Under her skin

Heller McAlpin reviews books for a variety of publications, including Newsday and the Boston Globe.

DORIS LESSING has never been one to shy from bold moves. She married early to escape her overbearing mother, then left her husband and two children, wedding a German Communist classed as an enemy alien during World War II. Her most famous novel, “The Golden Notebook” (1962), was considered boldly feminist and structurally daring. In the 1980s, Lessing upset many of her readers by turning to science fiction. During the same period, she made headlines by submitting a novel to her longtime British publisher, Jonathan Cape, under a pseudonym -- demonstrating, with its rejection, how hard it is for unknown writers to break into print. Last year, when told she’d won the Nobel Prize for literature, she seemed more exasperated than exhilarated by the attention. “Oh, Christ! . . . It’s a royal flush,” she said.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, nearing the end of her ninth decade, in what she declares is her last book, Lessing has pushed the boundaries of the memoir form. She does this by splitting “Alfred & Emily” between fiction and personal reminiscence, in order to attack from multiple angles material she’s still struggling to understand.

Like Vikram Seth’s “Two Lives,” a joint portrait of his Indian-born great-uncle and German-born great-aunt, “Alfred & Emily” is about a couple derailed by war. But it is not a dual biography, nor is it simply an imagined history based on the interaction of two real people, like Julian Barnes’ novel “Arthur & George.” Although experimental in form, it does not seek to offer the sustained “exploration of an egoism” of H.G. Wells’ 1934 “Experiment in Autobiography.” Rather, “Alfred & Emily” recalls the fractured narrative structure -- with its compartmentalized notebooks and fiction embedded within the larger fiction -- of “The Golden Notebook.” In juxtaposing fiction and nonfiction in one volume and clearly delineating which is which, “Alfred & Emily” raises questions about our changing attitudes toward memories as we age; about the different strengths of fiction and nonfiction when it comes to exploring character; and about the inherently subjective nature of memoir. As is usual in Lessing’s fluidly conversational prose, ideas take precedence over stylistic perfection: “Alfred & Emily” may be more an exercise than a polished tour de force, but what a thought-provoking exercise it is.

This is hardly the first time Lessing has written about her parents. Her autobiographical second novel, “Martha Quest” (1952), is a brutal portrait of an adolescent daughter’s contempt for her mother. In “Alfred & Emily” she writes, “It was cruel, that book. Would I do it now? But what I was doing was part of the trying to get free.” Lessing introduced two themes in her depiction of the Quests that have remained central throughout her long literary career: the antagonism between mothers and daughters and the importance -- to women, their families and society at large -- of women’s work outside the home.


Lessing wrote about her family more directly and expansively in the first volume of her autobiography, “Under My Skin” (1994). That book spans her first 30 years, from 1919 to 1949, when she left her girlhood home of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for England. In it, she presents the facts: her parents’ unhappy schisms with their own parents; their meeting in the Royal Free Hospital in East London at the end of World War I, where Sister Emily McVeagh nursed Alfred Tayler after the loss of his right leg, shell shock and depression; their marriage and departure for Persia (now Iran), where Doris and her younger brother, Harry, were born; and their move to a farm in Rhodesia in 1924, where they hoped to “get rich on maize” so they could afford to buy a farm back home in England.

“Alfred & Emily” reveals that Lessing’s memories remain essentially unaltered, yet it is not redundant. What has changed is her attitude toward those memories. She’s already told us, in earlier books, what her parents were like and how it made her feel at the time -- trapped, desperate. Now she wants to figure out why her parents were the way they were and what they might have been like “if there had been no World War One.”

The war, she writes, changed her parents irrevocably. “It took me years -- and years -- and years -- to see it: my mother had no visible scars, no wounds, but she was as much a victim of the war as my poor father.” She explains in her wonderfully forthright preface: “That war, the Great War, the war that would end all war, squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I still am, trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.”

A novelist to the core, Lessing writes her way toward freedom. Although the novella that comprises the first half of “Alfred & Emily” is richer than the meandering, fragmentary commentary on her parents’ ill-fated, stifling attempts at Edwardian colonial life that follows, the combination is greater than the sum of its parts. In the novella, Lessing imagines not so much a fictionalized account of her parents’ lives as a counterfactual version: She posits a world in which they meet but never marry, World War I never happens, and the British economy flourishes. Intriguingly, it is also a world in which their only daughter is never born. In creating these alternative trajectories, she attempts to explore the essences of her parents, thereby suggesting that fiction can sometimes reach deeper than fact. And in so doing, Lessing also reveals quite a bit about herself.


The novella opens at a village cricket match in 1902 in which 16-year-old Alfred Tayler is a star and 18-year-old Emily McVeagh is an emotional spectator, having just broken with her father over her decision to pursue a nursing career, wiping people’s bottoms. Lessing’s narrative skips ahead in two- and three-year increments and then fast-forwards to 1916. In having her parents meet but not marry, Lessing suggests that their connection was solely based on adversity. She grants Alfred “his heart’s desire” -- a life of farming, cricket, dancing, a nurturing wife named Betsy, twin sons and death at a ripe old age instead of the precipitous early decline and death at 62 from diabetes that he suffered in reality.

Emily’s fictional fate is less happy. She marries a cold-hearted cardiologist, whom Lessing bases on the beau her mother lost in the war. They have no children, but at her husband’s insistence Emily gives up her work, as she does in real life -- Lessing’s surefire recipe for unhappiness. Only after her husband’s early death does Emily discover her calling as an educator and find an outlet for her formidable energy and organizational skills. In real life, Lessing notes, this impulse found its most positive expression in introducing her daughter to the joys of literature.

The real Emily spent her last years playing bridge with other widows in Salisbury (now Harare), dying at 73. In the novella, Lessing gives her mother a less peaceful death, also at 73: Emily suffers heart failure after being attacked by boys who turn on her when she remonstrates with them for tormenting a dog. War or no war, Lessing implies, her mother was irritatingly meddlesome, even when in the right. And one way or another, poor Emily always gets her comeuppance in her daughter’s books. *