A Summer Bird-Cage – Margaret Drabble

A summer bird-cage

I’ve been a Margaret Drabble fan since I was dragged kicking and screaming to her in Year 12 English by way of The Millstone. Its a fantastic book and I’ve since read another of her books I also enjoyed – Jerusalem the Golden.

Published in 1963, A Summer Bird-Cage is her first book and perhaps not surprisingly, isn’t as good as the others. It focuses on the stock standard Drabble characters – clever middle class girls just ‘down from Oxford’ (how I love that expression, so quintessentially and pretentiously English). In this case, two sisters, with the story opening as one gets married. But there’s some rather heavy handed foreshadowing that all is not what it seems with elder sister Louise’s marriage.

I like Margaret Drabble’s writing but this time I struggled to attach myself to her characters. Louise is clearly not a sympathetic character, cold and famously beautiful and ruthless as well, it turns out. But even Sarah, the narrator was hard to get a bead on. But I do wonder if I can’t quite appreciate these characters because I’m not of their time. Women were rarely regarded for their intelligence and certainly not expected to do more than get married and breed, even the intelligent ones. I need to really inhabit this world for my own novel, and I largely have but I need to make sure I don’t take it for granted what my main character is achieving.

There’s nothing kind about the relationship between these two sisters and Drabble apparently has an ongoing feud with her famous literary sister A.S Byatt. There’s some stinging observations in this book and I admire her for not holding back. She describes a couple Sarah meets at the theatre as ‘American, subintelligent, rich, would-be internationally cultured, ugly. She also takes a pot shot at the bohemian subculture – they are living in filth, what they like to perceive as glamour and – ‘they felt it their duty to be rude, frank and blunt.’

This is essentially a coming of age story and she treats well the idea that the young believe they can have whatever they desire in life and she chronicles this attitude before the rot sets in. As Louise says to her sister –

‘Of course one can have everything. Have one’s cake and eat it too. I intend to.

‘I daresay you do,’ she said. ‘So do I.’

She paused, and then said, in a different tone, a tone of intention rather than expectation, ‘and so do I, so do I.’

There’s also one of the key ingredients of female coming of age – female friendship and the unbearably heartless and unbearably kind ways young women can treat each other.

I’m also struggling with narrative position at the moment – how far forward in time is the narrator looking back? In this one, we understand the narrator knows what has gone on with her sister’s marriage and is telling us the story, but the last page flips to present tense, so we don’t know how her own life will play out. Its quite neat but for my own purposes I still can’t decide if just near story end is far enough ahead. Do I want my narrator to have more insight into her actions, that she would need a few years to gather? Its a hard concept that I think I’ll need to deal with in the next draft.

And this book has a wonderful last line. Sarah is talking about how Louise and she have a more sisterly relationship now to the point where Louise has related that she was caught in a compromising position in the bath with her lover. But what really bothers Louise is that she was wearing a hideous shower cap.

‘She must at heart have been quite fond of John and me: of John, to have worn it, and of me, to have told it.’

I think its one of the best end lines I’ve read in ages. Anyway, if you haven’t tried Margaret Drabble before, go for The Millstone first, then this one will be easier to appreciate.