1965 CLUB: The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

Reading books from 1965

Collaborative Book-Blogging

THE 1965 CLUB1965 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.

Here I share my thoughts on The Millstone by English novelist, biographer and critic, Margaret Drabble – winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1966.

The Book

My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice: almost, one might say, made by it.

MILLSTONERosamund 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.

CLASSICS CLUB

In addition to the 1965 Club, this is my ninth choice for The Classics Club.



Categories:Literary Fiction, Readathons / Challenges, The Classics Club

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

39 replies

  1. A tantalising review—and I’m guessing the title is not how things turn out! Though I suppose I’ll have to read it to find out… 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just want to say that I hope you and your partner are doing ok.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for your kind words, and you’ve found a good one I think from 1965 – it certainly was a heck of a year, and the variety of books is quite stunning. I’ve seen this one around a lot and wondered about it – certainly sounds a powerful read! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a writer I’ve never got round to, but this novel does sound intriguing. Oddly enough she came to my school when I was about 16 to talk to us Eng Lit students (must have been a couple of years after Millstone came out) and I was very star struck

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I read one of Drabble’s novels back in the day (I now can’t remember which one it was, but it wasn’t The Millstone) and for some reason never got back to her. Your review makes me realize I really should do something to redress this gap in my reading — many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Eloquent review, Paula. I think I am finally ready to understand Margaret Drabble’s work more deeply.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Drabble is a fine writer, and this is another fine review. Personally, I find it easy to warm to Drabble’s work, because there is a grounded quality to it. Her literary sister A.S. Byatt is more pretentious I feel, and the two of them apparently had a falling out. To return to the point, the focus on the pill is almost Marxist of you. The resurgence of interest in Marxism has reminded young people that technological change triggers behavioural and ideological innovation. Feminism was thus impacted by the economic base; it wasn’t simply a bunch of liberating ideas that circulated via conscious-raising conversations. If that isn’t mansplaining, I don’t know what is? Joking aside, I wondered if you had read The Women’s Room by Marilyn French…a text that really hangs the male ego out to dry! It’s a bit later than this book, and long, but packed with the stuff of life.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Many thanks, John. I read The Women’s Room as a very young woman and found it intense and quite exciting. I should probably pick it up again and reacquaint myself with French. I remember it being quite controversial and was frequently accused of being ‘anti male’ but I would need to reread it to recall exactly why.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think it was anti-male it was just too truthful for some men. A much less exciting novel, which comes under the same category with regard to uncomfortable truth-telling, is Have the Men had Enough? by Margaret Forster. Until recently, it seemed that feminism was making ineluctable progress. It certainly attracted admiration from radical socialist thinkers like Herbert Marcuse:

        “I believe the Women’s Liberation Movement today is, perhaps the most important and potentially the most radical political movement that we have…”

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Great review, Paula. The Millstone really appeals to me. It’s been on my radar for several years, but I’ve never quite got around to reading it – definitely something to remedy in the future. A very fitting choice for the 1965 Club, particularly given the societal attitudes of the day.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This title is new to me, Paula, and it sounds gripping. There is so much you describe which I can connect with, not just through my personal experiences as a mother with an infant needing surgery but also through my mother’s experiences and my sister’s: she was hospitalised at a very young age at a time when visitors were not permitted. I am not expecting to enjoy this book when I finally get to read it, but it demands to be read.

    (Hope all is well 🤗)

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    • From what you say I feel sure you would find this novel of great interest. I know access to babies in hospital has very much improved these days but it was practically medieval half a century ago. Having said that, it must have been far less stressful to have remained in hospital for nine days or so after giving birth – being fed regularly and receiving visitors while others took responsibility for the baby. Aside from that, very little consideration seems to have been given for the feelings or wishes of either patient or loved ones!

      We’re getting there, Sandra. Thank you so much for asking. 🤗

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Paula, I enjoyed reading your review; but. for some reason what really knocked my socks off was learning that The Millstone has never gone out of print in 54 years! I haven’t read any of Margaret Drabble’s works but now I feel more curious about her and her writing.

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  11. How nice to be called a leading light! And I loved this novel when I read it last year – it’s very like one of my favourite novels, The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks. Your reviews remind me of why I liked it so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. A thoughtful review, Paula! Count me intrigued 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. It’s so long ago that I read this, and I think I was probably too young, because I barely recall anything of this, and it sounds so much like something I would love. I’ll have to track it down again. What a good review.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve never read Drabble and this sounds so good. I’m really interested in women’s health so the historical perspective would be interesting too. It slightly reminded me of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths but the massive difference is that Rosamund has the safety net of the NHS.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I recall reading this around the time I read Lynne Reid Banks’ “The L-Shaped Room” and loving it, too – really should be worth a revisit!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Drabble is one of by “MustReadEverything” authors and I was sorry to see that I’d already read her 1965 book but am pleased to read about your discovery of it. I’m always surprised (anew) by how relevant her stories are. And even though there are often very few details about the main characters’ lives which align with my experience, I always feels as if I understand them wholly and completely. (I’m glad to hear that you and your partner are soldiering on: I send you both good thoughts.)

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Trackbacks

  1. The Classics Club – Book Jotter
  2. Winding up the Week #67 – Book Jotter
  3. The #1965Club is here! – Stuck in a Book
  4. 1965 CLUB: The Millstone by Margaret Drabble – cherishthelady

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