Reading books from 1965
1965 was a frenetic twelve months. It saw the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan ‘go electric’, the assassination of Malcolm X, the film premier of The Sound of Music, the rise of Beatlemania and an escalation of US involvement in the Vietnam War. It was also the year in which I was born (as was J.K. Rowling).
This was an exceptionally fruitful period for book lovers, too, who were treated to the publication of Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi classic, Dune (which also won that year’s Nebula Award), Margaret Forster’s Georgy Girl and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel – not to mention new novels by Iris Murdoch, Norman Mailer, John le Carré, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, Agatha Christie, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Muriel Spark and oh so many others.
We celebrate this literary rich spell with the 1965 Club, the latest chapter in a popular biannual reading event hosted by two leading lights of the book blogging community, Karen Langley of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book.
“My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice: almost, one might say, made by it.”
Rosamund Stacey is an unmarried, academically brilliant young woman living rent-free in her parent’s spacious London apartment while they are away in Africa. She has come of age on the cusp of the sexual revolution when the capital is about to morph into ‘Swinging London’ and sex is almost de rigueur for a modern city girl of her class and generation. Nevertheless, in that typically hypocritical British way, illegitimacy continues to be taboo.
She feels in many ways out of step with her fashionable and literary friends because she is (secretly) still a virgin. While she thoroughly enjoys socialising, drinking and ‘going-out’ with young men, she is in some ways determinedly asexual, content to allow each of her two ‘boyfriends’ to think she’s sleeping with the other. One must, of course, remember it is 1965 and the contraceptive pill is available only to married women – a situation that continues until 1967 (the same year in which abortion is legalized) – so accidental pregnancies are an ever-present risk. Rosamund’s refusal to yield to sex is then understandable and probably not as unusual as she thinks.
After a single sexual encounter with George, a shy, gentle, possibly gay announcer for the BBC, Rosamund falls pregnant. They are, however, both diffident and deeply unsure characters – indeed, people in general aren’t as emotionally articulate as they are nowadays. She has been raised never to inconvenience others and never to make a fuss. She therefore does not inform George of his paternity but chooses to stay away from him throughout her pregnancy. Where she differs most drastically from other middle-class, well brought-up young Englishwomen of her era is in making a conscious decision to keep the baby. She elects to combine single parenthood with having an academic career.
Drabble has always maintained this book is about motherhood and isn’t political, but The Millstone has nevertheless come to be regarded as a seminal 1960s feminist novel. During the writing of the narrative she was expecting her third child and large chunks of the story are based on her own experience of learning to navigate the system (GPs surgeries, clinics, NHS maternity wards etc.). I was particularly fascinated by the chapters relating to pregnancy and birth in Britain during this period having often heard my own mother discuss the subject from a personal perspective.
Unlike so many of the unmarried mothers she meets, Rosamund has financial padding: she’s not rich but she certainly isn’t impoverished. She sees poorer women having a far worse time than herself and she comes to understand that she has been born into a privileged world. She does, though, feel rather shocked when the letter U (for Unmarried) is placed at the foot of her hospital bed.
She names her daughter Octavia and finds in her an unconditional love, the like of which she has never known. So, when her baby requires life-saving heart surgery and Rosamund is barred from the hospital by an officious matron who informs her it will be a fortnight before she will be permitted to visit her child, she turns from a dumbly obedient young lady into a screaming, howling madwoman. Here I will leave the plot in order not to spoil the story for those planning to read the book.
Written in the first-person, this poignant, minimalistic tale is about class positioning, accepted codes of behaviour and being a single woman bringing up a child in a still highly priggish England. Unlike the Kitchen Sink Dramas of this period, often written by and about ‘angry young men’, Drabble’s novel is social realism from a woman’s viewpoint. Though it could be described as a bleak tale of missed opportunities, it is also a funny, astute, extraordinarily beautiful, if understated, paean to motherhood.
The Millstone is a peculiarly British novel of its time that continues to captivate readers of all generations, and I was unsurprised to learn that it has never been out of print since it was first published 54 years ago.
In addition to the 1965 Club, this is my ninth choice for The Classics Club.