A Sea Change of Heart

In the works of some writers, the dynamic of chemistry between characters is more satisfying than the plots – however plausible and intricate – they create. All of us have at least one such author stashed away in our literary equivalent of a wine cellar. We maintain this cache primarily because of a genuine regard for the author. There is also the possibility of some form of perversity in which we enjoy the author because doing so comes as a surprise to our friends.

Thus I confess to finding it difficult to ignore a new work by Margaret Drabble, whose ability to define character is stunning. So far, no one I know is surprised by this taste.

“The Sea Lady” is not going to win many new friends for Drabble, but it will, I think, please a great many of her regular readers. “The Sea Lady” is not nearly so dramatically intense and layered as Drabble’s “The Seven Sisters,” but it is in its every bit as mischievous, filled with a tidal – pun intended – sense of thematic inevitability that at times becomes as engaging, purposeful, and suspenseful as though it were plot.

Set two interesting characters in motion, each in some way aware of the other’s activities, and you are winding up the toys, prior to setting them loose on a collision path. Establish that these two characters had at one time been lovers, then married, now divorced, and the prospect of collision becomes delicious. Since Drabble has written so many remarkable character-driven books, it does not create a stretch to think of this impending combustive meeting as Drabbelian.

Because it is posited by many that life as we know it began in the sea, the various forms gravitating outward, making their way inland, we readers are handed the scenario of Humphrey Clark and Ailsa Kelman, the two principals, meeting for the first time at water’s edge. They gravitate out of the primal sea, toward life as lovers, marrieds and – pound of the thematic gavel – with Humphrey as a noted marine biologist and Ailsa as a flamboyant celebrity. We meet Ailsa first, as “she appeared to have dressed herself as a mermaid, in silver sequined scales. Her bodice was close fitting and the metallic skirt clung to her solid hips before it flared out below the knees, concealing what might once have been her tail.”

Thus clad, appearing before a group of marine biologists and scientists from related fields, Ailsa has wangled her way into the role of presenter of a prestigious award to another marine biologist. Hopeful that Humphrey Clark is there in the audience, Ailsa introduces the award winner and his subject in dramatic, hushed tones of one who is amazed and inspired at the wisdom to be had from science in general and marine biology in specific. “This is a brilliantly written survey of gender and sex in marine species,” she gushes into the TV cameras, “prefaced by a poetic evocation of a distant and placid asexual past…covering bold hypotheses about the evolutionary origins of sexual reproduction…” This is Drabble deliciously at work, sliding thematic material under the door like an eviction notice in a rooming house, preparing us for attitude and events to follow: “Ailsa Kelman declared that the intersexuality of fish had won! The hermaphrodite had triumphed!”

You don’t have to have been a long-time reader of Drabble to appreciate her rigorous code of ethics with her characters. If “The Sea Lady” is your first Drabble experience, you’ll quickly intuit that she observes the line between beating up on her characters, making fun of them, calling them names and allowing them at all times to maintain their sense of dignity or, failing that, giving them the capacity to question their own behavior. They may, in the long run, be quirky people, obsessed people, even pompous people, but they have become our quirky, obsessed, pompous people, and we can’t help feeling loyalty on their behalf.

Humphrey is not present to see Ailsa’s most recent rebirth at water’s edge, but her disappointment, etched so nicely by Drabble, presents an opportunity to begin the time travel in which we see them, each in earlier guises and agendas, back at the beginning of the dynamic between them. In one of these early ventures between the two, the presence of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy intruded on me, causing me to wonder, first to myself and now to you, was this a part of Drabble’s intentions? And is Drabble a 21st century Jane Austen, plunking her observations down in our midst. (My answer to both questions is Yes.)

One of the conundrums from “The Sea Lady” is the way Charles Darwin, observing evolutionary accommodations, was set in mortal conflict with his own Fundamentalist beliefs. In another, we are led to wonder whether life imitates art or whether the reverse is true. Recalling Katie Couric’s on-screen colonoscopy, we are neither surprised or shocked to learn that Ailsa, avid of publicity and status, has allowed herself to experience a cervical examination on day-time TV. She has also appeared as a friend of the court in advocacy of sexual behavior the scope of which was more imaginative than the missionary position.

One of the joys of the novel is that by its length and scope, the author has the potential for dramatizing change, either in individuals or the institutions to which individuals belong. Something happens, the novel affirms, and someone or something changes.

A significant change – but not the only one – in “The Sea Lady” comes about as a result of Ailsa and Humphrey meeting in present time, on the occasion of each being awarded an honorary degree from a university located at – you guessed it – the watery site near where they first met.

Margaret Drabble, very much her own person, has placed enormous thematic loads on the shoulders of Ailsa and Humphrey, her seemingly omnivorous curiosity radiating in a number of unlikely directions. Unlike her sister, the novelist A. S. Byatt, but very much like Jane Austen, Drabble shifts the load, takes her characters to just the right amount of task, then plunges along the emotional and moral minefields, her stride as long and purposeful as ever. If this were her first novel, it might be fun to say she was a writer to watch, but since this is her seventeenth and she is, indeed, the biographer of the author of next week’s review, it is quite appropriate to say Margaret Drabble is a writer to keep up with.