In a voice that is pitch-perfect, Candida describes her health club, her social circle, and her attempts at risk-taking in her new life. She begins friendships of sorts with other women-widowed, divorced, never married, women straddled between generations. And then there is a surprise pension-fund windfall . . .
A beautifully rendered story, this is Margaret Drabble at her novelistic best.
About the Author
MARGARET DRABBLE is the author of The Sea Lady, The Seven Sisters, The Peppered Moth, and The Needle's Eye, among other novels. For her contributions to contemporary English literature, she was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2008.
Date of Birth:June 5, 1939
Place of Birth:Sheffield, England
Read an Excerpt
The Seven Sisters
By Margaret Drabble
Harcourt, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Margaret Drabble
All right reserved.
I have just got back from my Health Club. I have switched on this modern laptop machine. And I have told myself that I must resist the temptation to start playing solitaire upon it. Instead, I am going to write some kind of diary. I haven't kept a diary since I was at school. En effet, we all used to keep them then. Julia, Janet and I, and all the other girls. It was the fashion, at St Anne's, in the Fourth Form. Nothing much happened to us, but we all wrote about it nonetheless. We wrote about our young, trivial, daily hopes, our likes and our dislikes, our friends and our enemies, our hockey games and our blackheads and our crushes and our faith in God. We wrote about what we thought about Emily Brontë and the dissection of frogs. I don't think we were very honest in our diaries. Blackheads and acne were as far as we got in our truth-telling in those days.
Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again. But that should not prevent me from trying to write about it. I cannot help but feel that there is something important about this nothingness. It should represent a lack of hope, and yet I think that, somewhere, hope may yet be with me. This nothingness is significant. If I immerse myself in it, perhaps it will turn itself into something else. Into something terrible, into something transformed. I castmyself upon its waste of waters. It is not for myself alone that I do this. I hope I may discover some more general purpose as I write. I will have faith that something or someone is waiting for me on the far shore.
I sometimes have fears that my Health Club may not be very healthy after all. Since I started to swim there, one of my toenails has begun to look very odd. It has turned a bluish-yellow colour, and is developing a ridged effect that I think is new to me, though it is true that I see more of my toenails now that I swim more often. And I sometimes fancy I hear the words 'legionnaires' disease' hanging in the air, though I know they whisper only in my imagination. I mustn't get paranoid about it. It's very clean there, really. Spotlessly clean, expensively clean. A far cry from the chlorinated municipal pool we visited once a week from St Anne's. Schools, even quite good schools, didn't have their own pools in those days, as they do now.
I love my Health Club. It's saving my life. Isn't it? The water in the pool isn't chlorinated, it's ionized. I don't know what that means, but the result is that the water is pure and soft to the limbs, and odourless to the nostrils.
You do overhear some odd conversations there, though. I heard an alarming one this very evening.
I wasn't eavesdropping. There was no way I could avoid hearing it. We were all within a few feet of one another, in a small space, in varying stages of undress. I tried not to look at them, and I knew they weren't looking at me. Why should they? There is an etiquette. It's easy to avoid the eyes and bodies of others. But you can't help hearing what they say. Unless you've got your Sony Walkman plugged into your brain, or a mobile phone clamped to your ear. And I haven't got a mobile phone or a Sony Walkman yet. I don't think I want a mobile phone, but I'm thinking of getting a Sony Walkman. I never thought I'd even think of it. But then, so much of what I think of now would have been unthinkable to me ten years ago, five years ago. Some of it would have been unthinkable to anyone, I suppose. Some of the things most people seem to have now hadn't even been invented ten years ago.
Actually, I'm not sure I mean 'Sony Walkman' - 'Sony Walkman' is just a phrase to me. I may mean something else. I haven't dared yet to ask what it is that I do mean. Perhaps I mean a 'headset'. Nor do I know what kind of shop I'd get this thing in, even if I knew what it was that I was getting. Out of my depth, that's what I am. Though the pool isn't very deep. No diving. No children. No running. No outdoor shoes. We keep the rules.
The thing I mean is that earplug device attached to a headband that people stick on their heads and into their ears in order to listen to the television monitors or to Classic FM or Radio 2 while they pound along on the treadmill or pedal away on the bicycle. I quite want one, but I don't know where to buy one. And I'm in some way ashamed to ask. I grow ever more cowardly with age. Shame is a word that haunts me.
The chat of these two women began harmlessly. They were talking about exercise, workouts, stress, back pain. It's odd, the way young people seem to get so much back pain and shoulder pain these days. We never did, when we were their age. Health Clubs hadn't been invented, when I was young. There were tennis clubs, and those echoing public swimming pools where some people were said to catch polio, but there weren't any Health Clubs.
These were two young women, not close friends, possibly meeting for the first time - I didn't hear the beginning of their conversation. They were already talking to one another when I dripped my way along the white tiles from the pool to my locker. One of them, the younger, was a professional in Health Club matters; the other, like me, seemed to be an amateur and a beginner. The younger one was skinny and dark and fit, with an oval face and a long thin pointed nose and slanting doe-like eyes and a breastless body like a ballerina's. You could see her ribs. She wore her dark hair in curiously childish bunches which stuck straight out from her head. She was advising her plumper companion about which classes to join, and how long to use the treadmill. The plump woman, whose naked blue-white flesh was soft and dimpled and bulging, listened attentively as she towelled herself dry and pulled on her workaday cotton vest and pants. Then she must have asked the bunchy lady for more specific advice, for the conversation turned to a lump in her lower back. The thin dark bunchy lady ran her hands over the flanks and loins and back of the pale plump lady, and said that she could indeed feel the lump. It was a knot of muscle, she affirmed, and would soon submit to massage and exercise.
I remember thinking that this sounded like the vaguely optimistic advice that so-called professional healers usually offer, as a prelude to asking for money. I'm afraid I've always been sceptical about the virtues of massage and exercise, and anything that involves the laying on of hands has always seemed to me to be particularly suspect. Reiki, aromatherapy, yoga, shiatsu. I don't know even what they are, but I distrust them. However, as the two of them went into more detail, as the one with the bunches asked the one with the lump to stretch this way and that, I began to think that maybe the professional was taking this probably fictitious and attention-seeking complaint seriously, and with kindness, for she was listening patiently, and offering what sounded to me (though I wasn't really listening) like sensible advice. And then I noticed an almost imperceptible change in the tone of the younger person's voice. She continued to speak calmly and soothingly about stress and muscle tension and the dangers of sitting too long before a computer, but a kind of distant and muted caution had entered her tone. Had she, I wondered, suspected that an unwelcome or over-friendly overture was about to be made by the older woman?
I call the plumper woman 'older', but she was probably under thirty. They were both young. Most people at the Health Club are young. I'm no longer very good at judging the ages of the young. I'm not bad at teenagers, because of all those years as a headmaster's wife, but I'm not good at those prime decades between twenty and fifty. I wonder where they get the money from, these young people. The Health Club fees are expensive. I wouldn't be able to afford them without the special discount. If I don't get the discount next year I won't be able to keep it up. I have to count my pennies now, since my change of status. Are they all working? And if so, what at? Do their employers sometimes foot the bill, as I believe they do in Japan?
The change of tone in the younger thinner woman's voice wasn't due to a brush-off. It wasn't that at all. It was something quite different. It was fear and concern that I heard in her voice. The younger thinner woman was playing for time, as she said, yes, she could feel the lump, it was quite large, she agreed, and it did indeed move up and down under the skin, just as its owner had claimed it did. She was sure it would respond to the right kind of massage and exercise regime, she said, but meanwhile she really thought the other woman ought to take it to her doctor. Go and see your GP, the ballerina said.
Both fell quiet, as they considered this suggestion, and I pulled my navy-blue sweatshirt over my head and pretended I wasn't there. I don't think they had noticed me anyway. I'm not very noticeable.
When I emerged from the temporary muffled deafness of my garment, they had reverted to a more normal tone, and were already discussing something else. I can't remember what. Something neutral and harmless, like the new seafood restaurant down the road. The young do eat out a lot. Again, I wonder how they can afford it. Are they all earning a lot of money? This isn't a very affluent area. Well, it's what's called mixed. Some of it's awash with money, and some of it begs on the street corner. I'm still not always very good at telling which bits of it are which, though I'm getting better at it. My eye is adjusting, gradually. To the dark life of the city.
These two didn't sound very well off, from the way they spoke. But they must be. Or, as I said, they wouldn't be able to afford the fees. I don't understand these modern accents. Young people today don't speak very well, do they?
I could still hear the anxiety in both their voices. I wanted to say, It's probably only a lipoma, but that would probably have made matters worse, and, anyway, what on earth did I know about it? I hadn't laid my hands on that stranger's body, had I? I didn't know what lay beneath the skin.
I've just read what I wrote yesterday, about the Health Club. I am quite interested in the bleating, whining, resentful, martyred tone I seem to have adopted. I don't remember choosing it, and I don't much like it. I wonder if it will stick. I will try to shake it off. I will try to disown it.
I didn't go to the Health Club this evening. I don't go every evening. Tonight was my Wormwood Scrubs evening. My man complained about the meatballs. My Wormwood Scrubs man is a murderer. He and a gang of his friends raped a woman and drowned her in the Grand Union Canal. He complains a lot about the food in Wormwood Scrubs. He says he's thinking of pretending to become a vegetarian. I suppose pretending to become a vegetarian and becoming a vegetarian come to the same thing, don't they? He is a lost soul. And so, perhaps, am I.
I never thought I would join a Health Club. I never thought I would find myself living alone in a flat in West London.
The Health Club wasn't a Health Club when I joined it. It was a College of Further Education during the daytime, and in the evenings it held adult evening classes in subjects like German Conversation and Caribbean Cookery and Information Technology and Poetry of the First World War and Modernism in the Visual Arts. But you could tell the demand for that kind of programme was falling. We were an ageing group of students. Even the computer students were old - I guess the course was for slow elderly beginners, inevitably a dying breed. I was one of the younger students in my class. Now that the building has been transformed into a Health Club, to care for the body rather than the mind, the age ratio has been reversed. I'm at the upper age limit now. When I go there, young shameless naked female bodies assault my eyes. I can't remember when I last saw young naked female bodies. I haven't seen the bodies of my daughters for years, not since they reached the modest age of puberty, and in later years I avoided the school boarders and their bedtime rituals. I wasn't paid to be a school matron, was I? And I wasn't very good at being motherly. I sometimes think of poor little Jinny Freeman, and her superfluous hair. Her legs were covered in fur. I ought to have made a helpful suggestion, but I couldn't bring myself to speak. I wasn't in loco parentis, was I? Her mother should have said something to her about it.
I want to make it clear that I haven't joined the Health Club in order to consort with the young. I don't expect their youth to rub off on me and to prolong my life. I don't plunge into that blue pool as into a fountain of eternal youth. The evening classes were more up my street, but they closed down on me. The building was sold from under our feet. Learning was taken over, bought out, and dispossessed.
I didn't choose to do German Conversation or Computer Skills. I'd already done some word processing at the IT College in Ipswich. I'd already learnt about laptops and playing solitaire. The class that I attended in that tall late Victorian building was on Virgil's Aeneid. You wouldn't think you could go to an evening class on Virgil's Aeneid in West London at the end of the twentieth century, would you? And in fact you can't any more, as it's closed. But you could, then, two years ago, when I joined it. It was a real lifeline to me in those first solitary months of my new London life. It was an excellent class. I enjoyed it, and I was a conscientious student. Why did I join it? Because its very existence seemed so anachronistic and so improbable. Because I thought it would keep my mind in good shape. Because I thought it might find me a friend. Because I thought it might find me the kind of friend that I would not have known in my former life.
Already I was wary about making friends with the kind of person who would want to be friends with a person like me.
Excerpted from The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble Copyright © 2002 by Margaret Drabble
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Reading Group Guide
1. In what ways has Candida been betrayed, and in what ways might she have contributed to those betrayals or have betrayed others? What circumstances, reasons, and consequences are associated with each betrayal in Candida’s story? What instances of forgiveness and reconciliation are there?
2. What does Candida mean when she says, referring early on to her life in gloomy London, “in this trap is my freedom”? What images and circumstances of entrapment and imprisonment are presented in The Seven Sisters, and what images and circumstances of freedom? To what degree is freedom acquired?
3. Candida favours solitaire with real cards over computer solitaire because the former lets “you lift a card to see what might have been.” Computer solitaire “won’t let you follow an alternative, unchosen route, even out of curiosity.” How important are unchosen routes? What alternative, unchosen routes does Candida recognize in recounting her past and confronting her present?
4. Candida remarks of her arrival in her London flat, “As a nun enters a convent in search of her god, so I entered my solitude.” With which specific women does she compare herself, and what other references to “her god” occur? How might we interpret the final sentences of “Italian Journey”? “Who is that waiting on the far shore? Is it her lover or her God?” What does Candida reveal about herself with these comparisons and references?
5. Speaking of the flaw in her windowpane, Candida comments, “The flaw in the glass is always there.” What flaws or distortions in seeing things occur in the novel? In what ways is Candida’s vision-actual and metaphorical-flawed, limited, or distorted? What are the results, negative and positive, of distorted vision?
6. What is the significance of Virgil’s Aeneid to Candida and her sense of herself and to the action and movement of the novel? In what ways do the events of Candida’s life parallel the adventures of Aeneas, from exile from his homeland, through a descent into the Underworld, to the establishment of a new life in Italy? To what extent is Candida correct in concluding, “My journey, like that of Aeneas before me, was foreordained”?
7. What does Candida mean when she refers to “my other self,” as opposed to “my former self”? What or who prompts the emergence of this other self? What might be the relationship between one’s circumstances and the self that one recognizes as one’s own and presents to the world? What might be the significance of “the ghost self” that Candida envisions in connection with the ghost orchid?
8. Drabble writes of the “shapes and patterns” of the Mediterranean, in relation to the “cold and bitter children of the cold north,” as “the very shapes and patterns that are carved upon the antique heart, and you know them as your birthright.” What comparisons and contrasts does she establish between the worlds of the North (Britain and Finland) and the South (Africa and Italy). In what way are the shapes and patterns of the Mediterranean Candida’s birthright? What does she learn regarding the energies, dangers, and rewards of life in the two worlds?
9. How did you react to the shift from the first person of “Diary” to the third person of “Italian Journey”? What was your further reaction when you learned that Candida wrote both parts, and, later, that she also wrote “Ellen’s Version”? Why does Drabble construct her novel, alternating between narrative voices, in such a way as to call into question, with each new section, the accuracy and reliability of what has gone before?
10. Of the seven Virgilians, Drabble writes, “These women keep faith with the past, they keep faith with myth and history.” In what ways do the seven sisters keep that faith? To what extent do the past, myth, and history repay their faith? How important is it to candidly weigh the relation of the past personal, cultural, and historical-to the present? How successful is Candida in this regard?
11. “Submit, whispers the wizened Sibyl . . . Be still . . . Be still. Submit. You can climb no higher. This is the last height. Submit.” How might we interpret these whisperings? How might we interpret the statement and question that follow? “But it is not the last height. And she cannot submit”? Where do the Sibyl’s whispers originate?
12. In addition to the Seven Sisters area of London and the seven travelers in Tunis and Italy, to whom and what might the title phrase refer? What actual implied or expressed references occur in the novel? How might the most significant of these references be related to Candida and her story’s primary themes?
13. What does Candida mean when she writes, at nearly the end of her account, “This is simply the place where I wait”? How do you further interpret her closing statements? “I am filled with expectation. What is it that is calling me?" and "Stretch forth your hand, I say, stretch forth your hand.”
Discussion questions provided courtesy of Harvest Paperbacks, a division of Harcourt,Inc. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2002. Published by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved. Written by Hal Hager & Associates Somerville, New Jersey