A third cousin on my mother's side of the family recently sent me a portrait of our great-great-grandmother. I studied her delicate features and elegant pose, looking for some detail - an arching eyebrow, a firmly tilted chin - that would link her to her descendants. How like, how different are the generations of women she spawned? How did she feel when four sons and a daughter emigrated to America, never to see her again, except in this faded photograph?
Connecting with the past can give depth to the present - or raise questions that can never be answered. That's the thesis of Margaret Drabble's latest novel, "The Peppered Moth." A fictional memoir about her mother, it makes no pretense of being true, although Drabble may have been aiming at truth.
This story of three generations of women explores big ideas about heredity, evolution, and individuality as it moves back and forth through the changing lives of the women in one family across a century.
The first, Bessie - born at the beginning of the 19th century in South Yorkshire - seems to be escaping her narrow heritage by going to Cambridge on a scholarship. But her bold break does not bring freedom - only a bitter dissatisfaction, despite a generous husband and two achieving children.
Her daughter, Chrissie, takes a different path, running off to the Faroe Islands with a charismatic, brilliant bounder. They have a child, but the marriage doesn't last. After this heartbreaking detour, she manages to pull everything together into at least surface success: a scholarly career, a handsome and more than respectable husband, time to reflect.
Will Chrissie's clever and charming daughter, Faro, do as well? Her roots are deep. She learns that she is linked by DNA to an 8,000-year-old skeleton found in a Yorkshire cave. Can she, like the peppered moth that adapted a life-saving dark color in the era of coal smoke, evolve to some creative synthesis of past, present, and future?
Drabble's prose is full of questions never answered. She stands to one side, playing the neutral narrator. Her tone is ironic and dry as she describes these overlapping lives, claiming that only Bessie is real.
Yet Drabble can't resist giving an imaginary happy ending to Bessie's life. But then, writing fiction is probably more fun than facing facts.
Ruth Johnstone Wales is editor of the Monitor's international edition.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor