The Millstone by Margaret Drabble is a novel published in 1965 about a flat-dwelling girl in her early 20s living and working in London in the decade which swung.
She goes out on dates and has a good social life. She goes to pubs and parties, she hangs out in Soho and West End restaurants, she has a ‘bessie mate’ with whom she has deep and meaningfuls over a bottle of wine. She has sex (once) and she gets pregnant.
You’ve probably read a version of that novel, or seen a film which covers similar terrain. But although Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone does depict the above, it is far from being that book.
The story of Rosamund Stacey’s progress through pregnancy and single motherhood is a first-person, thoughtful, analytical account and examination of herself, her friendships, her relationships and her adjustment to her new situation.
The division bell
In addition, the novel presents a view of society and class which shows that in some ways little has changed in the 50 years and more since its publication. Its focus on notions of liberal elitism, liberal guilt and class divisions rings a resounding bell.
Rosamund’s social milieu is engagingly presented. She is an academic, writing a thesis on Elizabethan sonnet sequences. Her friends are writers, journalists and broadcasters who move in a fairly incestuous circle and gossip bitchily about each other.
When Rosamund’s friend, novelist Lydia, takes up with her platonic ex-boyfriend Joe, Rosamund comments on the likely success of the relationship which is ‘balanced delicately on social aspirations, rivalry, fashionability and dislike’. You would like more of this kind of spiky Austenesque observation.
It’s not easy to warm to Rosamund — she’s actually quite tiring company. Throughout the narrative, her tone is cool and detached. There is little emotion in her discussion of the unexpected pregnancy or the half-hearted attempt at abortion.
She doesn’t quite understand why she proceeds with the pregnancy, but thinks the event must have some meaning which will be revealed to her; she also thinks that she will be an excellent parent, better than anyone who might adopt the baby. Her approach to everything is probing and cerebral. She thinks in terms of ‘justice, guilt and innocence’ rather than feeling and emotion. You would never mistake her for a Bleeding Heart.
Birth of a notion
Octavia’s innocence and vulnerability inspire an unexpected, fierce protectiveness in Rosamund, a response which strongly relates to the novel’s title. The Millstone is a biblical reference, referring to the precept that if you harm a child, you might as well hang a millstone round your neck and throw yourself into the sea.
The film version of the book is called A Touch Of Love, which has relevance but little resonance, and suggests a sentimentality which is far from the tone of Margaret Drabble’s novel.
When the baby has to have an operation, the turmoil of emotions Rosamund experiences is painful to read. She goes to the hospital with her child’s ‘pitiably small requirements’. She almost hopes that the baby will die, to relieve her of ‘the corruption and the fatality of love’.
Rosamund’s anxieties climax in a scene in the hospital where, told that she cannot visit her daughter, she creates a public disturbance by screaming hysterically until she gets her way.
Later, she ponders the issues of patriarchy and power raised by this incident — the fact that the surgeon who allowed her in did so because he knows her parents, the fact that another woman is allowed access only when he husband intervenes, the question of what happens to those without money or influence.
She acknowledges that she is part of a privileged social group, a ‘smart, expensive’ lot, apart from the ‘occasional freak, beggar or road worker’. Her situation brings her in contact with the kinds of people whose existence she had hardly noticed previously — the worn-out mothers in the doctor’s waiting room, an old woman who talks to herself in a ‘low pitiable monologue’.
Rosamund comments that she is reduced almost to tears by the variety of human misery she encounters, but actually her prickly social conscience does not extend to empathetic awareness of those outside her circle. They all look cross and tired, depressed and miserable, she thinks. Well, of course they do.
Maid in England
With unflinching honesty, Rosamund says she dislikes the look of them. From childhood, she has been aware of the superiority of her class. She remember being appalled that one of their domestic staff (yes, her parents are that kind of socialist) was mistaken for her mother — ‘she’s just the maid’.
Rosamund’s parents are kind, gentle, Labour-voting liberals who raised Rosamund and her sister Beatrice to see themselves as independent women equal to anyone. Bravo to them. They struggle to live according to their socialist principles, eschewing private education and supporting the NHS and making their cleaner dine with them. They take no action when the cleaner absconds with all the silver cutlery.
Their discomfort with the notion of property is the reason for Rosamund’s rent-free occupation of a very nice fourth-floor flat (five rooms, kitchen and bathroom) in central London, an arrangement which assuages their guilt.
The London which Rosamund and her circle inhabit is incidentally and effortlessly evoked.
Rosamund’s flat is well placed for Regent’s Park, Oxford Circus, Marylebone High Street and Harley Street. She does her research work in the British Museum. She shops in Peter Robinson’s on Oxford Circus and in Selfridges.
She runs into her sister-in-law Clare in Selfridges’ Food Market. Clare is described as wearing a coat and a hat, and she has been to her hairdresser for her regular perm, markers of a staid, respectable way of dressing which for many (most?) women persisted throughout the decade and beyond, while just 15 minutes’ walk away, in Carnaby Street, the fashion revolution was in full swing.
As for the sexual revolution, shortly before the year in which the novel is placed, Rosamund’s attempt to send a night in a London hotel with her would-be lover Hamish is a reminder that things weren’t quite as free-and-easy in the Swinging Sixties as legend would have us believe. If you and your boyfriend went on what was yet to be called a mini-break, convention demanded that you wear a wedding ring (a curtain ring did the trick for Rosamund) and sign in as Mrs Boyfriend.
The relationship between Rosamund and Lydia is portrayed with forensic accuracy. Rosamund’s explanation of why she likes Lydia — ‘she was intelligent and self-reliant and interesting’ — tells us as much about her as about her friend.
They frame their experiences with literary references. Lydia’s failed attempt at abortion and subsequent miscarriage are discussed with relation to Thomas Hardy’s Life’s Little Ironies and William Wordsworth’s Hart-Leap Well. In the ante-natal clinic Rosamund reads a critical appraisal of George Herbert. Most movingly, the night before Octavia’s operation, Rosamund recalls Ben Jonson’s poem about his son who died of the plague, aged just seven.
In keeping with the literary dimension of their friendship, Lydia’s betrayal of Rosamund isn’t to do with a man, but with plundering Rosamund’s life for material for her new novel.
But although Rosamund is ‘annoyed and upset’, she analyses the situation and decides that since Lydia is staying in her flat rent-free, they have got their money’s worth out of each other, a measured assessment of the situation which reflects Rosamund’s situation.
Karma works though — some months after Rosamund reads Lydia’s work-in-progress, baby Octavia finds the only copy of the typescript on the floor and rips it up. Although Lydia does a rescue job and the novel is published, it gets very bad reviews. Ha.
Lydia might be a bit dodgy, but you wouldn’t want Rosamund as a friend. It would be rather like hanging out with Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch, only without the fun and frivolity.
Towards the end of the book, Rosamund remarks that Lydia never looks clean and that her skin has the permanent greyness of one reared on baked beans, jelly and bread and dripping. Lydia does wash from time to time, Rosamund concedes, because she has heard her do so, and she washes her clothes, but perhaps not quite often enough. Enough, Rosamund. Moral scrutiny of one’s standards of hygiene and one’s knicker drawer really is a step too far.
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