I heard a piece recently on NPR about The Millstone. I have loved other books by Margaret Drabble, most recently, The Pure Gold Baby, so I sent off for The Millstone on inter-library loan. It’s wonderful. Like much of Drabble’s work, this novel explores the inner life of a woman, in this case a young woman working on her PhD in Elizabethan poetry named Rosamund Stacey. It’s 1960’s London, she’s living in her parents’ flat not far from Broadcasting House, home of the BBC, and it is in that neighborhood that she gets to know George, a BBC radio announcer. George believes Rosamund is having two affairs, when in fact she is dating two men she doesn’t really like all that much but not sleeping with either of them. In fact, she’s a virgin.
She really likes George, and after one brief evening together, she hopes to hear from him again, but he doesn’t call. Shortly thereafter she finds herself pregnant. She considers her options and decides against an abortion. But she also decides against contacting George, “I still could not believe that I was going to get through it without telling him, but I could not see that I was going to tell him either.”
The rest of the book is about Rosamund’s determination to continue her scholarly work, to keep teaching private students who are preparing for university entrance, to try to live as independently as she can and to have her child. The sections about baby Octavia’s birth and the first months of Rosamund’s motherhood are really lovely. Her self-examined life, and her thoughts on her friendships and family relationships, are lucid and observant.
There’s a scene where the baby is in the hospital, and Rosamund sets herself to the task of getting past the old-fashioned Matron who believes mothers shouldn’t be allowed to visit their children, that is delicious. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what she does and who she meets, but this portion of the book is emotionally complex, tender, funny, sharp, and thoroughly entertaining to boot. All the scenes at St. Andrew’s Hospital – before and after Octavia’s birth, focus a sharp lens on women in 1960’s London society. Even the minor characters in these scenes, as well as Rosamund’s friend Lydia who moves in and both complicates and simplifies her life, and other characters we meet only seldom, are fully realized. Rosamund’s parents, who appear only in a letter they write home and in Rosamund’s remembrances of how they raised her, feel like people the reader knows enough about to recognize them.
Drabble writes such beautiful prose. Here Rosamund is taking Octavia home after she’s been in the hospital, “The air was bright and clear, and as we drove past the formal determined structure of the Crescent, ever-demolished, ever-renewed, I suddenly thought that perhaps I could take it and survive.” In that one sentence, the outer and inner worlds intersect, Rosamund notes with perception and tenderness her own resilience, the reader has a sense of her growth as a character and her potential.
Lovely, clear, and without extra words. Drabble is one of my favorite writers and I’m really grateful to NPR for running that piece, which reminded me of how much I love her work.