On Doris Lessing

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.

19 thoughts on “On Doris Lessing

  1. A few months ago, in a overly optimistic trip to the library, I checked out a large number of books. One was Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing. I found it while simply browsing the stacks; I noticed that our little library had an unusually high number of books by Lessing (I’m lucky if I find two or three of anything by the same author – most must be ordered.) I read something you’d written about Lessing before, and so I recognized her name; but, I hadn’t heard of her before. Anyway, renewed it once, and had to finally return it unread. I’m sorry now. I’m going back to the library to re-borrow it, many thanks to you. Your post really makes me excitedly determined to get acquainted with this author.

  2. Oh, I love Doris Lessing!The early stuff, the Martha Quest books, The Golden Notebook… Can’t wait to read your thoughts on MQ. Am now officially on the lookout for that autobiography; amazing the power of the creative drive to overcome experiences–and make art from them–that would paralyze lesser mortals. If she had had “more skins” would she have become “Doris Lessing”? Thank you for this.

  3. That’s fascinating, Litlove. Poor kid! Being underfed and underloved is enough explanation. Luckily for her she ended up in an environment that nourished her mind at least.

  4. The only Lessing book I’ve read was Alfred and Emily, which was well-written and somewhat interesting but felt incomplete. I can see from your review that Under the Skin would have been the better book to start with (although I just saw On Cats in the latest Bas Bleu catalog, and it looks awfully tempting).

  5. I know several people who cite The Golden Notebook as their all-time favourite book, and I’ve been meaning to read it for a while now, even more so having read this fabulous post. This makes for fascinating reading, Litlove, and it’s great writing to boot. I loved it. I think a parent’s glee at any element of their own child’s distress is so telling of deep and lasting rupture – I don’t think any child forgets those instances of what’s really a subtle cruelty.

  6. I’ve wanted to read “The Golden Notebook” for a while but now I’m debating which I should read first, the autobiography or the novels. A conundrum, to say the least.

  7. I haven’t read any Lessing, I’m ashamed to say. Your lovely writing here makes me want to read your book first, and then tackle her work. Really amazing writing, Litlove!

  8. Wow, poor Lessing. it’s no wonder she hates her mother after a childhood like that! I’m glad she survived it though and turned into a very fine writer.

  9. ‘from her earliest awareness of her inner emotions, she found herself in a fugue state, escaping, escaping from a bleak and dissatisfying world’.

    Oh my god, that rings so many bells with me. She’s describing my absolutely most primal memory of childhood experience, this ‘fugue state’, which started very early, at two or three years old, in the face of an emotionally powerful and hostile mother. And I have often felt that I seem to be as damaged as many who can point to more obvious physical or sexual trauma, though hardly dared to say it, except to myself.

    I’m a huge fan of Doris Lessing, especially Martha Quest and The Golden Notebook, and have read almost everything she’s written, but not her autobiography. I’m about to do so. I’m ordering it now.

  10. Hi, LL, This was quite the entry. I thought about speed reading it (it’s very very late) but couldn’t. I had to read every word.

    Is there a synchronicity among many of us blog-reader-writers? I ask because I opened your blog to find this whole thing on the amazing Ms Lessing when indeed, only three nights ago, I began reading THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK. Very cool.

    You have shed some light already on the book which is going to take quite some time to read, also given the fact that I read more than one book at a time, but I must say thanks for this.

    And how different the times in raising children, really. There are so many out there of all ages,I guess, who could use the hugs and smiles they never got. It makes us kinder to know this.

    This is a fine entry.

  11. Hey Litlove, unrelated to Doris Lessing, but highly relevant to a past post, I saw a film you might like on DVD last night: it’s called The Cup, and it’s just charming. A real delight, impossible to dislike. Tibetan monks exiled in India following the soccer World Cup… a surprise treat.

  12. Grad – I’m delighted to think you plucked a book out of the library because you’d read about it here! How wonderful! If you get the chance, though, I’d choose Under My Skin, the first volume of her memoirs, rather than Alfred and Emily, although the latter is good and worth reading. And I also recommend Martha Quest or Love, Again. But there are lots of hers I haven’t read that I really must get to. I have a very high regard for her work.

    ds – I really love her work, too, and writing about her has only made me want to read more. She is a strange combination of toughness and sensitivity, but I’m sure the lack of skins in childhood set her off on a creative career. I’d love to know what you think of the autobiography if you get hold of it.

    Lilian – I can assure you that she paid her parents back in adolescence for their early crimes of lack of affection! But it’s quite a story and I’ve only picked out bits of it. She writes about Africa with such verve and passion, though. I love that about her work.

    Teresa – definitely go for that first volume of autobiography. Alfred and Emily is ultimately fragmented, a supplement. Or else try her fiction, most of which is wonderful.

    Di – I remember reading The Golden Notebook years and years ago, and it was an experience. Lessing is class. Thank you so much for your kind words – you know how that first proper draft feels, and I’m very grateful for the encouragement!

    Biblibio – that’s a tricky one. I can only say, rather wimpishly, that both are good. I thought Under My Skin was fabulous, but I found the novels like Martha Quest, Love, Again, The Golden Notebook and The Fifth Child were also very, very good. I would love to know what you make of her.

    Courtney – oh big hugs to you! Thank you so very much for that. I think you’d like Lessing and would love to know what you make of her if you do read her.

    Stefanie – she did survive and got very good at looking out for herself in later life. She was pretty constant in disliking her mother, though, right to the end!

    Jean – I really would love to know what you think of it. I can see that first volume of autobiography holds much that would interest and engage you. If you fancy chatting about it once you’ve read it, do email me.

    oh – now you are also in line for a big virtual hug! Thank you so much for this lovely comment. I feel very encouraged. I often think there is a magical synchronicity at work in the blogworld – so many times I run across blogging friends reading novels I am about to pick up myself. I would love to know what you make of The Golden Notebook. I read it years ago and admired it greatly. I’d love to read a review now and have it all brought back to my mind. And thank you again for your kind words – I am very grateful for them!

    Di – that’s so kind of you to think of me! Thank you! I’ll certainly see if I can get hold of it.

    Smithereens – lol! I wouldn’t recommend potty training from birth by any means! 🙂 I love Lessing; she is so direct and so strong in her voice. I’d love to know what you think of her if you get to read her (if Baby Smithereens is prepared to give you a little quiet time!).

  13. What a childhood! I’ve been meaning to read Lessing for a long time now, and one day I swear I’ll get to The Golden Notebook. It’s fascinating reading a bit about her life.

  14. I am such a fan of Lessing’s fiction, but have never read any of her autobiography or any biography about her. I can see this is a mistake. What great material for your motherhood book, Litlove!

  15. What a fascinating woman and a wonderful post. I’ve never read Lessing either, but the one book I do own by her is Martha Quest, which now I really must dig out. You wonder if she would have turned into the writer she is had she had a more nurturing childhood?

  16. I’m so glad that you’re focusing on Lessing in your motherhood and creativity book since she’s so interesting. I also have to add that my brother was at univeristy with her grand-daughter. Very interesting family history since I’m pretty sure Lessing left her own children at a fairly young age, partly so that she could write.

  17. Signing in late to say I’ve just started Under My Skin and am loving it. I’ve read a lot of Lessing over the years and this is a fascinating way to read the mind behind those books. I was also at university with her grand-daughter (would I know your brother, Pete?) and while there was family pride in her achievements, there was also a certain amount of bitterness about the early desertion.

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