Long ago I happened upon a couple of books by Margaret Drabble at a used book store. I read them and loved them and compared this Margaret to another: Margaret Atwood. So of course I had to have this book.
Those earlier books were lovely stories about women, thoughtfully written and deeply absorbing. This one, written so many years later, has a grace and beauty that only years of writing can possibly create.
Drabble admits in an Afterword that the book is really about her own mother. Not exact, of course, but her mother and where she lived is deeply imprinted on Drabble and in this book. This admission helps me understand it a bit better.
It is a generational story. It begins and is permeated by the life of Bessie Bawtry, raised in a small industrial town in northern England, a town of coal mines and dirt and cancers. Bessie is intelligent and her parents encourage her pursuit of the intellectual. Their encouragement is supplemented by that of an exceptional teacher, and ultimately Bessie wins a scholarship to Cambridge. It's her ticket out. But she doesn't really take it.
Why she throws away what she could have become and instead becomes a bitter, angry woman is not entirely clear, and Drabble the author and daughter tries to come to terms with it and to be objective and as fair as possible. The title, referring to a controversial discourse about natural selection - the peppered moth was believed to develop its darker self in response to the coal-mining darkness of northern England, suggests that we adapt to our environment and that wherever we may move we cannot shake off that earlier adaptation, that response to our early environment. Drabble may be onto something here in how she portrays Bessie as someone who does not adapt to a foreign world particularly well, in spite of gifts that seem to give her a chance.
Throughout the book we can't help but be aware of the author, for that matter, as she tells the story, sometimes breaking in to explain what she doesn't know how to explain. She works her way from Bessie to Chrissie to Faro, three generations, with additional hints going farther back, farther and farther. Her narrative style is to jump forward and backward as skillfully as a dancer, for we never lose the step.
How did this person get from here to there? she asks, again and again, and she tries to ferret it out. More, how did this family, this line, this gene, get from way way back there to here, or how is it that it got no further than this? Good questions, good fodder, terrific book.