Recently I reread a novel that I first came across forty years ago, when I was in high school and working part-time in a public library. In a previous post I commented on my scattershot early reading habits and described how, driven by curiosity but unencumbered by taste or discernment, I would pick up and read whatever happened to be lying around. By the late seventies however I was starting to develop actual reading preferences, which led me to seek out authors whose work I could be fairly certain I would enjoy. Part of the process involved speaking to others about what they were reading and following up on recommendations.
At the library I worked with a young woman from England. A keen reader, her favourite authors were female, and one she spoke of with particular enthusiasm was Margaret Drabble.
By the late 1970s and not yet forty, Drabble had published eight novels along with works of criticism and biography. The protagonists in these early novels tend to be upper-middle-class, intellectual, intensely self-aware, emotionally isolated young women living in urban or college settings. Generally speaking, they are engaged in a quest for one thing or another—usually happiness, sometimes love, and always independence—and their search is made complicated by a variety of obstacles.
Rosamund Stacey is the character I encountered when I opened Drabble’s 1965 novel The Millstone. The novel is short (less than 200 pages, which is probably why I chose it). Rosamund tells her own story. As a narrator she seems to know herself very well. A graduate student writing a thesis on the English Romantic poets, Rosamund maintains a solitary existence in her parents’ flat in London (her parents are away, living in Africa). Her days are structured to an almost stultifying degree, but she needs routine in order to work. She has suitors, but a loathing for messy passions and emotional complications compels her to sanitize her romantic life, keep it neat and orderly. Indeed, the romantic involvements she’s permitted herself are planned and calculated for minimum fuss and muss. She goes on occasional outings to pubs and movies with two different men, neither of whom she finds particularly attractive and each of whom is under the impression she’s sleeping with the other—the result being that neither pressures her for a physical union or deeper commitment.
Still, there are times when she is at a loss to explain the motivations for her actions.
The novel's opening sentence is revealing: “My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice: almost, one might say, made by it.”
This tone—unhurried, proper, inquisitive, probing—is maintained throughout, in flawless prose, using language that is sophisticated and precise. Only twenty-six when it was published, Drabble’s voice was already mature and refined, her descriptive powers those of a seasoned writer. Perhaps an argument could be made that prose polished to such a high sheen blunts the novel’s emotional impact (a criticism often levelled at Drabble’s works). But for me, reading this book at the tender age of eighteen, it was a revelation.
At an age when my friends, if they were reading anything, were entertaining themselves with adventure stories, science fiction, or tales of international espionage or battlefield carnage, why would I want to read a story about a young woman pregnant and alone in 1960s London? Truth be told, I wasn’t that far removed from the Hardy Boys. But from the opening sentence Drabble’s novel grabbed me. Aside from the prose, in itself impressive, the emotions it evokes are genuine and the small drama it depicts heartbreakingly rendered. I found the book engrossing, psychologically astute, and sometimes very funny, as the intellectual Rosamund struggles with feelings that often take her by surprise, and is shocked again and again to discover how profoundly ignorant she is about life in the trenches. I was shocked as well to discover how much I could enjoy a book that was categorized by some as “women’s fiction.” But most of all, The Millstone helped me understand that reading tastes are personal, that I didn’t have to read what other people were reading and didn’t have to make excuses for myself, though it was also true that the circle of people with whom I could expect to discuss this book was a small one.