Margaret Drabble

The Seven Sisters

The year started off well I should say. I have had peace, and during the first week, I was free to use my time as I wished. Of course, I wallowed in reading.

The Rector’s Wife provided a slow motion start since it did not require much of my brain. It was the first and (most probably) the last Johanna Trollope I will ever read. Then, I was eager to unpack a gift, Letters to a Young Contrarian, a delightful little book that introduced me to Hitchens’ writing and made me want to read almost everything he ever produced. I first learned about him reading Steve’s blog post on Arguably. I noted it down but didn’t think I would be picking it up anytime soon (mainly because of its size). Now, I’m not so sure that I won’t. Aurelius’ Meditations was a book that came next. I have read some of it before (its first three books, I believe) and wanted to come back to it for many years since. Now that I had, I found myself slightly annoyed by the repetition, and disappointed by the fatalism and speciesism (though I understand the reasons they’re there).

16112076_1867741176818889_1927951685_nThe book I wish to write more extensively about is Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters.

It’s not unusual that a person of a certain age starts to see life as nothing but a waiting room. Especially if life as one has known it is there no more. ”I neither live nor die”, says Candida. “My life is so useless. I am redundant.”

She was married with children, but the reader is meeting her as a divorcée, a mother estranged from her daughters, ”in the third year of her sojourn” in London as she’s fighting the temptation to play solitaire and starting to write a diary instead.

Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again. But that should not prevent me from trying to write about it. I cannot help but feel that there is something important about this nothingness. It should represent a lack of hope, and yet I think that, somewhere, hope may yet be with me. [..] It is not for myself alone that I do this. I hope I may discover some more general purpose as I write.

Her diary indeed becomes a mean of reflection and recollection and a way of coming to terms with herself and her life. Pretty early on, it is clear that she’s unreliable narrator – through the writing she is shielding herself, molding the past to soothe her, while reading what she wrote makes her face the truth. She’s experimenting with the narrative, switching from first to third person narrator and taking another person’s point of view, all of which brings her to a better understanding of herself.

Change is one of the major themes. After she receives a nice sum of money, Candida decides to set on a journey to Italy with friends and acquaintances from a Virgil class. It reminded me of The Enchanted April. But, while the women in von Arnim’s book find themselves renewed, Candida returns to ”the same old story”:

Here I still am, still sitting up here on the third floor back, locked in the same body, the same words, the same syntax, the same habits, the same mannerisms, the same old self. [..] I had thought the soft sun of the south could melt the frozen patterning, but it couldn’t.

Drabble shows how change is a very slow, gradual and laborious process. Almost imperceptible in Candida’s case.

It is something different that draws me onwards. I must learn to grow old before I die.

It’s a puzzling book. It calls for (and deserves) a second reading… There are a few things to pay more attention to the next time:

  • recurring images of water and plants (ghost orchid, mistletoe, golden bough especially)
  • The Seven Sisters and Sibyll
  • the use of first and third person narration in the fourth chapter
  • the title of the fourth chapter

sistersI had the impression that the book was constructed with the golden ratio in mind, but, after some calculations, I had to tone down my excitement and cast the thought away.

There’s a strong resemblance, but it is not the golden ratio.

It was tempting to continue on to re-reading Aeneid (which would have been fun), and then on to The Death of Virgil (which has been on my reading list for more than a decade poor thing), or set on an Italian Journey with Goethe (which, actually, was what I wished to do back in November when Tom suggested a read-along, but had no luck in finding the book) – The Seven Sisters refers to all of them. Instead, I chose to stick with Drabble. The Waterfall is next.

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