The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble

The Waterfall Margaret DrabbleJane has just has her second child. She is recovering in bed in her too-warm room, dealing with complex feelings of isolation (experiencing both loneliness and a desire to be left alone). Her husband is gone. Her cousin Lucy and her husband James begin to drop in to look after Jane and keep her company.

James begins to stay overnight, and an intense passion develops between Jane and James in the confines of the room. Jane, in falling for James, is ‘drowned in a willing sea’. Much of her language around this affair is self-destructive; Jane is aware that she is becoming submissive, becoming ‘merely a woman’, wondering if the previous 28 years (of independence, perhaps, of being a writer) will emerge again at some point, to ‘take their revenge’. The husband had hit her, which she only mentions briefly—had slammed her head against a wall—and yet she blames herself for his leaving. So, overlaying the self-destructiveness, and submission, there is a strong current of guilt. This is a powerful read, and I imagine it would have been even more so in 1969, when it was first released.

The Waterfall shows its postmodern vintage (in a good way) through a mix of third person and unreliable first person narration: the story of Jane, the bed, the baby, and James and his fast car is told in (quite intimate) third person, and then Jane makes confessions or fills in gaps in first person. She tells us about the blood she hadn’t been able to mention, or the other people at the edges of their lives. She is a melancholy character, simultaneously sedate and ardent. The book is literary, psychological, concerned with inner states, and the betrayal of the external. At one point near the beginning, Jane is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, and ‘she wondered how they all managed it, how they manage to keep alive, when life was so difficult’.

When she and James dare to take their affair out into the world, there are consequences, as she had supposed there would be.

I like the way people talk in this novel, too: emotional but casual and intellectual, delivered, you can imagine, like in a Godard film.

‘I’m very sympathetic towards that kind of madness.’

There are also many allusions and references to literary characters and writers’ lives, adding a layer to the narrative, believable in the context of the character’s writerliness. Regarding her guilt about sex, Jane wonders if perhaps she’ll go mad with it, like Sue Brideshead or Maggie Tulliver. ‘Those fictitious heroines, how they haunt me.’

I’m looking forward to familiarising myself with much more of Margaret Drabble’s oeuvre.

10 thoughts on “The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble

    • Do it, Julie! Plenty of her books available second-hand and at libraries. I’m going to read a few of her backlist before reading the new one.

  1. Great post! I love Margaret Drabble but haven’t read this one. If you haven’t already read it, The Millstone is a must, and Jerusalem The Golden is great as well. And just saw your post on the session you are chairing in Perth on Literary Allusion with Margaret Drabble. Oh my, how I would love to go to that session. I’m playing around with literary allusion in my writing as well. But sadly I can’t take myself off to Perth in Feb. Hope it goes well.

    • Hi Catherine, I’m reading The Millstone now and loving it. I’m hoping to read quite a lot of her backlist, as well as the new novel, of course, before the session. I have a good dictionary of literary allusion in my storage somewhere, it could be an Oxford one? But British authors are the best at allusion; Alan Hollinghurst is another good one to read. Sorry you won’t be able to make it to Perth, it is a long way from the East Coast! Hopefully someone kind audience member/blogger will write up the session 🙂

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