The Pequod Review:
Margaret Drabble’s best books are masterpieces of interiority, and typically involve intense psychological character studies of a single protagonist. The Millstone, Drabble’s third novel, centers on a young British woman (Rosamund Stacey) who has a one-night stand in her early 20s, gets pregnant, and ultimately decides to keep the baby (over the objections of most of her family). The feminist influences are obvious, especially given its publication in the mid-1960s Britain, when having a child out of wedlock was deeply scandalous. But it’s the character study of Rosamund that really elevates the novel, especially the day-to-day moments that comprise her progression into motherhood. Here for example she describes her memories of the sexual encounter:
I look back now with some anguish to each touch and glance, to every changing conjunction of limbs and heads and hands. I have lived it over every day for so long now that I am in danger of forgetting the true shape of how it was, because each time I go over it I wish that I had given a little more here or there, or at the very least said what was in my heart, so that he could have known how much it meant to me. But I was incapable, even when happy, of exposing myself thus far.
Thinking that he probably wanted to go, I did not quite know whether I ought to suggest that he might stay, for once I had suggested it, kindness and chivalry might have kept him against his will. So I said nothing, but sat there for a moment more, feeling the weight of his hand upon my head, hot and warm and enclosing, like being all of me held in it, and feeling that there was no way to stay there in this momentary illusory safety. Then I stood up and said that it was late and that I hoped he would get back where he was going. And even then, even at that moment, I did not have the courage to ask him where he lived, or to ask him what his phone number was, for it would have seemed an intrusion, an assumption that I had a right to know, that a future existed where it would be of use to know. I see, oh yes I see that my diffidence, my desire not to offend looks like enough to coldness, looks like enough to indifference, and perhaps I mean it to, but this is not what it feels like in my head. But I cannot get out and say, Where do you live, give me your number, ring me, can I ring you? In case I am not wanted. In case I am tedious. So I let him go, without a word about any other meeting, though he was the one thing I wanted to keep; I wanted him in my bed all night, asleep on my pillow, and I might have had him, but I said nothing. And he said nothing.
And here she describes the birth of her daughter Octavia:
[The nurse] put her in my arms and I sat there looking at her, and her great wide blue eyes looked at me with seeming recognition, and what I felt it is pointless to describe. Love, I suppose one might call it, and the first of my life.
This is a first-rate and enormously underrated novel, one that thoughtfully praises both women’s independence and motherhood. The Millstone should rank alongside Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook as one of the best modern feminist novels. Highly recommended.