Drabble, Margaret 1939–

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Drabble, Margaret 1939–

PERSONAL: Born June 5, 1939, in Sheffield, England; daughter of John Frederick (a judge) and Kathleen Marie (Bloor) Drabble; married Clive Walter Swift (an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company), June, 1960 (divorced, 1975); married Michael Holroyd (an author), 1982; children: (first marriage) Adam Richard George, Rebecca Margaret, Joseph. Education: Newnham College, Cambridge, B.A. (first class honors), 1960. Hobbies and other interests: Walking, dreaming.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Peters, Fraser, and Dunlop, 5th Floor, The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF, England.

CAREER: Novelist, biographer, critic, editor, and short-story writer. Member of Royal Shakespeare Company for one year.

MEMBER: National Book League (deputy chair, 1978–80; chair, 1980–82).

AWARDS, HONORS: John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Award, 1966, for The Millstone; James Tait Black Memorial Book Prize, 1968, for Jerusalem the Golden; Book of the Year Award, Yorkshire Post, 1972, for The Needle's Eye; E.M. Forster Award, National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1973; The Middle Ground named a notable book of 1980 by the American Library Association, 1981; honorary fellow of Sheffield City Polytechnic, 1989. D.Litt., University of Sheffield, 1976, University of Manchester, 1987, University of Keele, 1988, University of Bradford, 1988, University of Hull, 1992, University of East Anglia, 1994, and University of York, 1995.



A Summer Bird-Cage, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1963, Morrow (New York, NY), 1964.

The Garrick Year, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1964, Morrow (New York, NY), 1965.

The Millstone, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1965, Morrow (New York, NY), 1966, published with new introduction by Drabble, Longman (London, England), 1970, published as Thank You All Very Much, New American Library (New York, NY), 1973.

Jerusalem the Golden, Morrow (New York, NY), 1967.

The Waterfall, Knopf (New York, NY), 1969.

The Needle's Eye, Knopf (New York, NY), 1972.

The Realms of Gold, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.

The Ice Age, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.

The Middle Ground, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.

The Radiant Way (first novel in a trilogy), Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.

A Natural Curiosity (second novel in a trilogy), Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

The Gates of Ivory (third novel in a trilogy), Viking (New York, NY), 1991.

Margaret Drabble in Tokyo, edited by Fumi Takano, Kenkyusha (Tokyo, Japan), 1991.

The Witch of Exmoor, Viking (New York, NY), 1996.

The Peppered Moth, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2001.

The Seven Sisters, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2002.


Laura (television play), Granada Television, 1964.

Wadsworth (criticism), Evans Brothers (London, England), 1966, Arco, 1969.

(Author of dialogue) Isadora (screenplay), Universal, 1968.

Thank You All Very Much (screenplay; based on Drabble's novel, The Millstone), Columbia, 1969, released as A Touch of Love, Palomar Pictures, 1969.

Bird of Paradise (play), first produced in London, England, 1969.

(Editor, with B.S. Johnson) London Consequences (group novel), Greater London Arts Association, 1972.

Virginia Woolf: A Personal Debt, Aloe Editions (New York, NY), 1973.

Arnold Bennett (biography), Knopf (New York, NY), 1974.

(Editor) Jane Austen, Lady Susan, the Watsons and Sanditon, Penguin (New York, NY), 1975.

(Editor, with Charles Osborne) New Stories 1, Arts Council of Great Britain (London, England), 1976.

(Editor) The Genius of Thomas Hardy, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.

For Queen and Country: Britain in the Victorian Age, Deutsch (London, England), 1978, published as For Queen and Country: Victorian England, Houghton (New York, NY), 1979.

A Writer's Britain: Landscape and Literature, photographs by Jorge Lewinski, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.

(Editor) The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th edition, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1985, sixth edition, 2000.

(Editor, with Jenny Stringer) The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1987, second edition, 2004.

Stratford Revisited, Celandine Press (Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire, England), 1989.

Safe as Houses, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1990.

(Editor) Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, and Poems, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1993.

Angus Wilson: A Biography, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1996.

(Author of introduction) Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.

Contributor to Contemporary Fiction, selected by Lorna Sage, Book Trust, 1988. Author of story for "A Roman Marriage," Winkast Productions. Contributor to numerous anthologies.

SIDELIGHTS: On the strength of her first three novels, A Summer Bird-Cage, The Garrick Year, and The Millstone, Margaret Drabble made her reputation in the early 1960s as the preeminent novelist of the modern woman, and she has gone on in subsequent novels to reaffirm her standing. Sister of fellow novelist A.S. Byatt, Drabble focuses her fiction on women attempting to make something of themselves in modern England, moving, as in novels ranging from the early A Summer Bird-Cage to the later A Peppered Moth and The Seven Sisters, the concerns of her protagonist to align with her own. As Stephanie Foote noted in a review of the 2002 novel The Seven Sisters for Book: "A master of quirky, richly drawn characters, Drabble is attuned to people on the brink of unexpected change." In addition to her fiction, Drabble has also made her mark as a biographer and has served as editor for several highly respected literary reference works.

Drabble's characters Sarah Bennett of A Summer Bird-Cage and Rosamund Stacey of The Millstone, are, like the author herself, Oxbridge graduates. Sarah has given up the notion of going on to get a higher degree because "you can't be a sexy don," and she has spent a year rather aimlessly looking for something to do that is worthy of her talents and education. In the course of the novel, she considers her options, partly represented by her beautiful sister Louise, who has sacrificed any ambition she had to marry a rich, fussy, rather sexless man, and partly by her Oxford friends, most of whom are working at dull jobs in London and falling short of their ambitions almost as badly as Louise is. In the end, Sarah is preparing to marry her long-time Oxford boyfriend, though she insists that she will "marry a don" as opposed to becoming "a don's wife." Rosamund, a Cambridge graduate, is more determined and less conventional. Not only does she earn her doctorate in English literature during the course of the novel, but she also becomes pregnant, has the baby on her own, and experiences mother-love at the same time.

At age twenty-six, somewhat older than the other two characters and the mother of two small children, Emma Evans of The Garrick Year experiences other problems. Having just been offered a chance to escape from the domestic routine for part of the day by reading the news on television, she finds that she must move her family from London to Hereford, where her actor husband has a year's engagement with a provincial theatre company. There she tries to escape the even more intense boredom by having an affair with her husband's director. Like Rosamund, Emma finds that motherhood is the dominant factor in her life and that both she and her husband are bound to their marriage by that most important factor, the children.

Drabble's approach is realistic in her early novels as she explores the extreme ambivalence her characters feel toward motherhood and the enforced domesticity accompanying it. As Valerie Grosvenor Myer put it in Margaret Drabble: Puritanism and Permissiveness, "The woman undergraduate's interest is divided between her academic work and her feminine destiny, which at the university stage appears as though it will take the conventional social forms. The conflict is between the duty of the self-imposed task and instinct." The early Drabble heroine is constantly fighting the opposing forces of ambition—the need to do something in the world, "the greater gifts, greater duty to society line," as she described it in A Summer Bird-Cage—and the social and biological urge to get married and/or have babies.

The two novels that followed these early treatments of women, Jerusalem the Golden and The Waterfall, represent a considerable development for Drabble as a novelist. Ellen Cronan Rose contended in Critical Essays on Margaret Drabble that Jerusalem the Golden is Drabble's "first wholly realized novel, economical in its construction, finely precise in its characterization of the heroine. In later novels she will be more profound; never will she be more completely in control of her material than in this relatively early work."

The Waterfall returns to the solipsistic protagonist but treats her in a much more self-conscious way. The most experimental of Drabble's novels, The Waterfall has as its primary stylistic characteristic a divided narrative point of view. The first half of the book is written in the third person, narrated from the point of view of protagonist Jane Grey, a young woman on the verge of agoraphobia. She is the mother of a small child, and her husband has left her during the sixth month of her second pregnancy. The novel opens with the birth of Jane's second child and her falling in love with her cousin's husband and continues with Jane's experience of the ensuing affair, which is presented as the highest and most consuming of passions. In the middle of the novel, however, Jane breaks out in the first person, exclaiming, "Lies, lies, it's all lies. A pack of lies…. What have I tried to describe? A passion, a love, an unreal life, a life in limbo, without anxiety, guilt, corpses." The two voices then alternate, the third-person narrator creating an intense and unreal story of passionate love and the first-person narrator training an objective, almost cynical eye on the novel's events and characters. In one sense, this split expresses a division that runs throughout Drabble's fiction, between a romantic yearning for coherence through love and a realistic skepticism prompted by the awareness of conflict and incoherence.

Critics have been divided both on the nature of the split in point of view and on its success. Writing in Journal of Narrative Technique, Caryn Fuoroli maintained that it results from Drabble's "inability to control narration" and that the novel fails because the technique keeps her from realizing "the full potential of her material." Rose believed that the novel works because its point of view is a dramatization of the conflict of the woman artist: "She has divided herself into Jane, the woman (whose experience is liquid), and Jane Grey, the artist (who gives form, order, and shapeliness to that experience)." Rose contends in Contemporary Literature that this is the fundamental truth the novel succeeds in expressing: "In order to be whole (and wholly a woman), Drabble suggests, a woman must reconcile these divisions. And if a woman writer is to articulate this experience of what it is to be a woman, she must devise a form, as Drabble has done in The Waterfall, which amalgamates feminine fluidity and masculine shapeliness."

Jerusalem the Golden's broader canvas and The Waterfall's self-conscious narration were perhaps necessary first steps toward Drabble's full development in the mid-1970s. Her two biggest novels, The Needle's Eye and The Realms of Gold, were written during this period, and together they represent her fullest exploration of substantial themes: The Needle's Eye of personal morality and The Realms of Gold of the possibilities for individual achievement despite limitations beyond the individual's physical, social, familiar, psychological, and spiritual control.

The Needle's Eye reflects both Drabble's deep interest in ethics and morality and her lack of orthodoxy. Like her, the novel's heroine, Rose Vassiliou, is unsure of her theology but possessed of a conviction that she must do right. As a young heiress she achieved a certain amount of notoriety by giving up her inheritance to marry Christopher Vassiliou, an unsavory and radical young immigrant. After their marriage, she infuriates Christopher by giving away a thirty-thousand-pound legacy to a rather dubious African charity and refusing to move out of their working class house into a more fashionable middle-class neighborhood when he begins to make his own fortune. At the time of the novel, Rose is living in her house with her children and has divorced the violent Christopher, who is trying to get her back or to get custody of the children.

Marion Vlastos Libby wrote in Contemporary Literature that The Needle's Eye is a "complex and passionate evocation of a fatalism deriving from the human condition and the nature of the world" and that its greatness "lies in portraying the tension, real and agonizing, between the hounds of circumstance and the force of the individual will." The best Drabble can say for Rose is that she has been "weathered into identity" by the hostile forces she confronts. In other words, she has developed a soul and found a way to grace, and in that sense she has won her battle. But she has "ruined her own nature against her own judgment, for Christopher's sake, for the children's sake. She had sold them for her own soul … the price she had to pay was the price of her own living death, her own conscious lying, her own lapsing, slowly, from grace."

If The Needle's Eye represents the human will at its weakest and circumstance at its strongest, Drabble moves to the opposite extreme in The Realms of Gold. The protagonist in this novel, Frances Wingate, is the apotheosis of the high-powered heroine. A celebrated archaeologist in her mid-thirties, Frances has divorced the wealthy man she married at an early age and is raising their four children on her own. She has a satisfying love affair with Karel Schmidt, an historian and survivor of the Holocaust, whom she eventually marries. She is rich, accomplished, and a little smug, recognizing in herself "amazing powers of survival and adaptation," and openly admits to herself that she is a "vain, self-satisfied woman."

Frances has her frailties but is not affected by her limitations in any fundamental way, because she does not allow them to affect her. She is Drabble's quintessential personification of will: "I must be mad, she thought to herself. I imagine a city, and it exists. If I hadn't imagined it, it wouldn't have existed." She is an obvious extreme, and Drabble sets her in opposition to the other extremes in the novel. While she makes her mark on her family, her profession, her society, even—in discovering a lost city in the desert—upon nature, she is surrounded by people who are destroyed by circumstances: environment, heredity, psychology, and fate. As Mary Hurley Moran noted in Margaret Drabble: Existing within Structures, "Drabble's fiction portrays a bleak, often menacing universe, ruled over by a harsh deity who allows human beings very little free will." Drabble's emphatic statement in The Realms of Gold, however, is that the will does count for something, that what hope there is for survival lies precisely in the individual's exercise of will in the face of what may seem overwhelming external forces.

The Ice Age and The Middle Ground present what has become the typical struggle of the individual in Drabble's work to survive and to maintain an identity in the face of a disintegrating social order. Drabble remarked that The Ice Age is in one sense a novel about money. Its protagonist, Anthony Keating, is a thoughtful man who made a fortune in real estate development during the boom times of the 1960s and lost it during the recession of the early 1970s. At the beginning of the novel he is recuperating from a heart attack and trying to come to terms with his new position in life. Meanwhile, the spoiled teenaged daughter of his fiancée Alison Murray has gotten herself into trouble in an eastern European country, and his former partner, Len, has landed himself in prison through his shady dealings. The novel is about money in many senses: about the failing British economy, about the effects that making a lot of money has on people, about the interaction of old money and new money, and about the class structures that underlie everyone's thinking about money. However, it is also about the forces that individuals in contemporary Britain are up against, from the natural fact of Alison's retarded younger daughter to the threat that an alien totalitarian government poses to her older one.

The interesting artistic fact about The Ice Age is that its narrative is not centered in one character, but is divided among Anthony, Alison, Len, and Len's girlfriend, Maureen. This is in part a reflection of the general disintegration going on in the world Drabble is presenting, in part a somewhat ironic move toward community. Not one of these characters has the force of will that makes Frances Wingate the central presence she is. Each of them is severely handicapped in some way, but they do manage to function in concert. There is some power in community.

The Middle Ground returns to a central character who is very much like Frances Wingate. Kate Armstrong is a successful writer with teenaged children who lives a very comfortable expense-account life. Because she resides in the world of The Ice Age, however, Kate is less confident than Frances of her future. In one sense The Middle Ground is about middle age. After the ending of a ten-year love affair and the abortion of a fetus with spina bifida, Kate at age forty-one is asking what is left for her to do with the rest of her life: "Work? Living for others? Just carrying on, from day to day, enjoying as much of it as one could? Responding to demands as they came, for come they would?" Faced with the decay of urban London, the realities of the Third World visited upon her in the shape of a house-guest called Mujid, the apparent failure of the women's movement, and the turning off of the youth in her world, Kate is not sure what course she should take.

In addition to stand-alone novels, Drabble has authored a trilogy that follows the lives of three women whose friendship began while they were students at Cambridge in the 1950s. In the first book, The Radiant Way, Drabble introduces Liz, a successful psychotherapist; Alix, an idealist whose socialistic principles have led her to work at low-paying, altruistic jobs; and Esther, a scholar whose main interest lies with minor artists of the Italian Renaissance. By following these three characters through the years in The Radiant Way and into their middle age in A Natural Curiosity, the author "also attempts to show us how a generation managed (or mismanaged) its hopes and dreams," commented Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. Kakutani found this approach similar to that of Mary McCarthy's The Group, a novel about former Vassar students, and criticized the tendency in both books "to substitute exposition for storytelling, sociological observation for the development of character and drama." But in a Newsweek review by Laura Shapiro, the critic approved of Drabble's willingness to explore all the facets of her characters' lives "at a time when skimpy prose, skeletal characterizations, frail plots and a sense of human history that stops sometime around last summer have become the new standards for fiction." Shapiro concluded: "Drabble reminds us here as in all her books exactly why we still love to read."

The Gates of Ivory, which completes the trilogy, differs from The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity in several significant ways. For example, "in The Gates of Ivory," declared Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography contributor Barbara C. Millard, "Drabble eschews a conventional plot in favor of a compelling scrutiny of her ongoing characters." Also, while the first two books centered on crime—the murder of one of Alix's students in The Radiant Way and Alix's attempts to understand the murderer's motivation in A Natural Curiosity—The Gates of Ivory follows Liz's actions on behalf of her friend, journalist Stephen Cox, in his attempt to interview Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Cox disappears while traveling through rural Cambodia, and Liz becomes involved in the situation first in London, when she tries to trace his route, and then in Cambodia itself, when she travels there to look for him. In the process, Drabble combines elements of the traditional domestic novel, for which she is celebrated, with journalism and literary criticism, and examines such diverse topics as the Vietnam War, the novels of Joseph Conrad, and the restoration of the ancient temple complex at Angkor Wat. "The novel," stated Mary Kaiser in World Literature Today, "is multilayered, breathtaking in its ability to connect the First and Third Worlds." Disappointed with the novel's unrealized potential, the reviewer concluded: "Although Drabble has flirted with the explosive possibilities of leaving the domestic novel and inventing a new form, her allegiance to traditional realism prevents her from breaking the form in order to engage fully the undomesticated facts of our complex and violent times."

In The Peppered Moth Drabble tells the fictionalized story of her mother, Bessie Bawtry Baron, who was born and raised in a coal-mining town in South Yorkshire. Despite her working-class background and the prejudices against women at the time, she attends Cambridge University on a scholarship, becomes a teacher, and eventually marries her long-time boyfriend. In the book's afterword, Drabble comments, "I wrote this book to try and understand my mother better." Except for Bessie, none of the other characters in the novel are based on real people, and the subplots of the book are also invented. In the Houston Chronicle, Shelby Hearon commented that the subplots, one of which involves the tracing of 8,000-year-old DNA, "seem forced," and "come alive only as they relate to the central story." Charles Matthews wrote in a Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service review that Drabble's use of a "neo-Victorian omniscient narrator," who often intrudes on the reader, can be "irritating and coy" and noted that "there are evasions and compromises in Drabble's storytelling." Overall, however, he found "much that is sharp and insightful in the novel." A Booklist reviewer praised the novel, noting, "Drabble glories in the musicality and pliancy of language in this exuberant, intelligent, and thoroughly entertaining saga." In the New York Times, Daphne Merkin called The Peppered Moth "one of the more absorbing novels I have read in a long time, both for its sheer storytelling ability and for its powers of imaginative conjecture."

Drabble's models have been the great British novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century—George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, the Brontës, Arnold Bennett, and, to a lesser extent, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf—as well as Henry James. Elaine Showalter quoted her in A Literature of Their Own as saying, "I don't want to write an experimental novel to be read by people in fifty years, who will say, oh, well, yes, she foresaw what was coming. I'm just not interested." It is this kind of thinking that has led Drabble to be seen, as Michael F. Harper noted in Contemporary Literature, "as a late twentieth-century novelist who writes what many reviewers have taken to be good, solid nineteenth-century novels."

While some reviewers have criticized her approach as anachronistic, Harper maintained that Drabble's style "is not the result of unthinking acceptance of Victorian conventions, or of nostalgia for 'the riches of the past.' It is rather a working back to a reconstituted realism, in which Drabble begins with modernism and subjects it to a critique that is profound and contemporary." Drabble's realistic world, he said, "is something painfully and with difficulty constructed by the author and her characters, something not assumed but affirmed in an act of faith, achieved at the end of an odyssey of doubt and questioning of both the world and the self."

Drabble's realism may very well be her personal mediation between two extreme visions that permeate her world: the vestigial yearning for a transformation of the ordinary into an ideal unity and the post-modernist view that contemporary society has disintegrated beyond the possibility of unity or coherence, beyond the possibility of even a coherent description of its disintegration. She continues to insist both on the reality of the writer and on the reality of the world she describes. And while she sees very clearly the extreme tensions in society—from the contrary pulls on a talented woman who wants both to be a mother and to make her mark on the world to the economic and political forces that threaten the precarious stability of social institutions—she continues to believe in the human striving for something transcendent, something spiritual or ideal.

In addition to her novels, Drabble has also written well-regarded works of criticism and biography and has edited several influential volumes, including two editions of the esteemed Oxford Companion to English Literature. Her biographies include 1974's Arnold Bennett and 1996's Angus Wilson: A Biography. In the latter work, Drabble chronicles the life of Angus Wilson, a well-known British writer who became a friend of Drabble's during the 1960s. While some reviewers felt that Drabble fails to offer a fully realized portrait of Wilson's inner life, others remarked that her own training as a novelist assisted her in analyzing Wilson's character and his writing. Commenting in the London Review of Books, Frank Kermode stated, "Altogether, with the assistance and consent of [Wilson's longtime companion] Tony Garrett, … she has given a minute, intimate and candid account … of Wilson's hectic life."



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Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1990.

Bokat, Nicole Suzanne, The Novels of Margaret Drabble: This Freudian Family Nexus, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1998.

Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography: Contemporary Writers, 1960 to the Present, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 10, 1979, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 53, 1989.

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Drabble, Margaret, The Realms of Gold, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.

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Quiello, Rose, Breakdowns and Breakthoughts: The Figure of the Hysteric in Contemporary Novels by Women, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1996.

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Partisan Review, number 46, 1979.

People, October 13, 1980.

Prairie Schooner, spring-summer, 1981.

Progressive, January, 1981.

Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1985; February 26, 2001, p. 55.

Regionalism and the Female Imagination, number 4, 1978.

Saturday Review, November 15, 1975; January 10, 1976; February 21, 1976; August 20, 1977; January 7, 1978.

Sewanee Review, January, 1977; April, 1978; January, 1982.

Spectator, April 1, 1972; July 20, 1974; September 27, 1975; February 7, 1976; February 14, 1976; July 5, 1980; May 27, 1995, p. 38; January 6, 2001, p. 29.

Studies in the Literary Imagination, Volume 11, 1978.

Time, September 9, 1974; November 3, 1975; June 26, 1976; October 17, 1977; September 15, 1980; November 16, 1987.

Times (London, England), June 30, 1980; April 25, 1985; April 27, 1987; April 30, 1987; July 8, 1987.

Times Literary Supplement, July 12, 1974; September 26, 1975; September 2, 1977; July 11, 1980; April 26, 1985; July 12, 1985; May 1, 1987; September 29, 1989; June 9, 1995, p. 24; January 12, 2001, p. 22.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 8, 1987; August 20, 1989.

Victorian Studies, spring, 1978.

Village Voice, November 24, 1975; October 24, 1977.

Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1976; summer, 1976; summer, 1978.

Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1982.

Washington Post, January 1, 1980.

Washington Post Book World, September 14, 1980; June 2, 1985; September 21, 1986; October 25, 1987; August 27, 1989.

Women's Studies, Volume 6, 1979.

World Literature Today, spring, 1993.

Yale Review, March, 1970; June, 1978.