A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble: a Book Review

I wrote about the beginning of Margaret Drabble’s first novel A Summer Bird-Cage last Friday. I finished reading it only four days ago and already my memory of it is fading. I really should have made notes or at least marked pages with post-it notes, because there were so many passages I wanted to remember, but I read it too quickly to pause long enough for that.

The title comes from this quotation from John Webster’s play The White Devil:

‘Tis just like a summer bird-cage in a garden: the birds that are without despair to get in, and the birds within despair and are in a consumption for fear they shall never get out.

I think  this sums up my impression of the book as a whole – it’s about dissatisfaction and not knowing what you want, about family relationships (sisterly rivalry in particular), and the nature of marriage – the cages we live within. Drabble illustrates this through her depiction of two sisters, both on the brink of changes in their lives – the younger sister Sarah, recently down from Oxford University and completely at a loss what to do with her life, and Louise, the ‘beautiful’ one, marrying for money not for love, equally floundering and mixed-up about her life.  Sarah, the narrator, can’t understand why Louise has  married the unlikeable Stephen and it soon becomes apparent that Louise is having an affair with John Connell, an actor.

The two sisters do not get on. Sarah says:

I used to laugh at her with my school-friends, to borrow her clothes without asking, and to steal her books. Once I read her diary. She would have read mine, had I kept one. In the end she taught me the art of competition, and this is what I really hold against her: I think I had as little desire to outdo others in my nature as a person can have, until she insisted on demonstrating her superiority. She taught me to want to outdo her.  And when, occasionally, I did so, her anger hurt me, but as I had won it by labour from indifference, I treasured it. And when, finally, I took over one of her men at Oxford, the game was out in the open, I thought, for the rest of our lives. (page 103)

Their mother is also dissatisfied with her life, who is not at all happy when Sarah decides she wants to live in London, sharing a flat with her friend, Gill, not liking the idea of her not having a ‘proper job’.  She admits. however, that as it’s Sarah’s own life and grudgingly says that no one can accuse her of trying to keep her at home – which, of course, she is. Sarah describes her as

… poor brave twittering Mama, pretending everything has been so lovely, ignoring the facts because they were the only ones she knew. (page 21)

Whilst not a lot as regards plot happens in this short novel, it contains many ideas, attitudes and character studies. And it’s beautifully written, such as in this passage:

It was a wonderful blue cold day, with the last yellow leaves reprieved in the terrace of plane trees by the bus stop: almost one of those aqueous and lunar days when everything is charged with its own clarity. The colours of the houses and the brick were glowing and profound, and the small children playing in the streets looked as though they were on their way to an entrancing future. (page 81)

I think I’d like to re-read it one day.

Note: the cover shown above is my own copy, a Penguin edition, reprinted in 1967, which I bought secondhand.

2 thoughts on “A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble: a Book Review”

  1. Margaret – Thanks for this fine review. Sometime the characters in a novel and their interactions are compelling enough or interesting enough that they hold one’s interest even when the plot isn’t fast-moving or particularly action-packed.

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