No sense of an ending
A review of Margaret Drabble’s ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ and ‘Possession’ by A.S. Byatt 
by Kate Wilson

Gossip doesn’t make a good basis for critical opinion and even less so, old gossip. But when two highly successful novelists who also happen to be sisters, quarrel in the very public realm of letters over more than fifty years, seemingly without end –“it’s sad but our feud is beyond repair”[1] - then they inevitably invite questions such as ‘where has all this come from?’ and ‘where does their work and life connect?’ and then more digging around and reading between the lines by those who prefer to focus on “idle curios and lies”[2] than the writing. The sisters I refer to are, of course, Margaret Drabble (Lady Holroyd to you and me) and Dame A.S. Byatt (‘A.S.’ to her grandchildren). 

In their early days, both young women wrote about the sibling rivalry of sisters, with Drabble getting in the first swipes in her debutant novel ‘A Summer Birdcage’ (1963) followed by Byatt with her second publication The Game (1967).  (Byatt felt compelled to apologize to her sister for some of the harsher observations in this book.) There followed Drabble’s portrayal of perhaps her worst mother figure in her thinly veiled biographical fourth novel, Jerusalem the Golden (1967) which offended Byatt as a betrayal of their own mother, setting them even further apart. Byatt is still commenting as late as 2009 that she “would rather people didn't read someone else's version of my mother"[3]. Beyond sibling rivalry and storms in teacups[4] and the mean-spirited delight in quarrelling which they both would write about[5], the reason behind their long dissociation may be simply that they have wanted to avoid comparison. This may have begun when Drabble pipped Byatt’s First at Cambridge with a starred First (‘She always thought she was cleverer than I was, but I don’t think I ever did’, says Byatt[6]). They don’t, apparently, read each others books. It’s easy to imagine how painful that might be to see writ large any sign of the other’s greater talent and Byatt, especially, is defensive about her own work (‘Byatt is extremely touchy about her novels’[7].)  Whilst it’s easy to compare their achievements in terms of how many children, marriages, books, honorary degrees, literary prizes each has won[8], it’s much more difficult to compare their writing, for they are as unlike as chalk and cheese, although even these have similarities if you look hard enough. Drabble, moreover, steadfastly maintains that her sister has been a great influence in her life.




[1] “It’s sad, but our feud is beyond repair.” Interview with Cassandra Jardine, The Telegraph, 13 July, 2011.

[2]A.S. Byatt, Possession, Vintage Books, 2009, p. 442. (paperback edition). Byatt does not like talking about her relationship with her sister. In Possession, the main character the poet Randolph Ash speaks in 1889 of his dislike of the ‘new vulgarity of modern biography’ and its ‘unspeakable intrusions’ perhaps reflecting Byatt’s own feelings on the subject.

[3] Miss Byatt, took particular exception to Miss Drabble's portrayal of their mother, saying "something got lost in the transmission of her love". Miss Byatt said that she "would rather people didn't read someone else's version of my mother". (From: Tim Walker, Why Margaret Drabble is not A.S. Byatt’s Cup of Tea, The Telegraph, 27 March, 2009) 

[4] Drabble apparently described a particular tea-set of their mother’s before Byatt did, much to the latter’s annoyance. (See Tim Walker, above).

[5] ‘Clara was (…) blissfully carried away into the angry amoral world of combat , wonderfully disconnected from truth and falsehood’ (Jerusalem the Golden, p.54);  “a narrative of jealousy and bafflement and resentment. I have noticed that writing such things down does not exorcize them, only gives them solid life” (Possession, p.371)

[6] ‘What Possessed AS Byatt’, interview with Mira Stout, (New York Times, May 26, 1991)

[7] ibid.

[8] ‘It's hard not to compare two such remarkable women. Both went to Cambridge, both have married twice and borne children, both have chaired prominent literary societies and won awards and C.B.E.'s, both have earned honorary doctorates (Drabble more), both have written books on Wordsworth and edited compilations (Drabble more), both are broadcasters and critics and both write novels about literate Yorkshire families (Drabble more)’ ibid. 

Picture credit: Margaret Drabble (2012), University of Cambridge



Armed with intelligence, a fine pair of breasts and aspirations far beyond anything her spartan upbringing might have led her to expect, Clara Maugham is in her final year at university in London, waiting for her life to begin. This is the story of a poor girl who escapes a cruel mother to find love, excitement and riches through a combination of luck, wit and good looks. 
Rereading: Jerusalem the Golden, Lisa Allardice, The Guardian, Friday 2 December 2011

Armed with intelligence, a fine pair of breasts and aspirations far beyond anything her spartan upbringing might have led her to expect, Clara Maugham is in her final year at university in London, waiting for her life to begin. This is the story of a poor girl who escapes a cruel mother to find love, excitement and riches through a combination of luck, wit and good looks. 
Lisa Allardice 
The Guardian
 Friday 2 December 2011