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A Voyage into the Interior: Self-Possession and Reclaiming Somatic and Textual Property in Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone.

By Jamie McDaniel

Debates about the effectiveness of the New Woman as an agent of social change abound in New Woman criticism.  Ann Ardis argues that nineteenth-century discussions of the Woman Question shifted from references to real-world effects of powers given to women earlier in the century to the New Woman as a primarily literary phenomenon later in the century.  Ardis writes, “Labeling the New Woman a literary rather than a ‘real’ phenomenon, these critics locate all ‘genuine’ change, all ‘real’ reform, in the nonliterary realm” (13).  This practice of relegating the New Woman to the literary realm would seem to negate any power she might have in criticising dominant Victorian values and practices. Margaret Drabble suggests that, in 1960s Post-War Britain, the “New Woman” “had to forge a new novel to describe […] new experiences” (“Mimesis” 7), revealing a set of challenges facing Post-War British new women such as Rosamund Stacey in The Millstone.  In this novel, Drabble seeks to negotiate a similar line between social engagement and literary representation.  Like her literary and social ancestors, Rosamund advocates for academic, economic, and domestic freedom, success, and equality. 

The “New” New Woman: Rethinking Self-possession

The struggles in New Woman novels and reportage—reflecting women’s self-possession—serve as a point of contact between those nineteenth-century novels and articles (by authors such as Ouida and Sarah Grand) and Drabble’s treatment of body and text as types of property to possess.  In this context, “self-possession” refers to maintaining composure, poise, and control of emotions as well as retaining the ability and right to be free from control by men through owning property or choosing reproductive and contraceptive practices.  Drabble depicts Rosamund’s experiences with her friends, her family, and the medical establishment to problematise an exterior source of self-possession through property ownership by engaging with popular nineteenth-century rhetorical strategies that prevented women from having property rights and, thus, control over their own bodies.  These rhetorical strategies include the naturalisation of sex differences in medical and scientific discourses, the claim by male writers to possess the one true knowledge about women and their motivations (called the “monopolist instinct”), and the conflation of the language of love and ownership.  In response, Rosamund develops tactics of reclamation that link the body and the text as interior sites of property.  She recreates identity narratives based in the body that are themselves embodied through their circulation to, and recognition by, the public discourses.  For Rosamund, these sites provide more effective catalysts for self-possession because they avoid outside manipulation and restriction, unlike conventional goods. 

Tensions surrounding property in New Woman writing revolve around self-possession.  In her study of the relationship between New Woman and colonial adventure fiction, LeeAnne Richardson speaks to the purpose of nineteenth-century feminists:

Nineteenth-century feminists want "self-possession" both politically and metaphorically:  they want the ownership of self that signifies both freedom and self-management.  Typically characterised as sentimental beings, prone to hysteria, not fully in command of their faculties, women increasingly sought to wrest their public as well as their psychic identities from male control.  The struggle for individual and political rights in the nineteenth century became a struggle for self-possession informed by and informing the discourses of property, ownership, enslavement, and abolition.  (106)

Unfair property practices were no longer at the forefront of feminist worries in Britain in the 1960s.  This is not to say that all problems related to women’s property rights had been alleviated by that time.  Equal pay, for example, continues to be a problem in the corporate world, and men in many countries treat women as a form of property subjugate to their husbands.  Instead, women found themselves faced with similar arguments involving self-possession and control of the body through debates on abortion rights, for example.  Consequently, discourses of the body and the text supplant these more overt discussions of property and ownership of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. 

Drabble’s Realism:  A History and an Addition

The last thirty years of criticism on Margaret Drabble’s novels establish two common touchstones:  the novels’ exploration of the role of women in society—with a particular focus on the role of the woman writer—and the novels’ narrative strategies.  In the latter case, Drabble is an acknowledged conservative, favouring the nineteenth-century realist tradition.  Much current work on her novels classify her narrative strategies as particularly postmodern or attempt to reconcile her penchant for realism with postmodernism.  For example, Roberta Rubenstein argues that Drabble’s characters increasingly “suffer bodily injury and fragmentation as terrorism, crime, random accidents, and disasters seep into and disrupt their lives” (136).  Rubenstein parallels the use of bodily imagery with the fragmented narrative of Drabble’s later novels.  Similarly, Pamela Bromberg argues that Drabble employs metafictional techniques that address mimesis, or methods of representing reality within narrative, an idea that many postmodern authors critique.  Bromberg proposes that Drabble realises a “fragmented, self-aware society may require disrupted, self-reflexive narrative forms to represent it” (6).  Thus, Bromberg sees many postwar women writers such as Drabble and Doris Lessing as “engaged in a revision of literary realism” that uses “a variety of innovative narrative techniques and complicated intertextual dialogue with the literary past” (5).  This tendency in the criticism of Drabble’s writing to discuss her works within a postmodern framework to the detriment of other possible readings misses an important layer of complexity and density in Drabble’s work, especially given the author’s admiration of realism.  When asked in an interview about the postmodern tendency towards formal and narrative experimentation, Drabble said that she would “rather be at the end of a dying tradition which she admires than at the beginning of a tradition which she deplores” (qtd. in Pickering 475).  Some early critics of her work such as Francois Bonford and Maureen Howard have commented on Drabble’s devotedness to Victorian and Edwardian realism, and Drabble’s celebrated biography of Arnold Bennett makes these devotions fairly explicit.  Recently, Bromberg has concluded that “Drabble remains a realist; she builds upon the Great Tradition [the European novelistic tradition] and insists . . . that ‘writing isn’t about writing; it’s about the other thing, which is called life’” (7).  Bromberg’s project is in part to catalogue the many sources from nineteenth-century realist fiction, such as the prominent “web” metaphor from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874), that Drabble revises in her fiction to question the ability of narrative to represent life and, particularly, a woman’s life. 

However, one source from which I will argue Drabble draws is absent:  the New Woman texts.  This occurs despite the fact that many of Drabble’s female protagonists are reminiscent of the New Woman figure.  For example, Frieda Haxby in the 1996 novel The Witch of Exmoor displays several characteristics often included in traditional New Woman writing:  eccentricity, a life in exile, concerns over somatic autonomy, and a larger-than-life personality, to name a few.  Although no critic has previously read Drabble’s female characters as “updated” New Women, Bromberg’s essay highlights this absence because she locates the cause of reflexivity in post war women’s writing within the development of a feminist consciousness, beginning with Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own (1929).  Drawing from popular examples of nineteenth-century psychological realism (Eliot’s Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss)and twentieth-century texts using stream-of-consciousness techniques (Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway) to put forth her argument about metafiction, Bromberg never ties the contributions of the New Woman novel to the cultivation of that feminist consciousness, particularly in terms of property ownership and self-possession.

The Fictional Properties of Grand, Ouida, and Rosamund

Margaret Drabble treats the body and the text as related kinds of property and illuminates the issue of women’s self-possession in New Woman writing.  Drabble’s book, in LeeAnne Richardson’s words, “wrest [women’s] public as well as their psychic identities” from public control in order to tactically engage with contemporary women’s issues (106).  Like the New Woman writers, Rosamund redeems her narratives of identity from the novel’s public to revalorise them through an emphasis on the body as a site of self-possession and identity making.  In The Millstone, this process of redeeming and adapting results in Rosamund’s paradigm shift:  from having an identity defined by her friends and family to an identity defined by herself, a movement from exterior to interior.

Talia Schaffer explains the process through which New Woman writers regain their public identities.  One example appears in a series of popular articles from the North American Review of 1894, where Sarah Grand and Ouida’s depictions of the New Woman fall within the dominant Victorian binary of the angel and the demon.  These fictional accounts of the New Woman play upon the fears of “the unsexed, terrifying, violent Amazon ready to overturn the world” (39), which stands in contrast to the “everyday” representatives of “New Womanism” who biked and did not need chaperones.  Schaffer writes that by making “the New Woman into a fiction, Grand enables herself to construct a meta-history that conveys her own psychological sense of the real enormity of the change, rather than the facts which produce a misleadingly minor sense of the movement.  In that way, Grand wants the New Woman to be a fiction; she’s much more impressive that way” (42).  Grand creates a mythical and larger-than-life New Woman by avoiding specific instructions for charitable social activism and by creating sweeping historical narratives for the New Woman that cannot realistically be supported.  In other words, she shifts genres from reportage to myth, and this tactical narrative revision makes the New Woman appear more powerful. 

Ouida’s physical description of the New Woman mirrors Grand’s hyperbolic turn.  In her article, Ouida initially refers to a caricature that had appeared in Punch some years earlier.  By using a caricature as the basis of her defining portrait, Ouida fictionalises the New Woman in order to strike a comparison between herself and the New Woman.  Schaffer writes that “the more powerful, enormous, and significant this fictional caricature becomes, the more benign, sedate, and reassuring Ouida herself seems by comparison” (44).  In contrast to Grand’s mythical “idealised nurturer,” Ouida creates a demonic and grotesque version of the New Woman (Schaffer 45).  When Ouida argues for animal rights, for example, her passionate arguments would seem adequate and agreeable when contrasted with the shrewish harpy version of the New Woman.  Thus, the rhetorical strategies employed by Sarah Grand and Ouida, though different in kind, work to develop fictional accounts of the New Woman’s history in order to produce real cultural change.  Both Grand and Ouida appropriate the various depictions of the New Woman from public discourse, recreate them, and re-publicise them through textual circulation with different—and, in their opinions, more effectual—identities.

As with the depictions of the New Woman that Ouida and Sarah Grand address, the novel initially conceives Rosamund’s identity via the opinions of the public.  Instead of trying to formulate her own identity, which would demonstrate control and self-possession, Rosamund accepts the identity constructed for her.  Consequently, she spends much of the novel trying to modify this persona—a movement from an exterior concept of identity to an interior concept of identity.  At the novel’s start, Rosamund does not derive her identity from an experience of self-possession based in ownership, but rather through the public recognition of others’ possessions and her association with them.  Instead of working on Elizabethan sonnet sequences, Rosamund’s parents wanted her “to read economics at Cambridge,” a subject they see as providing a more deliberate opportunity for success (32).  Rosamund also worries about people misinterpreting her socioeconomic position from the fact that she lives in her parents’ expensive flat.  Her parents, we learn, purport to be staunch socialists, and have travelled to Africa so that Rosamund’s father can take a position as a professor of economics at a university.  Although they could have rented out their flat for a large fee, Rosamund’s parents “disapproved very strongly […] of the property situation, and were unwilling to become involved in it except on a suffering and sacrificial basis:  so their attitude was not pure kindness, but partly at least a selfish abstinence from guilt” (11–12).  Rosamund’s parents ironically base much of their identity upon the property that they own by refusing to recognise the rights conferred through property ownership.  Rosamund’s sense of self-possession arises from this logic, and she follows this sense of self-deprivation.  Her parents have defined for her what self-possession means.  Rosamund sees the “only disadvantage” to living in her parents’ flat as being that:

people would insist on assuming that because I lived there I was rather rich:  which by any human standards I was, having about five hundred a year in various research grants and endowments:  but this, of course, was not at all rich in the eyes of the people who habitually made such assumptions.  In fact, had they known the truth they would have classed me on the starvation line, and would have ceased to make remarks about the extreme oldness of my shoes.  (12) 

Like her parents, Rosamund does not view property as a proper basis of independence.  Instead, her rhetoric bespeaks a negative appraisal of property’s power to provide freedom.  Unlike the short simple sentences at the beginning of this passage, Rosamund adds clause upon clause when explaining her property.  This style results in her over-apologising for what she appears to possess—even down to her shoes.  Her parents have “drummed the idea of self-reliance” into Rosamund so much so that she “believed dependence to be a fatal sin” (12).  Just as Rosamund fears that the flat defines her identity to the public, so have her parents defined what independence means for Rosamund.  Later, in relating her parents’ “extraordinary blend of socialist principle and middle-class scruple,” Rosamund says that they “have to punish themselves” because they “can’t just let things get comfortable” (31).  Rosamund lacks the self-possession needed to disrupt the public construction of her identity as well as her parents’ definition of what freedom should mean to her.

A pattern of reliance on outside perceptions for Rosamund’s identity continues in her relationship to the literature she studies.  After discovering her pregnancy, Rosamund “went through slightly more than the usual degrees of incredulity and shock, for reasons which I doubtless shall be unable to restrain myself from recounting:  there was nobody to tell, nobody to ask, so I was obliged once more to fall back on the dimly reported experiences of friends and information I had gleaned through the years from cheap fiction” (10).  Rosamund cannot control the creation of her narrative.  Because she cannot “restrain” herself “from recounting,” her story comes as a result of an automatic response to a stimulus rather than a demonstration of self-possession.  Instead of a narrative written for herself, Rosamund’s story depends upon an audience to receive and comment on it.  Indeed, the commentary becomes more important than its creation. 

Commentary that acknowledges and validates an identity composed by a narrative works similarly to the way the public interprets Rosamund’s identity through the lens of her parents’ flat.  Rosamund does not “own” her story but rather relies upon an outside perception of her story—an observation that she has little control over.  Her emphasis on “cheap fiction” and the resemblance of her situation to many Victorian heroines alludes to nineteenth-century Sensation and New Woman fiction, as well as contemporary romance novels from British writers like Barbara Cartland.  She later explains her pregnancy as the result of a less-than-stellar first sexual experience with George Matthews, a supposedly homosexual newsreader for BBC radio, through the language of the Victorian angel/demon binary:  “Had I rushed in regardless, at eighteen, full of generous passion, as other girls do, I would have got away with it too.  But being at heart a Victorian, I paid the Victorian penalty” (22).  She sees her story not as one of an individual but rather as a retelling of the Victorian heroines of the past—something she thinks that she has no control over and that is deterministic.  In short, she lacks the self-possession necessary to break free from this tradition and to create her own story.

The growth of this vital self-possession for the New Woman and for Rosamund is prevented through three rhetorical strategies:  using scientific discourse to naturalise sexual difference, claiming an all-encompassing knowledge about women, and mixing the language of love and possession:

Strategy 1:  Medical Discourse and Narratives of Corporeal Propriety

LeeAnne Richardson notes that nineteenth-century medical and scientific discourses naturalised racial and sexual differences, to the disadvantage of those who were not male or white.  Promoting these divisions resulted in generic approaches to women that do not account for individual differences and the idea that women’s personalities and bodily functions have certain proper and improper characteristics.  For example, Charles Darwin writes in Descent of Man (1871) that the presumably feminine traits of intuition and perception are “characteristics of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilization” (2:  326–27).  As medical science learned more about the workings of the human body and mind during the latter half of the nineteenth century, these assumptions adapted, too, so that women were always seen as the lesser of the sexes.  For example, Ann Oakley writes, “At the turn of the century, when the parietal lobes replaced the frontal lobes as the seat of intellect, it was discovered that women’s frontal lobes were actually more developed than men’s—but were not a sign of intelligence after all” (122).  Consequently, mainstream science did not believe women had the intellectual capacity to either deal with property ownership or with ownership of their own bodies.  Philosophers such as Frances Power Cobbe, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke composed treatises against writers such as Thomas Jefferson who, like many nineteenth-century scientists, argued proposed “natural” explanations for unequal property rights between men and women.

As with the archetypal New Woman, Rosamund’s undeveloped self-possession arises partially from the fact that medical discourses in the novel deem self-possession as inappropriate.  This reflects the same scientific and philosophical arguments levied against women’s self-possession in late nineteenth-century New Woman fiction.  In The Millstone, these discourses revolve around Rosamund’s treatment by doctors at the National Health Clinic and interactions with the medical buildings. Rosamund does not have the medical knowledge that the doctors and nurses expect her to have because she is a woman.  Dr. Moffat’s “undisguised relief” at passing her off to St. Andrew’s hospital causes Rosamund to hesitate in asking questions about her pregnancy.  Instead of revealing her inexperience, Rosamund simply says, “Yes, of course,” as though she “understood the whole procedure” though she “wanted to ask him a dozen things” (62).  She even goes so far as to say that her “innocence” prevented her from “even know[ing] what a clinic was” (63).  Dr. Moffat implies in this exchange, and Rosamund concludes, that there exists a correct “pregnancy narrative” to which she is not privy and should be.  At her first visit to Dr. Moffat, Rosamund says that she “felt [her] independence threatened” (45).  Lacking the necessary self-possession to question the propriety of the medical establishment’s method for addressing pregnant women, Rosamund cannot critique the legitimacy of this pregnancy narrative because she believes she has no right to challenge it.

These medical expectations about Rosamund’s knowledge of a proper pregnancy narrative continue when she arrives at St. Andrew’s hospital.  Rosamund feels that even the architecture of the medical buildings conspires against her.  She says that she “was alarmed, not so much because the building was an eyesore […] but because [she] did not know how to get into it, nor which part to attack.  There were innumerable doors and entrances, and [she] had a sense that the main door was certainly not the appropriate one” (63).  In this passage, Rosamund continues to connect the idea of an “appropriate” narrative—in this instance, a type of spatial narrative—to the way that she handles her pregnancy.  Rosamund feels pressured to conform to the tactical, individualised way that she interacts with the medical building (a demonstration of self-possession) to the strategic, all-inclusive way that the medical building has been built to treat patients as general medical cases rather than as people with specific needs.  The receptionist’s response, which directs Rosamund back outside to the “Out Patients” entrance down a side street, reinforces her feelings of inadequacy about her pregnancy by implying that a right path exists, that she should naturally know this path, and that she has chosen the wrong one.  After arriving at the “Out Patients” entrance and seeing that “there was no reception desk and no indication of any direction,” Rosamund remarks that she “stood there irresolute, feeling acutely ashamed at [her] own ignorance” (63).  While her “ignorance” is explicitly related to her missing knowledge about directions, the remark implies that, she begins to let this perceived ignorance overtake her independence.

Finally, the treatment that Rosamund undergoes at St. Andrew’s hospital deemphasises the uniqueness of her pregnancy narrative and her body.  From the perspective of the doctors and nurses, she becomes a generic pregnant woman rather than one with individual needs—an approach that parallels nineteenth-century medical rhetoric.  Rosamund’s physician Dr. Esmond and a group of five medical students examine her because she goes to a teaching hospital.  Rosamund describes the medical procedure during this first time she has ever been examined:

I lay there, my eyes shut, and quietly smiling to conceal my outrage, because I knew that these things must happen, and that doctors must be trained, and that medical students must pass examinations; and he asked them questions about the height of the fundus, and could they estimate the length of pregnancy, and what about the pelvis.  They all said I had a narrow pelvis, and I lay there and listened to them and felt them, with no more protest than if I had been a corpse examined by budding pathologists for the cause of death.  But I was not dead, I was alive twice over.  (67)

The doctor and medical students treat Rosamund’s body as a text meant for interpretation, a site of knowledge that they must learn.  Likewise, Rosamund’s focus on an examination that must be passed implies she believes that there is one “correct answer” to her body.  However, Rosamund’s bodily reaction to the medical examination betrays her actual feelings.  Even as the doctor and students regard Rosamund as a site of knowledge about the female form, Rosamund closes her eyes, indicating an unwillingness that also goes against her willing smile.  While this control over her outward reaction through smiling might be interpreted as a form of self-possession, she only demonstrates self-possession inasmuch as it determines the medical students’ outcomes on their exams, not her own clear bill of health.  She does not feel as if she needs to pass her “examination” but can only help the medical students pass their “examination.” 

Additionally, the physician and students describe Rosamund’s body as a series of generic parts, the fundus and pelvis.  The term “fundus” does not refer to a specific anatomical part but is a generic anatomical term referring to the portion of an organ opposite from its opening.  Likewise, all of the medical students make the same observation about Rosamund’s pelvis without offering any specifics that would differentiate her from other women.  The divisions of each sentence into individual clauses linked by commas or semi-colons parallels the division of Rosamund’s body, furthering the point that Rosamund’s body becomes much like a text to be “read” and interpreted by the medical students.  A representation of the female body within the blazon tradition of Elizabethan sonnets—her subject of study for her graduate degree—this passage depicts Rosamund’s body as a series of generic female parts within a generic pregnancy narrative; the “correct” examination procedure or answer for Rosamund’s body is the correct one for all women.  Although Rosamund ultimately rejects the comparison, the fact that she feels like a dead body reveals another flattening of her identity.  Even in her rejection, though, she does not speak of herself as an individual but rather from within the context of her pregnancy, demonstrating her absent self-possession.

Strategy 2:  The Monopolist Instinct, Sex, and Abortion

In addition to medical discourse, another strategy preventing the New Woman’s self-possession involves what Grant Allen terms the “Monopolist Instinct” of the British Empire’s attitude towards patriotism, capitalism, property rights, slavery, and women’s rights.  The monopolist instinct ostensibly relies on exclusive possession or control so that a dichotomy involving the powerful and the powerless is constructed, creating an “us versus them” mentality.  For example, Allen writes in Post-Prandial Philosophy (1894) that the English attitude towards property “is a viler and more sordid” monopolist instinct than patriotism because patriotism

at least can lay claim to some expansiveness beyond mere individual interest; whereas property stops dead short at the narrowest limits.  It is not “Us against the world!” but “Me against my fellow-citizens!”  It is the final result of the industrial war in its most hideous avatar.  Look how it scars the fair face of our England with its anti-social notice-boards, “Trespassers will be prosecuted!”  It says, in effect, “This is my land. God made it; but I have acquired it and tabooed it.  The grass on it grows green; but only for me.  The mountains rise beautiful; no foot of man, save mine and my gamekeepers, shall tread them.  The waterfalls gleam fresh and cool in the glen:  avaunt there, you non-possessors; you shall never see them!  All this is my own.  And I choose to monopolise it.”  (82)

Allen uses the basic idea of this passage—that property ownership in England can lead to a protectionist mentality—to critique the mindset that sees women as property.  Allen continues, arguing that slavery has been outlawed except

as regards women!  There, it lingers still.  The Man says even now to himself:  —“This woman is mine.  If she ventures to have a heart or a will of her own, woe betide her!  I have tabooed her for life; let any other man touch her, let her look at any other man—and—knife, revolver, or law court, they shall both of them answer for it!”  There you have in all its natural ugliness another Monopolist Instinct—the deepest-seated of all, the vilest, the most barbaric.  She is not yours:  she is her own:  unhand her!  (84)

In his argument against monopolising property and for women’s self-possession, Allen sets up a position that goes against the rhetoric of naturalised differences that scientists and philosophers offered.  Instead, he posits that self-possession is the natural state of men and women and any deviation from self-possession is degrading.  Allen satirically uses the naturalistic word “instinct” to label this polarising process.  Both women and property are naturally free until the interferences of man have “tabooed” them both, making their current state in England unnatural.  Both passages use metaphors of the body.  The “scars” on the “fair face of England” imply degradation from an original ideal form.  Likewise, the passage emphasises the senses of a woman and the danger of death posed to the body for crossing her “owner.”  For the “owner” of a woman, she becomes a series of feelings written on the body:  a look from the eyes, a “will” in the heart, or a touch of the hand.  Like the landscape of England, this “dissection” of the female form makes her more easily controllable and made to “answer for” demonstrations of self-possession or control.  Allen rejects that this process of dissection is natural; instead, he shifts the idea of nature to the “natural ugliness” of the monopolist instinct towards women, which echoes the “scars” of the English landscape in that both result from the practice of man and not nature. 

However, in criticising the monopolist instinct of English society towards property and women, Allen himself demonstrates a monopolist instinct.  As LeeAnne Richardson points out, Allen “wants to own all knowledge about women” and “sees himself as possessor of the one true knowledge” about women because he is “the one rational being in a society filled with illogical ideas and practices” (117).  For example, in “Plain Words on the Woman Question,” Allen “feel[s] sure” that “while women are crying for emancipation they really want to be left in slavery; and that it is only a few exceptional men, here and there in the world, who wish to see them fully and wholly franchised” (452).  The basis for this conclusion about women’s self-possession develops from essentialist notions of women’s work and interests derived from primarily biological principles.  Allen asserts that any woman who “has no desire to become a wife and mother” is “really a functional aberration” (452).  Thus, while Allen critiques British men for monopolising the female body, he likewise uses it as the primary basis of his knowledge about women:  Destiny derives from biology, and any deviation from that destiny results in an abnormal identity.

Rosamund’s friends and family express Grant Allen’s “monopolist instinct” when it comes to their understanding of what is best for Rosamund in terms of sexual fulfillment, independence, and abortion.  In other words, they think that they know what is better for her than she does. Rosamund is reluctant to put forth her story of pregnancy because she does not think that anyone will believe her, a hesitancy to make her identity narrative public that reinforces misperceptions about herself.  She told nobody that George was the father because, she writes, “[p]eople would have been highly astonished had I told them, as he was so incidental to my life that nobody even knew that I knew him.  They would have asked me if I was sure of my facts” (20).  Rosamund’s view of her friends’ possible incredulity comes as a result of her belief that her story does not fit into a twentieth-century conception of sex.  She does not possess her story but is rather possessed by her friends’ possible interpretations of her story and in the way they would respond to it within the cultural context of Britain in the 1960s.  This context naturalises sexual abandon for women in the same way that the late-nineteenth century naturalised sexual frigidity.  Both contexts offer a monopolistic knowledge about what women want.  After making reference to the disbelief that she would encounter from those around her, she twice compares her story to that of Hester Prynne, the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Rosamund “always wished to discount” these moral revenge stories “because of their overhanging grim tones of retribution, their association with scarlet letters, their eye-for-an-eye and Bunyanesque attention to the detail of offense” (20).  She does not see her story as proper for the twentieth century; she writes, “I was guilty of a crime, all right, but it was a brand-new, twentieth century crime, not the good old traditional one of lust and greed.  My crime was my suspicion, my fear, my apprehensive terror of the very idea of sex” (21).  Thus, the “scarlet letter embroidered upon [her] bosom […] stood for Abstinence, not for Adultery” (21).  The same monopolistic thinking that does not allow for individual differences among women of nineteenth century America also constrains Rosamund’s self-possession to the point of criminality in her mind.  There is a punishment to be paid for going against this prevailing philosophy, and Rosamund initially thinks that her pregnancy is the punishment.  However, as the novel unfolds, Rosamund begins learning to create her own individual narrative of identity rather than relying upon pre-determined categories.

In terms of Rosamund’s sexual practices, her friends believe that she has the same level of sexual prowess expected of other women in their social context, and Rosamund allows them to think this way.  Specifically, her friends think that she is sleeping with Joe Hurt, a liberal novelist, and Roger Henderson, a conservative barrister.  Though she is not sleeping with either man, both Joe and Roger believe that Rosamund has slept with both men.  Joe and Roger enjoy the thought that Rosamund is sleeping with the other; this possible sexual activity makes her have “a seedy status” in their eyes (23).  While the arrangement allows Rosamund to avoid sexual contact until she becomes involved with George—the father of her baby—Joe and Roger both express a monopolistic determination of Rosamund’s wants and needs that fits her into the same interpretive category:  a sexually overactive woman that performs for the pleasure of men.  Like Grant Allen when discussing his knowledge of women, both Joe and Roger claim to understand what is best for Rosamund as a woman and do not conceive of other possible ways for her to act.  Only Rosamund’s deception allows her to avoid this instinct.  Rosamund states that had Joe and Roger “known the true state of affairs, [they] would have felt [themselves] obliged for honour’s sake to try to seduce [her] and to reveal to [her] the true pleasures of life” (22).  Rosamund does not necessarily create an authentic identity that breaks free of the monopolistic instance to categorise her as a sexually overactive woman because she relies upon lies to create this identity.  Thus, she becomes entrapped within this monopolistic instinct directed towards her sexual activity.

Another result of this monopolistic categorisation by Rosamund’s friends is the naturalised assumption that she will have an abortion.  After becoming pregnant and revealing her pregnancy to her friends, they automatically think that Rosamund will have an abortion, the “problem of publicity” as Rosamund calls it (45).  Again, her friends incorrectly see Rosamund as representative of a specific category of women about which they own all knowledge:  a single, sexually active woman who should not want a child or, as Joe calls her, “a very unwomanly woman” after he brings up a Bergman film that focused on miscarriages in a maternity ward (46).  Joe’s first words after finding out about the pregnancy are, “You’re not going to have it, are you?” (46).  Roger makes a similar remark when he learns of her pregnancy; he asks, “Well, what are you going to do about it, if that’s not too tiresome a question?” (53).  He is confounded that Rosamund is “going to let nature take its course” (53).  Neither Joe nor Roger believes that she would even consider having the child because they believe that they share the correct knowledge of Rosamund’s identity, which is based in her supposed sexual activity. 

Strategy 3:  Property and/as Passion

A final rhetorical strategy used to deny self-possession involves the co-mingling of the language of ownership and the language of passion.  This impetus to surrender one’s self-possession to another in the name of love arises from an inversion of the chivalric code, which places the power primarily in the hands of the female beloved.  Instead, the version of love in New Woman fiction minimises women’s power in a relationship, making the loss of self-possession in a relationship a woman’s natural duty.  This loss of power occurs at the behest of both sexes.  Both the men and women of New Woman texts such as Mona Caird’s The Daughters of Danaus (1884) and Charlotte Mew’s writings operate according to the concept of “to care for and to keep,” the words spoken by Mew’s protagonist Laurie in showing her devotion to her fiancé Tony (131).  Laurie decides to become a missionary instead of marrying Tony, saying that love for Tony “means simply possession, satisfaction.”   However, Tony repeats her phrase—“to care for and to keep”—in his attempt to convince her to stay.  He continues, “Don’t you remember? And now you speak as if it were some paltry version of my own.  It once was yours” (131).  Tony’s assertions rely upon a cultural hegemony that appeals to the “common sense” of love; love is primarily about sacrifice for the protection of each other.  Richardson writes that “[l]ove […] becomes a metaphor for tyrannical control:  a woman is surrounded by monsters of affection, caring guides who in reality domineer” (118).  In defining the propriety of women’s roles in British society, Richardson continues, “Domestic ideology owns women by defining what is possible and what is acceptable in wife, mother, and daughter” (119).  The ideal of romantic love naturalises women’s sacrifices for the loved ones.  These sacrifices are the sole responsibility of women, “when women alone are taught that to be loving is to be submissive, obedient, and self-sacrificing” (Richardson 118).  The mixing of the language of love and possession, then, becomes another way to ensure a woman’s acceptance of gender norms.

Roger and Joe’s monopolist instinct about what Rosamund desires creates a related problem around this third rhetorical strategy against self-possession in New Woman fiction.  In each encounter with Joe and Roger when she tells them about the pregnancy, money is offered to Rosamund.  However, each offer of money comes with the same set of conditions—a promise of abortion and repudiation of the competing man’s affection.  Because he originally thinks that the baby belongs to Roger, Joe says, “It’s his fault, it’s his job to get you out of it.  He’s rich enough, isn’t he?  Why don’t you make him pay and go off and have it done in comfort?” (46).  After getting visibly rattled by Rosamund’s refusal to have an abortion, Joe argues, “You just can’t.  I forbid you.  It’ll ruin your life.  If you want some money, I’ll lend you some.  How much do you want?  A hundred?  Two hundred?  How much do you need?” (47).  In each of these instances, an acceptance of Joe’s offer would necessarily weaken Rosamund’s independence.  While Joe would lose some money, Rosamund would in her mind give up a lot more.  This problem is compounded by the fact that Joe expects their relationship to maintain its present course, implying that Joe actually has his own interests at heart rather than Rosamund’s.  Although Roger does offer money, more importantly he offers to marry Rosamund; however, Roger’s proposal seems less than genuine because he immediately says, “We could always get divorced more or less instantly” (54).  While Rosamund cannot think of any good things that would come out of a marriage, Roger says that “it would have its compensations” (54).  In the context of Roger’s earlier remarks about Rosamund’s supposed identity as a sexual adventurer, Roger’s remark about “compensations” involves a total control over her body that would preclude Joe’s participation, although Roger is supposedly already married to a woman in America.

Reclaiming Rosamund

As with nineteenth-century New Women in both fiction and non-fiction, Rosamund (the 1960s New Woman) develops tactics of self-possession to fight against the rhetorical strategies that question her ability to create her own identity narrative.  Drabble’s character redeems her narratives of identity from the discourses put forth in the novel, revalorising them through an emphasis on the body as a site of self-possession rather than as a site to be controlled from an outside source or from biological determinism.  She reclaims her identity in three ways:  she manipulates the medical system, reclaims her story that her friend Lydia has turned into a book, and critiques George’s “half-knowledge” in the novel’s final scene.

Rosamund’s rebuttal to the medical discourse in the novel occurs in the two scenes surrounding the birth and sickness of her daughter, Octavia.  Even before these events, Rosamund becomes accustomed to the medical system and the ways in which she can manipulate it.  For example, she “learned what time to arrive and where to slip [her] attendance card in the pile so that [she] would get called early in the queue” and “learned to read the notes upside down in the file that said Not to be Shown to the Patient” (67).  She develops individual tactical methods in order to undermine the conventional wisdom of the medical professions about knowledge that the patient should and should not know and instead makes those decisions herself.  Later, after going to the hospital because she has experienced labour pains, the nurses tending to Rosamund begin recounting tales of their last shift in the maternity ward.  The nurses inquire “how many had been born the night before, and what had happened to the little premature one that was failing earlier in the evening” before moving on to stories of long labours, racist mothers, and the death of a mother and a baby (112).  Like the previous hospital scenes, the nurses interpret Rosamund’s pregnancy and labour from the perspective of a generic medical narrative:  “One of them said, en passant,” Rosamund recalls, “‘I’ll be really glad to get out of this ward.  I don’t really mind the babies, but the mothers are enough to give anyone the creeps’” (112).  The nurses ignore Rosamund’s point that she is about to have a baby because they believe that she has “a long time to go yet” (113).  Rosamund goes on to have the baby five minutes later.  The nurses do not offer the possibility for individual differences among mothers but believe that all birth narratives belong to the same kind of terrible experiences.  From the nurses’ perspectives, she cannot possibly be ready to deliver because of the way they read her bodily signals, a reading that turns into a misreading. 

Rosamund also disrupts their dire interpretation of her pregnancy by producing, for the first time, a voice of her own.  After hearing about the death of the mother and baby the previous night, Rosamund says “At this I could take it no longer, and I heard my voice yell, from a long way away, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, pack it in, can’t you?’” (112).  Rosamund describes the yell as having an “unnatural loudness of tone” (112).  While this yell brings the first real bit of attention that Rosamund receives from the nurses, Rosamund’s description of the comment suggests that she still has not fully gained control over her own narrative of identity.  Rosamund does not see the yell as originating within her body but rather “from a long way away,” a disembodied voice.  She still does not seem to realise her self-possession in actions but rather relies upon the nurses’ reactions to color her interpretation. 

However, Rosamund’s hesitancy changes when she has to bring Octavia to the hospital for an operation.  After enduring a long wait for Octavia to be seen, the head nurse tells Rosamund that visits are not allowed in that particular ward.  In response, Rosamund says, “I have never been good at getting what I want; every impulse in me tells me to give up at the first breath of opposition” (146–7).  However, Rosamund does not succumb to this initial reaction any longer, the reaction that the nurses expect from her.  Instead, this time, she felt that she “would not be the only one to lose; somewhere Octavia was lying around” and waiting for her.  Rosamund no longer believes that it is “a question of what [she] wanted:  this time there was someone else involved.  Life would never be a simple question of self-denial again” (147).  With this denial of self-denial, Rosamund realises that motherhood and independence are not mutually exclusive and willingly and purposefully accepts her position as Octavia’s mother.  She exhibits self-worth rather than a value or category others assign to her.  While one might argue that Octavia is an exterior source of self-possession, Octavia is, in a sense, the ultimate representation of Lockean self-possession because she is a product of Rosamund’s body.  After the head nurse begins to physically remove Rosamund from the office, she again screams as in the earlier scene, though Rosamund presents this scream differently than the first:

I screamed very loudly, shutting my eyes to do it, and listening in amazement to the deafening shindy that filled my head.  Once I had started, I could not stop; I stood there, motionless, screaming, whilst they shook me and yelled at me and told me that I was upsetting everybody in earshot.  “I don’t care,” I yelled, finding words for my inarticulate passion, “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care about anyone, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.”  (149)

Unlike the first yell, Rosamund’s scream this time is deliberate with her newfound self-possession and elicits action from the nursing staff.  When read within the context of the rest of novel, where Rosamund’s identity is based primarily in the opinions of the public, her cries of apathy allude not to her feelings about Octavia but rather to these outside opinions.  She does not care how people interpret her actions in the hospital.  Rosamund also remembers “the clearness of [her] conscience and the ferocity of [her] emotion” (149).  She is “neither one nor the other, but enduring them, and not breaking in two” (149).  Though Rosamund describes the first scream as having come from outside of her body, this scream comes at a moment when Rosamund feels most in control of her actions, her intentions, and their possible consequences, a unified experience of emotion and conscience that she has never felt previously.  After Rosamund’s doctor agrees to allow a visit with Octavia, Rosamund immediately stops screaming.  Though the medical staff believed that Rosamund was hysterical, she again shows full control over her actions, disallowing their interpretation of her actions.  Because she immediately quits screaming when the nurses allow her to see Octavia, Rosamund’s loss of composure in this instance works as an assertion of her voice and her identity as a mother.

Another way that Rosamund exhibits self-possession is her treatment, or more specifically Octavia’s treatment, of Lydia’s novel.  Lydia initially complains to Rosamund about her difficulty with developing a subject for her new novel.  After telling Rosamund about how she lost her baby by getting hit by a bus, Rosamund asks why she does not write about that experience.  Lydia replies that she “couldn’t possibly” because it is “so unconvincing.  Far too unrealistic for [her] kind of novel” (73).  Lydia further compares her story to stories found in Thomas Hardy’s Life’s Little Ironies (1894), which constructs a parallel between what has happened to Lydia’s body and a proper, believable narrative.  Lydia’s theory of narrative formation relies primarily upon public reception, upon the public’s ability to believe and accept the narrative.  Because the narrative that Lydia would write is based in her specific female bodily actions related to pregnancy, she implies that only particular narratives of the female body are proper for public reception—a monopolist viewpoint of assumptions that Lydia makes about women.  This instance expands upon Grant Allen’s assertion that men are the only ones who demonstrate this monopolist instinct about women by demonstrating the assumptions that Lydia makes about another woman’s narrative.

Rosamund later discovers that Lydia has chosen to use Rosamund’s situation as the basis for her new novel.  After reading some papers that Lydia leaves next to Rosamund’s typewriter and realising that it is Lydia’s new novel, Rosamund says, “I read the whole lot straight off, or what there was of it; it was not finished.  It was nothing more nor less than my life story, with a few minor alterations here and there, and a few interesting false assumptions amongst the alterations” (103).  Among the assumptions and alterations that Lydia adds to her version of Rosamund’s life story are Lydia’s false assumption that Joe is Octavia’s father and her incorrect representation of Rosamund’s academic discipline.  In making these changes to Rosamund’s story, Lydia assumes a monopolistic knowledge about Rosamund, down to the origin of her pregnancy.  Rosamund’s reaction, though, bespeaks a problem in Lydia’s adaptation.  Rosamund says that “it amused me to think of Lydia sitting there racking her brains trying to work out why I was having the child, and why I hadn’t got rid of it” (104). Rosamund recognises that Lydia has misread her narrative because Lydia must fit Rosamund’s story into her own conception of narrative creation so that the reading public will properly receive it.  Within the context of Rosamund and Lydia’s earlier discussion about the proper subject of novels, Lydia believes that the story does not need irony and should conform to her view of Rosamund as sexually amorous, as Joe and Roger have concluded. 

Yet Rosamund recognises the irony of her story and how it relates to her sexual inexperience.  She says, “My present predicament would certainly qualify, I thought, as one of life’s little ironies” because she is not the stereotypical 1960s woman that her friends think she is and got pregnant after her first sexual experience (74).  Later, Rosamund also takes offense at Lydia’s description of her “jigsaw mind” in her novel (105).  However, Rosamund takes this chance to “rewrite” the narrative of her relationship with Lydia.  Rosamund believes that “in those pages of typescript had been the proof that I was still the donor, she still the recipient” (106).  In this sense, Rosamund reclaims possession over her narrative by resetting the context in which it is presented; it is only through her “donation” of her narrative that Lydia creates her novel—a philanthropic action on Rosamund’s part.  Rosamund consequently remains in the position of power, rejecting Lydia’s fictionalisation of her life.  After Rosamund leaves Lydia’s door open while Lydia stays in the flat, Octavia crawls into her room, rips up many pages of the only copy of the novel, and “eats” other pages:  “‘Octavia,’ I said in horror, and she started guiltily, and looked round at me with a charming deprecating smile:  her mouth, I could see, was wedged full of wads of Lydia’s new novel” (163).  Not only does Rosamund metaphorically reclaim her identity narrative from Lydia’s monopolist instinct to capitalise upon her story, Octavia physically reclaims the story, a merging of the textual narrative of her identity and the physical body that serves as its basis.

Rosamund’s treatment of George at the end of the novel gives one final example of the development of her self-possession.  Rosamund meets George in the Chemist because she has gone out to get medicine for Octavia.  After inviting George back to her flat, Rosamund says, “Words kept forming inside my head, into phrases like I love you, George, don’t leave me, George” (189).  Instead of a positive effect, Rosamund wonders “how much damage” uttering one of those phrases would do (189).  However, one moment fully convinces her not to speak of emotions; in reference to Octavia, they say

“She’s beautiful,” said George.
“Yes, isn’t she?” I said.
But it was these words of apparent agreement that measured our hopeless distance, for he had spoken for my sake and I because it was the truth.  Love had isolated me more securely than fear, habit or indifference.  There was one thing in the world that I knew about, and that one thing was Octavia.  I had lost the taste for half-knowledge.  George, I could see, knew nothing with such certainty.  I neither envied nor pitied his indifference, for he was myself, the self that but for accident, but for fate, but for chance, but for womanhood, I would still have been.  (191)

Rosamund does not allow any passion or possible love for George to possess her.  Rosamund sees George as possessing only a “half-knowledge” of what womanhood means.  This knowledge does not rival what she understands as a complete and certain knowledge about her own identity.  This final example of self-possession highlights Rosamund’s movement from being associated with a narrative produced by an outside source to producing her own narrative of identity.

With its focus on reclaiming somatic and textual self-possession through the evocation of the New Woman, The Millstone reveals that a significant source of Drabble’s brand of neo-realism has gone without comment.  Looking at Drabble’s novel within the context of the New Woman offers a new perspective on how one of Britain’s finest writers engages with contemporary feminist issues by “looking back” at a prior form.  In doing so, Drabble herself acts like the New Woman writers Ouida and Sarah Grand by drawing from writing that, in the 1960s, was much maligned and thought to be of low quality.  Drabble took that identity from the public’s perception, adapted and re-empowered it in writing The Millstone, and published a book that sought to break down prevalent gender stereotypes during the middle of the twentieth century.

Jamie McDaniel is an Assistant Professor at Pittsburg State University where he is the Director, Technical and Professional Writing, and Editor of The CEA Forum. His specialities include Twentieth and Twenty-first century British literature, as well as Women’s writing.

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