The Millstone by Margaret Drabble – review

This tale of sexual liberation in the swinging 60s retains its power to provoke

Margaret Drabble's third novel is often seen as representative of the age in which it was written – the swinging 60s. But for the narrator, Rosamund Stacey, who admits to being "a Victorian" when it comes to sex, the 60s are not particularly swinging. A novel that focuses on "life's little ironies" centres on a particularly cruel one: Rosamund's only sexual encounter results in her becoming pregnant.

She loses her virginity to George, a man whom she does not know very well and, what's more, initially thinks is gay. Meanwhile, she is dating two other men in a peculiar arrangement whereby she avoids having to sleep with either because they each believe she is sleeping with the other. It is hard to tell whether Rosamund has a laissez-faire attitude to relationships or is just naive, as in all other respects she is extremely intelligent – she's a doctoral student completing a thesis.

Drabble does not romanticise the reputed sexual liberation of women in the period. Instead, we follow Rosamund as she deals with the consequences of becoming pregnant: her agonies about whether to self-abort, her progress through the maze of the NHS, the social stigma she endures on becoming a single mother. Her very English desire not to cause offence or put people to trouble sometimes grates, but on the whole she's a believable and sympathetic character who is transformed during the novel from being fiercely independent to having an equally fierce love for her child.

The final scene describes a chance meeting with George, still unaware that he's a father. It's not exactly a happy ending, as Rosamund is still alone and learning to live with the burden of a child. But in its realism, it's very much in keeping with a novel that provokes as much today as when it first came out.

Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: The Collected Stories by Margaret Drabble – review
Margaret Drabble's collection of tales, which span four decades, addresses the demands placed on professional women, writes Natasha Tripney

Natasha Tripney

14, Apr, 2013 @10:00 AM

Article image
Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue – review
Emma Donoghue's coming-of-age story of a teenage girl fending for herself in the 1760s exerts a considerable grip, writes Natasha Tripney

Natasha Tripney

17, Feb, 2013 @12:01 AM

Article image
Stoner by John Williams – review
John Williams's Stoner might have unremarkable subject matter, but it is so beautifully rendered that it's no surprise to see it getting a second chance almost half a century after publication, writes Simon Hammond

Simon Hammond

22, Jun, 2013 @4:00 PM

Article image
Dracula by Bram Stoker – review
Colm Tóibín's introduction to Bram Stoker's Dracula puts the work precisely into biographical and historical context, writes Anita Sethi

Anita Sethi

23, Jun, 2012 @11:03 PM

Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov – review
Nabokov's ingenious 1972 novella deserves to be read again in spite of some uncomfortable Lolita-esque passages, writes Sophia Martelli

Sophia Martelli

11, Nov, 2012 @12:03 AM

Slow Fade by Rudolph Wurlitzer – review
This raucous story of an egomaniacal film director – thought to be based on Sam Peckinpah – is shot through with death, from the hippy trail to Hollywood, says Sophia Martelli

Sophia Martelli

20, Apr, 2013 @3:00 PM

Article image
Faithful Ruslan by Georgi Vladimov – review
Vladimov's slender 1979 dissident novel is a masterclass in dark, ironic humour, writes Sophia Martelli

Sophia Martelli

19, Feb, 2012 @12:04 AM

Article image
Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford – review
Nancy Mitford honed her satirical edge with this witty spy story written in the first days of the second world war, writes Helen Zaltzman

Helen Zaltzman

21, Apr, 2012 @11:05 PM

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner – review
This early feminist classic is also an enchanting tale, writes Lucy Scholes

Lucy Scholes

18, Mar, 2012 @12:07 AM

Tin Toys Trilogy by Ursula Holden – review
This country house novel about three upper-crust sisters growing up during the second world war is much darker than it sounds, writes Helen Zaltzman

Helen Zaltzman

19, Jan, 2013 @7:00 PM