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.
Emily marries her doctor. Her lot is less contented than that of Alfred but she is at least able to use her wealth to connect children and books (a cause embraced by the real Emily as well).
The fictional Alfred lives to a ripe old age (as the real Alfred did not), while the fictional Emily dies an oddly noble death. (The actual Emily lived on in Rhodesia to become an elderly, bridge-playing woman).
The second half of “Alfred & Emily” is like a scrapbook in which Lessing has pasted items related to her subject.
There is a bit of actual information about the real Alfred and Emily. There are Lessing’s reminiscences about her parents and her memories of their lives (and her own life) in Rhodesia, There is a short piece about Lessing’s brother, Harry Tayler, who is distressed to realize late in life that even his wife never really knew him. “I simply haven’t been here at all,” he tells her.
The result is an uneven, rough-hewn sort of a book. As an experiment in a writer’s means of exploring the people she knows so well yet cannot really see, it’s a truly intriguing piece of work. And Lessing aficionados may appreciate the degree to which the fragmented structure recalls the glory days of “The Golden Notebook.”
For the general reader, however, “Alfred and Emily” may seem more of a curiosity. The novella is not without its charm, particularly in its early pages. But it drifts into abstraction as it goes along and both the fictional Alfred and the fictional Emily lose their verisimilitude as they age.
It is only with the addition of the later material that versions of Alfred and Emily come to life. At that point, the book is also an interesting glimpse of an empire and an era: of how the hazy, golden afternoon of the Edwardian Age faded into the dark of World War I and of the way that disappointed British citizens fueled their postwar dreams by leaving their country,
At its core, “Alfred & Emily” is about the struggle to separate one’s own identity from those of families and nations and histories. Whether or not writing “Alfred & Emily” helped Lessing find her own freedom, only she can know.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.