Margaret Drabble – The Millstone

In a recent piece for the TLS about unfashionable literary genres, D. J. Taylor cited “the unwanted-pregnancy novel of the 1960s” as just such a dinosaur and singled out this book among its major fossils. He has a point: The Millstone is definitely dated. Yet, as a warts-and-all celebration of the National Health Service, it also feels strangely contemporary, and, if you are looking for another way to celebrate our wonderful health workers at this time of Covid, you could definitely do worse than read this.

Image credit: Penguin

Don’t let the tagline put you off. “Rosamund is clever, very independent – and pregnant” is how my cheap eighties’ paperback tries to sell it. What that tagline crucially leaves out is that Rosamund is pregnant after just one sexual encounter. Yes, in a rather amusing subversion of sixties’ counterculture, Rosamund Stacey is actually afraid of sex and not very countercultural at all. Living rent-free in a lovely flat belonging to her parents, she spends most of her days in the British Museum, working towards a doctorate on Elizabethan sonnet sequences. Hardly the Swinging Sixties!

Her only real quirk is that she has two boyfriends. Each convinced that Rosamund is sleeping with the other, Joe and Roger refrain from stepping on each other’s toes, and so Rosamund evades the stigma of virginity without having to worry about sex. That is until she meets George. A one-night stand with this radio newsreader leaves her pregnant and with her own sexual revolution on her hands. After an incredibly grim attempt at self-induced abortion, Rosamund defies expectations by deciding to keep the baby (though she doesn’t tell George any of this), thus beginning the innumerable trips to doctors and hospitals that pregnancy entails. All of a sudden, then, this incredibly independent, self-reliant woman, who has almost never been to the doctor’s in her life, finds herself having to put trust in others and accept help.

It is a cute moral and it does feel forced at times. Late on, I was astonished to find a sentence as bad as this one: “as I grow older, I find myself changing a little.” Has character development ever been so obviously signposted? For the most part, though, Drabble is a very good writer of sentences. Take this one:

George was at first sight rather unnoticeable, being unaggressive and indeed unassertive in manner, a quality rare enough in my acquaintance, but he had a kind of unobtrusive gentle attention that made its point in time.

That last part bears repeating, I think: “an unobtrusive gentle attention that made its point in time.” Brilliant. The way those ‘t’ sounds gradually accumulate as the sentence goes on, then snap to our attention in “point in time”; the delaying of this last phrase so that the sentence literally does make its point in time. I wish Drabble always showed such consideration for the full stop. As if unable to leave her sentences alone, she is constantly elongating them via colons and semicolons. It’s very annoying, and doesn’t look very good on the page, either. If and when I read her later fiction, I will be interested to see if she grew out of this habit.

As I say, though, the chief pleasure of this book for me was its portrayal of the NHS: the waiting rooms, the waiting times, the incomprehensible buildings, the always-educational nature of a hospital visit. When Rosamund goes for her first checkup, she is astonished by what she finds in the waiting room:

[H]ere, gathered in this room, were representatives of a population whose existence I had hardly noticed. There were a few foreigners; a West Indian, a Pakistani, two Greeks. There were several old people […] Then there were a couple of young secretaries or waitresses […]

Modern Britain is in full swing and Rosamund hadn’t even noticed. Doctors and nurses, so often relegated to walk-on parts in novels, are given page space, too. In one particular comic set piece, Rosamund is lying on her hospital bed, about to give birth, and tries to distract herself from the pain by listening to the gossip of the nurses outside her door. We only get a couple of pages of their conversation before the baby comes, but in that time we get a wonderful glimpse into these nurses’ lives – their rich, empty, damaged, ordinary lives. A timely reminder that those who care for us are people too.

by George Cochrane

The Millstone is published by Penguin and is available here.

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