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Sunday, 26 April 2020

Review - Margaret Drabble: The Millstone

Margaret Drabble:
The Millstone (4*)

Another from the Penguin Decades series – novels that helped shape modern Britain – although my copy is a different edition.

It was first published in 1965 and set in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ when, we are led to believe, sexual liberation was well on the way, at least in London. Rosamund, the protagonist, becomes pregnant after a one-night stand, her one and only sexual experience. Being apparently confident and independent she chooses to have and raise the baby, a girl. She keeps the father’s identity secret from her small circle of friends, and from the father too, and they all admire her determination. 

Well, I don’t know about London, but in my part of Yorkshire, in 1965, it would have been outrageous. Any young woman who got pregnant out of wedlock, no matter how independently minded, would have had a very difficult time indeed. I think of a pretty girl at school whose boyfriend, as rumour had it, was unable to resist her comely body, lovely dark hair and earthy name, or maybe her, his. It was whispered, and then yelled with thoughtless hilarity around town, that they had tried to use a rain mate* as a home-made contraceptive. More home making soon followed. No G.C.E. ‘A’ Levels for her. They were shotgunned together and moved away. Had they stayed around, she would for ever have been known as Mrs. Rain Mate.

In the book, Rosamund is the well-educated daughter of socialist, academic parents, living alone in their large apartment while they are abroad. She is also an academic herself (yes, another one), completing a Ph.D. thesis on Elizabethan sonnets. She narrates her story in intelligent, self-possessed sentences with the word “I” appearing perhaps twenty times on every page. At first I had reservations about this, but it reflects her character. It also betrays her shyness and uncertainties. She is not as confident and independent as she pretends. She is diffident with friends, cannot confide feeling, things are left unsaid and commitments unmade. It is very clever writing.

Yet, Rosamund is capable enough to muddle her way through nineteen-sixties NHS waiting rooms and hospitals, and encounters with other mothers across the class divide. She knows she is treated with more respect because of her address and appearance, but knows how to get what she wants when she isn’t. Although the baby changes her life and her outlook, she still completes her thesis and is offered an academic post.

The millstone of the title is not, as one might first think, the baby. The reference is biblical, to Matthew 18:6: it is less distressing to drown with a millstone round one’s neck than to suffer the consequences of hurting a little one (my interpretation). Rosamund would have found it unbearable not to have the baby and bring it up herself. In essence, the novel celebrates maternity and motherhood, although not in any sentimental way. Rosamund retains her academic detachment throughout – none of the “beauty’s rose might never die” stuff of her Elizabethan sonnets. Even so, it is unlikely I would have been persuaded to read it as a teenager when it first came out.

* rain mate: a foldable, waterproof head covering worn mainly by women, usually made from thin, transparent plastic film.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 


38 comments:

  1. I remember very well how unwed mothers bore the brunt of public disapproval and shaming, while the fathers were often celebrated for their virility. It was a disgusting double standard.

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    1. This doesn't happen to Rosamund in the story because of her social class (despite implied criticism in the way the health services treat her), which is hard to believe in a 1965 setting. I guess that is what was quite shocking about it at the time.

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  2. Village life in rural Lincolnshire at this time was much the same. I wonder whether to order this book - duri.ng lockdown I have now become desperate for reading matter. Any other recommendations?

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    1. The same as the girl I knew of at school. It is a good book but quite dry until you catch on what the author is doing. I saw on your blog you had run out of reading but not knowing the kind of things you like I wouldn't want to make any recommendations. I've been reading through things I didn't read when I should have done in my teens and twenties and thoroughly enjoying them - reviewed on here.

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  3. The memories surrounding this book are quite painful for me and life for teenager girls in the 1960s was not always good. My mother was totally convinced I was going to get pregnant and nothing for her could have been worse. Everthing that ever went wrong for me was always met with "you're pregnant aren't you?" I had a friend at the time who had had a baby which was taken from her at birth and given up for adoption. These stories were not unusual. I read the book and vowed to leave home as soon as I could, no babies in mind, just wanted to get away. I was reading it the weekend my father died and sat with him with the Millstone for company, not knowing what to do for him so buried myself in the book. It is loaded with bad memories for me although the book as such to an impressionable 16 year old was like it was saying all the things I wanted to do at the time. I imagine it would seem rather dated to today's generation. I only disposed of my original copy quite recently. Too many memories. And I did leave home soon after.

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    1. Sorry to have reminded you, although I think you mentioned it in a previous comment and I said it was on my to read pile. In this one Rosamund gets it all in the end - interesting job, independent life, and a baby she loves. As replied to Weaver above, and as you know, I've been reading through a lot of 1960s books for the first time and generally enjoying them. But there are some painful things in these books, often things I wish I'd realised at the time.

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    2. The illegitimate baby and the stigma attached was the scourge of those times and thank God those days are gone. Many people I know were affected one way or another either through forced adoptions, unwanted marriages, or abortions and back street abortions were still the norm when I moved to London in 1969. I went on to the pill as soon as I set foot away from home. Quite honestly I would not want to read this book again because although Drabble was a great writer and I have read all her books I could not return to the Millstone.

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  4. Margaret Drabble was born in Sheffield. I imagine that she got the idea for this novel's title from "The Millstone" pub at nearby Hathersage. Perhaps she and her high-achieving family would sometimes drive out there for Sunday dinner. I bet that Margaret liked nothing better than getting her laughing gear around a nicely risen Yorkshire Pudding.

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    1. I bet Margaret and her sister Antonia were really scary in their day, way out of your or my league.

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    2. Margaret is fourteen years older than me! There's no way I'd have made a play for her. Antonia used to like a "bit of rough" so you might have been okay with her.

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  5. Three thoughtful comments, thanks.

    There is a DVD of the movie based on the novel, A Touch of Love (1969) with Sandy Dennis, outstandingly good actress, and Ian McKellen, convincing as the shallow self-centred boyfriend who works in television. I recall a strong cameo by Eleanor Bron, who also turned up in Alfie.

    The lady in rural Lincolnshire: How about novels and short stories by Elizabeth Taylor? Start with In A Summer Season, my favourite, vivid in its evocation of a vanished England. Penelope Fitzgerald is terrific; Human Voices, set in the BBC during the war, is a good place to begin.

    Before the lock-down I purchased a number of paperbacks from an independent retailer. Here are a few ...

    Salt On Your Tongue - Women and the Sea, by Charlotte Runcie.
    I Saw Eternity the Other Night - King's College Choir, the Nine Lessons and Carols, by Timothy Day.

    Aetherial Worlds, stories by Tatyana Tolstaya, which contains a sketch of Swedenborg, the half-mad mystic.

    The Offing a novel by Benjamin Myers set in Robin's Hood Bay after WWII.

    The Discomfort of Evening by Dutch novelist Marieke Lucas Rijneveld who grew up in a strict Protestant farming community. A new Faber author who writes about childhood in the Low Countries. It has a great cover.

    Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser, the troubled Swiss-German genius who spent his last twenty-three years in a mental asylum and was found dead in snow after taking one of his many solitary walks.

    An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews, biography of Stalin's master agent Richard Sorge.`
    Hemingway in Italy by Richard Owen.
    Last Days in Old Europe (Trieste, Vienna, Prague) by Richard Bassett.

    The Ice House, a hallucinatory novel about the English imagination by musician Tim Clare.
    The Heart of A Stranger, an anthology of exile literature, edited by Andre Naffis-Sahely.

    The Weight of A Piano by Chris Candler, about a child in the Soviet Union who inherits a sought-after Bluthner piano.

    I am currently rereading Crime Story by New Zealander Morris Gee, my favourite living writer; and Hitler's Naval War by Cajus Bekker.

    Last week I finished A Box of Matches by the brilliant Nicholson Baker, and The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz, about Stalin's daughter, Svetlana.

    Thinking about the tragic Svetlana makes me want to read the new one-volume edition of The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn with an introduction by Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist. My hatred for Stalin and his apologists only increases as I grow older.

    I dip into Stephen Hawking's God Created the Integers though I know nothing about mathematics. His short histories of mathematicians are memorable to say the least.

    I am also looking at Human Evolution A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Wood, professor of human origins at Washington University.

    Watching Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett on YouTube convinces me that I need to have more basic knowledge of the sciences, the one great success story of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

    J Haggerty





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    1. I fear I have too few years left ever to become as well-read as you, John. I am managing only around a book a month at the moment.

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  6. I am sure you know your Marvell, Tasker:

    But at my back I always hear
    Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
    And yonder all before us lie
    Deserts of vast eternity.

    In his Spectator column (collected in paperback) P.J. Kavanagh once cited Marvell in defence of Christianity. Like you I am all too aware of the length of my days and the nearness of eternity. In this I am at (friendly) odds with Dawkins and Dennett.

    John Haggerty

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    1. You credit me with too much erudition. I didn't read anything much between the ages of 14 when we got a television and about 21 when I realised I was in the wrong job and started looking for displacement activities. I tried to read Kavanagh's acclaimed Perfect Stranger autobiography about 5 years ago - not one I would recommend.

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    2. I learn as much from what readers don't like as from what they do. From your own writings I would have thought The Perfect Stranger would be your kind of book. I read the first paperback edition with the portrait of Sally on the cover and was captivated.

      Autobiographies I cherish would include John Gale's Clean Young Englishman; John Wain's Sprightly Running; Muriel Spark's Curriculum Vitae; John Buchan's Memory Hold-the-Door; Henry Green's Pack My Bag; Hemingway's A Movable Feast; Graham Greene's A Sort of Life and Ways of Escape; James Cameron's Point of Departure; Wilfrid Thesiger's The Life of My Choice; Daphne du Maurier's Myself When Young; Alan Sillitoe's Without Armour; David Malouf's 12 Edmondstone Street. I am always turning to Karen Blixen's Out of Africa which Truman Capote thought perfect.

      Janet Frame touched everything with magic, even her very hard life, though I have still to read the autobiography of her friend and fellow New Zealander, Maurice Gee.

      William Saroyan spread his memoirs over a number of books and Arnold Bennett's life is scattered in the three volumes of his Journals which Penguin condensed into one volume.

      Virginia Woolf's diaries tell us much about her reading and her mind. Chesterton's life is in his essays like his friend Hilaire Belloc. Maisie Ward and Meriol Trevor wrote their memoirs which I would like to read. Iris Murdoch's life is in her letters.

      Simenon admitted that his memoirs, When I Was Old, were less than frank because he knew his wife was reading over his shoulders. Andre Malraux's hypnotic Antimemoirs was written with an eye to his place in history; and I don't trust Sartre's short brilliant book, Words, since he lied so much about politics. I would be interested in reading the autobiography of Anatole France, a charming and forgotten writer. The journals of Camus have been published in a new edition.

      I too watched a lot of television. I remember an episode of The Fugitive when the one-armed man was last seen in Chicago Heights. I visited Chicago Heights on a YouTube video and was appalled at how dreadful it now looks!

      My DVD collection includes Steptoe and Son (genius), the entire Callan collection black and white and colour (Edward Woodward) including the movie and a one-off TV film. I also have The Brothers in its entirety (watched about half) and Man At The Top with Kenneth Haigh.

      A DVD box with ten episodes of Eric Sykes has me enthralled as does Ronnie Barker in his corner shop. I also have some Inspector Morse, Taggart, and Hinterland, a Welsh crime drama. Morden is fascinating; Denmark is a great location for any drama.

      Best of all, The Likely Lads, TV series and one movie, which remind me of my young brother who died in London a few years ago.

      I called him Doc Soccer because of his knowledge of football. A few years before he left us I gave him Arthur Hopcraft's The Football Man, both the original Penguin and a new edition with a foreword by I think Mike Parkinson.

      J Haggerty

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    3. I should have included the essays of Alan Garner, The Voice That Thunders; autobiography taken to another level. Wonderful!

      Novelists in their travel books give as much of themselves as they wish to reveal - Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia; William Golding's Egyptian Journal. I wish Richard Hughes, author of A High Wind in Jamaica, had left his journals for posterity.

      Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari had me gasping with admiration. I am too afraid of being ill to visit those austere African landcapes he describes so dazzlingly.

      Try to get a copy of Jessica Lee's *Turning - Lessons from Swimming Berlin's Lakes* (Virago 2018). It is one of those unclassifiable works. It does for swimming and the German landscape what T.H. White's *The Godstone and the Blackymor* did for angling and Ireland.

      J Haggerty

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    4. I have just visited a blog *Woz Writes* which has a photo I had never seen before of The Observer reporter John Gale and poet Stevie Smith. The photo looks like the work of the inimitable Jane Bown, read her (online) Guardian obit.

      Stevie Smith wrote a merry autobiography, Me Again, and like John Gale was one of the great English eccentrics. I have a 1960s copy of Vogue with an essay by Stevie Smith on her love of London parks. She sees everything with fresh eyes.

      J Haggerty

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    5. Like I keep saying, you need your own blog. Book blogs such as Doveygreyreader Scribbles (on typepad not blogger) have good followings.

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    6. There are two young American women whose YouTube vlogs I look in on with anticipation. They always make me laugh and they are very bright.

      K.M. Rice lives in northern California; she loves the outdoors, has visited England, Ireland, and Scotland. Kellie Rice is a big Tolkien fan and writes magical fiction - I don't like the term *fantasy*. I mean to order her novels.

      The other vlog is *Kalanadi*, whose real name is Rachel, a voracious reader of sci-fi. Two of her recent choices are on my order list - Ursula le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and K.J. Parker's Prosper's Dream. I purchased Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang on Rachel's review and it's on my book table.

      Visit a YouTube interview with Helen DeWitt who talks about her journey (to use the modish Blairite term) in writing The Last Samurai and the trouble she had with short-sided editors who wanted to remove all the layers of erudition that make the novel so strange.

      Just now I want to reread King Lear; Patrick White's The Aunt's Story; and then begin Andrew Miller's early 19th century novel, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

      I dipped into the latter and found a riveting scene set in the Broomielaw in Glasgow, a rundown area by the River Clyde which is being redeveloped.

      The Broomielaw in 1809 is quite a leap in time. The Customs House building in Clyde Street is in a state of ruin, a great Victorian building.

      J Haggerty

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  7. I read this book as teenager (like Rachel, living with a mother who was constantly issuing warnings about getting pregnant). It is the only Margaret Drabble book I've been able to identify with. I must read it again. Thanks for the reminder!

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    1. It must have been so annoying and embarrassing for mothers to go on and on. I wonder how much of an element of "like mother like daughter" there was.

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  8. My mother's warnings were made all the more real when a neighbour of ours gave birth during the night to an illegitimate baby and tried to flush it down the toilet.

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    1. What an awful thing to happen. You've left us all wondering what happened next.

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  9. Thank you for another well-written review. At the moment, this book does not appeal greatly to me, as there are still several others on my TBR pile (I don't think I'll run out of reading material anytime soon). In any case, it is good to go back to your reviews for inspiration.

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    1. Thank you. I find that trying to write something sensible helps makes sense of what I've read and also serves as a reminder, so I'm pleased you find them helpful.

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  10. It was a sad time for those who fell pregnant unexpectedly. The fact that females were seen as secondary citizens, and unmarried mothers could have their babies taken from them. I lived under the scourge of being born out of wedlock, though officially adopted into my family. But it would always 'out' at school from narrow-minded teachers or going for a job. Illegitimacy a nasty word.

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    1. There was the further aspect that nothing was private so (as I say about the girl at my school) everyone in the community knew and no one would allow it to be forgotten. My mum even told me of a case when she was young, where the father was the mother's father. What chance for that child? It's better now in that no one is really bothered.

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  11. Of all the books J. Haggerty mentioned I have read only one, and it is one of the ones he hasn't. Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand Of Darkness which I loved, loved, loved about 40 years ago. I hadn't even heard of just about everything on his list.

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  12. Thanks, Rhymes. I can't think how I missed *The Left Hand of Darkness* when it appeared. I have a good book of essays on writing by Ursula LeGuin.

    As for my list, I hadn't heard anything on it either; these titles seemed to stand out on the shelves of the independent bookshop I visit. I have now read the story on Swedenborg by Tatyana Tolstaya, and it has me reflecting on religious thinkers as diverse as John Calvin and William Blake. I have many Calvin Bible Commentaries and I revere Blake.

    Before lockdown I purchased a £3 sale from Waterstones, *A Shout in the Ruins* by Kevin Powers, a novel about slavery and slave-owners in Virginia, as good as anything I've read this year. The author was a professional soldier in Iraq. His understanding of slavery is profound, the way in which an intelligent black girl named Nurse could be deprived of her own speech as well as her right to exist in her own mind.

    Looking into my book-room I find titles I bought years back and haven't read like *My House of Sky - The Life and Work of J.A. Baker* by Hetty Saunders (2017) a biography of the man who wrote *The Peregrine*.

    Baker was an enigma, and I like reading about such people. Nurse, the black girl in the novel by Kevin Powers, is an enigma too, and she haunts me like any great fictional creation.

    John Haggerty

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  13. Thanks for the good review. The 1960s certainly were a unique time. Lots of both good and bad in my opinion. I imagine most of us knew someone back then that had an unexpected pregnancy. It was a difficult situation for anyone still in school for sure. I remember a lot of very "60s" books back then.

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    1. I'm sure you're right. And there would have been many more who did manage to keep it secret. Yes, it's fun reading the 60s books looking back.

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  14. I haven't read this book but shall now do so. It prompted memories of 1965 when I was an art student living in London. Your review has prompted me to write about the pregnancies of three young women that I was witness to during that year. It is on my Miss Cellany blog.
    http://storiesinwood.blogspot.co.uk

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    1. Goodness, the responsibility! Hope you like it. I'll also look out for the L Shaped Room novel on which was based the film you mention in your post.

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  15. I don't think I have read this but will look out for it.

    I was born out of wedlock in 1952. I grew up carrying shame but it was only fairly recently that I realised what my mother must have faced by keeping me.

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    1. As commented above, it was common for everyone in the community to be whispering this kind of thing to each other. Your mother must have had to be very thick-skinned.

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  16. The young woman's predicament in The Brimstone made me think of the New Zealand classic *The Godwits Fly By* (1938) written by Robin Hyde, now republished by Persephone.

    Robin Hyde's real name was Iris Wilkinson (1906-1939) who never gave birth to two children out of wedlock, the first stillborn, the second adopted.

    Her novel set in an isolated New Zealand is about thwarted desire, reflected in the migratory pattern of godwits, those long-legged waders which were variously called yarwhelps, shriekers, and snipes.

    The book, which is haunted by babies and giving birth, was never published in New Zealand in the author's lifetime, only in England. Iris Wilkinson, a woman of great beauty, committed suicide.

    Read online blogs about this exceptional novel by Kate Macdonald; Rachel Cooke in The Guardian; and in a blog, The Bookbinder's Daughter.

    J Haggerty

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  17. Correction:

    Robin Hyde's real name was Iris Wilkinson who gave birth to two children out of wedlock, the first stillborn, the second adopted

    J Haggerty

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