Philip Hensher

Real and imagined parents

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

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.

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