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

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. An introduction by the Spanish academic José Fernández places the stories in the context of her life and her novels. This collection is a wonderful recapitulation of a masterly career.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547737355
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 03/01/2012
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 612,337
Product dimensions: 5.34(w) x 7.82(h) x 0.62(d)

About 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.


London, England

Date of Birth:

June 5, 1939

Place of Birth:

Sheffield, England


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 avant-garde 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 off the book-case. 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 then 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.'



Hassan's Tower

'If,' she said, 'I could be sure they were free, then I would eat them.' 'They must be free,' he said, 'when you look at the price of the drink.' 'But supposing, just supposing,' she said, 'they turned out to be as ludicrously expensive as the drink? If you can pay twelve shillings for one gin and tonic, just think what you might have to pay for those.' He was silenced, for he too had been thinking this thought, though unwilling to admit it to her, unwilling to display before her the full extent of his mercenary fear; and he was annoyed with her for voicing it, for in her such thoughts were merely niceties, whereas to him they were daily bread. He stared glumly at the little squares of toast, with their sadly appetising decorations of sardine, shrimp and olive, and wondered how much, in the fantastic and unreal financial system which he had entered, they could possibly cost. What, he wondered, was the absolute ceiling for each of those squares? Five shillings? Ludicrous, ludicrous, but alas surely not impossible? Seven and six? Now seven and six was truly impossible. By no stretch even of the Moroccan five-star imagination could they possibly cost seven and six each. So if she were to eat them all (and be assured that she would eat them all, if any, her appetites being as it now appeared insatiable), that would cost him over three pounds. But what was three pounds, after all, amongst friends? Or between bride and bridegroom, rather? Nothing, it would appear. To his continuing amazement, even he thought that it was nothing. Although, of course, so much too much for the article. And then, of course, there was the chance, the probability, that they might be free, thrown in, as it were, with the shocking price of the gins. It would be a shame to leave them, if they were free. But then again, if they weren't free, and she ate them, and then set off towards the lift and the hotel bedroom on the assumption of non-payment, what would happen then? Would the barman in his foolish fez nip deftly out from behind his bar and pursue him? Or would the cost be added, discreetly, within the price of sundries on their anyway colossal hotel bill? Really, he was caught by inexperience between two brands of meanness: he hated to leave them if they were free, and he hated equally to eat them if they cost more than they ought. And he was moreover irritated by her luxurious, gratuitous hesitations: what had he married her for, but to decide about such things?

He reached out and took one, then pushed the little plate over to her. She took one, to his annoyance, independently, almost absent-mindedly, showing no gratitude for his decisive action, her face blank as though her mind had left his trifling crisis far behind. As indeed, when she spoke, he found that she had.

'I do so wish,' she said, in her quietly strident, heavily over-inflected tones, 'that you wouldn't get in such a panic when people try to sell you things. I mean, that man in that souk place this afternoon. There was no need to get so worked up about it, surely?'

'What do you mean, worked up?'

'Well, there was no need to shout at him, was there?'

'I didn't shout,' he said. 'I hardly raised my voice. And anyway, if you don't shout, they go on pestering.'

'You should ignore them,' she said.

'How can I ignore them, when they're hanging on to my coat sleeve?'

'Well then,' she said, changing her tack, 'why don't you just laugh? That's what other people do, they just laugh.'

'How do you know they laugh?'

'Because I see them. That French couple we saw in Marrakesh, with all those children pestering them, they were just laughing.'

'I don't find it funny,' he said. 'I wish they'd just leave me alone, so I could look at things in peace.'

'They don't mean any harm,' she said. 'They're just trying it on.'

'Well, I wish they wouldn't try it on me.'

'What you would like,' she said, 'is a country without any people in it. With just places. And hotels.'

'Nonsense,' he said. 'I don't mind people, I just wish they'd stop trying to sell me things I don't want. I just want to be left alone.'

'I find them all quite amusing,' she said, with a determined little lift of her chin: and he hated her for saying it, because he knew they didn't amuse her at all. On the contrary, they scared the life out of her, all these foreign jugglers and mountebanks, these silent hooded robed men, and the only reason she did not like him to shout at them was that she was afraid he would provoke some reciprocal violence or offence. She wanted him to laugh in order to placate them: she was so nervous that if he left her to herself she would buy their horrible objects, their ill- stitched toy camels, their horrid little woolly caps, their rings set with fake, crude-faceted stones. And yet, if he were to buy them, she would despise him for it, as she would have despised him had he left, through fear or ignorance, the shrimps and the olives. It was just like her, to accuse him of her own fears; yet there had been a time, surely, when they might have in some way shared their alarms, and a time not so far distant at that. Even during their long and grinding engagement there had been moments of unison, moments when he could sneer at her family and she could mock at his with some forgiveness, but in the last two weeks, since their wedding, their antagonism, so basic, so predictable, had found time to flower and blossom, and their honeymoon had been little more than a deliberate cultivation of its ominous growth. He had hoped that in leaving England they would have left behind some of their more evident differences, differences that should be of no importance in a foreign setting, but instead they had found themselves steadily isolated in a world of true British conflict, where his ways and hers had become monstrously exaggerated, as though they were on show, a true British couple, for all of Morocco to observe. Things which he had been able to tolerate in her at home, and which he had seen merely as part of her background, now seemed part of the girl herself: and similarly, in himself, he could feel his own defects magnified beyond all proportion, his behaviour distorted by foreign pressures into a mockery of itself. He began to see some reason for leaving sex until the honeymoon, for at least its problems would have diverted him from other more gloomy forebodings. It was a mistake to come to Morocco, but where else could they have gone, in their position, with so much money, and in so cold a month?

It was the money, truly, that created the worst of their problems, and it was Morocco that cast so nasty a shade upon the money. He knew quite well that were he not earning what he himself daily considered to be a truly astonishingly high salary, he would never have dared to marry a girl with so much money of her own, because of what people might say: and thus between them, she with a small inherited fortune, and he with money earned by the sweat of his brow writing idle articles for a paper, they were really rather well off. And the subject of their finances was an endless source of bitterness. Both suffered from guilt, but hers was inherited, his acquired: when he attacked her for hers, he could not but see how much more guilty he himself was, for he had had a choice. It was no defence to say that he had not sought the money but the job itself, for there were certainly less lucrative branches of journalism than the one into which he had, however respectably and innocently, drifted. He must have wanted it, just as he had wanted her, although, like the money, she had so many connotations which he despised. But in England the money had at least seemed necessary as well as wickedly desirable: all her friends had it, all his friends, being clever, were beginning to acquire it, and in fact he sometimes found himself wondering how his own parents had so dismally failed to have it. Here in Morocco, however, things were very different. To begin with, every penny they spent was pure unnecessity (although he had hopes of re-covering a little on the tax by writing a judicious article). Nobody saw them spending it, and the conditions of expense he found sickening in the extreme. He had not bargained for such poverty and squalor, and the rift between rich and poor, between hotel and medina, made his head split in efforts of comprehension. As a student, years ago, he had travelled in a different style, and almost as far afield as this: he had been to Tangier, with a few pounds in his pocket, suffering from appalling stomach disorders, hunger, filth, and painful blisters, and he had sat in dirty cafés with seedy expatriates, staring at the glamour of more elegant tourists, and desiring their beds and their meals, and yet at the same time confident that he was happy, and that they were not capable of seeing, as he had seen, the city rising white in the morning out of the sea, in the odourless distance, and all the more beautiful for the cramped and stinking night. In those days, he had been permitted to see, and because he now could not see, was it not logical to suppose that the money had ruined his vision?


Excerpted from "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Margaret Drabble.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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.

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

What People are Saying About This

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."

"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

"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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