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Alfred and Emily, by Doris Lessing.

November 23, 2012

Alfred and Emily, by Doris May Lessing. New York, NY : Harper, c2008.

Lessing’s memoir about her parents, in fiction and as she remembers them.

In her nineties, Doris Lessing, was still trying to understand her parents, Alfred and Emily.  For her understanding them meant writing about them. First she imagined a narrative about who they might have been if both their lives had not been damaged by World War I.  Never marrying, they move at the edges of each other’s lives each finding a measure of satisfaction along side unfulfilled longings.  This story constitutes the first half of Alfred and Emily.  It is a pleasant story, it was not a deep and conflicted one.  Simply make-believe.  As I read it, I wondered if the Noble Prize winner had disappeared.

The second half of the book is very different, consisting of a series of short autobiographical accounts by Lessing about the parents she knew and other aspects of her childhood in Southern Rhodesia.  As I shifted into reading them, I immediately had a sense of more immediacy and depth.  Here Lessing was again writing as I remembered her from The Golden Notebook and her other books.  Here she is dealing, as she has always done so well, with the complexities and contradictions of real human beings.

In these short pieces Lessing tries to capture her parents and the lives they actually lived.  She tells of her father, a fine cricket player and dancer who lost a leg in World War I, but was determined to live fully despite his nightmares of dead friends.  Her mother’s war loss was less obvious, but equally debilitating.  The man she had loved had died, and she had spent the war nursing dying soldiers.  Yet, according to Lessing, her mother was an exceptional, multifaceted women; efficient, outgoing, and ambitious for herself and later for her resisting daughter.  The family had come to Rhodesia to farm on land given to British veterans. They had few resources and no idea how to succeed at farming.  Isolated from people like herself and the pleasures of London, Lessing’s mother broke down and lost some of who she she had been.  Despite Lessing’s anger at her mother’s attempts to run her life, as told in Martha Quest, she felt sorry for her.  She understood her mother’s deep disappointment with their lives in Africa and realizes how little she knew her.

For a long time, I knew that I had never known my father, as he really was, before the war, but it took me years to see that I hadn’t known my mother, as she really was, either.  The real Emily McVeagh was an educator who told stories and bought me books. That is how I want to remember her.

Other accounts in Alfred and Emily are Lessing’s remembrances of the African land as it had been.  Returning to the farm where her family had lived for ten years, she describes the house as now only a pile of dirt and the huge, distinguishing tree gone.  She writes of the people living on the land not believing there had once been a house and a tree there, and she feels a sense of history “being unmade, the past forsworn.”  The insects and the good freshly-grown food they ate also merit description.  Here, as in her novels set in South Africa, she recounts what it was like to live there on an isolated farm or town during and after World War II.

I recommend Alfred and Emily to all who love Lessing and to anyone interested in the relations within a family and the impact of war on personal life.

2 Comments leave one →
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