Posts Tagged ‘Mother’s Day’

The Millstone

March 4, 2013

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.

The Queen of the Night

March 19, 2012

I do hope that none of you forgot it was Mother’s Day yesterday. Last week, appropriately enough, I spent a little while thinking about mothers in literature for the Spectator. It transpires that good mothers in books are few and far between. However tricky your mum, she’ll seem a treat after considering the likes of Medea and Mrs Bennett.

These ponderings about literary mums were buzzing around at the back of my head, when I went to see my younger brother-in-law conduct a very impressive student production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the weekend. This was actually my second Mozart experience of the week. The first was during an MRI scan, when I spent a peculiar sci-fi half-hour in a tunnel having my protons very noisily magnetically aligned, while Mozart was played to me on huge noise-cancelling headphones.

I hate admitting to this, but I really don’t like Mozart. Not quite as bad as Haydn, who I really can’t stand, but still too twiddly and fiddly for me. Give me some meaty Beethoven any day. When the MRI lady asked what music I wanted to listen to, I said classical please; she then said, what sort of classical, I said, oh any sort. She suggested Bach. I said perfect. So there I was, in the tunnel, having been told not to move at all, worrying that I was breathing too vigorously, the weird drilling sound of the magnets began and one of Mozart’s piano concertos twiddled into action. Bonus, I thought. As if it could have got any worse. But I did find myself wondering if it could ever have occurred to Mozart that a couple of hundred years after his death his music would be played in such a deeply weird situation.

For me, Mozart operas are the exceptions that prove the rule. I absolutely love them. All the silly trilly bits that I find so annoying in his other music, no longer sound twee and fiddly, just wonderful and fun and even quite beautiful.

The Magic Flute was a far more pleasurable Mozart experience than my MRI scan. Although, after the MRI scan I was left with some far-out pictures of my wonky spine, whereas The Magic Flute just left my spine feeling distinctly tingly. My favourite arias from the opera have always been the fun and silly Pa-pa-pa-pa, pa-pa-pa-pa one sung by Papageno and Papagena towards the end, and the wonderfully melodramatic Queen of the Night one, ‘Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart’. Here is Diana Damrau singing the latter:

I bet now your spine’s tingling too.

The Queen of the Night is really an amazing lady. She is undoubtedly my favourite literary (or operatic) mother. First of all, she enters with thunder and lightening. Here is a picture of the set design for her arrival from an 1815 production.

Pretty impressive.

Her first aria is almost as wonderful as her second. Here’s Natalie Dessay:

Within five minutes, she manages to get a man under her control and sends him off to rescue her kidnapped, beautiful daughter. Just like that, the Queen of the Night has set her daughter up with a Prince. Mrs Bennett, touché.

Then, via her three ladies, she gives Prince Tamino the magic flute of the title, which enchants and brings happiness to anyone who hears it. She also gives Papageno, the bird catcher, the silver bells which will end up saving his life more than once. So far, so perfect. She is the bestower of magical gifts. She sets the plot in action. She gets her daughter a princely husband. Really, a bloody wonderful mum.

But everything becomes more complicated once Sarastro comes on the scene. Suddenly, the Queen of the Night is cast into shadow, she is just ‘Ein Weib tut wenig, plaudert viel’ – a woman who does little and chatters much. Chatter! Definitely the wrong word for that incredibly striking aria.

Now we’ve reached the bit of the opera which can drag a little. Here is all the Masonic stuff, where everything is about the number three, and Tamino has to go through various (well, three) tests in order to prove himself worthy of Pamina and a successor to Sorastro. When Pamina asks to be freed and go back to her mother, Sorastro says she can’t because her mother is ‘stolzes’ – proud, and that:

Ein Mann muß eure Herzen leiten,

Denn ohne ihn pflegt jedes Weib

Aus ihrem Wirkungskreis zu schreiten.

A man must lead your hearts

For without him every woman is

misguided to step out of her sphere.

Hummm… not really the view of the minute is it? Do we really believe that Sarastro has kidnapped Pamina just so a man can rescue her? This bit of plot feels very problematic to me. I remain unconvinced of Sarastro’s goodness and very reluctant to see the Queen of the Night cast as a villain. But anyway, on it plods…

AND THEN … The Queen of the Night reappears with her infamous aria, in which she commands Pamina to murder Sarastro. Clearly she’s as fed up with his misogynistic waffle as I am! If only Pamina would agree to murder him, then it would be a far more exciting opera. But she refuses. Poor old Queen of the Night has well and truly lost her daughter. She will reappear again at the very end in a last ditch attempt to storm Sarastro’s temple, but fails and is cast out to the night. Perhaps she can at least console herself that she’s succeeded with her match-making and that Tamino and Pamina will live happily ever after.

Whether we see her as good or bad, the Queen of the Night is certainly one of the most demanding parts ever written for a soprano. Mozart originally wrote the part for his sister-in-law Josepha Hofer, who was known for her incredible voice. It’s the part with the best arias, the part for the best voice. The Queen of the Night – if she has the talent – will always steal the show.

Perhaps it was with this good-bad ambivalence in mind that Whitney Houston (R.I.P.) reimagined the Queen of the Night in her epic eighties hit of the same name.

As she puts it, ‘Don’t make no difference if I’m wrong or I’m right’. Who cares if she’s good or bad!? She is the Queen of the Night and has ‘got more than enough to make you drop to your knees’. Really this is the important thing. She’s the most impressive character, the one you come away remembering.

The Queen of the Night is by far and away the coolest literary mother. Only thing is, she might be a bit of a tough act to follow.