In Praise of Older Books: The Millstone by Margaret Drabble (1965)

Week 12: A year of Julie Parsons’s favourite books

London, the Swinging Sixties. Rosamund Stacey, Cambridge graduate, pursuer of a PhD on Elizabethan poets, is living in her absent parents’ spacious flat. She is still a virgin. “I walked around with a scarlet letter embroidered on my bosom, but the A stood for Abstinence, not for Adultery.”

Rosamund would have agreed with my maternal great-grandmother that “sex is a very terrible thing”. Sex, however, caught up with her. A brief, unsatisfactory fumble with the lovely George, an announcer at the BBC, and when next Rosamund lifts her head from her poets she realises that she is pregnant.

She has read in “cheap fiction” of the gin-and-hot-bath method of abortion. But friends arrive and drink most of the gin, and the water from an unreliable geyser is stone cold. George has vanished from sight. Thus she realises: she will have the baby on her own.

But, swinging or not swinging, this is still the 1960s. To be an unmarried mother was not just a faux pas. It was a disgrace. Her sister remonstrates. She cannot inflict “the slur of illegitimacy” on a child. It’s too cruel. She must give up the baby for adoption. But Rosamund is stubborn. Insulated by her class and her brilliance she will go ahead, come what may.


Rosamund sails through labour. No antenatal classes in those days. Octavia comes into her life. When she looks into her “great wide blue eyes” she feels “love, I suppose one might call it, and the first of my life”.

For this is, in essence, a book about maternal love. Rosamund is lucky. She has the means to earn a living and the respect of others. But above all she has her daughter. She realises, after a subsequent encounter with George, "It was no longer in me to feel for anyone what I felt for my child." As an unmarried mother myself, The Millstone illuminated a path that could lead towards a future.