Sunday, September 4, 2011

Review: The Millstone, by Margaret Drabble

“I suppose I must have a rock-like confidence in my own talent, for I simply did not believe that the handicap of one small illegitimate baby would make a scrap of difference to my career …” When Margaret Drabble published this line in her 1965 novel The Millstone, she may have meant for it to be taken comically, or ironically, or both. Forty-six years later, such a sentiment has thankfully drifted into the realm of the probable, but even the most-together single mom in 2011, never mind 1965, probably wouldn’t express it with such insouciance. The world is still a hard place for women who wish to both raise a child and have a career, and to do it without any help.

It’s this premise that lends The Millstone its tension, and its heart. The novel tells the story of Rosamund Stacey, a bright and successful graduate student who has a promising career as a scholar of Elizabethan poetry ahead of her. Since it’s the swinging sixties in London, Rosamund is romantically involved – though placidly, noncommittally – with two men at once, Joe and Roger. While finishing up her degree and living in the flat of her socialist parents, who are away on a year-long humanitarian mission to Africa, Rosamund falls pregnant to a third man, George, in a one-night stand that could best be described as less-than-consensual. Rosamund is stunned by her pregnancy and the sudden kink it places in her career plans. And yet her decision to keep her baby is swift and absolute.

On the surface, The Millstone might appear to be a novel about a young woman putting a freshly liberated society to the ultimate liberal test. Rosamund almost challenges the mores and beliefs of those around her, making them put their progressive views where their mouths are. Both Joe and Roger offer to marry her, but she turns them down. She finds not a gram of comfort from the nurses who help her deliver her baby, despite the soft-edged atmosphere one might expect from a maternity ward. And Rosamund’s roommate Lydia, who moves in under the pretense of helping take care of little Octavia when Rosamund needs to be working, is too preoccupied with the novel she’s writing (which, fittingly, is almost entirely about a young woman trying to raise a baby on her own) to be much help.

But there is an undercurrent to Drabble’s novel that is much more than that. The Millstone isn’t so much about a liberal world put to the test as it is about liberalism being subsumed by what we might call today ‘neoliberalism.’ In the greatest irony in the novel, the only time Rosamund lets go of her highly ironic tone and gives in to something close to an authentic emotion is when she contemplates shedding her parents’ socialist beliefs for the betterment of her baby. This happens when she meets another mother who espouses a profoundly 'Tory' sentiment that resonates deeply, surprisingly in Rosamund’s heart. The woman says:
“My concerns are my concerns, and that’s where it ends. I haven’t the energy to go worrying about other people’s children. They’re nothing to do with me. I only have enough time to worry about myself. If I didn’t put myself and mine first, they wouldn’t survive. So I put them first and the others can look after themselves.”
Rosamund is nearly floored by how much this right-wing world view speaks to her. She thinks:
I was, inevitably, touched almost to tears, for it is very rare that one meets someone who will give one such an answer to my question. She had spoken without harshness; I think it was that that had touched me most. I had so often heard these views expressed, but always before they had been accompanied by a guilty sneer at those who must be neglected, or a brisk Tory contempt for the ignorant, or a business-like blinkered air of proud realism. I had never heard them thus gently put forward as the result of sad necessity.
This is a chilling counterbalance to what has come before it in the novel. Drabble deftly takes a story that might have sunk into a quagmire of navel-gazing domesticity and blows it out to say something large, and largely disturbing, about the broader world and where it is inevitably heading. Her command of such thematic balance is especially impressive, considering she herself was still in her twenties when she composed this novel.

In the end, The Millstone is more than a relic to a by-gone age and its influence on motherhood. It is a reliquary to the emotional world of motherhood, its complexities and contradictions. It is a novel as relevant today as it was when it was first published.


  1. This is great-- I'd never made the neoliberalism connection (mostly because I only learned what neoliberalism was a few weeks ago). Have read this book a few times, and you've given it a whole new sense of it for me.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kerry. It's great, as always, to see you here on the blog. Best, M.