Doris Lessing explores both real and imaginary versions of the lives of her parents.
Last year, when the Nobel Prize committee bestowed on Doris Lessing one of the world’s most coveted literary awards, they called her “an epicist of the female experience,” a writer whose “scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”
It’s not just that divided civilization, however, that has drawn Lessing’s ire. Also subject to scepticism and fire have been her parents – particularly her mother.
“So much has been written about mothers and daughters, and some of it by me,” Lessing acknowledges in Alfred & Emily, a fictionalized memoir about her parents. “That nothing has ever much changed,” she continues, “is illustrated by the old saying ‘She married to get away from her mother.’ ”
Lessing, it would appear, is still trying to get away from her mother. But the distance she strives for here is a critical one. She’s hoping to stand back from both her mother and her father in order to see them – perhaps for the first time – as they really were.
To that end, the first half of the book is a novella that imagines how her parents’ lives might have turned out had World War I never been fought.
In real life, the Great War blighted the lives of Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh. He was a cheerful athlete who lost a leg in combat. She was a bright, independent-minded nurse who lost her fiancé, a tall, slim doctor with “a thoughtful, sensitive face.”
Both sustained what D.H. Lawrence called “wound[s] to the soul.” After the war, they married each other and emigrated to Rhodesia, hoping for new opportunities and a better life. For the most part, they met with disappointment.
But in her fictionalized account, Lessing is more generous. The war never happens. England’s Edwardian era of affluence is extended. Alfred remains strong and handsome and marries Betsy, a sweet, supportive woman, and becomes an English farmer.