A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories


Margaret Drabble’s novels have illuminated the past fifty years, especially the changing lives of women, like no others. Yet her short fiction has its own unique brilliance. Her penetrating evocations of character and place, her wide-ranging curiosity, her sense of irony—all are on display here, in stories that explore marriage, female friendships, the English tourist abroad, love affairs with houses, peace demonstrations, gin and tonics, cultural TV programs, in stories that are perceptive, sharp, and funny. ...

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A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories

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Margaret Drabble’s novels have illuminated the past fifty years, especially the changing lives of women, like no others. Yet her short fiction has its own unique brilliance. Her penetrating evocations of character and place, her wide-ranging curiosity, her sense of irony—all are on display here, in stories that explore marriage, female friendships, the English tourist abroad, love affairs with houses, peace demonstrations, gin and tonics, cultural TV programs, in stories that are perceptive, sharp, and funny. With an introduction by the Spanish academic José Fernández that places the stories in the context of her life and her novels, this collection is a wonderful recapitulation of a masterly career.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Perfectly turned works ... A grand feat, and something to smile about.”
—Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

“[These] glimmer with the irony, lyricism, moral vision, and amplitude we associate with Drabble’s novels.”
New York Times Book Review

“Woman in her essence: complicated, contradictory, and courageous ... Magic that will stay with us.”
San Francisco Chronicle

"Show[s] a mastery of the [short-story] form ... Brilliantly dramatic ... Prick these moody and introspective characters, and they do bleed."
All Things Considered

"Fascinating companions to ... Drabble’s larger canon ... [They] are so well-crafted, so illustrative of Drabble’s keen eye and literary talent, that their excellence is what shines through, and rightfully so."
Portland Oregonian

"Landmark. A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman documents the changing lives of women."

"A fastidious chronicler of the vagaries of women’s lives in England since the early nineteen-sixties ... Drabble is one of the most versatile and accomplished writers of her generation ... A sympathetic clear-mindedness characterizes Drabble’s short fiction."
—Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker

"These stories reveal a great deal about a writer best known for her novels ... We see Drabble honing her powerful eye for details and their meanings."
Los Angeles Times

"Even those who have never dabbled in Drabble will enjoy this ... With her snappy pacing and signature sense of irony, Drabble gives us a sense of the various feminist growing pains progressive women have experienced over the past 50 years, and articulates some of the frustrations and triumphs we’re still experiencing today."

"[Drabble’s] X-ray view into the female psyche is no less powerful than in her longer works. Within these compact narratives lie complex character studies that explore both what it means to be British and to be a woman in the twentieth century."
Barnes & Noble Review

"Drabble’s stories are distinguished by skillful plotting, engaging wit, supple prose and deft renderings of her characters’ preoccupations and inner lives."
Washington Independent Review of Books

"Drabble’s trademark is this precise examination of intimate worlds in poetic and contemplative style . . . [A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman] offers the opportunity to chart the progress of one of modern literature’s most significant writers."

"Drabble, a writer of acid wit, keen plots, and psychological acuity . . . uses the [short] form with distinct poise and power. Electrifyingly precise and darkly funny . . . Stories as piercing as they are dazzling."
Booklist (starred)

"This collection from one of the United Kingdom’s finest contemporary fiction writers reflects both the development of Dame Drabble’s work as well as the decades in which societal expectations for women— and women’s expectations of themselves— were rapidly shifting . . . Readers will enjoy following the leitmotifs of Drabble’s worlds while also recognizing the evolution of her craft and the choices of her heroines."
Publishers Weekly (starred)

"Drabble’s fans will savor these bite-sized examples of her humane intelligence."

"These sharp and poignant stories will have broad appeal but will be especially nostalgic for readers who came of age in the heady dawn of feminism and who cut their literary teeth on the likes of Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, and Drabble herself."
Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547737355
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 3/27/2012
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 728,216
  • Product dimensions: 5.34 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet 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.


With her shrewd, mannered descriptions and dialogue, Drabble can say a lot. Take this line from The Witch of Exmoor: "He bites his nails between grapes, and avoids eye contact. A mother -- but perhaps not his -- would note that he is too thin." The British author, who has been writing surprising and clever novels for some 40 years, tends to remain focused on female protagonists; but she is inventive when it comes to narration, sometimes where you least expect it. The Witch of Exmoor, for example, has a wry, omniscient narrator who begins with a godlike, "Begin on a midsummer evening. Let them have everything that is pleasant." In 2002's The Seven Sisters, the first section of the book is the main character's (often self-critical) computer diary, and unexpected shifts in perspective follow.

Her variations in narrative structure and her injection of political and social commentary into her works makes Drabble a particularly challenging and interesting writer. Her return to fiction after a seven-year gap, 1987's The Radiant Way, became a trilogy (completed by A Natural Curiosity and Gates of Ivory) that veered slightly into international adventure territory. Ivory, for example, flips between psychiatrist Liz Headleand (one of the three women first featured in The Radiant Way) and the writer friend for whom she is searching, a man who has gone to Cambodia for research. Unfortunately, several of Drabble's early and highly praised novels (including the first two books of the aforementioned trilogy) are out of print in the U.S. It's a shame, because those books are the ones that established Drabble as an important writer, and are the templates for Drabble's independent, intelligent heroines on the road to self-discovery.

A few critics who have been admirers of Drabble's since she began writing in the 1960s have gone sour on the author in her later years. On the release of The Witches of Exmoor, a Toronto Sun critic wrote, "I am so sad and sorry to report that Margaret Drabble, once one of the best novelists on earth, is past her best," calling the novel a "rehash." Of 2002's The Seven Sisters, the story of middle-aged divorcee Candida Wilton's experiences as a newly single woman, a critic for Britain's Observer lamented the book's unconventional and somewhat cagey approach toward the end. "Altogether, Candida is alive enough that the novel's truncations ache like phantom limbs," the critic wrote. "The realised heroines of Drabble's magnificent books from the 1960s or 1970s would say to Candida, Tell me what it is like to be you."

Ultimately, part of the push and shove over Drabble's work comes down to a tension between literary invention and reader satisfaction; she has often been criticized for not caring enough about her characters to make them engaging. The New York Times wrote of The Gates of Ivory, "It's about politics and literature, terrorism and atrocities, love and life and death.... But ideas do not make a novel. Characters do. And we need to care about them, deeply." However, consider The Nation's take: "What I love about this novel is what I love about the best of Drabble's works -- it's rich and complex and allusive and textured and intertextual and takes on the big questions: life and art, representation and responsibility, the possibility of political action, the question of human nature. It's a novel of ideas at a time when most fiction seems deliberately lobotomized."

Good To Know

Possession author A. S. Byatt is Drabble's older sister. There was too much competition," Byatt says about her childhood relationship with her sister. "We didn't get on."

Drabble was an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company after she graduated from college, and was an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave; she married fellow RSC actor Clive Swift in 1960. The two divorced in 1975, and Drabble later married biographer Michael Holroyd.

Also a scholarly writer of biography and nonfiction, Drabble has written several forewords to editions of Jane Austen's work as well as lives of novelists Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson. The nonfiction includes a 1990 analysis and critique of property law, Safe as Houses.

Drabble has also written several plays including Laura, Isadora, and Bird of Paradise. She adapted her novel The Millstone as the 1969 film A Touch of Love.

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    1. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 5, 1939
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sheffield, England
    1. Education:
      Cambridge University

Read an Excerpt

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

It was the kind of party at which nobody got introduced.
The room was dark, lit only by candles in bottles,
and although a certain amount of feeble shuffling was going on in the centre of the floor, most of the guests were grouped around yelling in a more or less cheery fashion to people whom they were lucky enough to know already. There was a lot of noise, both musical and conversational, and the general tone seemed to Humphrey to be rather high, a kind of cross between the intellectual and the artistic. He could hear from time to time words like ‘defence mechanism’ and
‘Harold Pinter’ being bandied about above the deafening body of sound. He supposed, upon reflection, that one might have expected this kind of thing from his host, a young man whom he had met in a pub the week before, who had been most pressing in his invitation, but who had hardly seemed to recognise Humphrey at all when he had duly arrived,
some time ago. Now, after half an hour of total neglect, he was beginning to feel rather annoyed. He was in many ways a conventional young man, and had not the nerve to go and accost a group of strangers, who anyway seemed to be getting on quite nicely without him, simply in order to add his own unoriginal views on Harold Pinter. On the other hand,
he did not really want to leave.
 The situation was made even more annoying by the fact that everyone looked so interesting. That was why they were all getting on with each other so splendidly, of course. The only people who were not shouting or shuffling were extremely boring-looking people like himself, who were propped up sadly in dark corners. And the girls, one could not deny it, were most impressive. He liked artistic and intellectual-
looking girls, himself; he could never see what other people had against all these fiercely painted eyes, these long over-exposed legs, these dramatic dresses. They all looked a little larger and brighter than life, and talked with a more than natural intensity, and laughed with a more than natural mirth. He found them most exhilarating. He gazed with frank admiration at one exotic creature with long pale hair and a long maroon velvet dress: her legs were not over-exposed but on the contrary totally enclosed, though she made up for this modesty elsewhere, displaying to the world a vast extent of pallid back, where angry pointed shoulder-blades rose and fell as she gesticulated and discoursed. All he saw of her was her active back: her face and front were bestowed upon others.
 Even she, though, had nothing on a girl he could see at the other side of the room, far away and perched on top of a book-case, whence she was holding court, and whence she smiled serenely above the heads of others and above the sea of smoke. Her slight elevation gave her a look of detached beauty, and her face had a cool superiority, as of one who inhabits a finer air. She too was surrounded, naturally, by hordes of friends and admirers, who were plying her with chat and cigarettes, and constantly refilling her glass. And she too, like the pale girl, had long hair, though hers, as far as he could distinguish, was not pale, but of a dark and fiery red. He decided that he would cross the room and distinguish a little more closely.
 This decision was sooner made than executed. It was remarkably hard to cross the room: instead of parting to let him pass, people seemed to cluster closer together at his approach,
so that he had to force them asunder with his bare hands. They did not seem to object to this rough usage, but continued to ignore him altogether, and managed to talk uninterruptedly as though he simply were not there, as though he were not standing on the foot of one and sticking his elbow into another’s chest at all. He steered his course by taking the face of the red-haired girl as his beacon, shining dimly for him above the raging social waters, and finally, a little battered,
he reached her vicinity. When he got there, he found that his luck was in: by squeezing himself into a small gap between the book-case and a table, he could get very close to her indeed, though he was of course directly behind her,
with no view of her face at all, and with his head on a level with her waist. Still, he was near, and that was something; so near that he could have stroked with ease her long descending hair. Not that there would have been any future in such a gesture. In an atmosphere like that she would not even have noticed. In fact, now he had got there, it struck him that there was not much future in anything, that this was really as far as he was likely to get. He had given up hope that somebody would come along with those oft-scorned but now desired words, ‘Hello, Humphrey old chap, let me introduce you to a few people.’ This lot were clearly far too avantgarde for a bourgeois convention like introduction. He wondered how they had all got to know each other in the first place. What was one supposed to do? Surely one couldn’t go up to someone and say, ‘Hello, I’m Humphrey, who are you?’
It seemed, apart from anything else, a positive invitation to rudeness.
 The red-haired girl seemed to be called Justina. The name suited her, he thought: there was something finely dramatic and vital about it, and yet at the same time something superior. As well as remarkable hair and a remarkable face,
she was the lucky (and conscious) possessor of a remarkable voice, which she was not at all afraid of using. From where he was standing, directly behind her, he could hear every word she uttered, so deep and clear and vibrant were her tones.
She seemed to be fond of brave abstract assertions like,
 ‘Well, in my opinion, the abstract is a total bore, anyway.
I like things that happen, I don’t like talk, I think that action is the only true test, myself.’
 He was so entranced that he was content to listen to this kind of thing for a few minutes, but then he began to get a little restless, for, like Justina, he preferred action to talk,
especially when the talk in question wasn’t directed to him.
He began to think of imaginary witty replies, things that he might have said had he not been such a non-participant. He even thought at one point that he might say one of them,
loudly, just to see if Justina and her admirers would turn round, but by the time he had summoned up the courage the remark was no longer appropriate, and he had to start thinking up a new one. Then he wondered what would happen if he really took action, and pushed her offthe bookcase.
That would make them notice his existence, at least.
She might even like it. Or perhaps he might just grab her from behind and shout gaily ‘Hello, let me introduce myself,
I’m Humphrey.’ And then again, he thought, perhaps not.
 Sadly, for the twentieth time that evening, he reached for a consolatory cigarette and put it in his mouth, the miserable last of a miserable pack. And he didn’t seem likely to get offered any more, either. When I’ve finished this, he said to himself, I’ll go home. Then, reaching for a match,
he found he had lost his box: for some reason the eternal introduction of ‘Have you got a light’ never even crossed his mind, occupied as it was on far more desperate levels, and he reached to the table behind him for one of those candles in bottles that served as illumination and decoration to the whole dreary scene. He lit his cigarette and stood there, candle and bottle in hand, staring gloomily into the small wavering flame. Thoughts of dramatic calls for attention continued to flow before him: what about that chap he had once known who had put a cigarette out on the back of his hand because some girl said he was a physical coward? He had been drunk at the time, of course, and it had left a horrible scar, but the girl had been most impressed: indeed she had screamed loudly and burst into tears. Humphrey reflected glumly that he could have put out all twenty of his cigarettes all over his person and nobody would have batted an eye-lid. One had to be introduced first, before one could embark on that kind of thing. One had to have an audience.
 When it happened, it happened so suddenly that he never quite knew whether it was inspiration or accident. As he did it, he did not quite know what he expected to happen: clearly he could not have hoped that she would go up in a sheet of flame, nor even that she should sustain any injury, however mild, for he was a kind and unmalicious person. She did not go up in flame, anyway: hair is not a particularly flammable substance, not even long flowing fiery-red hanks of it, and he did not apply the candle with much violence. But it did singe and scorch, with a most alarming and dangerous smell,
strong enough to cause a great commotion.
 ‘Good Lord, Justina,’ said one of her admirers, ‘you’re on fire!’ and he only just had time to put the candle down before she twisted round to clutch at the singed ends, shrieking with dismay and delight, and lost her balance and fell into his arms.
 ‘You did it,’ she said, challengingly, from a breath-taking proximity. ‘You did it, you set me alight.’
 And he, reading in her face nothing but pleasure at having created so large a disturbance, held on to her tight and said:
 ‘Let me introduce myself, my name is Humphrey.’
  ‘What did you do it for?’ she cried, in a positive blaze of admiration, the kind of excitement kindled by duels or the
Rape of the Sabine Women or indeed any violent and decisive action taken in the cause of passion.
 ‘Oh well,’ he said, with nonchalant pride, as though such inspirations came to him every day of the week, ‘I just wanted to attract your attention, that’s all.’

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Table of Contents


Introduction ix
Note on the Present Edition xxi
Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1
Hassan’s Tower 7
A Voyage to Cythera 23
Faithful Lovers 41
A Pyrrhic Victory 53
Crossing the Alps 63
The Gifts of War 85
A Success Story 103
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman 115
Homework 141
The Merry Widow 151
The Dower House at Kellynch:
A Somerset Romance 169
The Caves of God 193
Stepping Westward:
A Topographical Tale 207

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 7, 2011

    Literary Lagniappe

    Margaret Drabble takes the "short" in short story seriously but with great wit. All of these are fewer than 20 pages long. The subjects may be epic -- love, marriage, divorce, war, death, success, loss -- but the stage is small and contained -- a room, a house, a car, a table -- always with plenty of food, drink and an attractive landscape as props. Like Kathie Jones, the playwright in "A Success Story," Drabble's success is "all the more" because (to move the quote to the present tense) her writing "doesn't have shock value; [it] is quite complicated and delicate." The shortcoming of the collection may be its niche appeal to an ever-shrinking niche: women over 50. Young women won't understand these stories, and most men won't care.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted June 25, 2011

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    Posted February 7, 2012

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