came to be known as: “… an everlasting burden, a pure gold baby, a precious cargo to carry all the slow way through life.”
It was clear to Jess from the beginning that taking care of an exceptional child would be more than pushing her on a swing or on a roundabout.
Jess got on with her life, finishing her doctoral degree, doing a spot of writing and an occasional turn on the BBC. Her father more than her mother understood about the difficult single parenthood she had chosen.
As the years passed, Jess met Bob, half-American with “long black curly hair, a hairy chest,” and a child of his own from a previous marriage. He was an ethnologist and a photographer who took life lightly. Jess gave Bob, “her lightweight boy,” a try and they married. Neither thought it would be the end of the world if things didn’t work out – and they didn’t.
Bob seemed to like Anna, but Anna soon found herself in a boarding school, Marsh Court, for children with various problems, some more profound than hers. In England of an earlier day, Anna would have been classified as “A High-Grade Feeble-Minded Girl”; an appellation that seems crushingly dismissive to us now.
Drabble gives us some background: A 1913 Mental Deficiency Act passed in England required “defective” children to be taken out of elementary schools. This was reversed by the Warnock Report of 1978, although reversal, according to Drabble, is under constant review. At present, more schools in England specialize in many subdivisions of special needs and learning difficulties such as Down syndrome, autism and more.
So “pure gold” is an ambiguous phrase in the title of Drabble’s novel. It represents a well-loved child, but one who, although precious, is a “heavy carry” throughout life because of her disabilities.
For that matter, the elderly too acquire disabilities. Drabble anticipates this as she deals with Jess’ own advancing age. What happens when “The Solid Gold Baby” grows to adulthood and has a solid gold senior as a parent, clutching the handrails of a nursing home somewhere for balance? Drabble writes, “You have seen them, in the care homes, in their recliners, with their thin baby hair.”
Who will care for either of them then? This an equally good “proleptic” question advanced by Margaret Drabble.
Not many societies have good answers.
Michael D. Langan, a frequent reviewer of Brit lit, is older than Margaret Drabble. He is a former headmaster of Nardin Academy.
The Pure Gold Baby
By Margaret Drabble
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
291 pages, $26