Ages ago I promised a review of Martha Quest, and in the meantime, I read Lessing’s first volume of autobiography, Under My Skin. All you need to know is that both books are wonderful, and the memoir is exceptionally good. I advise you to read her. Really, I’d say more but I’ve been writing so much about Lessing for the motherhood book that I can’t think straight about her any more. Here instead is a little extract from what I’ve been working on:
You don’t have to read very many of Doris Lessing’s books to realize that she really hated her mother. Lessing’s is a particularly fascinating story of flawed parenting because its surface lacks the sort of dramatic events that we have come to associate with developmental disaster. She came from an ostensibly united family, with pioneering parents and a brother she loved; she enjoyed a colonial upbringing that provided the delights of nature in the brutal beauty of Africa. There were no red-flagged disasters, no incidents of violence, no abuses of alcohol or drugs, no early deaths or sexual peccadilloes. Her mother cared for the children, worried over them, spoke of love. Despite the absence of the sort of events that would justify her, even in the knowledge that what she wrote could be seen as distasteful and ungrateful, Lessing claimed that her childhood had left her ‘one of the walking wounded’, for she believed ‘that some psychological pressures, even well-meant ones, are as damaging as physical hurt’. She knew this because from her earliest awareness of her inner emotions, she found herself in a fugue state, escaping, escaping from a bleak and dissatisfying world. There were many delights in her childhood, Lessing acknowledged it readily, but darkness dominated, the misery of childhood that cuts to the quick and seems to last an eternity.
Doris Lessing was born in 1919 to the dispirited aftermath of the First World War. Her mother, Sister Emily MacVeigh of the Royal Free, nursed Alfred Tayler back to health after he had lost a leg, his optimistic resilience and half his mind in the trenches. When her own true love went down with his ship, it seemed that a compromise marriage bargain was struck. Neither could have the life they wanted, and so they determined to make do with the collected burden of their disappointments. It may have had the advantage of solidarity, an understanding of a shared history that they would never then need to explain, but it was also a gesture of hopelessness. Unable to bear his disillusionment with Britain and what it had done to him, Alfred Tayler took his family overseas, first to Tehran in Persia, where he worked in a bank and where Doris and her brother, Harry, were born.
Despite her mother’s much repeated protests that it was children who had ruined her life, Persia and its round of colonial parties with the ‘right sort’ of people was a great success for her. But Lessing’s earliest memories were of slouching against her father’s wooden leg and hearing herself relentlessly discussed by her mother, how difficult and naughty she was, how she brought her mother low, made her life a misery. Her baby brother, by contrast, was the adored one, the special one. To the cross, elderly nursemaid, she would say “Bébé is my child, madame. Doris is not my child. Doris is your child. But Bébé is mine.” It was a psychologically unsophisticated age, but one still wonders what drives a woman to tell her own daughter that she wanted a boy, was distressed to produce a girl and such a difficult one at that. It was the age of Truby King, in which disciplining the child was all that counted, letting it know from its dawning consciousness who was the boss. Lessing never forgot her mother’s gleefully recounted tales of how she had nearly starved her daughter on a rigid three-hour feeding regime that failed to take into account the thinness of Persian milk. And then the potty training was something else again; from birth, Doris and her brother were held over the pot at regular intervals. This obsession with regulating children, particularly concerning fundamental bodily needs, seems to smack of an anxious desire for order and control in an infant world where such things are near impossible. But it is also an exertion of authority that is excessive, as if the mess made by tiny people loomed so large in Emily Tayler’s mind that only the most rigorous acts of governance might rescue her from it.
Their time in Persia ended and the family returned overland by train to England. Mrs Tayler thought a train journey through Russia would protect the children from the heat of the Red Sea, but as so often in her life, she had no idea what she was letting the family in for. ‘If I’d only known!’ was her regular cry. It was 1924 and they were one of the first European travelers allowed into Russia in the wake of the same Bolshevik revolution that had sent Tamara de Lempicke’s family scurrying to safe exile in France. The poverty was appalling. The train was filthy; mice ran over their feet and the beds were spotted with blood from previous unfortunates, bitten by lice. They were afraid to drink the water because of typhus and there was no food on the train. Alfred Tayler, dogged throughout his post-war life with ill health, had taken to his bunk with the ‘flu that was currently terrifying Europe and his wife was obliged to descend at every station in the hope of buying hard-boiled eggs or a scrap of bread. Inevitably, on one occasion the train set off again without her, and the children endured three hungry days with their helpless father. And yet she did miraculously manage to catch up with them, despite not possessing a word of Russian. It was classic behaviour from Doris’s parents; the fascination with flirting with disaster that was coupled by a curious, stubborn heroism.
After a few months in dreary England, Alfred Tayler went to the Empire Exhibition and was seduced by the thought of farming in Southern Rhodesia. With the same kind of ill-prepared impulsiveness that put them on a train through Russia, they sailed to Cape Town. Doris’s mother was in her element. For all that she had the outer trappings of a social butterfly, they imperfectly concealed the heart of a Visigoth, and she consorted merrily with the Captain in rough weather, while her husband spent the trip laid low by seasickness. When they crossed the equator, Doris was thrown overboard by the crew in a gesture of good, boisterous fun, of the kind that very rarely amuses its victim. If her parent’s grinding misery often got her down, then their jolly high spirits seemed even worse.
‘If my mother’s daughter had been like her, of the same substance, everything would have gone well,’ Lessing wrote. ‘But it was her misfortune to have an over-sensitive, always observant and judging, battling, impressionable, hungry-for-love child. With not one, but several, skins too few.’ You could match those adjectives up in a different order and find a solution; had that sensitivity been met with more love and more understanding, it’s quite possible that she would have grown the extra skins she needed in time. But with the advanced survival instinct of the child, Doris could sense the caprice that cloaked her parent’s schemes, their gung-ho readiness to throw themselves, unprepared and unwisely, into ever worse situations. The farm in Rhodesia would mark a zenith of this kind of impulse. But when they finally reached their destination, fifteen thousand acres of African emptiness, her impressionable sensitivity was given the gift of an extraordinary landscape to work on. The spiraling horns of a koodoo, the glistening green slither of a snake, anthills for shade, great armfuls of rich, red tomatoes for soup, hens to care for and butter to churn, beetles and chameleons, thick red soil churned by the monsoon rains, and always the strange tales of the people in her vicinity, other poor white farmers, endlessly confronting poverty, learning to make do, struggling with bad marriages. And as a permanent backdrop to whatever colonial drama was playing itself out, there was always the uncomfortable relations between black and white that struck the observant Doris and awakened the earliest stirrings of political rebellion in her. It was an amazing context in which to foster the imagination of a fledgling writer.