Alfred & Emily–Doris Lessing (2008)

I came to Doris Lessing’s final book, the genre-defying Alfred & Emily, through Roberta Rubenstein’s consideration of it in her recent book Literary Half-Lives. Rubenstein rightly praises the generosity of its depiction of Lessing’s parents, who, in their different ways, made so much trouble for her in life. Alfred & Emily (shelved in the biography section of my local library) includes a novella-length treatment of what her parents’ lives might have been like had WWI not happened, and had they not married, as well as a series of little essays, vignettes really, about different aspects of Lessing’s childhood. There are also pages of intriguing family photos to pore over. But the vignettes and photos are ancillary to the novella or whatever it is—counterfactual biography, perhaps? Its power stems from the blow it deals to its author’s narcissism. To write about one’s parents as they might have been but were not is to imagine a world in which one couldn’t have appeared. Perhaps only someone at end of a long, productive life—Lessing was 89 when the book was published—could have the equanimity needed to efface herself so thoroughly.

It helps, perhaps, that Lessing has documented her life extensively elsewhere. She wrote two volumes of autobiography and miscellaneous bits of autobiographical writings (Going Home (1957) is particularly interesting). In the five-volume Children of Violence series Lessing worked through her relationship to her parents, especially her mother. The facts, briefly, are these: her father, Alfred Tayler, was badly wounded just before the battle of Passchendaele and met her mother, Emily McVeigh, in hospital in England where she nursed him after his leg had to be amputated. After the war the young couple moved to Persia, where Lessing was born, and then in 1925 to Rhodesia, where her father pursued his life-long dream of becoming a farmer, with very middling results, and her mother wilted and hardened in the absence of the cultured, convivial surroundings she considered her due.

Twice in Alfred & Emily, Lessing presents the Great War as the great trauma in her life, even though it happened before she was born. The first time, the war is a malevolent, threatening blot:

That war, the Great War, the war that would end all war, squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I am, still trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.

The tone here is angry, the irony bitter, the spirit fighting—these are the notes we hear over and over again in Lessing’s remarkable oeuvre. (And the qualities that connect her to the writer that was most important to her as a child, D. H. Lawrence.)

The second time, the war is just as inescapable, but Lessing’s response to it is more embittered:

I think my father’s rage at the Trenches took me over, when I was very young, and has never left me. Do children feel their parents’ emotions? Yes, we do, and it is a legacy I could have done without. What is the use of it? It is as if that old war is in my memory, my own consciousness.

What touches me most in this passage is not the unnatural burden of a child taking on her father’s pain, but that little shift to first person plural in the third sentence. (Here, as so often, grammar creates pathos.) Lessing asks, Do children feel their parents’ emotions? I expect the answer to be: Yes, they do. No matter how many times I read it, that we catches me off guard. It makes the rather abstract claim about what the psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok call trans-generational haunting as visceral as a sob in the throat. It makes us feel that Lessing still is that child.

None of us ever escapes the child we once were. But if we are lucky we learn what our adult self can do to make the child inside feel safe enough that it no longer need act out its anxieties and insecurities. That makes our lives easier on our loved ones and ourselves. In Alfred & Emily Lessing is done fighting with her parents through herself. She has realized that their problems were not hers. In the process she releases herself, and, posthumously, them too. She gives them the gift of imagined, happier lives. At the end of a short introduction, she writes: “I hope they would approve the lives I have given them.” Surely they would, not least because of the surprising twists their lives, and the world they live in, take in Lessing’s telling.

The fictional Alfred and Emily are connected not through marriage but through a shared maternal figure, Mrs. Lane. Emily is a friend of Mrs. Lane’s daughter Daisy. Emily and Daisy leave their village in Sussex to train as nurses at the Royal Free hospital in London. The decision is particularly consequential for Emily: her distant father disinherits her because he believes nursing is beneath her. In the years to come, Emily will return to Mrs. Lane, and her cozy home, whenever she feels overwhelmed. Alfred is a kind of adopted son to Mrs. Lane; she has taken him under her wing as compensation for his own mother’s obvious lack of interest in him. Alfred apprentices to a local farming family, the Redways; he is a friend of their son Bert, a moody, difficult young man with a tendency to drink.

The world of these Edwardian years (we can’t say pre-war, since war never comes, at least not the Great War) is the world of Lawrence’s early fiction, The White Peacock, Sons and Lovers, even bits of The Rainbow. It’s a world in which town and country are not readily separated, a world in which communal agricultural labour is important even to those who don’t dedicate their lives to it, a world in which young people thing nothing of walking or cycling five miles to a dance. (I’m fascinated by how much walking people used to do. It’s nothing for Paul Morel, in Sons and Lovers, to walk several miles to the Leivers’s farm nightly. Lawrence’s letters are filled with invitations to friends to visit him and Frieda in whatever isolated place they happened to be living, always with cheery instructions about how he will meet them at the station to walk the four miles home for tea.)

At one point it seems as though Alfred might settle down with Daisy. But then he meets Betsy, an outgoing and nurturing woman even more like Mrs. Lane than Daisy is. Alfred, helped by Betsy, tends to Bert, who manages a shaky recovery from the alcoholism he has begun to slide into; throughout Alfred continues to manage the Redways farm which everyone assumes Alfred will inherit on the sickly Bert’s death.

Emily, meanwhile, rises through the nursing ranks to become Head Sister. She marries a doctor, the respected but desiccated and thoroughly conventional William Martin-White. (In real life, Lessing’s mother’s first, great love had been a doctor who drowned at sea.) She is saved from the life of glittering society woman that she helplessly pours herself into, since she can no longer work once she is married, by her husband’s sudden death. Thanks to the efforts of a sympathetic nephew, a lawyer, Emily sets up and manages a charitable trust that runs schools for poor children. She meets a Scotsman whom she nurses when he falls ill with cancer, realizing only after his death how much he loved her. A controversy over a pregnant unmarried teacher at one of her schools, in Alfred’s village, leads her to set up refuges for unmarried mothers. Alfred and Emily occasionally run into each other; they respect each other. But they are not important to each other. A postscript tells us that Alfred Tayler lived to a great age while Emily McVeah died at age 73 when some boys she remonstrated for tormenting a dog attacked her.

It’s a funny little book. A bit rough and ready, a bit abrupt. But it stays with you. I’ve mentioned Lawrence as a literary influence. But another influence is more important, especially in the second half: Virginia Woolf, especially the Woolf of Three Guineas (1938). That intricate work, perhaps Woolf’s most interesting, attacks, among other things, militarism, patriarchy, and exclusionary models of education. It criticizes the fascism it sees ascendant not just in Italy and Germany but at home in England too. But its criticism of violence and aggression is accompanied by its clear-eyed recognition of the persistence, perhaps even inevitability, of those instincts.

Thus, although England never goes to war in Lessing’s alternate history, war is never far away. There is a longstanding conflict between Turkey and Serbia that young people in England take violent sides in. (Allegiances are displayed through differences in hair styles and clothing; supporters of one side frequently attack those of the other.) With the entry of women into the workforce, many young men find themselves without an obvious place in society. Many travel abroad to fight as mercenaries, including Alfred’s two eldest sons. Those who have been spared a war claim to miss it. As Alfred puts it,

“‘This is a silly, pettifogging little country, and we’re so pleased with ourselves because we’ve kept out of a war. But if you ask me I think a war would do us all the good in the world. Were soft and rotten, like a pear that’s gone past it’s best.’”

Given Lessing’s description of how the Great War ruined her father, this is an ironic speech to say the least. But Lessing doesn’t condescend to her father. She pays discrete homage to the man who spent much of his life obsessed with the war, partly in rage at how callously his generation was destroyed, but partly in the certainty that nothing so exciting would ever happen to him again. Like Woolf, Lessing hates war, especially the way its dehumanization snakes across society. But also like Woolf she respects the power of the aggression that fuels war. By recognizing the power of war, violence, and aggression, Lessing gives us something more than a mere fantasy of reparation, in which everything that was bad in real life is made good. (I’m struck by how Jo Walton uses war in a similar way in her recent novel about counterfactual lives and world histories, My Real Children.) After all, no matter how difficult her childhood was—and it was pretty difficult, with a sick, disaffected father and a disillusioned, spiteful mother—it’s still the only one she ever had, and there had to have been value in it, too. Another way to say what I mean is that although Lessing no longer needs to settle any scores with her parents her literary preoccupations haven’t changed. She is still fascinated by the double-edged qualities of violence and power, the way they break things (especially women’s lives) but also the way they make things (especially women’s lives). Her books are remarkable studies of this ambivalence; The Good Terrorist (1985) is maybe the best.

I’m glad to have read this strange, generous, and wise little book. But I’m also glad that even though it was Lessing’s last, it’s not mine. There are still lots of her books for me to enjoy.

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