Margaret Peel, "small, thin, and bespectacled" (2.1), might be the saddest character in this book, and definitely one of the most complicated. She's a faculty member in the History Department, a senior colleague to Jim, and she's taken him under her wing. At times, she's a manipulative drama queen who ropes Jim into a relationship he doesn't want. At other times, she's down-to-earth about her possibilities with Jim, and acts the helpful and supportive friend. Like Jim, we're never totally sure what she's thinking, and the fact that she has (apparently) attempted suicide can't help but affect the way we look at everything she does.
Before we take on Margaret's more important qualities, let's get one thing out of the way: she's definitely a "Not." Not only does Jim find her unattractive, but he has contempt for her efforts to make herself attractive.
The huge class that contained Margaret was destined to provide his own womenfolk: those in whom the intention of being attractive could sometimes be made to get itself confused with performance; those with whom a too-tight skirt, a wrong-coloured, or no, lipstick, even an ill-executed smile could instantly discredit that illusion beyond apparent hope of renewal. (4.13)
Not a very sympathetic attitude towards a plain woman just trying to look her best.
Despite her emotional baggage, there are times when Margaret doesn't seem so bad. She knows Jim better than anyone else on campus, and shares his dislike of the Welches. She lets him know what to expect from the weekend activities at the Welches' and kind of smoothes things out in uncomfortable social situations.
With Margaret at his side, Dixon was soon confronted by the two people Welch wanted him to meet and by Evan Johns. […] Before a silence could fall, Margaret said "Are you down here for long, Mr. Welch?" and Dixon felt grateful for her being there and for always having something to say. (4.16-17)
When Jim wants to bolt from the Welches' party to get drunk, Margaret intervenes:
"Of course we can't go out; what do you suppose the Neddies would think? Just as their brilliant son's arrived? You'd get a week's notice like a shot."
"Yes, you're right, I admit. But I'd give anything for three quick pints. I've had nothing since the one I had down the road yesterday evening, before I showed up here."
"Much better for your pocket not to have them." (4.45-47)
Hmm, Margaret's sounding a bit…maternal. That's gotta be a turnoff.
When she's not being reasonable, helpful, and attentive, Margaret's using emotional blackmail to get Jim into a relationship. She's got some pretty powerful ammo—her suicide attempt, for starters.
"And then, just before I went under, I suddenly stopped caring. I'd been clutching the empty bottle like grim death, I remember, as if I was holding onto life, in a way, but quite soon, I didn't in the least mind going; I felt too tired, somehow." (2.1)
Jim's response to this is to ask Margaret if she's thinking of trying another suicide attempt, but she doesn't answer the question. Instead, at the end of the conversation, she tightens the noose on an already guilty Jim:
At his side, Margaret heaved a sigh which invariably preluded the worst avowals. She waited until he had to look at her and said, "How close we seem to be tonight, James." […] "All the barriers are down at last, aren't they?" (2.53)
Clearly, she's got a flair for the dramatic. She's big on sighing.
She said this in a tone that combined the vibrant with the flat, like an actress demonstrating the economical conveyance of strong emotion. This was her habit when making her avowals. (10.44)
To be fair to Margaret, Jim has been all over the place when it comes to their relationship, and he's been pretty helpful and attentive. But when it finally seems crystal clear that he's interested in Christine, Margaret's façade falls apart and she starts to emote.
"Don't be fantastic, Margaret. Come off the stage for a moment, do."
There was a pause, then she came waveringly forward, put her hands on his shoulders, and seemed to collapse, or be dragging him, on to the bed. Unregarded, her spectacles fell off. She was making a curious noise, a steady, low-pitched moan […].Now and then she gave a quiet, almost skittish, scream. […] then she raised herself, tense but still trembling, and began a series of high-pitched, inward screams that alternated with the deep moans. […] While she lay there with her arms spread out, writhing, she screamed half a dozen times […]. (16.28)
After a few slaps from Bill Atkinson, some shaking, and a stiff drink, Margaret comes to her senses. We'll leave the trembling and moaning on the bed to the Freudians, but she seems to recover pretty quickly.
"Thank you so much, Mr. Atkinson; you've been wonderful. I just can't thank you enough."(16.43)
Yeah, he's been wonderful. I guess it's true what they say—any attention is good attention.
After this incident, Margaret is back to her stoic self and grants Jim his freedom.
"You did all a man could do, and more than most would, believe me. You've got nothing to reproach yourself with. Really, I don't know how you stuck it. I'm afraid none of it's been much fun for you. Just as well you decided to call it quits." (16.56)
Just as Jim is ready to forgive this latest outburst, he finally meets with Catchpole, Margaret's ex, the one who supposedly drove her to attempt suicide. They compare notes about the day of the overdose and discover—horrors—that the suicide plan was an attempt to guilt out both of them. Margaret had apparently lied to Jim about Catchpole leaving her; in fact, they were never even in a relationship at the time, according to Catchpole, who seems like a pretty reliable guy. Catchpole ends the conversation by warning Jim:
"Don't try to help her anymore; it's too dangerous for you. I know what I'm talking about. She doesn't need any help either, you know, really." (24.32)
Ultimately, Margaret is unmasked as a manipulative woman who knew exactly what she was doing. Dixon finds it hard to believe at first, but as he runs to the train station to catch Christine, he realizes he's accepted the truth about her.
Despite her unforgivable behavior, there's something very sad about Margaret Peel. Dixon understands why she does what she does—she's lonely and unattractive and she knows it. Despite all her social skills, she's never been able to attract and keep a guy. You also have to wonder if, back in the early 1950s, a woman with an academic career might have been a little threatening to some more traditional men.