It is ten years since Doris Lessing received the Nobel Prize for Literature, at the age of 88; the following year she acknowledged that she was unlikely to continue publishing, the award having brought with it such a storm of media interest that she had been left with little time to write. ‘I don’t have the energy any more,’ she told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row program, just as her final book, Alfred and Emily, was published. An idiosyncratic blend of memoir, biography, fiction and social history, it was named for Lessing’s parents, and tells the story of their lives both as they were and as they might have been, were it not for the advent of the first world war – an event which, as their daughter matter-of-factly observes, ‘did them both in’. If, for much of our lives, we regard our parents as indispensable to ourselves, defined and understood by their relationship to us – whether loving or fractious, distant or close – then this last work is Lessing’s gift to hers: a belated acknowledgement of Alfred and Emily as individuals, separate from her and from one another. She offers them a world without the war; without each other; perhaps most intriguingly, without their daughter – and by extension, without their author.
Lessing was always fascinated by the ways in which the author writes herself into her fictions, and creates fiction from lived experience, both intentionally and unintentionally. She always recognised that her relationship with the reader was fraught; as her propensity to append author notes and prefaces to her novels attests, she often wished to determine how she should be read and yet recognised that not only was this impossible, it was not desirable: were it possible her text would be dead on arrival, with no agency granted to the reader. It’s a paradox she returned to more than once in her fiction, with the very form of her final book hinged on the concept of her own authorship – her own presence in or absence from the text.
Lessing has frequently been read as a political author: a Marxist who became disillusioned following the post-Stalinist thaw; an early voice of women’s liberation (a role she strenuously rejected); a colonial returning to the centre of Empire following the second world war. Yet to read Lessing in this way – taking her politics or her public persona as the measure of her fictional scope – is to overlook her enduring interest in the construction of literature; the opportunities of experimentation with genre; the peculiar and particular responsibilities that come with her own authorial role.
The Golden Notebook (1962), which remains her best-known novel, is among many other things a study of authorship. We first meet the novel’s protagonist, Anna Wulf, in a framing novella entitled ‘Free Women’, which is then interwoven with the text of several different notebooks apparently authored by this same protagonist. The relationship between these textual spheres is complicated when events in the notebooks begin to diverge from those depicted in the novella, raising the question of whether these two women are indeed the same person.
In the final pages of the golden notebook for which the novel is named, the ontological layers of the text are inverted, as ‘Free Women’ is seemingly revealed to be a fictional work authored by the Anna Wulf whose notebooks we have been reading. Or is the novel proper the work of an ur-Anna, with novella and notebooks existing on the same fictional plane? These questions, of course, do not have answers within the text, whose Möbius strip structure brings not only the identity of the author but the status of her authorship into question. This status is once again at the centre of Lessing’s final work in Alfred and Emily, which takes as its foundational conceit the disappearance of the author herself: the erasure of her authority through the creation of an alternate life in which she does not exist, and in which her absence is a kind of gift.
The book is divided into two halves: the first, ‘Alfred and Emily: A Novella’, tells the fictionalised story of two people who meet but do not marry one another, who lead separate, fulfilling lives. The second half, ‘Alfred and Emily; Two Lives’ does not precisely tell the ‘real’ story – Lessing would not propose than any text could – but rather offers snapshots from Lessing’s own memories and her interpolations from these of the lives Alfred and Emily led before they met, as well as the lives in which she knew them. The text as a whole might also be called ‘Two Lives’, for that is what it offers – not only to its subjects, Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh, but also to Lessing herself; the life she had and a life in which she would never have existed.
The fiction opens on an idyllic pastoral scene: on the cricket pitch Alfred Tayler catches the eye in his whites, confident and skilled; on the sidelines sits a distracted Emily McVeagh. Soon after this summer afternoon she leaves the country for London, becoming first a nurse, then a surgeon’s wife, a social entertainer, a widow, a charitable benefactor and a storyteller, beloved of the children who attend her schools – though never a mother. Alfred, on the other hand, remains in the village throughout a long, peaceful life, untroubled by the Great War, enjoying a happy marriage and becoming a father to two sons.
These fictional lives are spun by Lessing from the material of memory: half-forgotten observations of childhood and adolescence; family anecdotes, repeated over years and even decades, which reveal crucial details of each parent’s character. From Lessing’s recollection that her father seemed to blossom in the rare company of women visitors to the family’s farm in Southern Rhodesia, comes the description of the fictional Alfred Tayler as ‘a susceptible man’ to the charms of the opposite sex. From the carefully-packed chests of suede and chiffon, sequined gowns and the long, elegant gloves which languish unworn and moth-eaten in the dirt-floored, thatch-roofed house on the veldt, Lessing conjures the image of Emily McVeagh as an accomplished and popular hostess. In reality, Alfred and Emily met and married amidst the trauma of war, after he had been badly injured in the trenches and her former love had been killed; they spent a brief, energetic few years in Kermanshah, Persia, and finally moved to Africa, hopeful, naïve and profoundly unprepared for the life they were to find there.
The figure of Emily McVeagh – both in fiction and in memory – is more potent than that of Alfred Tayler, and at the same time less knowable. ‘I have written about my father in various ways,’ Lessing tells us, ‘in pieces long and short, and in novels. He comes out clearly, unambiguous, all himself.’ Emily, on the other hand, seems to her daughter to have been ‘not one woman but several.’ She suffered a period of devastating depression following the family’s move to Southern Rhodesia and although she recovered, her character was much changed.
Nothing that she ever told, or was said about her, or one could deduce of her in that amazing girlhood, so busy, so full of achievement, or of her nursing years, about which we had the best of witnesses, my father himself, or the years in Persia, so enjoyable and so social, nothing, anywhere, in all this matches up with what my mother became.
Emily was the determined young woman, defying her father’s wishes to become a nurse; the young mother in an unimaginably foreign land; the practical housekeeper building furniture with re-purposed packing crates; the reader and storyteller, giving her daughter the invaluable gift of a love for literature. Yet, after her breakdown, she was also the neurotic, overwrought woman fictionalised in The Children of Violence, frantic and clinging as her daughter strained to escape. In the opening section of ‘Two Lives’ Lessing acknowledges the significance of that characterisation.
Martha Quest [the first volume of The Children of Violence] was, I think, the first no-holds-barred account of a mother-and-daughter battle. It was cruel, that book. Would I do it now? But what I was doing was part of the trying to get free.
That she was still ‘trying to get free’ in the final years of her life, we know – free of the war, free of her parents. In giving them different, more peaceful lives, it seems, she wanted also for them to be free of her. She gave both a life unmarked by war, Alfred his physical mobility, a loving wife, and sons, rather than daughters; Emily a real measure of financial independence, drive and tangible purpose. In doing so she revealed a woman perhaps as real as the mother she remembered – a woman liberated by Lessing’s own absence.
Lessing’s fictional work has frequently been read through the lens of autobiography, and understandably so, given the ways in which she moved back and forth between the two modes throughout her career, restlessly plotting the parameters of each. She published two memoirs of her visits back to southern Africa, both before and after Zimbabwean independence: Going Home was published in 1957, African Laughter in 1992. Two volumes of autobiography followed, Under My Skin, Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 (1994) and Walking in the Shade, Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962 (1997). The latter of course brought her only up to the year of The Golden Notebook’s publication and no further. To her 2001 novel, The Sweetest Dream, Lessing appended an author’s note which stated:
I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people. Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography. There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character.
Reviewers read the novel as a stand in for that third volume of autobiography – Laura Miller described it as ‘an alternative’, Hywel Williams ‘a substitute’ – as Lessing appeared, amid the contradictions, to encourage them to do. Louis Menand, on the other hand, observed that Lessing’s comment was ‘so evenly balanced between invitation and rebuff that no doubt the wise response is to ignore it’. Jenny Diski regarded the author’s note as an act of manipulation, intended to ‘warn certain people, and cause many blameless others distress’, reading as she was through the prism of her own relationship with Lessing, a relationship about which Diski wrote at length in her posthumously published memoir, In Gratitude (2016).
Lessing’s para-textual commentaries – like the fictions themselves – are never just one thing, and rarely are they only what they purport to be on the surface. The 1971 edition of The Golden Notebook was introduced by a Preface (retained in subsequent editions) which both told the reader how to read the novel and conceded that the reader could not be told how to read the novel – that in fact this was precisely kept the work ‘alive, potent and fructifying’. Given the way in which these authorial missives of Lessing’s tend to be part of the fictions they introduce, it is entirely possible that she added the note which so troubled Diski precisely to complicate the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, and to challenge those who would read Lessing into her fictions irrespective of any admonishment she might append to it. Lessing reportedly told Diski many times that she was the inspiration for this or that character, careless of the younger woman’s feelings, with the customary arrogance that enables an author to take the lives of others and make of them one’s own fictional material.
Diski, many years later and after Lessing’s death, told the story of their relationship in an explicitly non-fictional text, and the expectation implied by her revelations was that readers of Lessing would henceforth also read that real-life relationship back into the latter’s fictions. Much turns, of course, on the way we read the autobiographical in the fictional – whether we ignore it entirely, sit somewhere in the middle, or imbue it with greater authority than the invented, demanding authorial biography, conflating the protagonist with her author and raking over the detail of private lives. Such readings tend to proceed like so: The Golden Notebook was ground-breaking in its depiction of women’s intimate lives; Lessing was a woman, ergo she was writing her own intimate life. Moreover, Lessing was a writer, like her protagonist; Lessing lived in Africa, like her protagonist; Lessing was a former communist who became disenchanted with the party, like her protagonist; Lessing was a single mother, a ‘free woman’, like her protagonist. When we take such an approach to the text, reading it alongside what we know of the author’s life – even as she provokes us constantly to so – its radical formal experimentation, its scope and breadth, elides us.
In conversation with Hermione Lee upon the publication of Alfred and Emily, Lessing insisted on the separability of her authorship from her public persona.
DL: The situation we have now is that the writer has become more and more of a personality. Here I sit […] Don’t imagine what you’re looking at has anything to do with the person who writes anything, because it doesn’t. This is what has happened. We are now personalities.
HL: If the person sitting here has nothing to do with the person who writes the books, what is that person like?
DL: Ah … why should I talk about her? That’s silent, that’s quiet.
To Lessing’s mind, the woman who writes is not the same person as the public figure, even when they bear the same name; authorship takes place in a kind of silence that must be kept separate from the public persona of interviews, literary festivals and tours – and biography. And as an author who transformed the material of her own life and the lives of those around her into fiction repeatedly throughout her career, her final authorial move was to write herself out of her own text.
The second half of Alfred and Emily is, of course, written from Lessing’s own perspective, and there she is undoubtedly present. Yet the formal contrast between the two halves is notable. The fictional lives which can only occur in her absence are presented in a linear fashion, the sequence of events clear and complete; in contrast, the memoir which follows is a patchwork of commentary, memory, apology and self-defence. Discursive and fragmented, it comprises reflections on everything from the current state of literature and cultural consumption to the construction of Lessing’s childhood home. In the experiences she recounts we see the legacy of colonialism, the early years of second-wave feminism, and the beginning of the end of Southern Rhodesia. Reflecting on her return to an independent Zimbabwe many years later Lessing considers the way in which history has been unmade there – pieces of her own past erased – just as she has unmade the history of the first world war in transforming the story of her parents’ lives. While the fictional lives of Emily McVeagh and Alfred Tayler proceed with deliberate simplicity, in an unswerving trajectory from youth to age, the book’s second half gives us a glimpse of the messy reality, the cycling back through different ways of telling, different ways of being.
If Lessing’s experiments with narrative form tell us anything it is that in her fiction the self is multiplied, struck-out, revised and rewritten – as Anna Wulf strikes out whole pages of her journal and with them whole periods of her life, deciding that the self she has described, the events she has related, are not real: this is not her; it did not happen like this. In Alfred and Emily this rewriting and revising is made explicit, not only between fiction and memoir but in the relationship of the sometimes disparate pieces which make up that memoir. Here again the construction of a narrative is Lessing’s subject, the different ways in which one story can be told, and how the telling might change the story.
Between the foreword and the novella are inserted two stylish black and white portraits: a young and handsome Alfred Taylor posed casually in his summer suit, and the serious, intelligent face of Emily McVeagh atop of puff of gauzy white fabric. These pictures correspond both to the fictional and the real; taken before the advent of the war, they contain infinite possibility, and in what follows Lessing will place the possible and the actual alongside one another, allowing the contrasts to emerge, the connections to criss-cross back and forth. Immediately after the novella comes a section entitled ‘Explanation’, two photos of Alfred in his military uniform, and a short extract from the London Encyclopaedia about the Royal Free Hospital in London, where Emily McVeagh nursed Alfred Tayler after he was injured in the trenches. The intrusion of such scraps of documentary evidence in the text produces an interesting effect – as if, unable to attest to this period in Alfred and Emily’s real lives through her own presence, she must turn to sources designated as fact, beyond the lacunae of memory.
The whole is a hybrid kind of text, restlessly weaving together the threads of observation and imagination, regret and forgiveness. Thoughts remain half finished, images half-conjured, trailing off in the style of someone recounting half-lost memories in conversation. Lessing’s own voice slips in and out of both parts one and two as she shifts here and there from the real to the fictional, the prospective to the remembered, the omniscient to the first person, sometimes within the space of a paragraph. With consummate skill Lessing plays also with a collective memory, the shared knowledge and assumptions which proceed from an inherited past, as well as those stories from her own and her parent’s lives which faithful readers of her work have already encountered in several different forms. This digressive, intensely personal book capped off a prolific career: twenty-six novels, four volumes of memoir, several collections of short fiction and non-fiction, not to mention poetry and drama. In her final work, then, Lessing was fascinated as she had always been by the permeable border between fiction and autobiography, and by the idea that our lives are simply stories that we write and re-write, constantly transforming experience into narrative.
Jenny Diski, In Gratitude. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Hermione Lee, ‘A Conversation with Doris Lessing’ Wasafiri 24(3), 2009: 18-25.
‘Doris Lessing interviewed by Mark Lawson’ Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 12 May 2008.
Doris Lessing, Alfred and Emily. London: Harper Perennial, 2008.
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1999 (1962).
Louis Menand, ‘Both Sides Now: Doris Lessing’s Sixties’ The New Yorker, February 18 2002.
Laura Miller, ‘The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing’ Salon, February 22 2002.
Hywel Williams, ‘The dream is over’ The Guardian, 22 September 2001.