Passed/Failed: An education in the life of the novelist, critic and biographer, Dame Margaret Drabb

Author: Interview by Jonathan Sale

My disappointment, on the first day at the delightful village school in East
Hardwick near Pontefract was that we didn’t do the sort of handicraft I’d
been told we’d be doing: sticking things down. I was very keen to go back
and we did it on the second day. There were only two teachers ? one for the
big ones and one for the little ones.

I was sorry to leave at seven when we went to Sheffield. I didn’t like the
junior department of Sheffield Girls High School. It was a much more
regulated, bossy kind of school: you had to finish all your dinner, which
really annoyed me as the food was inedible.

My parents obviously had a great respect for Quakers, as they sent us to The
Mount, the Friends’ boarding school in York. I’m not a believer but I remain
very impressed by Quaker faith and behaviour. The evening gathering was a
meditation ? “medi” ? a silence to reflect on your day.
There was no punishment of any sort. The worst that could happen was that
you would be called to the headmistress’s study and given a little talking
to. The overall feeling was of respect for children and teachers. Was I a
prefect? I think so. But there was no punishment, so no power.

There was brilliant English teaching; the classes of one particularly gifted
teacher were better than a lot at Cambridge. Like many girls’ schools, it
was weak in the sciences. I did biology O-level ? we had to get one science
subject to go to university ? but I was allowed to do German instead of
maths. I always have to ask my husband to do my VAT.

I was at school with Judi Dench. She played Ariel in The Tempest and Titania
in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which I played a fairy. I played St Joan
with the “brother” school, Bootham, where they had to import some
women for their plays.

When I complained about the boredom at home, my mother said, “It’ll be
fine when you get to Cambridge.” This was true. I was delighted to get
a scholarship to Newnham. There is something about a women’s college which
is quite comfortable and relaxing. I was at two single-sex institutions
which remain single sex.

Some of the teaching was fairly average but I found two very good, young
supervisors. I didn’t go to many lectures. I went to see C S Lewis once,
just to see him; his lectures were events. Expectations were high; you were
asked to read all the Restoration dramas in a fortnight ? and we did.

I used to do academic work in the holidays. I was spending a lot of time with
theatrical folk; Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and my first husband, Clive
Swift, were contemporaries. Because of the shortage of women, I got
interesting parts: Titania, Viola, Imogen.

I got a “starred” first in Part II; I still don’t know what it
meant. I thought I was going to be an actress, but it didn’t work out. I
think I was only employed at the RSC because Clive was working there. I was
only good at tragedies and I don’t think that is much of a living.

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