A review of The Sea Lady by Margaret Drabble

Reviewed by Bob Williams

The Sea Lady
by Margaret Drabble
2006, ISBN 978-0-15-603426-5, $14.00, 368 pages

Margaret Drabble, born in 1939, is an English novelist who has written seventeen novels, lives of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson, and has edited the Oxford Companion to English Literature.

Prolific writers often stay with the same sort of character and even at a more or less advanced age of their writing career are still writing about young men and women and their problems. Drabble, however, as she has aged has tended to write about older members of society. This gives cumulatively a richer progression and one that encompasses more that readers can relate to.

She is a pitiless reporter of human follies but she is not – in the style of Hardy – a cruel writer who moves characters about like puppets to display the indifferent cruelties of presiding destinies. She treats her men and women with serious respect, a compassion that gets beyond the flaws to basic decencies and virtues.

Stranded in an incomprehensible world both shabbier and slicker from that whence they came, the late Drabble men and women are tormented by doubts, haunted by guilt, failures and disappointments.

Ailsa is the sea lady of the title and the book begins with an award ceremony for books on science. The flow of perception that describes the scene and the participants is a virtuosic extravaganza that covers a score of pages. In the course of this brilliant outpouring we learn that Ailsa Kelman’s chief ability is exploitation of the media in pursuit of her own grandeur. She has time to think while she presents the award to a marine biologist to think about her girlhood companion, Humphrey Clark, himself a marine biologist whose career and whose personal life took a bad turn from which it never recovered. Ailsa expects Humphrey to be present but he is not, partly he wishes to avoid her and partly because he is sunk in despondency as he faces the end of a life which has failed on so many levels.

Drabble takes us through their first meeting as Humphrey visits his grandmother in northern England towards the end of World War II. We visit the memories of both Ailsa and Humphrey and see that their companion Sandy Clegg was for both a strong influence and colored their respective experiences.

Humphrey and Ailsa meet again, fall in love, and are married. Although the formula is trite, the result is not. Marriage becomes a disaster to what should have been a love affair allowed to die a normal death. Against this failure both struggle in their respective ways. Their reunion is a recognition of their failure and of how little it means at the age that they have reached.

This is a masterly display of passion gone wrong performed by a novelist who has here written, as she has sometimes in other works failed to do, a work of sustained interest and vitality. Those acquainted with her other works will want to read this book. Readers who have not yet read any of Drabble’s books, will find this one a good one with which to begin.