Pointing Out the Defects

Hilary Mantel

  • Under My Skin by Doris Lessing
    HarperCollins, 419 pp, £20.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 00 255545 X

Perhaps it is the timing of her birth which has refined her sense of scale, has made her able to see how the single ant works and worries in the social heap. ‘That was important,’ Doris Lessing says: to be born in 1919, when 29 million people died in the influenza pandemic. Important, too, the blue marks left on her face by the forceps. She was a child of damage, ‘one of the walking wounded’.

This is a brilliant and brave autobiography. Its early pages make delightfully grim reading for any connoisseur of unhappy families. Lessing’s mother, Emily Maude McVeagh, was a nurse, who lost her doctor fiancé when his ship was torpedoed, and married on the rebound a patient who had lost a leg and was suffering from shellshock. He was Alfred Tayler; on the Somme, he had fallen ill and escaped the trenches just before his entire company was killed. The injury to his leg, which took him out of the war, occurred a couple of weeks before Passchendaele, which none of his comrades survived. It is axiomatic that in such circumstances survivors do not feel lucky; they feel cursed.

Her mother’s nursing saved her father’s life, or so he said; but this is not an uncomplicated assertion. Ambivalence, guilt, resentment, struck deep into her mother’s life. The dead fiancé was perhaps, in the exigencies and exhaustion of wartime conditions, not sufficiently mourned; the living man seen perhaps not as himself but as a duty, and as a means to an end. Maude had been offered the prestigious post of matron at St George’s Hospital, but chose marriage because she wanted to have children, and for this very odd reason: she wanted to make up to them for what she had suffered as a child.

Maude’s childhood had not been materially deprived, but it had been loveless. She thought she could and would do better, but she looms over her daughter’s life story, a monster with hard hands and hard eyes and false teeth. Almost certainly, what Maude meant was that she wanted her children to make up to her for the unsatisfactory nature of her early life; she wanted praise, appreciation. Children are never grateful for their parents’ sacrifices, because they understand that such sacrifices are exactly measured and calculated to provide their own reward. Doris Tayler could not be grateful for her own existence; she could work out that Maude’s desire to have total power over a baby’s life was more gratifying to her than partial power over the lives of the patients of St George’s. Children like to hear about what they did as babies, about what they were like before, apparently, they were themselves; what Maude told Doris about her babyhood was that she had been half-starved for the first ten months of her life. The fad of the time was for rigid feeding schedules, with unsatisfied infants left to scream for hours. Parents thought that if their babies were picked up, cuddled and given milk they would be somehow ‘spoiled’, that their moral character would be wrecked and that they would gain the upper hand. Maude was doing what thousands did, and with the best of intentions. But why, Lessing wonders, did she mention the starving so often? So cheerfully?

When Doris Lessing writes about her early life she writes with a painful and vivid exactness; it is not often that the helpless, bottled rage of childhood and adolescence is so clearly re-imagined and represented. But she writes with discrimination, with an awareness of context, setting the personal clearly against the general. What made her mother, her father? The war made them. It made the ‘dark grey cloud, like poisoned gas’, that hovered over her childhood. It made the society she grew up in. Her father could not bear post-war England, and arranged for his employer, a bank, to post him to Persia. From those early days she can piece together a few fragments. She rode on horseback, held before her father, the harness that strapped his false leg to his body digging into her back. Adults undressed for a swimming party, their white slapping flesh suddenly and shockingly exposed; there was the smell of cold, and dead leaves on the water. But then, after a spell in ‘wet, dark, dirty, graceless England’, came their emigration to Southern Rhodesia, which gave her the bush for a nursery, gave light and air to the writer growing inside.

In the days after the Great War, ex-servicemen could buy land in the colony for practically nothing. What did her parents expect to find? They both had all their teeth taken out, reasoning that they would only be a nuisance and that there would be no dentists. On the other hand, her mother took her evening dresses, as if anticipating a Happy Valley existence. One thing they felt sure of: they would be rich within five years. When they arrived, they travelled up country by ox-waggon. Their farm, they found, was nothing but a stretch of uncleared bush, a dreadful prospect for a man with one leg and a woman with social pretensions. Wells were dug, a house built, commanding a view of hills and ever-changing light. The latrine was twenty yards from the house, water was hauled up the hill in barrels, lighting was by oil-lamp. It was a provisional life; Liberty print curtains hung by a writing table made of petrol boxes. Furniture peregrinated from family to family, as farmers failed and sold up. Debt to the bank was a way of life. Yet, Lessing points out, they were only relatively poor. There was a whole stratum of poor white society, of brutalised and frequently desperate people, whose existence neither black nor white could easily acknowledge.

For people like the Taylers, the retention of any sense of self depended on keeping in place the markers of white middle-class living. One can feel the heat from Maude’s fury, simmering on the page. She was not intended for this. All this was to have been temporary ... The pain of expectation unfulfilled is a major theme of the book. Where do we get our expectations, individual or social? What promises do we think were made, and by whom? ‘We expect gold at the foot of always renewable rainbows,’ Lessing says; we presume that each year we will be a little freer, warmer, richer, more secure; yet the lesson of history is that good times are temporary, and that what we should naturally expect is war, pestilence, hunger and calamity.

There is a clue here as to why some people find Lessing’s writing intolerable. It is not that she is jaundiced, world-weary or pessimistic, but that she seems to take a gloomy, god-like pleasure in pointing out the defects in human nature, and by implication removes herself from the fray – she who was once so much part of the fray, so avid and selfish in the pursuit of happiness. We will not know the full story until the life story is told, but we can see in Under My Skin the beginnings of an inner split, an alienation. She is writing, she says, to reclaim her own life, to wrest it from the biographers who are busily at work; but it is not with the biographers that the split occurred, it is not they who launched her on the practice of disowning parts of herself. In her middle childhood she became ‘Tigger’ Tayler, happy, healthy, bouncy and extroverted. It was as ‘Tigger’ that she went to school, went to Salisbury, became a nanny, worked in a telephone exchange, married, had babies; it was Tigger who joined the Communist Party. And it was someone else, flinching from the light, who wrote the thousands of scrapped apprentice pieces that led to The Grass is Singing and to the strongly autobiographical ‘Children of Violence’ novel-sequence.

As a child, she explains, she felt involved in a day-to-day fight to preserve her inner reality, in the face of a world that wanted to foist on her something from outside herself, something untrue. When her brother was born, she was told that he was her child, and that she must love him. She knew that she was being fed a lie, that she was being coerced. She observed, she judged, she felt she had one skin too few. Her father was more sympathetic than her mother, but he was determined that she be ‘hardened up’, made into a ‘good sport’; hence the emergence of ‘Tigger’. Relations with her mother worsened as she grew. ‘Her so-frequent “You are just like me” made me white-hot with rage.’ At 14 she was living, she says, in a ‘sexual trance’, with a woman’s body but a child’s place in society. There should be, she suggests, some social dispensation to allow forward teenage girls to sow their wild oats with older men, on the understanding that these relationships are of a temporary nature only; some hearts would be broken, but then they are broken anyway. It is hard not to sympathise with what may seem at first an outré suggestion; there is certainly something odd and stultifying in a culture that insists that abundant and fecund women are children until, at some arbitrary date, they have finished their education. No doubt this artificially prolonged childhood is responsible for many of the bloody psychic conflicts between mother and daughter. In Doris Lessing’s case, any manifestation of independence was countered with a prediction that she would end ‘in the brothels of Beira’. Mother could read the signals from the douce young body, so conscious of its own charms – even if nothing was said aloud. Throughout the book Lessing is interesting on the topic of living within a woman’s body, listening to it or refusing to listen to it, recognising or refusing to recognise the truths it presents to reason and intellect.

Since she became a famous writer, Lessing says, people have very often asked her how she acquired the education, the means of thinking – growing up, as they assume she did, so far from the light of civilisation. She is amused by the question; one thing Maude did provide was excellent home tuition, and later there were various schools, there were books sent from London, and then there was the practical education.

By the time I left the Convent I knew how to set a hen, look after chickens and rabbits, worm dogs and cats, pan for gold, take samples from reefs, cook, sew, use the milk separator and churn butter, go down a mine shaft in a bucket, make cream cheese and ginger beer, paint stencilled patterns on materials, make papier mâché, walk on stilts made from poles cut in the bush, drive the car, shoot pigeons and guineafowl for the pot, preserve eggs – and a lot else.

This competence was a source of happiness, but her family’s circumstances were declining. Her father became diabetic, at a time when control of the condition was new and still poorly understood. Once again, he owed his life to Maude. Debts increased. When she was away from her parents, Doris was able to pity them, to see them, even, as tragic figures; but when she was in their presence she was consumed with rage and scorn, and with fear of becoming like them. What has done this to us? she asked herself. As always, there came the answer: the war did this. If the Great War had not happened, they and millions of others would have been whole and sane. So what if there were no more wars? Could there be such a world? Here is a familiar pattern, ably delineated: as relationships with parents dip to a low, teenage idealism reaches its height.

Now comes the point where the autobiography and the published fiction begin to intersect. Doris Lessing is properly disdainful of the strenuous attempts to separate the two that are the stock-in-trade of some clueless critics. She is bored by the ‘Did this really happen to you?’ line of questioning: ‘less and less do facts matter, largely because writers are like pegs to hang people’s fantasies on.’ Yet the present book does have a lot to say, a lot to add, about her shift to the city, her early marriage, her Communist Party involvements; she looks back ruefully, wryly, but without pointless self-laceration. ‘What is the use of ever saying, I should have done this, should have done that? The point was, nothing else could have happened given my nature and circumstances.’

She married – rather hoping till the last minute that her parents would intervene and stop her. World War Two broke out, the colony changed, the RAF arrived, there was drink and a buzz of blood and transience in the air, love affairs began and children were conceived in a spirit of well, why not? Meanwhile: ‘Tigger was always friendly and affectionate and competent’; but: ‘I felt as if handcuffs were on my wrists and chains around my ankles.’ Marxism was the next step; it was inevitable. Doris had nothing to lose but her chains; and if, in this history, her infancy provides the tragedy, the infancy of the Communist Party of Southern Rhodesia provides the farce. At best there were about twenty of them, and their one black member was a police plant. Even the South African Communists didn’t take them seriously. But for the while it was serious enough, though what they had to brave was ridicule and ignorance rather than oppression. Lessing now says this:

Long decades later I came to know a man with much experience of government, and he said that most revolutionaries could be defused by offering them jobs. Nearly all are people of unused or under-used capacity. The job offered must be chosen carefully, without cynicism, giving room for the natural critic’s talent for useful reform. If this idea had been put to me than I would have dismissed it with a string of contemptuous epithets, but now I wonder if it isn’t true.’

She left her husband and children – it seemed necessary at the time – and married Gottfried Lessing, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Gottfried was ‘the embodiment of cold, cutting Marxist logic, and his favourite phrase was, “Now let us analyse the situation.”’ One would suspect Gottfried of a slick pose except that, later, he went to live in East Germany when most people were trying to get out.

They were a priggish lot, despising those who weren’t part of their talking-shop. Their political correctness was more fearsome than anything we know these days. She would show her manuscripts to her friends, Nathan and Dorothy Zelter. ‘A short story would be handed back to me with the remark: “I am afraid we have to tell you that we are both very disappointed in you.” Clipped neatly to the manuscript would be a note: “Paragraph three suggests the Africans are superstitious. This kind of thing is ammunition for our enemies.”’ How, faced with encouragement of this order, does an artist survive? Luckily, that was Tigger they were talking to: and Tigger, to the profit and wonder of us all, bounced her way to London with a baby in her arms and a manuscript in her bag.

1949: she is thirty years old. Her expectations? We’ll see. Until the second volume, Under My Skin will bear reading and re-reading, not just as a book about the evolution of a writer, but as a book that defines, for any casual reader, that writer’s importance. In this immediate, vivid, beautifully paced memoir, Doris Lessing sets the individual against history, the personal against the general, and shows, by the example of her own life set down honestly, how biography and fiction mesh, how fiction transmutes the personal to the general, how the particular experience illuminates the universe. By putting her life on the page, she has created her greatest work of art.