Quest for Emily T.: Doris Lessing’s “Alfred & Emily”

Lessing, Doris (2009), Alfred & Emily, Harper Perennial
ISBN 978-0-00-724017-3

Before I embark on another one of my reviews, let me say this: Alfred & Emily is a thoroughly good and original book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. Doris Lessing has never been a prose stylist sparkling with brilliance, turning out, at times, pages and pages of clunky prose. But in everything I’ve read of her, that part of her writing turns out to matter little. Despite her style, Doris Lessing is a great writer, with astonishing instincts. That is true for her books, but it’s evident even if you just look at her career. As she was on her way to full mainstream acceptance, she suddenly started to write Science Fiction. To make this kind of change takes guts and a very independent mind, two qualities that her work evinces as well. Alfred & Emily (2008) is Lessing’s first book after winning the Nobel prize and it represents another turn in her career, considering that the two books before that were novels set in a SF/Fantasy setting, if I remember correctly. This one, now, is about her parents (the eponymous Alfred and Emily) and, to a large extent, about Lessing herself. Au fond, it’s two books rolled into one, but cleanly separated, into a fictional part and a skewed sort of memoir.

Now, as mentioned, Alfred & Emily consists of two parts. Part one is called “Alfred and Emily: A Novella”. In it, Lessing imagines how her parents could have turned out if they had made other decisions in their lives, and, most importantly, WWI had not happened. In the introduction to the book, Lessing explains that her parents were profoundly unhappy, because “World War I did them both in”. In her re-imagined reality her parents do not marry each other; instead Alfred marries a woman that is kinder, more loving than Emily, qualities that the real Alfred had to do without. Emily marries the great love of her life, a doctor in the Royal Free Hospital where Emily worked as a nurse. The real Emily had to cope with the death of that doctor who “drowned in the channel” and married Alfred, who came, wounded in the Great War, into her hospital. He had lost a leg, and spent the rest of his life making the best of this and his case of what Lessing assumes to have been post-traumatic stress. Additionally, he quickly found himself with a loveless wife and a hardscrabble existence as a farmer in Rhodesia. That last thing, Lessing keeps. Since her father “wanted to be a farmer all his life”, she makes a farmer of him in her novella.

There is not, however, much that we learn about the imagined Alfred, due to the fact that, even though its title suggests something else, the book is more about Emily than about her hubby; the rationale for this imbalance is explained near the end of the book, in the second part:

Even as a child I knew his obsessive talking about the trenches was a way of ridding himself of the horrors. […] But my mother also needed a listener, and to her needs I tried to be oblivious.

Only later did Lessing recognize the validity of her mother’s tale, her mother’s complaints, her mother’s voice. This book, especially the first part, is in many ways a paean to her mother. In imagining her mother’s possible career in a world without the First World War, Lessing takes a couple of puzzling and striking decisions. The first one is the marriage she has Emily embark upon. Since the war took Emily’s great love away from her, Lessing offers her the hand of that doctor, “Dr. Martin-White from Cardiology”. From this premise, a reader would expect an account of a fulfilling marriage to follow, to have the outline of the happiness presented that real life stole from Emily. The usual tosh. Instead, we soon learn that Emily’s new husband expects, and practically forces her to leave her job as a nurse (because it wouldn’t be “proper”) and from that point on everything is caught in a downward spiral. What ensues are separate beds, general emotional cold, until finally, out of despair and boredom, Emily becomes a society lady, giving lush tea parties. It is not until her husband dies that Emily finally breaks free.

As Emily tries to find something to do, she uses her husband’s considerable funds to start a school for poor kids, that, in the course of the book, expands into a hugely successful series of schools with dozens of subsidiaries all around the United Kingdom. Additionally, she expands public libraries to include books both for kids and adults and, at the end of the first part, she starts a series of refuges for ‘disgraced’ women when she runs into trouble upon trying to have an unmarried yet pregnant girl stay at school. So, Lessing suggests, the only thing that stopped her mother from becoming one of the great social leaders of her time was the Great War and marrying the oaf Alfred. This is what I consider the second puzzling decision. Although Lessing’s book contains both an explanatory introduction and a short chapter called “Explanation”, this is a huge leap, that, in its magnitude, is completely unexplained and should be taken with more than a grain of salt. I assume that this suggestion, this change of hers is rhetorical more than anything; my assumption is supported by the fact that the Emily portrayed in the second part, the real Emily, is snobbish, vaguely racist, and aloof. She outs her daughter as a communist to her employer, because she considers her a danger to “public order”. This is not the Emily we have met in the first part. What happened?

Let me approach it from this way: Lessing is as much concerned with the social environment of her characters as with interior motivation. The fact that the imagined Emily marries upwards of her class, is disappointed by the elites, and, in due course, shocked by the way that poor people are educated does not have any counterpart in the biography of the real Emily, who is taken out of her environment and dropped into alien territory. Thus, the real Emily has no way of understanding how her class works within the references of British society. Instead, she is now, thrust into Persia first and then Rhodesia, almost completely bereft of references, and she’s called upon to created new connections. Even the imagined Emily, in the midst of London, has to be shown the “dreadful poverty” there, because she “had not been conscious of much poverty” and “servants were the closest she had come to London poverty”. She has to see, smell, experience poor people’s despair in order to understand it. Small wonder, then, that the real Emily never had the intellectual growth necessary for this understanding. Yet, however intriguing that aspect is, the imagined Emily’s encounters and altercations with class do not stop there.

Since WWI and WWII never happened, the British society has never experienced the turmoil that would lead to a gradual abandonment of old and traditional class distinctions (at this point, I should point out that much of this would be vastly more illuminating and interesting to a UK native, since references and allusions will largely be lost on me; additionally, my knowledge of recent British history is shaky at best), and so strict ‘Victorian’ morals are still thriving and powerful, which, with time, proves exasperating for Emily:

How very much they had enjoyed themselves, Emily recognized, those representatives of public charity, saying, ‘It was wrong. It is wrong.’

At that point of the novella, Emily has grown so much that she’s maddened by these onslaughts of moralizing by the rich heads of the charity funded by Emily herself. The real Emily, as depicted in part two, would have applauded the judgmental bishops and rich debutantes, society ladies with nothing to do, who provide a large part of the work and organization in the schools. The juxtaposition of the two Emilies clarifies to what extent our personality, things that we may consider incremental to our selves, depend upon just the right circumstances, and, finally, Emily’s meteoric rise as a social leader of sorts is more than just a statement about Emily’s potential. The whole book could be said to examine the potentials of groups that used to spend their time on the peripheries of power. There are also countless remarks and discussions of the dynamics of speech, sound and listening. The imagined Emily is far more than the re-imagining of a real person. It’s the re-imagining of whole world.

But, and this is why the book works so wonderfully well, Lessing never descends into caricature, into cheap hints and jabs. As smart and aware readers, we are all like the children in the novella, who complain about a storyteller, who cannot “prevent his voice deriding” his tales. The children protest: “Not like this. Read it properly.” In a way, this is my reaction more often than not when I am reading a very ‘clever’ and postmodern book that interrogates things. It’s often both boring and tedious. Lessing circumvents this by ‘reading it properly’, by writing a story that makes sense as a story, that explains its ideas on an immediate level as well as on a more abstract one. It’s always enjoyable to read, though; at times it’s bursting with brilliance, like the scene where she has her protagonist try on a dress for a dance (music and dancing plays an important role in the book, on multiple levels), and that dress doesn’t fit, but she still wears it. That scene is far more subtle than I make it sound, going on as it does over several pages, encapsulating both abstract ideas and direct experience.

The second section, which could be seen as a memoir, should be called “The Quest for Emily T.” because it’s an extended attempt to understand Lessing’s mother. In that sense, it’s quite autonomous. I maintain, however, that its main function is to provide a balance and a contrast to the first part, as my reading has demonstrated. Thus, the novella would constitute the main part of the book, which is interesting. Why is it called a novella, anyway? The most well known definition of the genre was established by the other Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who postulated that a novella is built around one extraordinary incident. Since this novella extends over several years and does not contain such an incident, one might look for the reason elsewhere. I would suggest, however, that the incident or even in this case is the lack of an incident or event. The Great War, the war to end all wars, it never happens, and the “shadow of the trenches”, as Lessing calls it, never falls upon the family. The desire to have a war, that was very loud in the years before WWI, Lessing brands it as problematic, the search for an event to define an epoch. Instead, the imagined epoch is defined by the quests of women like Emily, and not the fights of warriors like Alfred.

This book is complex, containing much more than I had time and space to go into, crammed with continuous explorations of themes like the value of reading and telling stories, like music, old-school Marxist issues, like labor. In the second part, we are told that “[w]hen it was agreed that there was a problem we shared, it was natural for us to approach it from literature.” Alfred & Emily is an attempt to make sense of a personal problem: of the trauma of WWI that shaped not just Alfred and Emily’s life, but Lessing’s as well. Her difficult relationship to her mother, the pre-eminence of her father for her work, her attempts to take refuge in books, making sense of her role and place in the world, they are all influenced by WWI, as the book makes abundantly clear. Yet, strangely, the fantasy is an attempt to erase herself, or rather, to lose herself in that picture of her mother. The whole book is an elaborate play of hide and seek, with Lessing looking out at us, and hiding again. For her last sentence, she breathes into her heart, retreats once more: “She was, they all said, a very good bridgeplayer”. Yet, however much she hides, Lessing’s beautiful mind shines in every phrase here, every sentence.

One thought on “Quest for Emily T.: Doris Lessing’s “Alfred & Emily”

  1. Pingback: Doris Lessing: Alfred & Emily - World Literature Forum

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