The Peppered Moth


"It is 1912 and Bessie Bawtry is a small child living in Breaseborough, a South Yorkshire mining town. Unusually gifted, she sits quietly and studies hard, waiting for the day when she can sit the Cambridge entrance exam and escape the kind of life her ancestors have never even thought to question. Her parents are in awe of her - who is this swan-child, is she a freak? (Where did she get her notions? Who did she think she was?)" "Nearly a century later Bessie's granddaughter, Faro Gaulden, is listening to a lecture on genetic inheritance. She has ...
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The Peppered Moth

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"It is 1912 and Bessie Bawtry is a small child living in Breaseborough, a South Yorkshire mining town. Unusually gifted, she sits quietly and studies hard, waiting for the day when she can sit the Cambridge entrance exam and escape the kind of life her ancestors have never even thought to question. Her parents are in awe of her - who is this swan-child, is she a freak? (Where did she get her notions? Who did she think she was?)" "Nearly a century later Bessie's granddaughter, Faro Gaulden, is listening to a lecture on genetic inheritance. She has returned to the depressed little town where Bessie grew up and all around her she sees the families who have stayed there for longer than anyone can remember. Faro's father was a desperate, wild, drinking man, the scion of part-Jewish, part-Polish, part-German refugees. But for all her exotic ancestry and glamour, has Faro really travelled any further than her Breaseborough kin?"--BOOK JACKET.
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Editorial Reviews

Wendy Smith
[Her] new novel...shows the artist at the height of her technical powers, jump-cutting among three generations and flaunting her knowledge of everything from molecular biology to waste management as she grapples with emotional and social issues she does not pretend to have resolved.
Washington Post Book World
Whitney Gould
Are we doomed by genes and environment to repeat the failings of our parents? Or can we reshape our circumstances and ourselves? Such age-old questions inform Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth, an absorbing, if uneven, novel that chronicles the lives of three generations of women from a coal-mining town in Yorkshire, England. The story begins at the turn of the last century in Breaseborough, "a small, mean town, full of small, mean people." Bessie Bawtry, the sickly but precocious daughter of an electrician, finds her escape in a scholarship to Cambridge. At Cambridge, she holds her own academically but is often hobbled by depression and self-doubt. Bessie returns home and marries Joe, her hometown sweetheart, but never fulfills her potential. She and Joe have two children. One, the rebellious Chrissie, also aspires to a better life but weds a womanizing rogue who treats her to a life of "broken crockery, bruises and bailiffs." Chrissie's daughter, Faro, winds up with her own dead weight: a down-in-the-dumps boyfriend who is dying of pancreatic cancer (or so he says), "pulling at her like a sick old dog" and intoning: "Descend with me." A writer of wide-ranging curiosity and trenchant wit, Drabble has wrestled with the issue of free will vs. determinism in some of her 13 previous novels. This latest cements her reputation for serious, meaty fiction.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One scarcely recognizes Drabble's (The Witch of Exmoor, etc.) customary satirical verve in this thinly veiled fictional account of her mother's life. According to the author's afterword, it was painful to write; moreover, it's painful to read. The essential unlovability of the central character is accentuated by Drabble's tone throughout, which she admits is "harsh, dismissive, censorious. As she was." The fictional Bessie Bawtry is born in a Yorkshire coal-mining town during the early years of the 20th century. From childhood on, she is precociously intelligent and fastidious, carping and contemptuous. A manipulative martyr, Bessie is determined to escape her dowdy family and dismal surroundings, but though she wins a scholarship to Cambridge, her ignominious return to her hometown after graduation can be lived down only by marriage to affable Joe Barron. Forever dissatisfied, Bessie thereafter uses her caustic tongue to inflict her bitterness and resentment on her husband and children. Drabble animates the narrative somewhat through Bessie's daughter, Crissie, who manages to surmount her own dreadful marriage, and Bessie's granddaughter, journalist Faro Gaulden. Readers accustomed to Drabble's trenchant commentary on social conditions will welcome her interpolations on anthropological theories, gene research and social migration, all of which add depth to the story. At least one scene, of a funeral attended by the deceased's two wives, five mistresses and many offspring, legitimate and otherwise, represents Drabble at her best. But an author must have some sympathy for her protagonist, and Drabble seems to have none for Bessie. Her statement, again in the afterword: "I feel, in writing this, that I have made myself smell of dead rat" says it all. 3-city author tour. (Apr.) Forecast: Readers looking for insight into Drabble's background, and that of her sister, novelist A.S. Byatt, will find this book interesting and illuminating, but most of her fans won't be pleased with this outing, which should dampen sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Do our genes predetermine our family stories, or are we able to create ourselves from our own unique set of circumstances? The nature/nurture debate comes to the fore in Drabble's fictional exploration into her family's genealogy and her attempt to come to terms with her mother's unhappy history. Against a backdrop of scientific inquiry into biological determinism, Drabble limns a history of three generations with particular focus on Bessie Bawtry, who comes of age as a cosseted, sickly girl in Yorkshire in the Twenties. Remarkably, for those unenlightened times, she is encouraged by her family and teacher to attend Cambridge University, where she is overwhelmed by the intellectual and social milieu. This is the start of her lifelong tendency to retreat to her bed in the face of social discomfort. Despite her fortunate beginnings, marriage to a childhood sweetheart, and relative prosperity, Bessie is never able to rise above her demons and, as seen through the journalistic eyes of her granddaughter, that mystery is never resolved. Ultimately, this novel fails to catch fire. Nevertheless, Drabble is sure to be in demand, and public libraries will need to purchase. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/00.]--Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Drabble's 14th novel (The Witch of Exmoor, 1997, etc.), firmly rooted as always in the English class system and the trials of her intelligent, attractive heroines, but more notable for its unusually bleak portrait of an angry, unhappy woman the author freely admits is based on her own mother. Bessie Bawtry, born into the South Yorkshire working class in the early 20th century, is smart enough to get a scholarship to Cambridge but too neurotic to withstand the university's social and academic pressures. She's beset by illnesses (her depressive response to every challenge), barely manages to graduate, and winds up back in her despised hometown. She marries local boy Joe Barron, whose success as a lawyer can't assuage Bessie's permanent sense of grievance. She inspires a mix of pity and rage in her daughter, Chrissie, who runs wild in her teens and barely survives a crash-and-burn first marriage to settle down with a kind, aristocratic fellow archeologist as her second husband. Bessie is some years dead when the story opens with a present-day conference, about mitochondrial DNA and matrilineal descent, attended by Chrissie's daughter, science journalist Faro Gaulden. Moving smoothly back and forth in time, guiding readers with the direct authorial address so common in Victorian novels, Drabble considers Bessie's painful impact on Chrissie and the matriarchal heritage's more indirect consequences for Faro. Like the peppered moth, which survived 19th-century industrial pollution by evolving darker wings, Drabble's characters are the products of both their environment and the choices they have made in response to it. Chrissie and Faro are goodhearted, fallible but not overlyself-destructiveprotagonists of an appealing sort familiar from such previous novels as Jerusalem the Golden (1985); pinched, tormented, and tormenting Bessie is a darker, in many ways more interesting, figure about whom the author clearly still has strong unresolved feelings. A blend of psychology and social commentary: not to everyone's taste, perhaps, but those who appreciate its central importance in the evolution of English fiction will find Drabble a thoughtful modern practitioner of this approach.
From the Publisher
“Margaret Drabble is writing, not about an individual, but about a generation, or two, or more – of women.…This is a sad tale, tenderly told, embedded in a robust family chronicle.”
–Doris Lessing, Sunday Telegraph

In the late nineteenth century, lepidopterists observed that the pigmentation of the Peppered Moth differed according to its environment. In the industrial North, it adopted a speckled pattern of pigmentation, effective camouflage against predators among the soot and grime. In her latest novel – a mosaic of fiction, lightly fictionalised family history, memory and social history – Margaret Drabble adopts the Peppered Moth as title and emblem of her themes, most particularly those of genetic inheritance and survival.”
Independent on Sunday

The Peppered Moth achieves moments of real insight and pathos.…This is by any standard an exceptional book.”
Saturday Telegraph

“This is an intensely moving, thought-provoking piece of writing whose central portrait – of a life marred by inertia and lovelessness – thumps in your head long after the last page is read.”
Mail on Sunday

“Drabble’s excavation of life in the north from the 1920s to the 1940s is rich in social and domestic detail.”
New Statesman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156007191
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 386
  • Sales rank: 785,334
  • Lexile: 1010L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble was born in Sheffield, England, in 1939, and studied English at Cambridge University. Her novels include The Radiant Way, A Natural Curiosity, The Gates of Ivory, The Witch of Exmoor, The Peppered Moth, and, most recently, The Seven Sisters. Among her non-fiction works are Arnold Bennett: A Biography, A Writer's Britain, and Angus Wilson: A Biography. She is also the editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

Margaret Drabble has three children and is married to the biographer Michael Holroyd. She lives in London, England.

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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

Reading Group Guide

The Bawtry family has been in South Yorkshire for generations when Bessie is born just before the turn of the last century. The Bawtrys have been content with their humble lot, but Bessie longs for the freedom promised by a new beginning. However, when she succeeds in being admitted to Cambridge and ascends to a new world of culture and rarified comforts, the tug of her family's history remains, binding her to the past in ways she doesn't entirely understand. Nearly a century later, Faro Gaulden finds her way back to the little mining town where her mother and her grandmother Bessie grew up. But for all Faro's exotic ancestry and glamour, she wonders if she has really travelled away from home, and finds herself asking how is it that unforeseen events and encounters can alter forever what would seem to have been determined. Abounding with lively characters, sadness, and subversive wit, this is Margaret Drabble is at her storytelling best.

From the Hardcover edition.

1. What purpose, if any, is served by tracking “the Bawtrys back to prehistory, taking in on the way Bessie herself, and all her descendants and ancestors”? How might such an exercise affect the lives of Bessie, Chrissie, and Faro? How might a similar genealogical search affect you and your family?

2. Drabble writes of the young Bessie, “Something had set her apart, had implanted in her needs and desires beyond her station, beyond her class.” What is the “something” that sets Bessie apart? What needs and desires does she harbour that are beyond her station and class? How do “station” and “class” impact Drabble's principal characters andeach of us?

3. We are told that Bessie “was to despise her mother. That is the way it is with mothers and daughters.” To what degree might every daughter despise her mother — and every son, his father? To what extent do we all ignore our parents' struggles and note only their shortcomings and defeats? How would you answer the later question, “Were all mothers a burden to their daughters, as fathers were to their sons”?

4. “The exodus from Breaseborough is part of our plot,” Drabble writes. How important in the novel are patterns of exodus, exile, and return? How would you explain the widespread impetus “to retrace these journeys”?

5. “Talent cracks the asphalt, talent will not stay underground,” Drabble writes, in reference to Breaseborough Grammar School's best students. How is this illustrated in the novel? In what ways do individual characters “crack the asphalt” or otherwise rise from “underground” or not?

6. What opportunities and prospects for personal advancement and independence are open to the women and men of Bessie's, Chrissie's, and Faro's generations? To what extent are they determined or precluded by class, gender, family, and/or economic status? In what ways is the situation similar or different for adolescents and young adults today?

7. What are the role and importance of Dr. Robert Hawthorn's state-of-the-art methods of DNA research? In what ways are the elements of his study relevant to our understanding of the lives of Bessie, Chrissie, and Faro? What is the “grand understanding” to which Hawthorn repeatedly refers? What might be the significance of our ability to trace matrilineal DNA descent and not patrilineal?

8. Dr. Hawthorn tells the residents of Breaseborough that “one of the most interesting riddles facing humanity lies not in the future but in the past. ‘How did we get here from there?'” Do you agree or disagree with his insistence that “where we come from is the most interesting thing that we can know about ourselves”? To what extent do you think Chrissie and Faro might agree? How does the novel illustrate Dr. Hawthorn's perspective?

9. In what ways does Bessie's “nervous prostration” following the Easter party at Highcross House function as a metamorphosis from one phase of her life to another? To what extent does it represent the shedding of a life-form that has served its purpose and a transformation into a more advanced life-form? What other instances of metamorphosis do Bessie, Chrissie, Faro, and other characters experience?

10. We are told of Bessie, during her first term at Cambridge, “She seemed to be in control.” How important is it to the principal characters — and to you — to be in control of one's life? In what ways is such control juxtaposed to determination of character and fate by genes, family history, society, landscape, and/or locale?

11. Drabble writes of Bessie at Cambridge: “She has escaped. Surely she has escaped.” Later we learn that for the teenaged Chrissie “getting away fast and far was her plan.” How important are the idea and actuality of “escape” to Bessie, Chrissie, Faro, Joe Barron, and others? To what degree can we escape our family, our upbringing, our pasts, and the personal character they shape? How is the desire for personal independence juxtaposed with the inescapable aspects of one's own and one's family's past?

12. In her first conversation with Peter Cudworth, Faro asks, “How could one . . . believe that everything was genetically or environmentally determined, and at the same time that all mutation was random?” How would you answer Faro's question? How does Drabble handle the linked themes of determinism and randomness? What is the relevance of each in the lives of the principal characters, and in the evolutionary and social histories of Breaseborough and its families?

13. Drabble writes that Bessie's illness “stretched back too far for [her children] to know its origins. It stretched back beyond old Ellen Bawtry. . . . The infection of habit, from generation to generation. Do these two think they can escape?” What is this “infection of habit”? How and why does it persist “from generation to generation”? To what extent do Chrissie and Robert, and Faro, escape it or succumb to it?

14. What is the importance of the various kinds and instances of reclamation, recovery, renewal, resurgence, and resurrection in the novel? How are these related to the theme of redemption? What do various characters and organizations try to reclaim or recover? Does Drabble provide an answer to the question: “If land and air may be reclaimed, may the dead live again?”

15. What methods of studying, attempting to understand, and attempting to recapture the past appear in the novel? With which character or characters is each associated? What results from the application of these methods, and what is revealed about individual, family, social, and cultural pasts?

16. Drabble refers to Joe Barron's widening musical interests as “another example of successful adaptive preference formation.” What other instances of “adaptive preference formation” occur in the novel? How does such a process benefit an individual, group, or species? What do this concept and related occurrences have to do with the peppered moth of the title?

17. In what ways is the peppered moth and its natural history related to life in Breaseborough over the years and to the lives of Bessie, Chrissie, and Faro? Why does Faro's account of the peppered moth appear three-quarters of the way through the novel? What significance and reverberations does it have here that it would not have had if presented earlier? How does the peppered moth, and the evolutionary processes it illustrates, provide a focus for the novel's various themes?

Discussion questions provided courtesy of Harvest Paperbacks, a division of Harcourt, Inc. Copyright © 2002. Published by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2003

    Under-appreciated novel

    Having just completed "The Peppered Moth", I read the reviews on this site. I consider them rather harsh. I felt that the novel was completely absorbing. The puzzled tone of Chrissie in relation to her mother's incomprehensible bitterness and constant complaints does not ,I think, justify the accusation that Drabble's own tone is dismissive. I found both Chrissie and Faro to be warm and endlessly selfless and kind. Surely they represent the author's own stance? And I'd have liked to see more comment on the evolving nature of the mother - daughter relationship, as evidenced in the novel, against a backgound of the changing 20th century.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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