On Learning to Understand (and Love) British Culture

It was the kind of story that enchants me, it seems so unlikely, and so often happens.
—Margaret Drabble, The Garrick Year

The night I met my husband, I should have been in Paris. I had made the necessary plans. But you know how these things happen: a misread date in the calendar, the late realization of a prior commitment—in this case, a ball with a ticket too expensive to write off as a loss, and of course I know how ridiculous that sounds. I spent the week prior trying to sell my spot; no one would have it. So Paris was cancelled—delayed, I thought—and we met, and all the rest, and now I live in England, a country I thought I knew well, but which, it turns out, is as foreign to me as Bolivia or Slovenia or Mars.   

When I decided to move here three years ago, I had assumed London would be much the same as New York, perhaps just slightly better-read and more anaemic. But when I arrived, I found that comparing New York to London is like comparing a corset to a straitjacket. England and America may be kin, but they are not kindred spirits. I felt so dislocated that there were days I wished we didn’t even have language in common. Then I could track my progress through Duolingo and assign the shortcomings of my assimilation to a trick of grammar, instead of what I knew was to blame: my stubborn, unmistakeable, unfailing Americanness, which hung over every interaction like a bold neon diner sign.

In truth, I never thought of myself as particularly American until I left America. Suddenly it seemed to be my most defining character trait. I take sideways statements of sarcasm head-on, in earnest. I laugh too loudly, for too long, at offhand comments meant only to demonstrate wit, not humor. When asked, How are you? I answer in stream of consciousness—too honest, too eager, too keen to share. At restaurants, I am a minor nightmare: sauce on the side, substitute fries, and—may the Lord forgive me—I cannot help but send the steak back if it’s overdone, which, in England, it almost always is. I am utterly oblivious to the subtle judgments that pass around me, yet terribly obvious when I make my own. I go on and on about self-improvement, and my goals, all of which are, by English standards, unattainable, and unseemly to discuss.

Though I once thought of myself as shy and observant, here I translate as brash and demanding. I am, in short, an American woman in London. While my love-borne exile has taught me a good deal about my own country—compared to the rest of the world, we are deluded, egomaniacal dreamers—until recently, I had no guide to the covert intimacies of the English: the ease with which they categorize each other before they speak a word (I have seen an Englishman correctly predict, across a room, another’s educational background from childhood onward), the upside-down language they use to indicate approval (“that will do”) and disdain (“she’s perfectly lovely”), the paradoxical mix of socialized medicine and affordable education in a society that constantly emphasises the importance of knowing—and sticking to—one’s place. For years, Peep Show was the closest thing I had to a Rosetta stone.

Then, on the bookshelves of a particularly well-stocked Oxfam, I found Margaret Drabble. The name itself is funny and English, and I saw it repeated across a row of well-worn orange spines. The covers of those 1970s Penguin editions were psychedelic, so outdated as to be back in fashion: holograph-like photographs of heavy-lidded girls with bangs (a “fringe”), imprinted across hallucinogenic fractals. The brief back cover copy on these paperbacks promised “sweat, sexual ecstasy, anguish, letdowns and all.” Naturally, I bought the whole shelf.

As I tore through Drabble’s early novels on my rides on the stuffy underground, I was shocked into recognition. In Drabble’s narrators, I heard my own voice. I saw my own choices. In The Millstone, the out-of-pattern decision that leads to an eternity; in The Garrick Year, the dangerous hunger for uncertainty—that prerequisite of desire—borne out of marriage; in Jerusalem the Golden, the measurement of distance between home and adulthood, between mothers and men; and in A Summer Bird-Cage, that spark you feel when recognized in advance for what you long to become. I saw, in Drabble’s narratives, the shape of my own want and confusion, and at last it didn’t feel foreign. It felt female.

Margaret Drabble.

And of course it did. Born in 1939, in Sheffield, to a middle-class family—another funny English misnomer—Drabble is primarily known for her prolific chronicling of the tensions of a generation of women whose education outpaced the range of their choices. Her heroines are the ambitious graduates of good universities, second-wave feminists whose lives can never be derailed because the tracks aren’t laid. In Drabble’s novels, any choice—to sleep around or to marry, or both; to keep the baby or to drink the abortive bottle of gin; to leave a job for a man or a man for your sick mother; to follow your husband to a new town or to leave him and take a bubble bath with his best friend—is a game one plays: not a misstep but, simply, movement. It is clear from interviews done through her six decades of writing life, including her extraordinary conversation with Barbara Milton for The Paris Review, that Drabble doesn’t quite believe in free will as such. In a Drabble novel, my abandoned trip to Paris would not be painted as the accidental catalyst of a life moved into alien territory but, instead, as an inevitable result of my character. As Drabble writes in The Millstone, “I don’t believe in principle. I believe in instinct, on principle.”

In loving Drabble’s novels, I have come to love England, and the English, who, as Drabble writes in Jerusalem the Golden, so often hide their more-loveable flaws in “a confusing blur of bright indistinct charm.” To experience the headiness of those days in London in the 1960s through Drabble’s eyes is to fall in love with the same paradoxes that drive me mad on a daily basis. In A Summer Bird-Cage, her first novel and my favorite, the protagonist, Sarah, is gossiping with an acquaintance at a house party. (Most of the 208-page novel takes place at parties. Four illustrative chapter titles: “The Invitation,” “The Party,” “The Next Invitation,” “The Next Party.”) “Civilized behavior is sick isn’t it?” the acquaintance riffs. “I must confess that even I felt at times that it would be a lot better if somebody hit somebody.” Indeed! Later Sarah marvels at the English knack for self-effacement: “How or why can a person appear so little to be what they are? I cannot understand it: how should I, when my every instinct is for self-revelation, my every desire to strip myself and spill myself before the eyes of others?” In Drabble’s work, these glimpses of delicious British emotional barbarism peek out like bright spots against a gray London sky. The heroine of Jersualem the Golden has “a vision of some other world where violent emotion could be a thing of beauty,” and when she successfully seduces her friend’s married brother, she gets a hit of adrenaline, and can see “no end to the possibilities of mad aspiration.” Mad aspiration! My heart races reading Drabble. She makes me suspect that there is an intensity of feeling in the English that would put my American bravado to shame, were it to ever break the dams and burst forth.

In fact, Drabble’s novels makes me suspect that the “American” quality I’ve blamed for my sense of isolation on this damp island is, in fact, a distraction from a more common experience of women my age, in any age: there’s a fighting urge to disturb the mold of one’s life, as it sets. I had never heard of Maggie Drabble before I found her books, but now she is my patron saint of “sudden confidence,” her novels my relic to keep the faith in those “momentary illuminations” of English feeling. It is that intimacy, after all, that has moored me here. (Imagine if I had come for the stability of the pound!)

Again and again, Drabble’s work deals with two edges of the same sword: the feeling of being “trapped in a human limit for the first time,” and of being, within that limit, utterly displaced and untethered. On this, Drabble perfectly captures the brief payoffs you get if you, say, leave all your plans and move abroad for love—or if you’re any woman in any impossible situation you’ve half chosen for yourself. “At least from time to time I get something that I would never get were I not so displaced,” she writes in A Summer Bird-Cage, “the sudden confidence, the momentary illumination of feeling, ships passing and moreover signalling in the dark. It’s all compensation, I suppose. But then I wouldn’t have most of the things that it’s compensation for.” In the end, I suspect Drabble isn’t teaching me to love the English after all: she’s teaching me to love what is inevitable, to love it as the English do.

Jennifer Schaffer is a writer living in West London.

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