In the early 1900s, Bessie Bawtry, a small child with big notions, lives in a South Yorkshire mining town in England. Precocious and refined in a land of little ambition and much mining grime, Bessie waits for the day she can escape the bleak, coarse existence her ancestors had seldom questioned.
Nearly a century later Bessie's granddaughter, Faro Gaulden, is listening to a lecture on genetic inheritance. She has returned to the depressed little town in which Bessie grew up and wonders at the families who never left. 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 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 brilliant novel, full of irony, sadness, and humor.
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.
Date of Birth:June 5, 1939
Place of Birth:Sheffield, England
Reading Group Guide
The Bawtry family has been in South Yorkshire for generations when Bessie is born just before the turn of the last century. The Bawtrys have been content with their humble lot, but Bessie longs for the freedom promised by a new beginning. However, when she succeeds in being admitted to Cambridge and ascends to a new world of culture and rarified comforts, the tug of her family's history remains, binding her to the past in ways she doesn't entirely understand. Nearly a century later, Faro Gaulden finds her way back to the little mining town where her mother and her grandmother Bessie grew up. But for all Faro's exotic ancestry and glamour, she wonders if she has really travelled away from home, and finds herself asking how is it that unforeseen events and encounters can alter forever what would seem to have been determined. Abounding with lively characters, sadness, and subversive wit, this is Margaret Drabble is at her storytelling best.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. What purpose, if any, is served by tracking “the Bawtrys back to prehistory, taking in on the way Bessie herself, and all her descendants and ancestors”? How might such an exercise affect the lives of Bessie, Chrissie, and Faro? How might a similar genealogical search affect you and your family?
2. Drabble writes of the young Bessie, “Something had set her apart, had implanted in her needs and desires beyond her station, beyond her class.” What is the “something” that sets Bessie apart? What needs and desires does she harbour that are beyond her station and class? How do “station” and “class” impact Drabble's principal characters andeach of us?
3. We are told that Bessie “was to despise her mother. That is the way it is with mothers and daughters.” To what degree might every daughter despise her mother — and every son, his father? To what extent do we all ignore our parents' struggles and note only their shortcomings and defeats? How would you answer the later question, “Were all mothers a burden to their daughters, as fathers were to their sons”?
4. “The exodus from Breaseborough is part of our plot,” Drabble writes. How important in the novel are patterns of exodus, exile, and return? How would you explain the widespread impetus “to retrace these journeys”?
5. “Talent cracks the asphalt, talent will not stay underground,” Drabble writes, in reference to Breaseborough Grammar School's best students. How is this illustrated in the novel? In what ways do individual characters “crack the asphalt” or otherwise rise from “underground” or not?
6. What opportunities and prospects for personal advancement and independence are open to the women and men of Bessie's, Chrissie's, and Faro's generations? To what extent are they determined or precluded by class, gender, family, and/or economic status? In what ways is the situation similar or different for adolescents and young adults today?
7. What are the role and importance of Dr. Robert Hawthorn's state-of-the-art methods of DNA research? In what ways are the elements of his study relevant to our understanding of the lives of Bessie, Chrissie, and Faro? What is the “grand understanding” to which Hawthorn repeatedly refers? What might be the significance of our ability to trace matrilineal DNA descent and not patrilineal?
8. Dr. Hawthorn tells the residents of Breaseborough that “one of the most interesting riddles facing humanity lies not in the future but in the past. ‘How did we get here from there?'” Do you agree or disagree with his insistence that “where we come from is the most interesting thing that we can know about ourselves”? To what extent do you think Chrissie and Faro might agree? How does the novel illustrate Dr. Hawthorn's perspective?
9. In what ways does Bessie's “nervous prostration” following the Easter party at Highcross House function as a metamorphosis from one phase of her life to another? To what extent does it represent the shedding of a life-form that has served its purpose and a transformation into a more advanced life-form? What other instances of metamorphosis do Bessie, Chrissie, Faro, and other characters experience?
10. We are told of Bessie, during her first term at Cambridge, “She seemed to be in control.” How important is it to the principal characters — and to you — to be in control of one's life? In what ways is such control juxtaposed to determination of character and fate by genes, family history, society, landscape, and/or locale?
11. Drabble writes of Bessie at Cambridge: “She has escaped. Surely she has escaped.” Later we learn that for the teenaged Chrissie “getting away fast and far was her plan.” How important are the idea and actuality of “escape” to Bessie, Chrissie, Faro, Joe Barron, and others? To what degree can we escape our family, our upbringing, our pasts, and the personal character they shape? How is the desire for personal independence juxtaposed with the inescapable aspects of one's own and one's family's past?
12. In her first conversation with Peter Cudworth, Faro asks, “How could one . . . believe that everything was genetically or environmentally determined, and at the same time that all mutation was random?” How would you answer Faro's question? How does Drabble handle the linked themes of determinism and randomness? What is the relevance of each in the lives of the principal characters, and in the evolutionary and social histories of Breaseborough and its families?
13. Drabble writes that Bessie's illness “stretched back too far for [her children] to know its origins. It stretched back beyond old Ellen Bawtry. . . . The infection of habit, from generation to generation. Do these two think they can escape?” What is this “infection of habit”? How and why does it persist “from generation to generation”? To what extent do Chrissie and Robert, and Faro, escape it or succumb to it?
14. What is the importance of the various kinds and instances of reclamation, recovery, renewal, resurgence, and resurrection in the novel? How are these related to the theme of redemption? What do various characters and organizations try to reclaim or recover? Does Drabble provide an answer to the question: “If land and air may be reclaimed, may the dead live again?”
15. What methods of studying, attempting to understand, and attempting to recapture the past appear in the novel? With which character or characters is each associated? What results from the application of these methods, and what is revealed about individual, family, social, and cultural pasts?
16. Drabble refers to Joe Barron's widening musical interests as “another example of successful adaptive preference formation.” What other instances of “adaptive preference formation” occur in the novel? How does such a process benefit an individual, group, or species? What do this concept and related occurrences have to do with the peppered moth of the title?
17. In what ways is the peppered moth and its natural history related to life in Breaseborough over the years and to the lives of Bessie, Chrissie, and Faro? Why does Faro's account of the peppered moth appear three-quarters of the way through the novel? What significance and reverberations does it have here that it would not have had if presented earlier? How does the peppered moth, and the evolutionary processes it illustrates, provide a focus for the novel's various themes?
Discussion questions provided courtesy of Harvest Paperbacks, a division of Harcourt, Inc. Copyright © 2002. Published by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Having just completed "The Peppered Moth", I read the reviews on this site. I consider them rather harsh. I felt that the novel was completely absorbing. The puzzled tone of Chrissie in relation to her mother's incomprehensible bitterness and constant complaints does not ,I think, justify the accusation that Drabble's own tone is dismissive. I found both Chrissie and Faro to be warm and endlessly selfless and kind. Surely they represent the author's own stance? And I'd have liked to see more comment on the evolving nature of the mother - daughter relationship, as evidenced in the novel, against a backgound of the changing 20th century.
'The Peppered Moth' might be an unusual introduction to Margaret Drabble's writing, but even based on this part-family saga, part-scientific study, her style and skill have inspired me to seek out more of her books.The heart of this story is the female line of a family from the coal mining communities of South Yorkshire. Bessie Bawtry, and her frustrated attempts to rise above and escape the polluted, smalltown life of her parents and sister; daughter Chrissie, whose rebellion against her mother's confined lifestyle and depression leads to a Bronte-esque first marriage; and granddaughter Faro (named after the Faroe Islands where she was conceived), who writes about science and wants to find out who she is. I loved them all! Margaret Drabble, in writing about her own mother and collecting anecdotes from family history, has perfectly captured the love and the repression, the innocence and the anger, of each generation. Bessie is a young girl in the 1920s, feeling unloved by her parents and suffocated by the smoky air of a pit town, has the brains and the dedication to win a place at Cambridge, but lacks the confidence to leave the safety of home behind. Chrissie, tortured by her mother's fears and prejudices, also leaves for Cambridge, while waiting for life to happen to her - which it does, in the form of a whirlwind romance and a baby. Faro, a beautiful free spirit troubled by her parents' lives, is drawn to the history of her family and her ancestors in South Yorkshire. The intertwining of all three generations is captured with honesty, and the comfort and contempt of close family ties is both reassuring and painful to read in places.The narrative device of an investigation into mitochondrial DNA, and the discovery of an ancient skeleton in the spoil heaps of local mine, is interesting to begin with, but the background scientific theory and the omniscient narrator linking the individual histories seems to mock the characters and their lives. In fact, the final part of the novel, entirely fictitious and no longer based on the author's own family, becomes overly contrived (Faro finding her mother's brooch by the side of the motorway), and feels both rushed and far too neat. There is too much imagery - the fire and the results from the DNA survey - and not enough substance. After Bessie's death, which is achingly poignant with the sense of the author's own regret and relief, Faro's return to her roots seems tacked on, as if there needs to be a happy ending. But then, Faro was the least real character throughout for me, serving as another device to link past and present. Bessie was far too real!A well written, funny, touching, insightful and depressing story about three generations of women when 'the world was all before them'.
Well ¿ the Daily Mail described this book as ¿Wonderfully fluent and engrossing¿dazzling¿ ¿ they lied is all I have to say. I found the tone patronising and positively nasal in some parts of the tale¿¿Now let us return to¿.¿ Or ¿We will hear about that later¿ The Narrator (which on the last page we discover was in fact the author talking through her psychotherapist, or some sort of excuse vaguely familiar¿ The author should have been renamed Margaret Dribble. She does though explain her difficulties with sorting out who should tell the story and how she had a difficult relationship with her Mother, on whom the book is based. There were some lovely phrases - very poetic snippets running through the tale... but that was the only thing to its credit I warn you.