Thursday 10 February 2022

Margaret Drabble's The Garrick Year, 1964

The Garrick Year, by Margaret Drabble

Drabble started out writing chicklit in the 60s. We loved the short, pithy books about being a young woman in a time of change and prosperity. But this, her second, is an odd story. It has a first-person narrator, Emma Evans, who normalises a lot of weird behaviour. She is upper middle class, works as a model, and falls for a handsome actor from the wrong side of the tracks. To start with, they don't sleep together (more usual than you might think in the early 60s). They do a lot of rather childish things, like going to the Zoo together.

Emma bitchily describes an old school friend as having “one of those small-featured, smiling faces which are thought tremendously pretty at school, in one’s home town, and on the continent’. The opposite of our heroine, and of Drabble herself.

Then, says Emma, I did something really avant garde. I got married. Most of the time she refuses sex, but somehow they have two children. She describes a row with her husband, and how she is both thrilled and shocked when he punches a hole in the wall (he picks a partition wall and avoids breaking his fingers). But then this incident passes without comment, and is quite baldly told – the narrator is more interested in her own feelings. Later in the book, she casually mentions that the children were the result of "near-rapes".

Her husband gets a job in a provincial theatre for a year (the Garrick), and the entire family decamps to the provinces. Emma brings a lot of Victorian textiles and luster jugs to cover the G plan furniture of their rented digs. Her husband brings the cast round for dinner and she self-sacrificingly chops onions and tomatoes to make pasta sauce. (This was a dull but fashionable 60s staple.)

Then the director, Wyndham, takes a shine to her and they go out on a few dates, but she'll do no more than reveal her bra in the moonlight in the garden of an empty mansion. Her small daughter suffers an accident and Emma is surprised by the strength of her maternal instinct. The director comes round while she's in bed with flu and takes advantage of her. She finds the experience boring and meaningless. She surprises her husband in a compromising situation with one of the cast.

Well, what did she expect? She ends the book deciding to go back to modelling (she's lucky to have kept her figure). She wonders idly if she'll ever work out if she's really frigid.

We are supposed to care about her, I suppose, but her vanity, snobbery and self-absorption is off-putting. She is just so convinced that she isn't ordinary. But she is also rather pathetic. Did we really think some women "were frigid" and would never enjoy sex? Tragically, we did. We hope she will grow up a bit in the 70s and read Our Bodies, Our Selves or The Sensuous Woman.

Give her time, she's only 26 – she must have got married very young. Having children in your 20s seems almost shocking to us now. I was also surprised that the fashion for Victoriana had got going in the early 60s when I associate it with the hippie end of the decade.

Goodreads reviewers have called Emma Evans "whimsical, determined to be shocking and daring, demanding, precious and self-consciously bohemian". They're right. She was a terrible role model. 

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