This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
Our feature continues with Claire King, author of The Night Rainbow. You can read our review of it here. Claire tells Novelicious how The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble made her reconsider her future.
The title of Margaret Drabble’s novel alludes to a moth that exists in two varieties: one black, and the other pale and speckled. In the UK originally the light colouration proliferated, more readily camouflaged against tree bark. But then came the industrial revolution, with its sooty air. Light coloured peppered moths almost died out, whilst their black cousins, now hidden against the grime, flourished. It seems their luck depends both on the timing of their birth and the genes they inherited.
The Peppered Moth is a semi-biographical novel based on Margaret Drabble’s mother. What, she asks, do we inherit from our mothers? Are we destined to become them? Why do some people stay in the same place for generations whilst others feel the need to get away?
A book with motherhood as a central theme is nothing new. But this book is set in Mexborough, a town in the heart of the colliery belt of South Yorkshire. The town where I grew up. Bessie Bawtry, the novel’s ill-fated central character, detests the town, and makes an unsuccessful attempt to escape her life there via a Cambridge scholarship. Somehow her inheritance pulls her back.
Drabble draws Mexborough in perfect and depressing detail. When I read it I had already been gone ten years, but as I traced her narrative from the scrubbed doorsteps to the windy cemetery to the pit heads in the neighbouring villages the effect was discomforting. Even though it was a miserable picture, it felt like home. Was Mexborough, after all, where really I belonged?
When I first read The Peppered Moth, which was published on my 29th birthday, I was living in London and evaluating who I was and what I wanted from my life. What I wanted, in fact, was to live in the countryside and be a novelist. But how to get there from where I was? Going back to Yorkshire was a real possibility.
How did this book change my life? It was the first novel I read that wasn’t pure escapism. It overlapped with my reality and posed questions about my future. Ultimately it didn’t draw me back to my home town. In fact it showed me that someone with Mexborough in their DNA had gone on to be different and extraordinary.
Margaret Drabble and I are both alumna of Newnham College, Cambridge. Recently I was fortunate enough to attend a talk she gave at a college event. She was wonderfully personable, charming and modest. But she surprised me when she described how, in her youth, novels had served as her roadmaps – guides to where she could go and how she could choose to live. She listened with interest in the Q&A when I told her that my early experience with novels had been quite the opposite. That, and how pivotal The Peppered Moth had been for me.
When I read The Peppered Moth, it was as though Margaret Drabble were standing on the moon, having had started her journey at Mexborough bus station. One year later I had left my job, sold my London flat and moved to France. There is hardly any pollution in the Pyrenees. It’s a great place for a pale moth to flourish.