The Anxiety of Adulthood: Notes on Reading Margaret Drabble's A Summer Bird-Cage

I've been reading Margaret Drabble's A Summer Bird-Cage, which is ostensibly about a bunch of breathlessly, oppressively clever middle-class Oxford graduates adrift in the great sea of Reality. But the thing about it is that I haven't read something that summarizes quite so nicely what it is to be in one's 20s for a long time. And if it was meant to be a portrait of modern life for the female in 1963, it seems that rather shockingly little has changed. In a way I'm sort of miffed about the book (which, by the way, I'm enjoying) because I feel like it's a book I could write (or, more precisely, a theme I could write), except that we're not allowed to write books like this anymore, even if they would be just as relevant today as they were in 1963.


Sarah, Drabble's young protagonist, pondering the nebulous state of her engagement (or not-engagement) to the man she loves, who's away at Harvard doing postgraduate study, considers that even "had I been never so happily engaged, all the problems of jobs and work and domesticity would have remained. The days are over, thank God, when a woman justifies her existence by marrying." And Sarah's friend Gill, recently separated from her husband, says to Sarah, when they meet for the first time in months, "You don't know...what a difference it makes not to have meals provided. To know that if you don't start peeling potatoes there won't be any potatoes. You haven't been out long enough to know."

Gill might as well be anyone I know, experiencing for the first time the full weight of adulthood. And Sarah's understanding that even if she had been settled down with a man she would not necessarily know any better what to do is precocious, hints at what I always think of as being a very contemporary sentiment: that one is never justified by love (and subsequently marriage, children, etc) - only (ideally) bolstered by it. That the great freedom and great burden of being a modern woman is to be able to be in a relationship and grow without growing out of the relationship itself.

The thing that bothers me about all this is that I'm not sure you ever really get good books about it nowadays. It's as if the subject - which is really just "youth" - is passé somehow. Young people who write books don't seem so inclined to write books about people our own age. Neither childhood nor old age seems as remote to us, as foreign, as our present situation does.

I mean to say that I don't think it would necessarily occur to a 24-year-old writer, which is how old Drabble was when A Summer Bird-Cage was published (and how old, coincidentally, I am going to be next week), to write a very simple story about what it's like to come from a position of relative privilege into The World. It certainly wouldn't occur to anyone to publish it, I don't think. Perhaps it's not representative of enough of us anymore, not relatable to a great enough audience. Or perhaps youth today really is very much more complicated than youth in 1963 was. Anyway it seems to me that nowadays it's all about quirkiness - people with unusual names and histories picking up and running away to the join the invisible circus and never being seen again (ha, ha) or MFA writing-workshop-worthy tales of growing up in rural Georgia with distant parents and overcoming a bad bout of Religious Fervor before escaping to the wilds of Williamsburg.

I suppose I have some respect for people who can write stories like that. I certainly never could, they're too far out of the realm of my limited imagination, bear no relation (really) to anything I've ever felt.


And the thing I'm obsessed with feeling at the moment is to do with the introverted question of identity that, I suppose, a privileged few have the dubious privilege of considering. Consider this - a conversation between Sarah and a friend of her brother-in-law:

"'So you're going to be a don's wife?' [says the friend] 'No. I'm going to marry a don.' [says Sarah] 'And what will you be?' 'How should I know? I will be what I become, I suppose.' 'You don't find that a problem?' How could I tell him that it was the one thing that kept me strung together in occasionally ecstatic, occasionally panic-stricken effort, day and night, year in, year out?"

A few months ago I came across this quote by Alain de Botton: “I explained that I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange.” I've heard de Botton speak, too, on a lack of good literature about work. And in a way I think A Summer Bird-Cage is like that, it's like a portrait of something really mundane that lots of people (not all people! probably not even most people! but still, lots of people) do and feel every day, which is strike out on their own.


I know I'm being deliberately blind to make a point here. Probably people are actually writing about this all the time and I'm too self-absorbed to notice. But what I feel is that people my age are being pushed to feel younger and less qualified to expound upon our own experiences than we actually are. We've either lost the ability to take ourselves seriously because we feel too young, or else we're too self-conscious about the awkwardness of this period to really want to write about it. We'll write about bad sex and the discomfort of growing up, but something about the state of being newly grown-up is still too distasteful or confusing to address.


Sarah and her sister Louise put it this way:

"'Oh, one can't have everything,' said Louise. 'It's either lovely food or lovely company.' 'Of course one can have everything,' I said. 'Have one's cake and eat it. I intend to.' 'I daresay you do,' she said. 'So did I.' She paused, and then said, in a different tone, a tone of intention rather than expectation, 'and so do I. So do I.' I didn't see what she meant. Not for ages. Not until I learned myself how difficult it was to get anything, let alone the everything that is showered on one in garlands and blossoming armfuls until one faces the outside world."

I don’t actually believe that one can’t have one’s cake and eat it, but I do know the way you assume you can before you have to start paying your own rent and peeling your own potatoes, and the way that the assumption changes after that.

So even though I know how difficult it is to get anything, I keep thinking that the answer to getting everything is just to keep going through life like this. And writing about it.