What can we do when words fail us?
What happens when we aren’t able to find the words to express ourselves? What can we do if we simply cannot say what we want to?
If someone can’t express themselves using language, perhaps it suggests that language won’t let them say it. Perhaps what they want to say is not allowed to be said. It is taboo, not permitted by society – the words aren’t there to be spoken. Or perhaps what needs to be said is felt so acutely, so deeply, that language seems like too superficial a tool for the job. Perhaps it’s both, in which case one might resort to the following:
I started to scream. 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.’
Eventually they got me to sit down, but I went on screaming and moaning and keeping my eyes shut; through the noise I could hear things happening, people coming and going, someone slapped my face, someone tried to put a wet flannel on my head, and all the time I was thinking I must go on doing this until they let me see her. Inside my head it was red and black and very hot, I remember, and I remember also the clearness of my consciousness and the ferocity of my emotion, and myself enduring them, myself neither one nor the other, but enduring them, and not breaking in two.
This astonishing, heart-rending, passionate scream takes place at the heart of Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Rosamund Stacey, a young academic and our heroine, has had a baby, in spite of being a single woman. She suffers the indignities given to pregnant women in the sixties who were unmarried – a ‘U’ at the end of the hospital bed, being called ‘Mrs’ by the nurses as ‘a courtesy title’, and suffering people’s general puzzlement as to why she doesn’t ‘have something done about it’ instead. Rosamund, who is quiet but determined, intelligent but unworldly, and who tends to say things like ‘mildly’ and ask ‘whyever not’, somehow gets through her pregnancy and has a baby. But a few weeks later her baby has to return to hospital for an operation:
Possessed by the most fearful anguish, aware, as all must be on such occasions, that my state had changed in ten minutes from unknown bliss to known though undefined sorrow.
Thank God the operation is a success and the baby is said to be recovering well. Rosamund of course wants to go and see her daughter, but is told by the nurse that she can’t. Naturally inclined to do anything at all rather than make a fuss or cause trouble, she eventually agrees to go away, but is ‘out in the corridor before I heard her saying that perhaps in a fortnight or so I might be able to visit.’ Rosamund cannot bear to endure the separation from her baby, in part for herself, but moreover because of the thought of ‘my baby’s small lonely awakening’. She returns to the hospital and insists on seeing her baby, refusing to go away, or be pushed out the door, repeating again and again that she ‘must see’ her baby. Eventually, words evidently failing her, she resorts to this scream. It is made all the more powerful by Rosamund’s quietness, mildness, awkward shyness up to this point. It must be something truly awful to have made her resort to this.
I went to hear Margaret Drabble give a talk last week about women and the novel. She spoke about how she thought of writing as means of ‘creating a future’. I’ve so often thought of that all-too-common piece of advice to write about what you know, to use your experiences, i.e. your past, to inform your writing. I felt very inspired by Drabble’s idea to use writing as a tool to shape the future. Fiction, she said, could be a means of exploring the ‘frontiers and future of female experience’. Yes!
Claire Tomalin wrote that Drabble ‘is one of the few modern novelists who has actually changed government policy, by what she wrote in The Millstone about visiting children in hospital’. Now, thanks in part to Drabble, mothers will never have to scream like Rosamund in order to see their babies. To push at this frontier of experience, Drabble came to the frontier of language; she had to channel ‘inarticulate passion’, the base wordless power of a scream, to achieve change. Society had not allowed her words ‘I’ve come to see my baby’ to be heard or recognised. Only after Rosamund’s unforgettable scream could that bit of language function correctly.
The Millstone is a brilliant novel. It is compelling and deeply affecting, and its power is nicely set off by moments of humour, wry observation, and dry wit. It’s not often in literature that you come across a great and inspiring mother. All too often they’re awful, or dead (see this post I wrote for the Spectator last year on just this subject). With Mother’s Day this coming Sunday, I can’t think of a better novel to read about an unlikely and thoroughly heroic mum.