How jigsaw puzzles got her through

When her husband got sick, a British novelist turned her mind to a happy childhood memory

090914_jigsawBefore the plan went awry, British novelist Margaret Drabble believed she would retire from writing fiction a calmed and contented person, and “become a jigsaw expert.” To that end, she would write a history of the jigsaw puzzle. She pictured producing a work that would make “a pleasing Christmas present . . . Unlike two of my later novels, [it] would not upset or annoy anybody. It didn’t work out that way,” she reveals in a new book.

Shortly after conceiving of the project, her husband, Michael Holroyd, was diagnosed with an advanced cancer that led to two major operations and a regime of radiation and chemotherapy. “As the months went by,” Drabble confesses, “I felt myself sinking into the paranoia and depression from which I thought I had at last emerged.”

Holroyd’s medical ordeal weakened his immune system, leaving the couple mostly housebound. Drabble set up a jigsaw workstation in their London home. “I could pass a painless hour or two, assembling little pieces of cardboard into a preordained pattern, and thus regain an illusion of control.” However, instead of gathering facts for her jigsaw history, she found her mind kept wandering back to her childhood and the evenings she spent with her aunt Phyllis, her mother’s younger sister, who always found room on her messy kitchen table to lay out the pieces of a jigsaw.
The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws is “not a memoir,” Drabble explains in the foreword, “although parts of it may look like a memoir. Nor is it a history of the jigsaw, although that is what it was once meant to be. It is a hybrid,” she writes, explaining, “I have never been a tidy writer.”

In the book, Drabble recalls how her mother disapproved of “amusements.” Her mother’s attitude to Phyllis, who never married and lived alone, was “offensively patronizing.” Drabble’s aunt was so accustomed to living alone that she was “slightly uncomfortable with the concept of conversation. Auntie Phyl lacked small talk, and had to be encouraged.”

Among fans of the jigsaw are Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II. Drabble observes, “Many jigsaw puzzlers reveal a degree of anxiety about their hobby, fearing it reveals a neurosis that might expose them to hostile analysis. Do they do puzzles because they are lonely? Or because they are dyslexic or autistic and no good at fireside conversation? Or because they are timid, uncreative and imitative, satisfied with recreating the ready-made, like would-be artists who prefer paint by numbers? Or because they know that jigsaws are designed to waste time, and that the killing of time is, as Daniel Defoe said, the worst of murders?”

Drabble notes that the first jigsaw puzzles were “dissected maps” and probably first produced by a printmaker and cartographer by the name of John Spilsbury, born in 1739. Spilsbury is credited with the idea of mounting maps on thin mahogany boards and cutting them along country or county boundaries with a “fine marquetry saw.” “These puzzles seem to have been specifically designed and sold as an amusing education aid for children.”

When Drabble was a moody teenager she confesses she withdrew from the jigsaws that entertained her as a child and sulked in her bedroom, reading books, for which she was reprimanded by her father. “You shouldn’t look down on games,” he said. “What’s the point of admiring Jane Austen, and then despising the way her characters spend their time. Come and play.”

“Sitting over a jigsaw as an adult, one may feel foolish,” Drabble acknowledges, but then goes on to enumerate the many benefits. “From jigsaws you learn about the brush strokes of Van Gogh, the clouds of Constable, the reflections and shadows of Manet, the brickwork and tiles of the Dutch masters, the flesh tones of Titian. I studied all of these through assembling the pieces of jigsaws.”
She describes the lengthy task of assembling the notoriously difficult 340-piece jigsaw of Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist masterpiece Convergence. “This is not to suggest that those who do jigsaws delude themselves that they are creating a new work of art. They are not so stupid. It isn’t an art. It isn’t a hobby. It isn’t even a craft. It isn’t quite a game either. It’s a different kind of act. But what kind of an act is it?” Drabble admits to never quite finding the answer to this. “Reproducing the free swirl and drip of rich oil in little dry hard discrete cardboard pieces is a paradoxical activity, but very satisfying. Why? I keep looking for the answer.”

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