Pointing Out the Defects
- 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 Pass-chendaele, 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?