Drabble, Margaret. A Summer Bird-Cage. New York: Popular Library, 1962.
The narrator of A Summer Bird-Cage wonders “what a girl can do with herself if over-educated and lacking a sense of vocation.” 6 Margaret Drabble’s 1962 novel affords its reader several answers:
1. Marry someone rich. Otherwise, avoid the trap of marriage and especially, the trap of motherhood. Marriage is a bourgeois idea that higher education should discourage in women.
2. Treat life as a serious game, intending to win, trampling the undefeated “without wincing” at every play. Success, not popularity or goodness, is the only focus: “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.” 96
3. Live outrageously to suit yourself and dazzle others. Grab as much as you can out of life because “[o]nly when one has got everything in his life, when one is eaten up with physical joy and the extreme, extending marvel of existing, can one trust oneself on the subject of the soul.” 118
4. Distinguish yourself from others whom you view not as people but as types. Here’s a typical observation by our narrator: “I suddenly glimpsed in her the traditional university woman, badly dressed, censorious, and chaotic.” 71
As the novel develops, these answers fail to guarantee female success, happiness, and goodness. Marrying a rich but seriously neurotic man leads to a rich but neurotic life. Treating life as a competition reduces human associations to meaningless contacts. Living only to impress others replaces self-worth with self-image. And typing instead of relating to people degrades every encounter to what Martin Buber terms an I-It relationship instead of an I-Thou relationship.
Does Drabble offer any prescriptions for female self-actualizing? Not really. She does, however, proscribe all of the above, along with one more caution: “…I saw for her what I could never see for myself—that this impulse to seize on one moment as the whole, one aspect as the total view, one attitude as a revelation, is the impulse that confounds both her and me, that confounds and impels us. To force a unity from a quarrel, a high continuum from a sequence of defeats and petty disasters, to live on the level of the heart rather than the level of the slipping petticoat, this is what we spend our life on, and this is what wears us out. My attitude to the petticoat is firmer than hers, but I am exhausted nevertheless.” 187 Our narrator’s epiphany comes at the end of the novel, leaving us with a non-lesson for our own lives.
I take away from Margaret Drabble’s first novel the following: Let us avoid reducing life and people to isolated moments and behavior—the off day, the testy tête-à-tête, the impatient delay, and the misguided step. Let us let go of the badly worded introductions. Let us forgive the conversational slight and absolve the cranky guest. Should we not, as graciously as possible, stop keeping score of others’ indiscretions and offenses? If so, then perhaps, marriage and motherhood, although potential bird-cages for all of the wrong reasons, can also afford female self-actualization.