The Sea Lady
About the book:
A mesmerizing portrait of the power of memory, The Sea Lady seamlessly weaves the stories of two scholars whose lives are shaped by a summer they spent together as children. Blending the world of contemporary England with its lean war years, master storyteller Margaret Drabble introduces us to Humphrey Clark and Ailsa Kelman, who met in a town by the gray North Sea when they were not yet old enough to imagine the complex lives they would one day lead. Decades later, as they journey back to Ornemouth to receive honorary degrees from a new university there, they trace the turning points of their lives, from their successful careers to the less successful relationship they had when they met again in college. Humphrey is now a retired marine biologist, a profession inspired by holidays at Ornemouth. Ailsa is a respected pioneer in gender studies also known for her talents in dramatic exposition. As the recollections of their lives unfold the ground is laid for them to make startling discoveries when they are reunited.
About the author:
MARGARET DRABBLE is the author of many novels and the editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. She lives in London.
Click here to download the reading guide for Sea Lady.
1. The epigraph from a poem by Robert Graves captures a longing to be imprinted on another person’s memory. To what extent does this longing benefit the characters in The Sea Lady? Is it harmful in any way?
2. What were your initial impressions of Ailsa and Humphrey? How did your perceptions of them shift as you read about their pasts? Do any aspects of their childhood personalities fade later in life?
3. Sandy and Humphrey’s magical summer ends with the capture and death of the spiny fish. Why does that final image affect Humphrey so deeply? In what ways had he been perilously confined? Why had his friendship with Sandy become so significant in his life?
4. Is it simply Ailsa’s nature to be fierce and defiant, or are these responses to her brother’s treatment of her when they were growing up? Are her relationships with men and women influenced by her previous experiences with them?
5. What was your impression of the Public Orator throughout the novel? How did you react when his identity is revealed? To what extent do you ascribe life to fate, and to what extent is it “written” with intention by the people we encounter?
6. Where does Ailsa turn for guidance? What messages is she looking for from her counselors? Is she ever able to accept her analyst’s observation that “it is sometimes better to feel powerless than to feel omnipotent”?
7. How does Ailsa’s approach to scholarship—illustrated particularly by her ardent, irreverent presentation on Delacroix in the Caledonian Hall of the Muses—compare to Humphrey’s? What knowledge do they both seek? What forms of scholarship do they disdain?
8. Are Humphrey and Ailsa equal partners in their romance? What prevents it from lasting? What leads them to reach retirement still single?
9. Why might Sandy have stayed away from his summer friends for as long as he has? Why does he need this reunion? How does it affect him differently than it affects the others? How might the story of Ornemouth be different if it had been told from his point of view?
10. How do the dreams presented at the beginning of “Recessional” speak to Humphrey and Ailsa’s deepest vulnerabilities? Would their final years be better or worse if they had rekindled their romance?
11. At Dame Mary’s funeral, Ailsa reads the passage from Ecclesiastes that mourns the vain ways of humanity. To what extent do these lines of scripture apply to the characters in The Sea Lady? Is the ocean a reminder of futility, or, as Sandy proposes, of continual rejuvenation?
12. Humphrey considers the extravagance of modern life during his train ride. Despite its deprivations, what aspects of his childhood were beautiful and special and may not be experienced by a modern child?
13. How did you react to the fate of Heather Robinson, the solitary girl? What role does she distantly play in the lives of these friends? What makes her an outsider?
14. The books Humphrey receives from his aunt become significant in his life. What were the most memorable books you read as a child? How did they shape your view of the world?
15. If there were a Public Orator in your life, what reunion would you want him or her to orchestrate? Which childhood friends would you most want to be reunited with?