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The Sea Lady

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This is the story of Humphrey Clark and Ailsa Kelman, who spent a summer together as children in Ornemouth, a town by the gray North Sea. As they journey back to Ornemouth to receive honorary degrees from a new university there—Humphrey on the train, Ailsa flying—they take stock of their lives over the past thirty years, their careers, and their shared personal entanglements. Humphrey is a successful marine biologist, happiest under water, but now retired; Ailsa, scholar and feminist, is celebrated for her ...

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The Sea Lady

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This is the story of Humphrey Clark and Ailsa Kelman, who spent a summer together as children in Ornemouth, a town by the gray North Sea. As they journey back to Ornemouth to receive honorary degrees from a new university there—Humphrey on the train, Ailsa flying—they take stock of their lives over the past thirty years, their careers, and their shared personal entanglements. Humphrey is a successful marine biologist, happiest under water, but now retired; Ailsa, scholar and feminist, is celebrated for her pioneering studies of gender and for her gift for lucid and dramatic exposition. The memories of their lives unfold as Margaret Drabble exquisitely details the social life in England in the second half of the last century.

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Editorial Reviews

Paul Gray
The greater amazement is that The Sea Lady, despite all its cumbersome digressions and interjections, achieves a clear, convincing, transcendent moment at the end. It’s possible, upon closing the book, both to wonder what Virginia Woolf would have made of the eukaryotic microbe and how Margaret Drabble managed to pull a touch of magic out of such a prosaic old hat.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The bold latest from by the ever-inventive Drabble (The Red Queen, etc.) tells the tale of two aging academics—Ailsa Kelman, flamboyant feminist activist and TV talking head, and marine biologist Humphrey Clark—who are traveling separately to the North Sea coastal town of Ornemouth: she's presenting a book award that he, unknowingly, will receive. The two met at Ornemouth as children one summer toward the end of WWII; they lost track of one another and haven't seen each other since their brief, disastrous marriage in 1960s London. A cocky narrator reveals the charged memories, of childhood and beyond, that the trip triggers for both—and occasionally breaks free to fill in narrative gaps and pose destiny-altering scenarios. Neither is content: Humphrey is lonely and dissatisfied by his scholarship's mere competence; Ailsa, twice divorced, is uncertain if she's a success or a caricature of success (her cervix has been on TV). Secondaries include red-headed local boy Sandy Clegg, and Ailsa's rich, unscrupulous brother Tommy, in thick with the royals. Nothing as simple as a love story, this prismatic novel shines as a faceted portrait of England's changing mores, as an ode on childhood's joys and injustices, and a primer for marine biology, complete with hermaphrodite crayfish and fossils of sea lilies. Seductive as the tides, it pulls the reader in. (May)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"An intense melancholy pervades the latest novel from the prolific and always thoughtful Drabble...[She] mixes sociology, psychology and philosophy--not to mention marine biology--into what is at heart a bittersweet autumnal romance. Emotionally reflective and intellectually invigorating."  (Starred review)

Publishers Weekly
"The bold latest from the ever-inventive Drabble...Nothing as simple as a love story, this prismatic novel shines as a faceted portrait of England's changing mores, as an ode on childhood's joys and injustices, and a primer for marine biology, complete with hermaphrodite crayfish and fossils of sea lilies. Seductive as the tides, it pulls the reader in."

Los Angeles Times
"The language of science mixes with that of religion to produce a holistic, humanistic resolution worthy of that great poet Wordsworth...[Drabble] has created a true thing of beauty."

Martin Rubin
Washington Post Book World
"A thoroughly enchanting blend of scientific erudition, social satire and domestic comedy from a novelist who continues to surprise us...The genius of [Drabble's] prose is an ability to be incisive and satiric without sticking her characters on the end of a pin the way her older sister, A.S. Byatt, does..."

Ron Charles
Library Journal
In this latest from Drabble (The Red Queen; editor, The Oxford Companion to English Literature), two British academic celebrities who have avoided each other for decades after their early passion crashed and burned are brought together again to receive honorary degrees in the North Sea locale where they spent memorable childhood moments. Staid Humphrey and flamboyant Ailsa, now in their sixties, rediscover feelings in need of resolution. Oceanic references abound: Humphrey is a marine biologist with a lifelong passion for fish; Ailsa, clad in scalelike sequins, is the picture of a seductive mermaid; important interior settings include the Dolphin Restaurant and the Neptune Suite. Fortunately, the author's practiced narrative skills prevent the frequent watery images and literary allusions from overwhelming the story; nevertheless, this is not Drabble's best work. Moving scenes of Humphrey's youthful seaside adventures alternate with flatter passages about the grown-up lives of the protagonists, and an omniscient commentator called the Public Orator is more intrusive than enlightening. Still, the engaging if ambiguous denouement is satisfying, and this is a worthy purchase for libraries with demand for literary fiction.
—Starr E. Smith
"There are few pleasures more mentally invigorating than astringently witty and wise satirical fiction. Drabble is a master of the form, creating audacious women characters of withering insight and triumphant sensuality...But for all its dark knowledge, oceanic psychology, and spiny social critique, Drabble's novel is as scintillating as a sunny day onboard a fast-moving sailboat on the life-sustaining sea." (Starred and boxed)
Atlantic Monthly
"In this playful, gently biting, multifaceted story, a self-dramatizing doyenne of gender studies and a reticent marine biologist—both fantastically introspective and self-aware—review salient points of their pasts when they're reunited in the seaside town where they met as children."
Entertainment Weekly
"Drabble is adept at lyric metaphor as well as social satire; in Lady, she manages to be both lavish and droll. A-"
Miami Herald
"In her 18th novel, Margaret Drabble appears to be in her element...The Sea Lady is the work of a quicksilver, fathom-deep intelligence ducking and diving wittily into matters of the head and heart."
"In a novel that goes well beyond love story, Drabble examines the power of memory."
Chicago Tribune
"A salty, satirical novel awash with oceanic metaphors." (summer Books Round-up)
Bloomberg News
"Told from alternating his-and-her perspectives, this is a thought-provoking tale, glinting with elegiac reflections on aging and the power that time, place, and serendipity exert over our destinies."
Christian Science Monitor
"[Drabble] brilliantly captures both the austerity of live in post-war Britain and a childhood that feels real without being either overly precocious or nostalgic."
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Ailsa is perhaps the most appealing protagonist among the mature and accomplished women Drabble has featured in her numerous earlier novels...Drabble's vivid, mesmerizing sea-life imagery, which pervades her rendering of Humphrey's attraction to the underwater world, is arguably the novel's strongest feature."
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Drabble's prickly sensibility is in fine form in 'The Sea Lady.'"
Los Angeles Times - Martin Rubin
"The language of science mixes with that of religion to produce a holistic, humanistic resolution worthy of that great poet Wordsworth...[Drabble] has created a true thing of beauty."
Washington Post Book World - Ron Charles
"A thoroughly enchanting blend of scientific erudition, social satire and domestic comedy from a novelist who continues to surprise us...The genius of [Drabble's] prose is an ability to be incisive and satiric without sticking her characters on the end of a pin the way her older sister, A.S. Byatt, does..."
From the Publisher
“Margaret Drabble is a writer of shining wit and splendid seriousness.”
— Alice Munro

“Margaret Drabble is the voice of contemporary woman and English novelist par excellence.”
NOW magazine

“Margaret Drabble has defined our times better than any other woman novelist. . . . ”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156034265
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/12/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 398,990
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble’s internationally celebrated novels include The Radiant Way, A Natural Curiosity, The Gates of Ivory, The Peppered Moth, The Seven Sisters, and The Red Queen. She is also the editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. She lives in London, England.


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

The Sea Lady

By Drabble, Margaret


Copyright © 2007 Drabble, Margaret
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780151012633

The Presentation
The winning book was about fish, and to present it, she appeared to have dressed herself as a mermaid, in silver sequinned scales. Her bodice was close-fitting, and the metallic skirt clung to her solid hips before it flared out below the knees, concealing what might once have been her tail. Her bared brown shoulders and womanly bosom rose powerfully, as she drew in her breath and gazed across the heads of the seated diners at the distant autocue. She gleamed and rippled with smooth muscle, like a fish. She was boldly dressed, for a woman in her sixties, but she came of a bold generation, and she seemed confident that the shadowy shoals of her cohort were gathered around her in massed support as she flaunted herself upon the podium. She felt the dominion. It pumped through her, filling her with the adrenalin of exposure. She was ready for her leap.
The silver dress must have been a happy accident, for until a few hours earlier in the day nobody knew which book had carried off the trophy. The five judges had met for their final deliberations over a sandwich lunch in a dark anachronistic wood-panelled room off an ill-lit nineteenth-century corridor. The result of their conclave was about to be announced. Most of the guests, including the authors, were as yet ignorant of the judges' choice.
Ailsa Kelman's wardrobe could hardly have been extensive enough to accommodate all six of theworks upon the shortlist, a list which included topics such as genetically modified crops, foetal sentience and eubacteria: subjects which did not easily suggest an elegant theme for a couturier. Would it be suspected that she, as chair of the judges for the shortlist, had favoured a winner to match her sequinned gown, and had pressed for its triumph? Surely not. For although she was derided in sections of the press as an ardent self-publicist, she was also known to be incorruptible. The sea-green, silvery, incorruptible Ailsa. And her fellow-judges were not of a cal¬i¬bre to submit to bullying or to manipulation.
The venue of the dinner might also shortly be observed to be something of a happy accident. The diners were seated at elegantly laid little round tables beneath a large grey-blue fibreglass model of a manta ray, which hung suspended above them like a primeval spaceship or an ultra-modern mass-people-carrier. They could look nervously up at its grey-white underbelly, at its wide wings, at its long whip-like tail, as though they were dining on the ocean floor. Like the costume of Ailsa Kelman, this matching of winner and venue could not have been planned. The museum was a suitable venue for a prize for a general science book with a vaguely defined ecological or environmental message, but the diners could as easily have been seated in some other hall of the huge yellow-and-blue-brick Victorian necropolis, surrounded by ferns or beetles or minerals or the poignant bones of dinosaurs. The dominant theme of fish had prevailed by chance.
The programme was going out live, and noses had been discreetly powdered, hair adjusted, and shreds of green salad picked from teeth. Now the assembly fell silent for Ailsa's declaration. Although the winner did not yet know the result, the cameramen and women did, and some of the more media-wise of the guests were able to read the imminent outcome from their disposition. Great sea snakes of thick cable twisted across the floor and under the tables, and thinner ropes of wire clambered up like strangling weeds on to the platform and connected themselves to microphones and control buttons. The technology was at once primitive and modern, cumbersome and smart. The platform on which Ailsa stood was temporary and precarious, and the fake grass matting that covered it concealed a hazardous crack.
Posture, Ailsa, posture, said Ailsa Kelman to herself, as she straightened her shoulders, drew in another deep breath, and, upon cue, began to speak. Her strong, hoarse and husky voice, magnified to a trembling and intimate timbre of vibration by the microphone, loudly addressed the gathering. The audience relaxed, in comfortable (if in some quarters condescending) familiarity: they knew where they were going when they were led onwards by this siren-speaker. They felt safe with her expertise. She took them alphabetically through the shortlist, travelling rapidly through the cosmos and the bio¬sphere, sampling dangerous fruits, appraising the developing human embryo, interrogating the harmless yellow-beige dormouse, swimming with dwindling schools of cod and of herring, burrowing into the permafrost, and plunging down to the black smokers of the ocean floor. She summoned up bacteria and eubacteria and ancient filaments from the Archaean age, and presented her audience with the accelerating intersexuality of fish.
Behind her, around her, above her, in the wantonly and wastefully vast spaces of the Marine Hall, swam old-fashioned tubby three-dimensional life-size models of sharks and dolphins, like giant bath toys, and the more futurist magnified presences of plankton and barnacles and sea squirts and sea slugs. Ailsa Kelman shimmered and glittered as she approached her watery climax. And suddenly, all the foreplay of the foreshore was over: Ailsa Kelman declared that the intersexuality of fish had won! The hermaphrodite had triumphed!
Hermaphrodite: Sea Change and Sex Change was the winning title. The winning author was Professor Paul Burden, from the EuroBay Oceanographic Institute in Brittany and the University of California at San Diego.
Applause, applause, as a tall bearded marine biologist picked his way over the seabed of Marconi cables towards the platform to receive his cheque and present his weathered outdoor face to the bright unnatural lights. A television person conducted the applause, encouraging a crescendo, insisting on a diminuendo, attempting, not wholly successfully, to impose a silence. Some members of the captive audience were by now quite drunk, and, deprived of the false concentration of suspense, were growing restless.
The hermaphrodite had won!
'This is a brilliantly written survey of gender and sex in marine species . . . prefaced by a poetic evocation of a distant and placid asexual past . . . covering bold hypotheses about the evolutionary origins of sexual reproduction, followed by startling revelations about current female hormone levels, current male infertility, and rising sexual instability caused by POPs and other forms of chemical hazards . . .
Few were listening to the formal citation. However, because of the cameras and the controlling conductor, nobody could yet move. They had to sit and pretend to follow Ailsa Kelman's eulogy.
The jaws of sharks, fixed in the gape of their everlasting grins, displayed their triple rows of teeth above the diners.Now the prize-winner was saying his few words. Oddly, he pronounced the main word of his title with an extra syllable, an unusual fifth syllable. 'Herm-Aphrodite,' he said, conjuring forth an intersexed Venus-Apollo from the waves, a goddess or a god of change. He spoke of intersexed males and females, of transitionals. 'When I was young, he was saying, hermaphrodites were more common in the invertebrate world. My first published paper was on the life cycle of the marine shrimp . . .'
Ailsa Kelman stood on the platform, back straight, breathing evenly and listening hard. She smiled rigidly outwards and onwards as the marine biologist spoke. Professor Burden was speaking very well. He was a proper scientist, a hard scientist, but he was also a literary man, and keen to prove it. Now he had moved on to Ovid and his Metamorphoses and why they had become so fashionable at the beginning of the third millennium. He mentioned the nymph Salmacis and Hermaphrodite, joined together in one body in the fountain of life. The question of the mutability of gender which had so intrigued the ancients, he was saying, had now become a serious item on the very different agenda of evolutionary biology . . .
Ailsa found it hard to concentrate on the content of his speech, elevated and displayed to the public view as she was, as she so often was. But she tried. She was dutiful, in her fashion. She was a professional.
Public occasions enthralled Ailsa Kelman. She loved their special effects, their choreography, their managed glamour, their moments of panic, their humiliations, their heterogeneity, their ephemeral and cynical extravagance. She rose to these occasions and blossomed in the surf of them. She was in her element here.
The marine biologist mentioned the escalating incidence of uterine cannibalism in certain species. Fish siblings, it seems, increasingly tend to devour one another in the womb. The womb is a surprisingly dangerous environment, he was telling the obligatorily attentive diners.
Copyright Margaret Drabble, 2006

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.


Excerpted from The Sea Lady by Drabble, Margaret Copyright © 2007 by Drabble, Margaret. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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