The Peppered Moth

The Peppered Moth

by Margaret Drabble

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Bessie Bawtry is a young girl living in the early 1900s in Breaseborough, a mining town in South Yorkshire, England. Unusually gifted, she longs to escape a life burdened by unquestioned tradition. She studies patiently, dreaming of the day when she will take the entrance exam for Cambridge and be able to leave her narrow world. A generation later, Bessie's daughter


Bessie Bawtry is a young girl living in the early 1900s in Breaseborough, a mining town in South Yorkshire, England. Unusually gifted, she longs to escape a life burdened by unquestioned tradition. She studies patiently, dreaming of the day when she will take the entrance exam for Cambridge and be able to leave her narrow world. A generation later, Bessie's daughter Chrissie feels a similar impulse to expand her horizons, which she in turn passes on to her own daughter.

Nearly a century later, Bessie's granddaughter, Faro Gaulden, finds herself listening to a lecture on genetics and biological determinism. She has returned to Breaseborough and wonders at the families who remained in the humble little town where Bessie grew up. Confronted with what would have been her life had her grandmother stayed, she finds herself faced with difficult questions. Is she really so different from the plain South Yorkshire locals? As she soon learns, the past has a way of reasserting itself-not unlike the peppered moth that was once thought to be nearing extinction but is now enjoying a sudden unexplained resurgence.

The Peppered Moth is a brilliantly conceived novel, full of irony, sadness, and humor.

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


"The sisters Drabble and Byatt are the modern equivalent of the Brontës. Both are at the top of English literature and letters."--The New York Times
"This book fairly bounces. Its zest derives in large part from the perfectly sustained tone, which expresses humor without poking fun, and deep regret without sentimentality."--The Atlantic Monthly

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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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.

Brief Biography

London, England
Date of Birth:
June 5, 1939
Place of Birth:
Sheffield, England
Cambridge University

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