Philip Hensher

Real and imagined parents

Philip Hensher on Doris Lessing's account of her parents' lives

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Alfred and Emily

Doris Lessing

Fourth Estate, pp. 273, £

There are now two full columns of entries on the ‘Also by Doris Lessing’ page — 58 separate books. Along with work of an entirely fantastical, invented variety there is a good body of her work which shades off, in calibrated degrees, from the realist and directly observed novel, towards the autobiographical fiction, and into autobiography proper.

The urge to give an account of her own life has been a constant incentive from the Children of Violence sequence which begins with Martha Quest. There are, too, novels such as the recent, excellent The Sweetest Dream where we are invited to consider an autobiographical component, as well as two volumes of formal autobiography. All the same, she has never written a book much like Alfred and Emily. I can’t think of anyone else who has, either.

It is an account of her parents’ lives, divided into two. In the first half, billed as ‘a novella’, Alfred and Emily meet but do not marry. Emily’s husband, William, a rich doctor, dies early, leaving her to good works; Alfred lives on into old age. There is a dreamlike quality to the novella which the reader may initially find it hard to put his finger on, without the demure sentence on the introductory page: ‘I have tried to give them lives as they might have been if there had been no World War One.’

In reality, Alfred and Emily’s lives were torn apart by the Great War. Alfred lost a leg in the trenches and developed diabetes, towards the end of his life begging to be put down like a sick horse. Emily’s doctor drowned in the Channel. There is one curious, inevitable missing fact about the account of their lives in the first half which seems almost too obvious to point out; there is no Doris. The second half introduces Doris into a fragmented, furious account of her family’s real life in Persia and Rhodesia after the war. If the first half is speculative and disconcertingly dreamlike, the second is like a bomb going off. ‘I hated my mother,’ she says. ‘I can remember that emotion from the start.’

It seems an extraordinary, almost inconceivable life now. Probably nowhere in the world is now as remote and cut off as rural Rhodesia was in Lessing’s childhood. In her account, her parents went there for no better reason than, on leave from Persia in London, they visited the Empire Exhibition at Wembley.

And the Southern Rhodesian stall had great mealie cobs, and the invitation ‘Get rich on maize.’ Do you mean to say those idiots believed a slogan on a stall at an exhibition? But many idiots did . . .

Utterly unprepared, their life is beautifully caught in a series of novelistic images; the trunk full of evening dresses, garden- party dresses, tea gowns which, decades later, Emily’s daughter Doris unpacks, every one unworn and wrecked by moths, or the pet cow which Doris raises, like her own talent, until it takes to forcing its way from the veldt into her bedroom, half-grown. It is — an odd, Lessing- like combination — both furious and relaxed, like a recorded rant by a masterly talker.

The second half is worth the price of admission, though the first, speculative half shows some flagging of energy. I don’t think the consequences, both for Europe and for the characters, of there being no Great War are quite sufficiently explored. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires are still said to fall on cue, and there is no Spanish influenza outbreak. Whether the political upheavals of the 1920s, particularly the emancipation of women, would have proceeded in anything like the same way is difficult to envisage. Perhaps Lessing’s point, merely adumbrated, is that the long Edwardian afternoon would have entailed a continuation of the great Edwardian philanthropy, otherwise brutally curtailed.

Not many of Lessing’s books are anything but instantly engaging, in the political as well as the buttonholing sense. In this one, she explores the conviction that ‘between the clever, foresightful people of this world and the ones without imagination there is a gulf into which perhaps we will all fall one day.’ When there is no alternative there to be worth imagining, Alfred and Emily sadly suggests, the unshadowed result in lives may be usefulness, and perhaps even happiness.