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Jerusalem The Golden by Margaret Drabble
Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem The Golden was published over fifty years ago. Reading it now for this particular reviewer is the equivalent of reading Arnold Bennett the same year Margaret Drabble’s novel was written. Bennett’s quintessential late Victorian and Edwardian identity was then, and remains, almost foreign territory to the contemporary reader, but – even with the fifty-year time difference – one would expect a reader who actually experienced the 1960s as a teenager to suffer no culture shock at all . reading Margaret Drabble’s quintessentially 1960s novel. However, this assumption would be completely wrong.
The plot mechanics of Jerusalem The Golden can be described without spoiling the experience of reading the book. Clara is a lower-middle-class girl growing up in Northam, which is apparently not far from Margaret Drabble’s own Sheffield, despite being described as about fifty miles further from London than his real life. Apparently, Clara rather despises Northam. Margaret Drabble, in her third-person narration that always feels like she wants to inhabit first, the main character regularly refers to the filth, lack of sophistication and general ugliness of the place, factors that convince Clara – and no doubt the author herself. – that life should be moved to London at the first opportunity.
Klara’s family is far from dysfunctional, but the jury could be out on that because it exhibits almost no function. Mrs. Maugham, Clara’s mother, seems to live her life close at hand behind a wall of accumulated prejudice and panic if the experience gets too close. Clara seems determined not to be like her mother.
Clara is successful at school, but ignores received opinion about what she should study, preferring her own judgment to the conventional pragmatism of the advice offered. By the time she leaves school, Clara has already shown significant signs of maturity. Not only is she developing an obvious but inwardly unperceived independence and individuality, but she is maturing physically as well, developing early and tender breasts that will soon understand that they can be used as a source of strength.
In London, where she attends university, Clara meets the unlikely name of Clelia, whose family turns out to be exactly the kind of tangled, messy, wealthy, sophisticated, if rather impure lineage that would forever be diametrically opposed to her own Maugham household. One gets the feeling that if Clara’s mother had been invited to the Denham family’s Highgate pad, she would have silently turned up her nose as she reached for the mop to disinfect the floors. Oddly enough, Clelia is quite similar to Clara, both physically and personally, though we don’t appreciate this until late in the book, when Clara seems to consciously or otherwise morph into her friend’s very identity.
Clara is a totally believable sixties character. For most people, this misunderstood decade wasn’t about free love, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll or protest. Ideologically it may have been, but everyday life was school uniforms, largely gender-segregated dance halls, social conservatism and conformity, coupled with a newfound, for most people, glimmer of opportunity for self-improvement. Clara shows the values of her age, but also gently gnaws at the edges of restraint, as the era seemed to expect. She surprises herself on a school trip to Paris, but maintains complete control, a device she learns to cultivate.
And it is precisely this aspect of Clara’s character – her desire and ability to control, to extract exactly what she wants from life in general and circumstances in particular – that comes to the fore. Clara wants, Clara gets. She always underestimates herself, but even learns to use this flawed confidence to seek attention and facilitation from others when she needs it. Clara gradually reveals herself as someone who ruthlessly uses her physical, personal and intellectual strengths to get exactly what she wants, despite the fact that she often tries to deny any conscious plan.
Margaret Drabble’s whole style is complex and retrospect. Clara could easily be a character from fifty years ago – a debutante in Arnold Bennett’s company, aware of social niceties, protocols and conventions, but needing to find her own way through life’s challenges. But Clara is always ready to assert her presence in a way that a woman of fifty years ago would not, and thus achieves her goals, often regardless of the potential harm to others. Her potentially self-destructive success in achieving her desires is increasingly disturbing. Her individualism could also easily be lost, as evidenced by the author’s assessment that Clara “thought nothing of being sick in a Paris toilet when she decided to leave her married lover. We are left to believe that something unspoken follows. And if that were the case, perhaps there is a more general parallel with the decade of the 1960s in that it might feel liberating to the individual, but also that it might ultimately threaten something that was both longer-lasting and longer term. By the end, you get the feeling that Clara is in for a pretty rude awakening.
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