Margaret Drabble: The Pure Gold Baby

by Jennifer Bryce

Like many people I had read quite a few Drabble novels in the 1970s and possibly early 80s, then, although she kept writing, I didn’t read anything until now, when someone at work suggested I might like to read The Pure Gold Baby, published in 2013. Apparently in 2009 Drabble said that she wouldn’t publish any more fiction because she was worried about repeating herself. I doubt that this is a case of repetition.

One of the first things that struck me is that this book is narrated by a friend of the protagonist. I was sometimes frustrated by this, wanting to know how Jess, mother of a developmentally delayed daughter, would feel in certain situations. But maybe this is why Drabble used that device. We can never know how the mother feels, or exactly what is wrong with Jess’s ‘slow’ daughter, who mercifully isn’t labelled – as happens with most ‘disabilities’ today. Instead of worrying about the details of appropriate treatments and improvements we come to see the beauty of someone who doesn’t know, who is innocent, who goes through life accepting the world as it is to her.

Most of the story takes place in London of the 1960s and 70s. It is vividly depicted through the lives of Jess’s not well-off but intelligent friends.

Jess, the protagonist, is an anthropologist. Most likely if she hadn’t become pregnant to a married professor, she would have had a life in the field, in Africa. She has one trip there as a student – before becoming pregnant – where she sees how a group of children with a disability that gives them lobster-claw feet seem to accept their situation and carry on with life. We come to see that this is how Jess accepts her situation with ‘slow’ daughter Anna.

At the end of the book the narrator says, ‘I shouldn’t have written any of this’. Maybe, if, as I believe is the case, Drabble drew on a real life story, she felt that she had exposed something best left unexamined. Yet the device leaves mother and daughter in ‘mid air’ to carry on with the rest of their lives and the prurient observers won’t have their intrusive questions answered.