FIRST PUBLISHED IN 1965, Margaret Drabble’s slim third novel tells the story of a single woman who gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby and raise it on her own. But to see this book as primarily about the sexual revolution, illegitimacy, and the swinging London of the 1960s, is to miss its point. The Millstone is about liberal guilt. It is perhaps one of the most philosophical books written on the subject, full of the sly profundity that is sometimes the special strength of spare, comic novels.
Its heroine, Rosamund Stacey, lives as if a hectoring Immanuel Kant is perpetually evaluating her every move in light of his categorical imperative. A successful academic, Rosamund is finishing up her dissertation on Elizabethan sonnet sequences, work that, “while generally considered to be useless,” enthralls her. But she feels herself to be self-indulgent: “I was continually aware that my life was too pleasant by a half, spent as it was in the gratification of my own curiosity and peculiar aesthetic appetite.”
She attributes this self-punishing attitude to her parents, the sort of posh upper-middle-class socialists who ask the charlady to sit with them at the dinner table and make no fuss when she steals their silver. In addition to her upper-middle-class accent and her upper-middle-class manners, Rosamund’s parents instilled in her a deep reservoir of social guilt. This isn’t the ordinary class guilt known to well-heeled liberals everywhere, which can be offset easily enough by the occasional check to a favored charity. This is deep-seated, clamoring guilt of religious proportions, except in place of the consciousness of sin its source is the consciousness of injustice.
If the game is to get born into the most optimal circumstances, Rosamund hit the jackpot, not just in terms of money and class but in regard to the equally unearned advantages of brains and beauty. And the constant awareness of her good fortune gnaws at her. To compensate for the frivolity of her work—“I have always been aware that the Elizabethans, except for Shakespeare, are something of a luxury subject, unlike nineteenth century novelists or prolific Augustan poets”—she tutors incompetent students and undercharges them. She avoids going to the doctor because she suspects that her “complaint [pregnancy] seemed so trivial in comparison with the ills of age and worry and penury.” In her personal life, Rosamund is unable “to see anything in human terms of like and dislike, love and hate.” When her sister-in-law Clare provokes a pleasurable wave of simple antipathy, Rosamund feels instantly guilty. It is not Clare’s fault, after all, that she is unintelligent and idle; if given a choice, Clare would probably have opted to be as successful and as impressive as Rosamund herself. At this chastening thought, Rosamond’s “dislike ebbed away in a dry withdrawing scraping tide of equity, leaving [her] as ever on the hard damp shore of sociological pity.”
Rosamund, in other words, is perpetually plagued by her exhausting struggle to be, always and in everything, fair and good, according to strict egalitarian principles. So disinclined is she to assert her own claims, or to impose on others, that she is silent when the man she loves walks out of her apartment after they sleep together. “I did not have the courage to ask him where he lived, or to ask him what his phone number was, for it would have seemed an intrusion, an assumption that I had a right to know,” she explains. Drabble gives Rosamund’s feelings of romantic longing and personal unhappiness very little page-time—a few glancing references to moods of suicidal loneliness and weeping pretty much suffice. This is refreshing in a novel about a woman. Instead it is her moral life—the movements of her fitful, keen-sighted mind—that are at issue.
Rosamund had been a virgin until her sole encounter with the vanished lover, which, unexpectedly, leaves her with child. The predicament strikes her as absurd:
One reads such comforting stories of women unable to conceive for years and years, but there are of course other stories, which I have always wished to discount because of their rather grim tones of retribution, their association with scarlet letters, their eye-for-an-eye and Bunyanesque attention to the detail of the offense. Nowadays one tends to class these tales as fantasies of repressed imaginations.
But pregnant she is. An attempt to induce a miscarriage only succeeds in getting her fabulously drunk on gin, and for reasons both comic and poignant Rosamond decides to carry the child to term and to raise her.
Compared to her attempt to live comfortably in her own mind, the stigma of giving birth to an illegitimate child is nothing at all. Not that there is much stigma. Once again, her privilege comes into play. Rosamund’s fashionable address and her academic accomplishments—in other words, her status as part of the intellectual elite—give this unconventional choice a patina of glamour that only enhances her reputation. “I was cashing in on the foibles of a society I have always distrusted,” she observes. “By pretending to be above its strictures, I was merely turning its anomalies to my own use. I would not recommend my course of action to anyone with a shade less advantage than myself.”
However few the difficulties in a social or professional sense, motherhood turns out to be consequential for Rosamund in other ways. When she has a child to consider and it is no longer just her own comfort to be shunted aside for the sake of abstract justice and righting the wrongs of inequality, Rosamund is forced by degrees to concede her failure—failure to comply always with egalitarian ideals, to be always fair and never feeling, to live without imposing on others. “My concerns are my concerns, and that’s where it ends. I haven’t the energy to go worrying about other people’s children,” the mother of a sick child tells her, and Rosamund, whose young daughter has also fallen gravely ill, for the first time in her life hears in this sentiment “sad necessity” as opposed to a “brisk, Tory contempt, or a businesslike, blinkered air of proud realism.” If you’re not a socialist at twenty, the cliché goes, then you have no heart; but if you’re not a capitalist at thirty, you have no brain. Rosamond has crossed over.
Yet Drabble’s novel is hardly a salvo against liberalism, compassion, or social conscience. It is something deeper, a wry and witty testament not only to the difficulties but, more damningly, to the absurdities of living according to principle, no matter how worthwhile the principle. To behave, as Kant would have us do, as if our every move were in accordance with a universal maxim, is in a certain light admirable, but it also requires a cast of mind that is not inherently likable, lacking as it does in spontaneity and warmth. For all her winning dryness, Rosamund’s excessive concern with justice is more often than not indistinguishable from self-consciousness and neurosis. There is in it, too, an unattractive whiff of grandiosity, as if her every action was imbued with world-historical significance. Drabble’s unrelenting focus on Rosamund’s moral life causes us to feel, for page after page, just how fine is the line between the good and the ridiculous.
Adelle Waldman’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, The New York Observer and others. She is completing her first novel.