Field Notes: Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone / Thank You All Very Much


I’ve had the book for about a year. Margaret Drabble’s Thank You All Very Much, originally published in 1965 as The Millstone.

My copy, a Signet edition from 1969, was given a new title, I think, to coincide with a 1969 film adaptation of the book called A Touch of Love, which was re-titled Thank You All Very Much. Of the three titles, I like Thank You All Very Much the best; it captures the ironic voice of Rosamund, the narrator.

So I read the book, and while it was very good, what caught my attention were the underlinings and brief marginal notes of a previous reader. I purchased the book at the fantastic Dawn Treader Book Shop on Liberty Street in Ann Arbor, so I’ve always lazily assumed that the markings were from someone in the Ann Arbor area, but of course the book could have come from anywhere. We’ve probably all had used books with markings that left us wondering about the person who made them and in this case, while there was nothing especially startling about the markings, they seemed to suggest an ideology of reading that, somehow, infected my own reading.

If you’ve never read it, The Millstone/Thank You All Very Much is narrated by Rosamund Stacey, a Cambridge student in English who, to distill a richly nuanced story into half a sentence, gets pregnant and, after considering an abortion or putting the baby up for adoption, keeps the baby and enters into the adventures of motherhood as a single parent. But like all great Drabble novels, the real story is in the thorn-patch complexity of the narration, in this case Rosamund’s seemingly direct but ultra-charged sentences, such as this one describing a woman the hospital where Rosamund has given birth: “She was a vacant-faced, prematurely aging woman of thirty or so, in for her fourth child, and she spent most of her time knitting shapeless fancy-stitch cardigans for her mother, and trying to tell the woman on the other side about her other three children and what they ate and what they wouldn’t touch.” That word shapeless says so much, not only about the anonymous woman being described, but also about Rosamund.

But the novel is the novel. What changes it is the markings left by an earlier reader. Appearing when it did—in the mid-1960s—you might expect a certain politically charged subtext when it comes to questions of gender, reproductive rights, the tension between a public career and the more private work of a homemaker, the health care choices available to women, etc. And indeed, all these issues and more are explored here. But the book’s ideological compass is all over the place, which makes for a fantastically rich read.

And yet the markings in the book created yet another layer of meaning, equally ambiguous and complex. For although it’s true that these marking are not properly part of the text, they become a part of the text. Once you see the underlined passages or the exclamation points in the margins, for instance, you can’t unsee them. There they are, as real as Margaret Drabble’s words on the page. In an effort to work through these meanings, I’ve selected a few here:

1. 70’s post-modern

This appears at the top of page 18. Since the novel was published in the Sixties, my hunch is that the reader is commenting on how the passage in question—marked with a thick blue ink line down the left side of the margin—shares certain characteristics associated with postmodern lit. The fact that the reader uses the term “70’s” leads me to believe that the 70’s were over by the time he/she made that notation, but again, this is just speculation. Here is the marked passage:

“Naturally enough my virtuous reluctance made me very miserable, as it makes girls on the back page of every woman’s magazine, for, like them, I enjoyed being in love and being kissed on the doorstep and, like them, I hated to be alone. I had the additional disadvantage of being able to approve my own conduct; being a child of the age, I knew how wrong and how misguided it was.”

So, why post-modern? Maybe because Rosamund’s characterization of herself as “being a child of the age” is just self-referential enough to mark it as postmodern, though of course self-referential commentary pre-dates the postmodern era (Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy is a warren of self-referring passageways). But there is something so self-aware about Rosamund’s narration—here and elsewhere—that almost suggests she knows she’s a narrator in a novel.

2. The question mark, the exclamation mark

At the top of page 51, the author called attention to a sentence with a ? and an ! Why? The sentence in question occurs during an exchange between Rosamund and the midwife, who refers to Rosamund as “Mrs. Stacey,” to which Rosamund replies that “I’m not Mrs. Stacey, I’m Miss.” And then this line:

“Yes, yes,” she [the midwife] smiled, coldly and sweetly, “but we call everyone Mrs. Here. As a courtesy title, don’t you think?”

At first glance, the author’s marginal markings seem to lie in sympathy with Rosamund’s predicament, i.e., can you believe the hypocrisy here and the effort to mask the truth of the situation [that Rosamund is unwed] with language? But read another way, the author might be commenting on heavy-handed moral fury of Drabble’s writing here, i.e. there must be a subtler way to convey Rosamund’s disdain yet grudging respect for the midwife.

3. An underlined sentence

Among the underlined sentences in the book is one that occurs, on page 61, when Rosamund, five months’ pregnant, is on her way to meet some of her friends. She passes a woman with two young children, and takes notice of her in a way that she would not have before her own pregnancy. She helps the woman with one of her children and carries him. When she meets he friends at Ulster Place to have tea, she finds she cannot share the experience. And then:

“I saw that from now on I, like that woman, was going to have to ask for help, and from strangers too: I who could not even ask for love or friendship.”

Is the passage underlined for the simple reason it shows a significant change in the way Rosamund thinks of herself in relation to the world? Or does it confirm a certain way of reading by this anonymous reader, a way of reading that imposes a certain ideological framework on the novel, as in, “a-ha! Feminist theory’s all well-and-good until real life interrupts it.” Or maybe the opposite: “of course! This is yet another socially conservative English novel which suggests that the only way to become fully human is through biological reproduction!”

4. The days and times on the last page

I think these are office hours, but then why the overlapping times on MW? My first reaction was that this book belonged to an English professor, who wrote down two different possibilities for office hours. Then I thought, well maybe it’s a student, who’s jotted down two different professors’ office hours. I’m no expert, but the handwriting looks like a man’s. No, I’m convinced it’s a professor, and the notes and underlinings are vague teaching topics or passages to cover in class. It’s a man. He’s new to Drabble, forced to teach her in a cobbled-together class created to serve the political ideologies of the English Department. He’s a reluctant convert, secretly moved by Rosamund’s quietly ironic, confident voice. Maybe he even has a crush on her, which makes him feel all the worse because his profession demands a bit more from him than going around falling in love with the characters in the books he teaches, and yet still it is Rosamund’s voice that he hears in his head deep into the night, even as he lies beside his sleeping wife.

In any case, he’s just a fiction.

As is she.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →