The Pure Gold Baby – Margaret Drabble

Jessica Speight is a student in London in the 1960s. She has an affair with her married teacher, the Professor as she calls him, and becomes pregnant. Her baby, Anna, is the pure gold baby of the title. The Professor eventually drifts back to his wife, after failing to convince Jess to have an abortion, & Jess becomes a devoted mother to Anna. Anna is a beautiful baby, calm & happy. However, as she gets older, it soon becomes apparent that everything is not right. There’s no physical manifestation of her disability but she is slow to learn & physically clumsy. She will never learn to read & write although she can recognize letters & numbers. Anna has a developmental delay that is never precisely diagnosed. Is it genetic? Was she deprived of oxygen at birth? Jess doesn’t know but she soon accepts that this is Anna & devotes her life to caring for her daughter.

Jess studied anthropology & made a journey to Central Africa that resonates throughout her life. She became fascinated by the children of the tribe she was studying, children afflicted by a disability then called Lobster-Claw syndrome (later called SHSF or split hand, split foot). The children coped well, adapting to their disability & accepted by their community. This trip to Africa represents the beginning of a career that will never really take off. Once Anna is born, Jess will take no more field trips. Her career became one centred on the home, on her neighbourhood of North London. She studied, she marked exam papers, she wrote articles & edited a journal. She worked so that she could be at home to take care of Anna. even after she finds Anna a place in a residential school for a few years, Jess doesn’t venture far from home. She has a short-lived marriage & a few minor relationships but this is the story of a mother & a daughter.

The novel is narrated by Eleanor, a friend of Jess. Telling the story at one remove is an interesting decision but it works. Eleanor is part of Jess’s circle of friends in North London. She’s married with two sons but we never really know much about her. Her purpose is to tell the story of Jess & Anna as she knew it, through observation, rumour & the stories Jess told her over the years of their friendship. What we discover about Eleanor is through asides & scraps of conversation. The advantage for the reader is that we form a picture of a neighbourhood from the 60s to the present day. The type of neighbourhood that Margaret Drabble was writing about in the 60s & 70s, where the children are cared for almost collectively. Eleanor may be one of Jess’s closest friends but even she doesn’t know everything about Jess. For a long time she doesn’t even know who Anna’s father is. Jess tells her own stories in dribs & drabs, which is what life is like.

The Pure Gold Baby is a fascinating exploration of the changes in society over the last 50 years. Through Anna’s story & through the stories of others, the depressed poet, Steve, or Zain, a Sudanese who was working at the BBC until his marriage ended in violence & he was ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment, we witness the changes in medical care over the decades. Jess’s involvement in the medical system as she tries to find the care that Anna needs, brings her into contact with Steve, Zain & many others, both carers & patients. It’s an interesting look at the way society has changed in the way we look after the disabled, the way we view mental health. Above all, this is the story of Jess & Anna, a story of love & devotion & the way a woman’s life is changed in a moment by the birth of a child who will always need her.

I enjoyed The Pure Gold Baby very much. The narrative is slow & discursive, taking in anthropology, health policy, information about authors who have cared for or denied their own disabled children or siblings (including Jane Austen, Pearl Buck & Arthur Miller) & the changes in North London over fifty years. I read over half the book in one sitting yesterday afternoon. There are no big, dramatic events. Even the dramas – an attempted suicide, a health scare – are concerning rather than heart-stopping. It was like sitting beside Eleanor as she told me the story of Jess & her pure gold baby over a pot of tea at the kitchen table. The novel is a beautifully observed slice of middle-class English life over the last five decades.

I’ve read quite a few of Margaret Drabble’s novels, even though I always feel I’m about a decade too young to read them. I mean that I was born a couple of decades after Drabble, Fay Weldon, Margaret Atwood & I always felt that I couldn’t read their novels in the same way that their own generation did. These writers all seem to have been writing very much for their generation of women, especially in the 60s & 70s, with the growth of the feminist movement. Having said that, I’ve enjoyed their work & Drabble’s Radiant Way trilogy is a particular favourite – even though I read the books a decade after they were written. I’d read somewhere that Drabble had retired from writing fiction but I’m glad she changed her mind. I listened to a podcast from the BBC’s Open Book programme last week (it’s here if you’d like to listen to it) & was pleased that I could download the ebook from my library’s collection straightaway.