A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories

  • Margaret Drabble
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 256 pp.

As in her novels, this short fiction by a master chronicler examines the moral complexities of women’s lives through several decades.

Reviewed by Roberta Rubenstein 

For nearly 50 years, Margaret Drabble has been an important chronicler of the lives of women. Her early novels of the 1960s focus with unerring clarity and skill on young women who — before the feminist movement changed lives and expectations — struggle with love and romance, sexuality and marriage, motherhood and child-rearing, and the constraints of domesticity.

As Drabble advanced into midlife during the 1980s and ’90s, so also did her characters. In such novels as The Middle Ground (1980) and the trilogy that includes The Radiant Way (1987), A Natural Curiosity (1989) and The Gates of Ivory (1992), she extended the range and acuity of her focus to explore the moral complexities of her middle-aged characters’ lives, set against more ambitious backdrops of social and political events. In her novels of the past decade, including The Seven Sisters (2002) and The Sea Lady (2006), she focuses on older women who begin to accommodate themselves to aging and the fact of mortality. Drabble also edited a major new edition (1985) of the canonical Oxford Companion to English Literature and has published half a dozen books on such diverse subjects as landscapes in British literature, the Age of Victoria, home ownership and most recently — intercut with her own personal memoir — a history of jigsaw puzzles.

Surprisingly, given such accomplishments across a variety of genres, Drabble has published few short stories. Indeed, the sum total, collected here in their entirety, is smaller by three than the number of her novels (17). Though short fiction may be something Drabble writes with her left hand, A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman reveals that she is a skilled stylist of the more compressed genre. Of the 14 stories presented here, in chronological order of publication from 1964 to 2000, most (10) were originally published in magazines and journals during the earlier years of her literary career. The remaining four were written or published during the 1980s and 1990s. According to the informative introduction by Jose Francisco Fernández, the final story, published in 2000, was actually written six years earlier.

With the exception of two stories that have been reprinted or anthologized — “Hassan’s Tower” and “The Gifts of War” — these stories will be new to most Drabble readers. Yet, even in the briefer form, the stories ring changes on Drabble’s characteristic subjects and preoccupations, including romantic relationships; marriage, and motherhood, with their often intersecting complications; and travel and landscapes — both British and international — as either impetus or backdrop for the primary conflict. As an example of the first cluster of subjects, in “Faithful Lovers,” two former lovers run into each other by chance in a London café where they used to meet for trysts. Over lunch, as Viola and Kenneth reminisce about their past adulterous relationship, they realize that their passion is not spent. Viola feels herself “drifting downward on that fatefully descending, eddying spiral, like Paolo and Francesca in hell, helpless. ...”

The title story of the volume, “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman,” is representative of the decade in which it was written: the early stage of the women’s movement during the 1970s. Jenny Jamieson, producer of a successful television interview program and an organized, competent multitasker, struggles not only with her domestic obligations but against her insensitive, unhelpful and envious husband. During a parents’ meeting at her children’s school, she starts to examine her impulse to think well of those around her, discovering that the “mechanism” that has directed her to project an agreeable façade regardless of her true feelings has broken down under pressure. Her emotional crisis compels her to question her habit of conciliation; concurrently, a previously neglected medical problem prompts darker questions about mortality. However, Drabble deliberately leaves a loose end or two: the story concludes with Jenny looking back on that day of what she later identifies as a spiritual crisis, thinking of it as “both a joke and a victory, but at whose expense and over whom, she could not have said.”

Although a number of the stories are set in England, several focus on characters on holiday in foreign locales. In “Hassan’s Tower,” a newly wed British couple discover several less-admirable qualities in each other during their honeymoon in Morocco. In “Crossing the Alps,” an unnamed woman temporarily leaves the burdens of caring for her handicapped son for an overland rendezvous in Europe with her married lover. Anticipating romance, she finds herself instead tending to a feverish, ill companion who becomes another needy, dependent child. Drabble captures the humor of the unnamed couple’s hapless journey and collapsing tryst, including their attempt at lovemaking in decidedly unromantic circumstances that leads to two bodies soaked in an unnaturally feverish cold sweat.

Several stories foreground Drabble’s interest in British landscapes and architecture; country houses, small villages and other sites become “love objects” for her characters in a different sense from the erotic liaisons described above. The narrator of “The Dower House at Kellynch: A Somerset Romance” discovers her passion as a consequence of living in a country house that she rents for several months. The story begins with her observation, “It is not always easy to distinguish attachment to person from attachment to property.” She pursues a relationship with one of the probable heirs of Dower House not so much because she loves him but because she wants to secure her attachment to the run-down but charming mansion that she “fell in love with … at first sight.” The final story in the volume, “Stepping Westward: a Topographical Tale,” traces the peregrinations of a high school English teacher approaching retirement who sets herself  a long country walk, visiting every village, hill and dale immortalized in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.

Like her longer narratives, Drabble’s stories are distinguished by skillful plotting, engaging wit, supple prose and deft renderings of her characters’ preoccupations and inner lives. Readers who know and enjoy her novels will find ample pleasures among the stories in this volume. Those who are unfamiliar with her novels but who enjoy the short story form will find plenty to please here as well.

Roberta Rubenstein, professor of literature at American University in Washington, D.C., has published widely,  in both scholarly and popular venues, on modern and contemporary writers such as  Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Atwood, John Fowles, Toni Morrison, Paul Auster and Barbara Kingsolver. Her most recent book is Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

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