I’ve no idea where I came across Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, but once it made it onto my list, it was duly libraried and devoured. A chapter-less 200+ page saga of an independent intellectual woman in London who has asexual relationships with two men, playing them off each other, each man thinking she’s sleeping with the other. One night she finds herself alone in her flat with another man, George, and loses her virginity, becoming pregnant on the first (and only) time she has sex. She casually decides to drink a bottle of gin and take a hot bath, an old wives tale for getting rid of the problem, only her friends arrive and drink half the bottle and when she draws the bath it comes out ice cold. Lazily, she decides to have the child, determines not to tell George (not having his number, and only able to hear his voice as an announcer on the BBC for comfort). She gets rid of her two “beaus”: Roger and Joe, and goes on teaching her four private pupils along with researching her thesis in 16th century English poetry at the British Museum, bloating more and more. She finally decides to tell her sister, expecting sympathy, but her sister is horrified that she plans to keep the baby. Rosamund (the narrator) also bumps into her sister-in-law at the grocer, whose wide-eyes take in her condition but stay mum. Her parents are loaning her their flat while teaching in Africa, and only find out about the baby after receiving a letter from her doctor, an old pal of her dad (they decide to travel for another year to India to allow Rosamund time and space to raise the baby). Octavia (the baby) has a heart condition that must be operated on, and Rosamund again tells no one, working herself up into a state of frenzy and having to go into hysterics in order to see Octavia post-surgery to ensure she’s ok. The pair go home and start to live their odd life. Rosamund nears the finish of her thesis, obtains a teaching position with a university, and Octavia rips to shreds half the pages of a novel their boarder, Lydia, wrote about Rosamund’s condition. The final scene has Rosamund bump into George on Christmas Eve at a pharmacy, she to pick up penicillin for Octavia and he for throat pills. He comes back to the flat, sees Octavia, is told nothing, and departs. Tremendous title– the baby is not the millstone you would expect her to be on a single mother’s neck.
Drabble does an excellent job telling a tale of what is so often told, the unintended pregnancy, the impact on one’s life. She eviscerates the myth of the glowing beauty of pregnant women by describing a waiting room full of them:
Anaemia and exhaustion were written on most countenances: the clothes were dreadful, the legs swollen, the bodies heavy and unbalanced. There were a few cases of striking wear: a huge middle-aged woman, who could walk only with a stick, a pale thin creature with varicose veins and a two-year-old child in tow, and a black woman who sat there not with the peasant acceptance of physical life of which one hears, but with a look of wide-eyed dilating terror.