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12 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 10:56am

The road not taken: Margaret Drabble on the appeals of an underwater life

By Margaret Drabble

When I was at university I passionately wanted to be an actor, and for some years struggled to find my way in the profession. I was quite good, in a tragically limited range of parts, but became a writer by default. With more perseverance, I could have made some kind of a living on the stage. But if I cast my net wider, towards the impossible, I would have been a marine biologist.

For as long as I can remember, I have been enraptured by the underwater world. Tadpoles and newts and water boatmen in ponds and ditches enchanted me, and my first visit to the seaside, after the war, was full of discovery. Shells, mermaids’ purses, cuttlefish bones, transparent shrimps in rock pools, sea urchins, little dabs almost invisible on the sand in the shallow – all were a wonder to me. Shore and sea life were much richer then than they are now. One of my favourite books was The Water Babies, with its wealth of marine lore and arcane information. I devoured books about the monsters of the deep and read Jules Verne more times that I can remember.

An underwater life would have been thrilling. But I couldn’t do the science to take my studies beyond O-level biology, and although I enjoyed swimming I didn’t like keeping my eyes open underwater, so I was deeply unqualified for any kind of marine career. There was one glorious summer when I learned to use a snorkel, in Yugoslavia, and entered the Technicolor realm of the fishes, but back home I lost the knack. I made the best of my disappointment by writing a novel called The Sea Lady with a marine biologist as protagonist. The research for this was almost as good as the real thing. I visited aquaria, I talked to shark experts, I read books about the Woods Hole Institute and the Antarctic and famous oceanographers. I made a vicarious journey along the road not taken, which is one of the things that novelists are lucky enough to be able to do.

This article is from our “Road not taken” series


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