Unwritten Novels

Doris Lessing

I like to imagine that I am reading a piece headed ‘Unwritten Novels’:

Just sent for review, a parcel of reprints of neglected Victorian novels, each of unique interest and illuminating, as only literature can, areas of 19th-century life known hitherto only to historians. (It was a historian who said: ‘It is to the glory of the novelists, and the shame of the historians, that it is the former who have written the novels which present the past to the common reader.’) John Mercury is an exciting tale about those men who, risking transportation and prison, smuggled on carts and mail coaches, then up and down the railways, batches of pamphlets, broadsheets, newsheets, all clandestinely printed or copied out by hand – the ‘alternative press’ of those days, a 19th-century English samizdat – about the lives and conditions of workers and their families, their aspirations for a better life. The New Jerusalem Maker is a psychological novel about a group of Chartists who live for the future, their own present comfort neglected, in an intense interaction, inspired by the fumey influences of Shelley, Byron and Blake. The charismatic Charles Hoop, orator and visionary, compels men, women and children into his orbit, not always to their benefit. Dame Betty: Her School tells how the widow of an Army captain, left destitute, taught the neighbours’ children in her tiny cottage in Spitalfields. The story is written by one of her pupils, a grown woman, when this and similar schools were closed in favour of compulsory state education. The room where the children – many of whom turned out to be remarkable – were taught was described in the inspector’s report as ‘damp, insanitary and ill-equipped.’ The Shadow Running. This country was host to revolutionaries from all over Europe, always on the move, outwitting the Police and Home Office spies, smuggling letters, pamphlets, instructions. This shadow world of intrigue and passion (revolution was ever a begetter of sexual intensity) and the type of person who later, with the coming of ‘the media’ would be terrorists, will be found instructive by the authorities even now. This novel foreshadows Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Not to be missed. Divas of the Divan, based on an exchange of letters between Florence Nightingale’s doctor and the explorer Isabella Bird’s doctors, throws light on how clever women suffering from the miseries and frustrations of middle-class Victorian life used invalidism, often consciously, but even more interestingly, unconsciously, to protect their vulnerabilities and nurse their talents; ‘The Psychopathology of the Sofa’ is the subtitle. A Butterfly Under a Stone by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She and her sisters, unknown to her father, brothers and later, her husband, befriended a poor girl dying of tuberculosis in ‘The Rookeries’, which were, after all, not a mile from their house. This fine and compassionate novel was the result.

Unfortunately these novels and a thousand others were never written. Why not?

There are some subjects it is almost impossible to believe have never found a novelist. How about Marx’s household? It was a composite of Victorian dramatic stereotypes: the illegitimate child by the servant, the set-aside wife, mysterious and conspiratorial visitors, reprehensible relatives and the noble-minded philanthropic benefactor. And the exploited, suffering daughter. There is Kapp’s biography of Eleanor, letters, history books. No novel – though Marx’s deplorable son-in-law appears in The Doctor’s Dilemma, I think, and he apparently inspired Meredith’s The Tragic Comedians, that dry, urbane, witty, grown-up tale about revolutionary politics in Europe. Out-of-print. I wonder why?

I first began to brood about unwritten novels in the late Fifties, after the Twentieth Congress. (Everyone over a certain age will know what I mean: youngsters, even the politically minded, ask, what was that?) I knew I had lived through an extraordinary time, but now it was over. What had ended was a political atmosphere – and this is always impossible to describe to later people, who are living in a different, equally compelling atmosphere, nearly always inimical to the first. (In the last few weeks we have seen a similar sudden change, one that no one foresaw, and the way we all thought so recently will rapidly seem improbable. Young ones are already asking their elders: ‘How was it possible you did that?’) What I looked back on – 1941, the date of Russia entering the war – was a fever, a ferment, an intoxication, every possible social idea up for grabs, from feminism to communal living, all based – and in areas that extended far beyond the Communist Party – on a goody-and-baddy scenario: the Soviet Union was good, everyone else, bad. The further I get away from that stretch of years, the more of a lunacy it seems, a paranoia essenced – but that is false memory trying to instal itself, trying to discount the atmosphere of then, which is the whole point. What I particularly wanted to know was: had this kind of thing happened before? How nice to read a novel about the men and women of the Communist movement before 1905, when they split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The personal dislocations must have left everyone scarred. Or why not a novel about the Chartists, the flesh-and-blood stuff, not the propaganda: I had already observed how the (small) historical events of which I had been part had frozen into tidy stories that tended to leave out certain people and events, often the key ones, as if these had about them something abrasive and raw and itchy that could not be included. And the atmosphere that had made everything possible had evaporated. There were whole tracts of the 19th century that literature hadn’t covered at all, though Dickens and Hardy and Meredith between them had done a good deal. Well, I would write a novel that would convey the atmosphere, the taste and the feel of the politics of a certain time. Roll on the decades, and they are setting The Golden Notebook in history and politics classes, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

But why the missing books? The most surprising lacunae are in the Second World War. Hundreds and thousands of women were in uniform, drove vehicles, worked on the land and in Intelligence and in offices. They made munitions, cooked in canteens, suffered the Blitz. (Or enjoyed it. One old woman said: It made a nice change.) Where is The Landgirl and Luigi (after Lawrence), where the novel about the icy run to Murmansk, or the Battle of the Atlantic – where we nearly lost the war – told by the sensitive young officer later sunk in the Repulse in the Pacific, and picked out of the water to fight again in the Med? Where the novel, rather than the memoirs, of the POW camps in Germany, the internment camps in Southern Rhodesia, Australia (the latter housing improbable mixes of fascists and antifascists boxed up together for the duration). In the Second World War camps to train pilots were set up in Southern Rhodesia (at least ten of them) Kenya, Australia, Canada, South Africa. This meant moving – how many men? Millions? – on ships pursued, and sometimes sunk, by submarines, meant building camps like towns – but all-male – in countries that often struck these involuntary tourists as unlikeable or – sometimes – as politically oppressive as the countries we were fighting. I know that is how Southern Rhodesia seemed to many men of the Air Force. All this was an extraordinary feat of organisation. Has anything like it ever happened before? Yet people have forgotten all about these camps, these men. They are not in literature, except, glancingly, in my Children of Violence. The fate of the ground crew – the men who serviced the aircraft and ran the camps, and stayed put, sometimes for years – was to be bored. Boredom is conducive to the production of literature. But no, nothing, not a word. Where are the novels about the Second Front in Europe, Dunkirk, the evacuation of Singapore, the war in Burma (Yes, India did all right), the war in North Africa, Army camps in Britain? Very well, let’s look at what we have. Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy, about combatants; Olivia Manning’s trilogies, mostly about civilians dodging death, deportation or destitution while contending armies reel back and forth. Alexander Baron’s From the City, from the Plough. The Cruel Sea. Sharp, sardonic sketches, in New Writing, Shaving through the Blitz, by one Fanfarlo. Fragments of verse remain, none as sharp or as painful as Brooke’s, or Sassoon’s or Owen’s.

Dark angel who art clear and straight
As cannon shining in the air
Thy blackness doth invade my mind
And thunderous as the armoured wind
That rains on Europe
Is thy hair.

(Was there really such a poem?) Prokosch wrote an intensely romantic novel set in Lisbon, that clearing-house for spies. Have I left much out? I don’t think so. Where is our equivalent of Elsa Morante’s History, that marvellous novel that says everything about what it was like in Italy during World War Two? No, Britain was not invaded, but was bouleversed, changed for ever. Very few British people (or Americans) were actually killed, but millions were shifted from one part of the country to another, from one country to another, from continent to continent. Civilians were involved, for the first time ...

Are we approaching that perennial theme, the Sensibility of the Writer – not everybody’s favourite?

A clue or two. A few years ago I was invited to address a gathering of industrialists and business people in Toronto. I was intrigued: it appeared that the wife of that year’s chairman had suggested a writer might make a nice change for the weekly get-together. Several hundred people, a third of them women, had turned up. One point I made was that it is literature, not history, which has created a map of this or that society. (I was talking about the novel not from an aesthetic point of view, but as information: for instance, a businessman friend of mine, when he is sent off to some new town or country, goes to the library for all the novels from there. That’s where you learn what a place is like, says he, not from blueprints and pamphlets.) We all know about pre-revolutionary Russia because of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and the rest. Up got a businessman, a prominent one, it seems, to make the point that before the Revolution in Russia an industrial revolution was well under way, but it nowhere appears in literature. Our view of that Russia is entirely created by intellectuals, not one of whom, not even Gorki, had anything to do with manufacture or industry. I was naturally delighted that this point was being made by a capitalist, and not by the Canadian equivalent of Comrade Len, Lit. Sec. of the Marxist-Socialist-Revolutionary Party of West Ealing.

Another point: why do people engaged in business and industry, the engine of all the world’s societies, capitalist, socialist – and, now, Communist – never write novels? You can hardly think of a serious novel about the machinations in the committee rooms, the clandestine struggles to steal technology, the arms trade, the men who build dams and pipelines, the international conferences where the destinies of nations are decided, let alone the day-to-day being in an office which is the lot of millions. (Yes, Something happened... Heller). Was it, I wondered aloud, that the aristocratic disdain for business (still alive and well, so I’m told, in this country) has percolated down to the intellectuals (sorry, shorthand) of this country, and then, somehow, to this country’s ex-colonies? There are levels of society in Britain, including some of the most socially aware people, where it is enough to mention ‘business’ or ‘businessman’ to see delicate little moues – of distaste, imaginary skirts being drawn aside. Not so in America, where some people have to make regular visits just to get some relief from all these genteel sensibilities.

Why, I enquired, did not the members of this distinguished audience go off and write novels about their fascinating lives? One after another got to their feet, to say they indeed cherished dreams of writing novels, but it had not occurred to any of them that their business lives were interesting. One man confessed that when he retired he would write about his teenage passion for the girl next door, for this had coloured his life. Another planned something like A Sportsman’s Sketches about his hunting trips with his dog. A woman said she would write about her recent divorce and the consequent psychoanalysis.

If that enquiring sociologist from Mars (or from one of Jupiter’s moons) decided to use the good literature of the last three hundred years as a map of our societies, the 18th century would be fairly well-chartered, but the gaps would be serious in the 19th – and you could read all of 20th-century novels and never suspect that it is trade that makes the world go round. Bad literature – yes, comics, airport literature – but that’s a different matter and a different article.