31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 26: “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” by Margaret Drabble

May 26, 2011 by · 3 Comments 

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

“Family life itself,” Margaret Drabble once wrote, “that safest, most traditional, most approved of female choices, is not a sanctuary: It is, perpetually, a dangerous place.” It is certainly a dangerous place for Jenny Jamieson, the protagonist of Drabble’s ironically titled 1973 story. The date of the story’s composition is not unimportant: the 1970s marked the period during which the second wave of feminism really took hold, and Drabble takes dead aim at the culture of the day, which was dealing with the social upheaval created by women leaving the home and seeking careers for themselves.

Jenny is a presenter on a television interview show. “She was intelligent and quick, she had sympathy for everyone she talked to, and all the time she looked so splendid, sitting there shining and twinkling. Everyone admired her, nobody disliked her.” Drabble provides a quick sketch of Jenny’s attributes and successes, then deftly pulls the rug out with a brief, almost perfunctory declarative sentence: “Her husband did not like this state of affairs at all.”

There are worlds of implication contained in those 11 short words.

It is fairly evident that Jenny’s husband, Fred, suffers from jealousy over his wife’s success. Appearing on television has made Jenny “quite famous, in a way.” Certainly, her fame exceeds that of her husband, who as the editor of a weekly news magazine is “quite famous, too, but only to people who knew what he was doing.” Jenny’s success relative to his own turns Fred into a mean-spirited, vindictive man:

He became extremely bad-tempered, never came home if he could avoid it and yet would never commit himself to being out, because he did not want to make Jenny’s life any easier. He wanted to make it as difficult as possible. So he would arrive and depart unexpectedly. He stopped bringing his friends home. He made endless unpleasant remarks and innuendoes about Jenny’s colleagues in the television world, as though he had forgotten that he had introduced her to them in the first place. Sometimes he would wake her up in the middle of the night and hit her. He would accuse her of neglecting him and the children. She was not quite sure how this had all happened. It didn’t seem to have much to do with her, and yet she supposed it must be her fault. At night, when it was dark, she used to think it was her fault, but in the morning she would get up and go on smiling.

A reader in 2011 (especially, perhaps, a male reader) might consider Drabble’s portrait exaggerated almost to the point of caricature, but the passive-aggressive power dynamics that Jenny’s husband engages in are not unknown within many codependent relationships, even today. (Only the notion that this urbane editor of a weekly news organ would go to the extent of waking his wife arbitrarily for the sole purpose of beating her rings truly false.) The story’s omniscient narrator assures us that Fred “did not want to make Jenny’s life any easier,” and there is no reason to disbelieve this assertion, whether or not his behaviour results from a conscious intention to harm. It is also significant that Jenny blames herself for the change in her husband: she has been so conditioned to nurture everyone in her ambit that if something goes wrong she assumes it must be because of a defect in her character. But in the morning, she goes on smiling, as if everything were fine.

Of course, such a brittle fa├žade is bound to crack and eventually shatter. The precipitating incident occurs when Jenny returns home from work late one night, to find her husband lounging in their living room, reading. Looking at her “with an expression of real hatred,” he says, “I suppose you’re standing there waiting for me to offer to make you a drink, aren’t you?” Jenny reacts “as though an electric current had been driven through her,” shaking and screaming at Fred, who “lay there morosely, watching her, as though satisfied that he had by accident pressed the right button.” Jenny goes to bed feeling “as though she had had some kind of shock treatment.” The moment is literally life-altering:

Let us not exaggerate. This was not the first time that this kind of thing had nearly happened to her. But this time it had happened, and the difference between its nearly happening and its happening was enormous. She was a different woman. She went to bed a different woman.

And when she awakes in the morning, she finds it impossible to carry on smiling, or pretending that the people in her life are all sympathetic or praiseworthy. She feels the change at work, where instead of making excuses for her (mostly male) coworkers, she is able to see them for what they are, and she also understands the implications of this new outlook:

What has happened to me is that some little bit of mechanism in me has broken. There used to be, till yesterday, a little knob that one twisted until these people came into focus as nice, harmless, well-meaning people. And it’s broken, it won’t twist any more.

She tried and tried, she fiddled and fiddled inside her head to make it work, but it wouldn’t work. They stayed as they were, perfectly clear, not a bit blurred by her inability to reduce them to their usual shapes. Horrible, they were.

The mechanism had broken because it had been expected to do too much work. She had been straining it for years.

She didn’t think she could bear the look of things without it.

The advancements of feminism that allowed women to enter the workforce, Drabble suggests, also placed such a burden on women to maintain their professional lives and carry on all their obligations at home that it was inevitably only a matter of time before the mechanism that kept everything in check broke from overuse. Jenny can’t “bear the look of things” because she is able to perceive the power structure that has kept her submissive; her clear decision to allow herself to rebel against all the demands being made of her has clarified in her mind the ways in which the system stacks the deck against women, and she is no longer able to see the cogs in this machine as anything other than what they truly are: horrible.

However, Drabble is too much of a realist to let her protagonist off so easily. Jenny’s epiphany occurs early in the story; the balance of the story involves a visit to her doctor to investigate why she has been “bleeding when she ought not to have been.” She undergoes a gynecological examination and immediately heads to a comprehensive school where she is to give a speech to the students.

The nature of Jenny’s ailment is no accident, nor is the fact that to have it investigated, Jenny must submit to an invasive procedure by a male doctor. The patriarchy, Drabble indicates, is everywhere, and it will poke and prod at women no matter how free they imagine themselves. When Jenny arrives at the school to give her speech, she feels herself bleeding from between her legs, and assumes the doctor’s probing must be responsible. It is not too much of a leap from this realization, and the concomitant intimations of mortality that it brings about, to her blanket resolution: “I will never let anyone inside me again. Too often, now, I have politely opened my legs. It shall not happen again.” Her deliberation is understandable, given her experience: she opens her legs for her husband, who becomes abusive, and she opens her legs for her doctor, who just might uncover something that will end up killing her.

Jenny refuses to ask the school’s headmistress, Miss Trueman (note the name), for a sanitary napkin, choosing instead to continue to allow her blood to flow down her stockings and into her boots while she speaks to the students about all the opportunities available to girls in the new world in which they are living. “The force of her nature was very strong,” Drabble’s narrator tells us. “She could not act without conviction. So she manufactured conviction. That is one way of looking at it. There are other ways.”

Drabble remains ambiguous about what those “other ways” might be, although it is clear that her story is one of defiance in the face of societal restrictions. Yet when all is said and done, we are told, Jenny would look back on her experience “as both a joke and a victory, but at whose expense, and over whom, she could not have said.”


3 Responses to “31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 26: “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” by Margaret Drabble”
  1. Panic says:

    (Only the notion that this urbane editor of a weekly news organ would go to the extent of waking his wife arbitrarily for the sole purpose of beating her rings truly false.)
    See, I just assumed he’d been drinking, in which case this seems completely plausible. Though, of course the quoted passage doesn’t say so.

  2. Steven W. Beattie says:

    To be honest, that never occurred to me. But, you may be right.

  3. Kerry says:

    That the passage doesn’t say so isn’t surprising though, and speaks volumes about their life if drinking is the case. Thanks so much for this. I’ve repeatedly fondled this book on the bookstore shelf, and will be walking out the door to buy it the second our household income returns to normal. You’ve made me suspect that it will not disappoint me (but then Margaret Drabble never, ever has).