Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

Rosamund Stacey is the first person narrator of her own story in the Millstone by Margaret Drabble. Rosamund is a single mother – nothing strange about that, perhaps, at least in a twenty-first century Britain where now half of births are outside of marriage. But in the early 1960s, when The Millstone was written, unmarried mothers were not so common and it was a status to which considerable stigma was attached. Consequently, when Rosamund visits hospital for her regular check-ups, she is summoned from the waiting room with a call of Mrs. Stacey in an attempt to maintain the privacy of her status. She longs for the day – and not too distant – when her thesis on Elizabethan poetry will be complete and she can prefix her name with Dr., thereby avoiding the deception.

The Millstone is written in Margaret Drabble’s conversational, yet dense style. The characters are highly complex and seem to live their lives with a devotion to intricacy. Not much happens to them, however, and events are few and far between. Rosamund’s life is a case in point. It was Cambridge, of course, followed by the relative comfort of a flat in central London, an apartment provided by her parents calculatedly close to the British Museum, where she does most of her research.

She is definitely not the run-of-the-mill young lass who attends university nowadays, our Rosamund. She has a boyfriend at college, of course, but they never sleep together, not even on the occasion they jointly plan to accomplish the act. Rosamund is not really into sex, she thinks. She has a tendency to see herself as an object from without, and her observation of the absurdity of various aspects of being human lead her to a life slightly removed from reality, lived apparently at arm’s length from experience. Though she sees quite a lot of Joe and Roger – both quite different but eligible males – the idea of anything other than a chat and a drink appalls her. Each of the two men, of course, think that the other is the boyfriend and so are loath to raise the subject.

Then, for some reason hardly known to herself, she takes up with George, a gay radio presenter, and sleeps with him. Just once. And yes, Rosamund is definitively pregnant. As ever, she cannot decide what to do and, even when she eventually plans her course, she is blown off onto a different tack. She has read that drinking a bottle of gin in a hot bath might do the trick. She sets an evening aside. And then, just as the bottle is opened, friends turn up, she offers them a drink and they share the otherwise-ntended gin between them. Rosamund is thus never really in control, despite appearing to have a strangle hold on her life. Circumstances always seem to conspire to prevent her getting precisely what she wants.

But this is eventually seen as an illusion. Perhaps she does get precisely what she wants, but does not tell us, or herself. And so Octavia is born. The baby is a life that Rosamund contemplated ending, but when the child is ill, the thought of her coming to harm is too painful to admit. A friend, Lydia, moves in, shares the costs and sets about writing a novel. When this is complete, an unsupervised Octavia tears much of it up, though perhaps not disastrously. Rosamund reminds us that babies are persistent, not thorough, so most of the pages are preserved. It becomes the mother’s trauma, however. Rosamund could be described as measured, always apparently in control, yet always feeling she is swept along with the tide. Passionate she is not.

When George, who still does not know he is Octavia’s father, says she might do well with a husband, Rosamund agrees, but only because it would be nice to have someone who could help to fill in the tax return. George is no better, since for his the purpose of marriage seems to be to provide someone to iron his shirts. It’s all terribly British. But the characters are beautifully drawn, expertly pitched against themselves and their relationships. The Millstone, thus, explores motivation and achievement, and the relationship between selfishness and selflessness. In the end, we are who we are.
View this book on amazon The Millstone

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