“I Had Fun With This Book”

There is a decided difference between purposeful anger and detached anger, which is one reason why the eminent British author Margaret Drabble’s entertaining new novel of contemporary middle-class manners turned out to be a satire and not a strident polemic.

Even the title of the book, The Witch of Exmoor (Harcourt Brace, 281 pages, $23), is rendered with a light touch. Frieda Haxby Palmer, the eponymous “witch” of the title, is not an evil sorcerer by any means, but a once-powerful feminist writer in her 60s who has grown disgusted with the state of the world, withdrawn to a dilapidated Victorian castle overlooking the English Channel, and found a clever way to express her fine-honed sense of outrage and dissatisfaction.

I had fun with this book, Drabble made clear during a recent publicity trip to the United States from her home in London. She began writing The Witch of Exmoor after spending five arduous years on a life of Angus Wilson, the noted British author who died in 1991; Angus Wilson: A Biography, was published two years ago.

Angus was somebody I very much admired as a writer and a human being,'' she said. “It’s quite one thing to write about somebody who grows old, gets ill and then dies in real life. This was not a fictional character I was dealing with, this was a real person. So I got really depressed being close to that, and this book, in a way, was a reply for me, a sort of getting-out exercise.”

Even though The Witch of Exmoor was a change of pace for Drabble, it still had to embrace her concept of what good fiction should accomplish, which is to be “relevant” in some way to the world around her.

I am speaking strictly about the kind of novels I like to write, not necessarily the novels I am willing to read,” the 58-year-old author of 16 books, 13 of them novels, said. “I very much like reading Jane Austen, for example, and there is nothing at all relevant about her writing; it is pure entertainment.”

Forces that went into the shaping of The Witch of Exmoor were the political and social trends of the last half-dozen years or so in Great Britain. What sparked this book was just a desire to comment on things that were happening while I wasn’t looking,” she said.

In the novel, the reader witnesses the disintegration of a family that is dealing with Mrs. Haxby Palmer’s decision to chuck everything including the inheritances of her three smug children as a way of protesting a pervasive trend she sees in which greed and selfishness have become respectable.

A figure once so powerful she was called England’s Simonne de Beauvoir, Frieda retreats to the countryside, sells her estate and rewrites her will. When she disappears altogether, an element of deep mystery is added to the plot.

In the novel’s opening scene, the siblings and their spouses have gathered on a midsummer summer evening to discuss the alarming situation. In the course of airing their thoughts, they disclose aspects of themselves that seem to validate Frieda’s worst fears.

A diseased environment, rampant greed and political amorality are among the social concerns targeted in Drabble’s first novel to appear in six years.

I don’t feel personally angry, which is why my anger is detached, Drabble emphasized. But I feel angry on behalf of certain things that I’ve seen happening. We were at the very slow end of the Tory government when I began this book, so Britain has changed a bit. But I was quite upset about much of what was going on.”

Social commentary runs throughout Drabble’s impressive body of work. Her 1991 book, A Natural Curiosity, was the concluding volume of a trilogy that followed the fortunes of three women through the cultural and political changes of the 1980s. The other two novels in that series were The Radiant Way (1987) and The Gates of Ivory(1991).

Drabble’s earliest books, A Summer Birdcage (1962) and The Millstone (1965), explored the psychology and sexuality of educated young women. She has called The Needle’s Eye (1972) the most female of all her books.

She said that The Middle Ground (1980) represented an analogy for the novelist who is fed up with the feminist critics, particularly the commercial brands of American feminism, which were a very aggressive, hyped-up, self-promoting kind of feminism. That was not what the movement I had been brought up with seemed to be about.

In a similar way, Frieda Palmer in The Witch of Exmoor becomes “fed up with this slowness of change, and I think that is the pattern as women have grown older; they thought that things would move along a bit, and then you begin to say, Well they actually haven’t moved anywhere, and nothing happens at all. That’s not quite true with feminism, but it is true on other fronts.”

It was on these other fronts that Drabble chose to combine a novelist’s fertile imagination with a healthy sense of detached anger. “The reader must keep in mind that The Witch of Exmoor is not a realistic novel” she concluded. It’s more of a fable novel. Characters exist in a satire for a purpose, which means sometimes that they will appear as caricatures. The point of satire, after all, is to satirize.