Cover image for The peppered moth
The peppered moth
Drabble, Margaret, 1939-
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harcourt, 2001.
Physical Description:
369 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Library
X Adult Fiction Open Shelf
X Adult Fiction Open Shelf

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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 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.

Author Notes

Margaret Drabble was born on June 5, 1939 in Sheffield, England. She attended The Mount School in York and Newnham College, Cambridge University. After graduation, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford during which time she understudied for Vanessa Redgrave.

She is a novelist, critic, and the editor of the fifth edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Her works include A Summer Bird Cage; The Millstone, which won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize in 1966; Jerusalem the Golden, which won James Tait Black Prize in 1967; and The Witch of Exmoor. She also received the E. M. Forster award and was awarded a Society of Authors Travelling Fellowship in the 1960s and the Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1980.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Drabble glories in the musicality and pliancy of language in this exuberant, intelligent, and thoroughly entertaining saga of three generations of Englishwomen. Because contemporary multigenerational tales so often degenerate into cliche, Drabble's psychological sophistication and high literary standards do much to redeem the genre, and her characters are terrifically thorny. Bessie Bawtry is the first to be introduced, a rare flower growing on the muck of Breaseborough, a grimly ugly and pragmatic Yorkshire town filmed with the soot of its coal mines. Defying the genetics that made her family lumpy and stolid, Bessie is porcelain-doll beautiful, fastidious, and book-smart; so stunned are her parents by their ethereal offspring, they send her to Cambridge, an unusual fate for a lower-class woman at the dawn of the twentieth century. But Bessie isn't strong enough to live up to her dreams. She falls into an indifferent marriage and fails miserably at domesticity. Her daughter, Chrissie, turns out to be smart, resilient, and passionate, however. And Chrissie's daughter, Faro, is simply spectacular. As Drabble masterfully zips back and forth in time, she connects the stories of her heroines and their improvisations on inheritance to a microbiologist's study of the Bawtry clan as a perfect model of the journey of mitochondrial DNA through matrilineal descent; the discovery of the skeleton of a prehistoric Bawtry ancestor; and the evolutionary adaptation of the so-called peppered moth to the god-awful mess human beings have made out of the once lovely countryside. A host of vivid and provocative secondary characters keeps things lively and pertinent, as does Drabble's preternatural gift for imbuing humble objects with emotional and sociological import. Spellbinding, shrewd, and funny, Drabble's tale of three women is a triumph. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Young Faro Gaudlen returns to the mining town from which her determined grandmother escaped and finds that, like the peppered moth, the past refuses to lie down and die. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.