Margaret Drabble: The Millstone – the crucial 1960s feminist novel

It’s 50 years since Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone was published. It’s a beautiful book – and a momentous one, I think. For my money, it’s the seminal 60s feminist novel that Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is always supposed to be. For years I avoided reading The Millstone – I think I was reacting to an unconscious suggestion that came from its title, imagining it would be heavy and punishing. When I finally picked it up I was astonished how slim it was – and then, once I started, how deft and funny, how light on its feet, always one inventive step ahead of the reader. No one could accuse The Golden Notebook of those things.

Every good book has its personality, there in the way its sentences and paragraphs work on the page, distinctive as a face or a body language and just as difficult to characterise. Crucially, The Millstone is written in the first person, in the voice of Rosamund, the well-brought-up and well-educated daughter of middle-class socialists, working on a PhD on Elizabethan sonnet sequences. Rosamund’s sentences are fluent, of course, and crisply clear – but there’s a shy stiffness in them, too, which equates to a certain stiff awkwardness in intelligent young middle-class Englishwomen (though I’m not sure they make those kind of Englishwomen any more). Even in the very first paragraph of the book, Rosamund pretends she can hardly remember the name of the boy she first spent the night with – in a hotel – and then at once reproaches herself for pretending. “The name of the boy, if I remember rightly, was Hamish. I do remember rightly. I really must try not to be deprecating.” A habit of diffidence is overridden by a habit of truth-telling; inhibition and confession mingle in their touching, comic cocktail.

The novel unfolds with elegant minimalism and clever out-of-sequence turns upon itself; the little scenes and the fragments of background are stepping stones carrying us across the fast-flowing river of the story. Rosamund didn’t actually have sex with Hamish that night in the hotel, or on any other night – perhaps because, although she’d remembered to wear a curtain ring on her finger, when it came to signing the hotel register she forgot not to sign, in her “huge childish hand”, her own maiden name. The oversight is both gauche and significant. Rosamund isn’t making a stand for her maiden autonomy – at the time she’s just embarrassed, feels a “bleak apologetic despair”. But in signing her own name so heedlessly she shows there’s something irreducible in her whole self – however she might desire to be reduced. She’s read about love and passion in novels, she’s ready for it; and the hotel allows her and Hamish to stay, in any case. But Rosamund’s determined self-possession means that she can’t learn how to yield to sex. She pretends, later, to each of her two boyfriends (this is long after Hamish) that she is making love to the other one. The novel is partly a comedy of virginity: a rather Elizabethan theme, like something explored by her favourite poets. Only this time it’s written from the inside, by a woman.

Margaret Drabble can do sexually passionate just as well. Clara in Jerusalem the Golden (1967), also a clever girl finishing her thesis, falls head over heels into a gloriously sensual affair – though the sex is far from straightforward, as she and her lover both seem to be in love with his sister, too. Yet in The Millstone, virginity – or, to put it differently, a female reluctance, a demurral, in relation to the overriding sex narrative – feels like a significant part of the imaginative terrain the young writer is staking out and making her own. Rosamund isn’t identical with the writer, but her imagination becomes the vessel for the writer’s vision; it’s one of the mysterious capacities of the novel form, this spilling over of the writer into the containing vessel of the character’s self. In this act of impersonation, through the almost formal stiffness of the first-person narrative, the writer’s irony can play around Rosamund and get hold of her type, without diminishing the centrality and open-endedness of her experience.

The sociology is done in a few strong strokes: to begin with, those high-minded, inhibited parents, with their flat in expensive Marylebone and their code of apologetic deference towards those less fortunate. Probably these types don’t exist any longer, they’re history: they allow their cleaning lady to steal the silver, and she despises them for it. Rosamund is reacting, with her enthusiasm for old poets and her drifting indefinite life, against their postwar socialist earnestness and purposefulness; and yet she can’t help inhabiting their space, literally, because she’s living in their flat while they’re in “Africa”, where her father is temporarily professor of economics at a new university, to “put them on the right track”. And she knows she’s treated differently, because of her address, her voice, her class – these make her adventures and her freedom possible.

Rosamund’s adventure is pregnancy and motherhood, and her freedom is the option, new and still tentative in the 1960s, to become a single parent without stigma. (They do tie a label on the end of her bed in hospital, with U for unmarried.) The love affair at the heart of this novel, driving its narrative and giving it shape, is between Rosamund and her baby daughter, Octavia. It’s a kind of virgin birth for the modern age. After all her problems with sex, Rosamund does finally allow one man to make love to her, just once. Once is enough – and she never tells him that she’s pregnant. (She doesn’t want to be pregnant, of course – and there’s some fine comedy when she tries not to be: her friends drink the gin and the hot bath runs stone cold.) Lovely gentle George, an announcer on the radio, only gets near her in the first place because she persuades herself he must be “queer”; the moment their tender lovemaking is over she imagines he’s regretting it, and refuses obstinately to read all the signs of his real feelings. Rosamund’s inhibition, her virgin-ness, isn’t because she doesn’t like the sensations of sex: it’s rather an excess of self-consciousness and self-doubt, part of the class penalty she pays for the flat in Marylebone and the principled parents and the good education.

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