The Smell of Old England

In her last blog, Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote about a family “more identifiably old American than Jewish.”

jewish authors blogHere in the U.S., Margaret Drabble’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, I’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 (“Begin on a summer evening,†she instructs at the novel’s start. “Let them have everything that is pleasantâ€). The story concerns a trio of grown British siblings, the daughters of a famous feminist writer who’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 son’s crack addiction — her two daughters have “married out.†Grace, the elder, has wed a handsome Guyanese politician, David D’Anger, a self-designated emblem of and spokesperson for the New Britain. Rosemary, the youngest, has claimed Nathan Herz, who is, of course, Jewish.

margaret drabbleDrabble’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 D’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.

But rather than a happy melting pot, the England of Drabble’s novel is a land of eternal outsiders, each more alienated than the next, which is precisely what makes Nathan Herz such a surprising, thrilling, and attractive character. Raised poor in East Finchley, now a wealthy ad man with a sleek, modern flat in the newly fashionable East End (the area his grandparents “worked day and night†to flee) Nathan is ostensibly more of an outsider than any of the others, including his Guyanese brother-in-law, and yet it is he who has the ease and self-possession to scoff at the silly scuffles and pretensions of his adopted family and, in the larger sense, his fellow countrymen.

While his brother-in-law (who appears, at the novel’s start, to be a heroic figure) talks a good game about social justice, ultimately it’s Nathan who truly sees the British class structure clearly. It is he who sees through his sister-in-law’s absurd preoccupation with her garden. Her roses, tellingly, smell like death to him, “a rotting, fecal, fungal smell. The smell…of old England.†It is Nathan alone who has no sentimental attachment to that old England, Nathan who is able to enjoy the prosperous and comparatively inclusive age in which he lives.

In the next installment: Jean Hanff Korelitz’s portrait of assimilation.

Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age and former editor of, is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

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