Had Vanessa Redgrave really broken a leg during her 1962 appearance in Shakespeare's Cymbeline at Stratford-on-Avon, modern English literature would not be what it is today. Redgrave's understudy at the time was a young Cambridge graduate named Margaret Drabble. Fresh from the university theater, where she had played a lusty wife to fellow undergraduate Derek Jacobi in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Drabble yearned to be a star with Stratford's Shakespeare company. Alas, Redgrave remained frustratingly healthy. So Drabble went on to excel not in theater but in literature. In the past 19 years she has written nine uncompromisingly honest novels and, at 41, has variously been compared to Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf.

Drabble's latest work is The Middle Ground (Knopf, $10.95). Like most of her quasi-autobiographical novels, it is the story of an intellectual feminist struggling to balance career and family, played out against what she calls "the surfaces and textures of London life." If the novel offers no easy solutions, Drabble says, "It reflects my own confusion and feeling that everything is slightly out of control and falling apart."

Such a gloomy assessment does not seem to apply to the author herself. "My life is quite orderly," Drabble acknowledges. "I keep thinking something's got to crack. I feel I'm living in a charmed quarter. But I can't write a book saying, 'I've been lucky.' I have been, though—to be able to earn a living by doing what I want, to have recognition, good friends and three wonderful children."

There is no mention of her ex-husband, actor Clive Swift, from whom she was amicably divorced five years ago. "I am not very good at being married," Drabble admits. "I'm glad to have done it once and gotten it over with early. We're both very powerful personalities, and we get along very well if we don't have to live together."

Even as a precocious child in her "slightly struggling middle-class" family in Sheffield, Margaret—"Maggie" to her friends—displayed her single-mindedness. "She was a fiery child with a hyperactive mind," recalls her mother, Marie, a former English teacher. "She gave me many sleepless nights. In Christmas pantomimes, Margaret was invariably a witch, dark and scowling." Her father, John, a judge now retired, encouraged her passion for arguing causes, especially unpopular ones. She read "everything," and by the time she was a teenager had conquered a stutter to become an accomplished debater.

Drabble did not turn to writing until the acting commitments of her husband made her "so used to doing everything independently that I found myself an independent person." She punched out her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, on a secondhand Olivetti. Since then she has produced a stream of novels (The Ice Age, The Realms of Gold), as well as a full-length biography of writer Arnold Bennett.

She lives with her children—Adam, 19, Rebecca, 16, and Joseph, 15—in a red-brick row house near Hampstead Heath. Mornings are devoted to writing in a cluttered office in Bloomsbury. Evenings are for films, theater and casual dinners. On Tuesdays Drabble teaches literature at London's Morley College.

Recently she accepted the prestigious editorship of the revised Oxford Companion to English Literature, and will preside over the first major overhaul of the 972-page book since it was originally published in 1932. "I couldn't resist the challenge," she says. "It's like getting another university degree by seeing the whole of literature as a continuum." Drabble has already analyzed one potentially troublesome entry: her own. "If someone wrote an effusive comment on my work, it would be embarrassing," she notes. On the other hand, "It would be equally embarrassing if it were overcritical." Drabble's solution? "I'll write it myself and keep it brief and neutral."