Margaret Drabble is not a novelist I’ve read before. To be honest, I’m mainly aware of her for being within the circle of London-based writers that B. S. Johnson was often associated with. In 1972 Drabble and Johnson co-edited, for example, a not critically-acclaimed piece of “collaborative fiction” called London Consequences. I later realised that Drabble is also, in fact, the novelist sister that A. S. Byatt has famously had a long-running feud with. Drabble is an established part of the literary world, it seems, and has been since the 1960s. The fact that I haven’t picked up one of her books before now is a little bit embarrassing.
Jerusalem the Golden, then, is where I’ve started. This was Drabble’s fourth novel, published in 1967 and the winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for the same year.
It is a novel about Clara Maugham, a young woman trying to shake off her stuffy, lower middle-class upbringing in the North of England by running around with the rich, literary and well connected in the London and Paris of the early 1960s. It’s a “coming of age” story, I suppose, but one very much geared towards the sexually liberated attitudes of its era. I was scared, the whole way through, that Clara’s enjoyment of alcohol and sex with married men may eventually lead to some kind of downfall or scandal, and was glad that Drabble’s plot turned out to be no condemnation of hedonism, but almost an ode to it.
Maybe I read the novel wrong, maybe Clara was meant to be judged harshly by the readers for being sexually active, but I doubt it. And by “sexually active” I don’t mean that she was having sex, but that she was far from passive within those seductions and encounters. Clara is interested in the Arts, is multi-lingual, is intelligent, is charming, is good-looking. That she ends the novel happy and optimistic about her future, despite the imminent death of her emotionally-crippling mother, is testament to the liberalisation British society had gone through in the mid-twentieth century.
It is almost impossible to imagine a novel written in the ’40s about a woman enjoying an adulterous relationship that ends without tragedy. And a happy ending was what I hoped for, to be honest, with my twenty-first century mindset. Clara isn’t ignorant or disillusioned about her affair – she approaches and recedes from it with maturity, self-awareness and pleasure. As a teenager she dreamed of lovers and foreign travel and a dramatic social life; as an adult she gets it all.
Jerusalem the Golden is not a didactic novel about the shallowness of enjoying life, it is rather a testament to the pleasures of intellectualism, romance and conversation. I imagine it would have still been shocking when published, particularly given how close to self-disgust Clara becomes at the end, but the novel is saved from being another old-fashioned damnation of pleasure-seekers by the conversation that closes the story. Clara has enjoyed her affair, and agrees to one last week of sex and travel before calling it a day. She is no child, scared of her desire, no weak Victorian unable to fuck without requiring marriage: she is a twentieth century heroine happy to enjoy her handsome married lover but wisely aware that he will never be more than that.
A mature, modern, novel, and one I enjoyed reading. Class/sexuality/the north-south divide/foreign travel/growing self-awareness. It ticked all my boxes. Maybe I’ll have to read more Drabble…