Here in the U.S., Margaret Drabbleâ€™s novels are nowhere near as widely read as those of her older sister, A.S. Byatt, perhaps because they, to a one, seek to explore — or, perhaps, “interrogate” might be a better word — contemporary British society, in rather the way Philip Roth probes the uncomfortable corners of the American psyche. I lived in London in the mid-1990s — and suffered through a weird and surprising bout of anti-Semitism, which somehow did little to harm my love for the city — and, thus, Iâ€™m particularly attached to her 1996 novel, The Witch of Exmoor, a comedy of manners set in and around London during the period of my sojourn there.
The novel is told in bold, masterful strokes — including a bossy, Forster-like narrator (â€œBegin on a summer evening,â€ she instructs at the novelâ€™s start. â€œLet them have everything that is pleasantâ€). The story concerns a trio of grown British siblings, the daughters of a famous feminist writer whoâ€™s gone slightly mad in her old age, who take up residence in a gloomy old hotel by the sea and obsessing over her allegedly-Viking ancestry. While her son, Daniel, has chosen a cheerful British bourgeois for a mate — who happily tends to the garden of her country home, while ignoring the mounting evidence of her sonâ€™s crack addiction — her two daughters have â€œmarried out.â€ Grace, the elder, has wed a handsome Guyanese politician, David Dâ€™Anger, a self-designated emblem of and spokesperson for the New Britain. Rosemary, the youngest, has claimed Nathan Herz, who is, of course, Jewish.
Drabbleâ€™s agenda, in assigning her characters these most multicultural of spouses, is purposefully transparent: This is a novel about the evolving fabric of British society, in which — contrary to popular mythology — a David Dâ€™Anger or a Nathan Herz can be as perfectly English as a Daniel Palmer, and in which the days of the Daniel Palmers wielding all the power (all the seats in Parliament) are decidedly over.