"I wrote this book to try to understand my mother better," explains Margaret Drabble in the afterword to The Peppered Moth. Put more strongly, this book represents the end point of a pathology that is traceable throughout Drabble's long and distinguished career as a novelist. Mothers - like Bessie Bawtrey, this book's anti-heroine - have played significant minor roles in Drabble's earlier works. The mixture of guilt and resentment felt by their daughters finds its apogee in The Peppered Moth, in which Drabble puts her own mother on a pin: a specimen for examination.
Drabble's career has taken her a long way from her popular 1960s novels - A Summer Bird-Cage, The Millstone and The Garrick Year - which focused with unerring realism on the experiences of university- educated women juggling domesticity with self-fulfilment. Her overreaching ambition to portray the whole of British society, particularly in her 1980s trilogy of The Radiant Way, A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory, lost her many admirers. The Peppered Moth shows both an exaggeration of the tendencies that marred those state-of-the-nation novels - playing with form, using character as type - and a return to a concern with individual lives.
Born in the South Yorkshire mining town of Breaseborough (actually Mexborough), Bessie (actually Kathleen Marie Bloor), a girl both clever and pretty, has "great expectations". Chafing against her working-class background and her silent, unaffectionate parents, she yearns to escape the grimy north and seems on the path to succeed when she wins a scholarship to Cambridge. However, fatal character flaws turn this once "promising" young woman into an embittered, agrophobic housewife who acts on her husband and children like a dead weight. As her daughter, Chrissie,puts it, she is "a real bloodsucker as well as a shrew".
Bessie longs for escape - as do, in turn, her daughter and granddaughter. Their imperative is to escape the doom of Bessie's genetic inheritance. What are their chances of redemption? Chrissie's brief marriage, straight after university, is a disaster, even if it offers her a chance to dilute the gene pool.
Chrissie's daughter, Faro, on whom all hopes for the future rest, is an unintentionally grotesque figure; we are insistently reminded of her youth and vigour. Over-neatly, she is a magazine journalist interested in Darwinism (of which the peppered moth is a famous example). Unlike Bessie, Faro seems a concoction; and, as far as it concerns Faro, the plot also feels confected. The least convincing parts here relate to her romance with another character who functions as symbol rather than personality: an amateur geologist called Steve. Together, we are informed, they are "children of the present". Oh yeah.
Drabble's early novels were told in the first person, with sympathetic protagonists inspiring a sense of intimacy in the reader. However, since the late 1970s, Drabble has adopted a 19th-century approach to storytelling. Her authorial voice is arch and intrusive, stage-directing characters and commentating on their motivations in a way that seems unpleasantly superior.
In the early part of The Peppered Moth, this narrative voice is at its most grating, made turgid by the rhetorical questions to which Drabble is compulsively prone, and by her pronouncements on the nature of social change. The heavy, deliberate rhythm of her prose has a claustrophobic effect. This may be appropriate to the "slow past" she describes, but it makes for hard reading.
Still, there are things to enjoy. Drabble's excavation of life in the north from the 1920s to the 1940s is rich in social and domestic detail. Bessie's exploited sister, Dora - who never leaves her home town or, indeed, her cottage, which is crammed with bits and pieces saved over the years - is a lovingly drawn and poignant character.
But, in the end, The Peppered Moth is a broken-backed book, an uneasy blend of fact and fiction. Drabble's afterword affirms that Bessie is an accurate portrayal of her mother, but that the later parts of the book are "entirely fictitious". She has "excised" her sister, Antonia Byatt - whose objections to this enterprise are well known - replacing her with a shadowy and unreal brother. Drabble has insisted, too, that Chrissie is "not me at all", which raises troubling questions about the ethics of exposing her mother yet protecting herself.
This seems particularly unfair because Drabble's portrait of Bessie amounts to little more than a brutal character assassination. There are moments when one hears, above the generalising narrative, a note of true despair and pity about her mother's "wasted" life. But bitterness and violent dislike are the deepest emotions conveyed by this distressing book.