A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman
Margaret Drabble
Penguin Classics, 223pp, £20

In order to find the time to write this review, I had to do the following: I got up at 6.45am, put on two loads of laundry, cleaned the kitchen, walked the dog, phoned my elderly mother, paid two dentists' bills, did the weekly shop on the internet and dropped a child at school before checking myself into outpatients at the hospital. None of this is as exhausting as earning my living and writing my seventh novel without an advance while coping with two exam-stressed teenagers whose voices approach the decibel levels of a pneumatic drill. And compared to the difficulties facing the generation below mine, it is nothing to complain about. It's only when contrasting it to the generation above that it can seem so.

Margaret Drabble, who is much better known for her novels and biographies than her short stories, was one of the first writers to chronicle the lives, loves and labours of working mothers. She expressed the ambition and anguish of many middle-class women's lives now captured by writers such as Helen Simpson and Rachel Cusk. But not everyone likes her realism, with its quiet air of restrained autobiography and its minutely observed ironies. Yes, her heroines encounter open sexism, but it is tempered by an expanding middle class, a flourishing welfare state, free university education, cheap property and radical feminism. They are so lucky, compared to the way we live now, yet they seem scarcely to know they've been born.

How we lived then is part of the interest in reading the 13 stories collected in this volume, set in a world where people still use shillings and penny stamps. Tales such as "Hassan's Tower" and "The Gifts of War" have, as the Spanish academic José Francisco Fernández, editor of this book, says in his introduction, been anthologised many times. Placed in order of composition here, they offer fascinating snapshots of a generation, and of a body of work that includes 17 novels and eight works of non-fiction.

The largely female cast shifts from struggles with love and foreigners in 1966 to the attempt to balance families with successful media careers in 1973. There are interludes of adultery and, finally, the relief offered by independent widowhood and the rediscovery of old lovers in 1999. Like the women in Paula Rego's haunting painting The Dance, Drabble's characters represent the different stages of life.

There are three stories in this solidly crafted collection which strike me as worthy of note: "Hassan's Tower", which is the first one that Drabble published, in 1980, the title story and the "The Merry Widow". "Hassan's Tower" is one of the few stories in which we see things through the eyes of a man, who is on honeymoon in Morocco. Now earning "an astonishingly high salary" as a journalist, he has dared to marry a girl from a higher social class. Instead of relaxing, they fret over expensive bar snacks and hawkers. Yet the young wife's curiosity impels her to climb the tower of the title, where a different vision awaits. It is perfectly paced and full of wry humour - so good, that when you encounter stories such as "Faithful Lovers" or the repulsively smug "Homework", you wonder whether Drabble's grasp of the form didn't go into reverse.

It is hard not to be irritated by the accomplished, self-consciously virtuous, multitasking and successful Kathie, Jenny, Elsa and the rest (one even wins the Nobel Prize). They seem so unaware of what life is like for the millions who do not have good legs or university degrees or holidays or flirtations with literary stars apparently based on Saul Bellow. Yet, as with Simpson and Cusk, there are shocks of recognition. Drabble writes so penetratingly about the female condition that it is impossible not to laugh, wince and admire.

Will that recognition remain, as it does for George Eliot's heroines, or will it fade into the kind of obscurity that has befallen the novels of Rebecca West? The best columnists of today - Deborah Orr, Janice Turner, Katharine Whitehorn - chronicle women's lives with almost as much acuity, and with more of a sense of the suffering of men. Being paid to write at all is fast becoming a privilege in its own right. One fears that this will turn out to be the biggest gulf of all between our age and the next. l

Amanda Craig's sixth novel, "Hearts and Minds", is published by Abacus (£8.99)