About the book
Drifting Between Empty Tramlines, subtitled A Chronicle of Bridchester, is a novel about quietly – and not so quietly – desperate women. A moral and social satire in the tradition of Jane Austen, it focuses on the lives of a group of twenty-something women in the fictional town of Bridchester near Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire in the 1970s. It was written in 1972 by Susan Noble, who died in 1974 at the age of 31.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Susan worked in London, first at the Royal National Institute for the Blind and later at the National Central Library. Like the Bridchester Records Office in the novel, the NCL – based in Store Street, not far from the British Museum Library – was not open to the public, but was essentially the official clearing house for inter-library lending as part of what was to become, in 1973, the British Library.
The atmosphere of the fictional records office, with its gossip and backbiting, was almost certainly based on that of Susan’s daily working life; the office forms the backdrop to the social, cultural, intellectual and emotional concerns of the central characters who grapple with a range of issues from mental illness to marriage and motherhood, their relationships, affairs and break-ups, their preoccupations over work and creativity, conflicts between feminism and traditional family roles, and between academia and ‘lived experience’. And above all, throughout the novel, the question of what they should be doing with their lives.
While it is not difficult to see traces of Austen, Drifting Between Empty Tramlines also has elements of Bildungsromans and novels of ideas. The main protagonists – Anna, Margot, Paula, Alison, Dana and June – embody some of the defining concerns and issues for women during the tumultuous period of transition between the 1950s and 1970s, but in a much more autobiographical sense, each of these characters strikingly reflects different aspects of Susan’s own personality. There are also intense moments of the kinds of spiritual perception and longing that may be found in her poems. Ultimately, though, the lives of all the characters are, in different ways, subverted by the same sense of motivational uncertainty as that vividly expressed in the novel’s title.
Susan’s output of fiction and poetry in the final ten years of her life was prolific and to mark the fortieth anniversary of her death, Drifting Between Empty Tramlines is being published in hardback, paperback and ebook for the first time, along with four companion volumes of her poetry, The Dream of Stairs: A Poem Cycle; Inside the Stretch of My Heart; Before and After the Darkness; and Collected Poems, as well as a selection of her short stories and novellas, A Flock of Blackbirds.
About the author
Brought up in South London, Susan Noble, was the second of three children. Her childhood was enriched by being part of a large and closely-knit Jewish family. Unfortunately stricken by polio (then known as infantile paralysis) in her early years, Susan went through life with a degree of physical handicap which she was to overcome with courage and determination.
Educated at Croydon High School, Susan studied English at Somerville College, Oxford. After graduating, Susan worked in London, first at the Royal National Institute for the Blind, dictating books for transcription into Braille, and later at the National Central Library in London, where she qualified as a Chartered Librarian.
Susan’s exceptional sensitivity was reflected in the prolific outpouring of poems that make up Before and After the Darkness, Inside the Stretch of My Heart and The Dream of Stairs. In these intense, haunting poems, she chronicles her personal response to the world around her, while vividly portraying the inner landscape of her mental and emotional struggle.
One’s first impression of Susan was of fragility. She was an acutely sensitive person, but her physical and emotional fragility really masked a very great spiritual strength. Her sensitivity indeed was not directed only towards herself, but towards others. She was sensitive to the needs of others, and her strength and also perhaps some of her inner conflicts came from a deep desire for goodness which could not be matched in reality by the world as she found it.
Susan passionately wished to be independent; she struggled for it from the time she went to university, and throughout her work as a librarian, and she was able to maintain it to the very end. There was an intellectual and emotional intensity which burned within her and which predominantly found outward expression in her writing and when she expressed herself thus she did so with great imaginative power and also with an uncompromising honesty and integrity.
Rabbi Dr David Goldstein
Sample early draft typescripts from Drifting Between Empty Tramlines
Chapter 9: Asperges