War and peace down on the farm – Doris Lessing book review in
Scotland on Sunday
Published Date: 11 May 2008 in Scotland on Sunday
Fourth Estate, £16.99
DORIS Lessing does not mince her words, above all on the subject of war. “We are all of us made by war,” she says, “twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it.” It has taken Lessing a lifetime to escape the “monstrous legacy” left to her by her parents, both irrevocably damaged by the First World War. She triumphantly does so here by giving her parents alternative lives, before telling their real story in what, she says, will be her last book.
In an interview at the time of winning the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, Lessing admitted that the fictional lives she designs for her parents in the first half are “very normal and ordinary”. Both are allowed to fulfil their ambitions: Emily as a nurse, and later a gifted storyteller, philanthropist and energetic organiser; Alfred as a sportsman and an English farmer. In comparison, the second half – the real story – is heartbreaking. In the short ‘Explanation’, Lessing writes: “You can be with old people, even those getting on a bit, and never suspect that whole continents of experience are there, just behind those ordinary faces.” She sets out to chart as much of those continents as she can, to discover not so much her father, but her mother – about whom she can still write: “Nothing fits, as if she were not one woman but several.”
Emily McVeagh was a sister at the Royal Free Hospital in London, where she nursed her husband, Alfred Tayler, through the operation that left him with a wooden leg. After the war, they moved to Persia, where they entered a whirl of parties and socialising. On leave in London, they were tempted by the offer of free land in Southern Rhodesia and decided to move, convinced that they could make enough money there to return to England and buy a farm. To say that reality did not match their hopes and expectations is to miss the point; there were rewarding aspects: the brilliant stars in the vast night skies above the farm, Bushmen rock paintings and wonderful food.
But the farm was never a success and, through long years of isolation and Alfred’s deteriorating health, the dream of “getting off the farm” continued to elude them. Alfred and Emily had entertained dreams of life in a British colony and came equipped with cricket and riding clothes, leather-bound music scores and a trunk full of “evening frocks, scarves, gloves, hats, boas, bags, silvery stockings, brocaded shoes”. The clothes were hidden away, unneeded, in the attic until one day when Emily finally allowed her daughter to take them out, only to discover the finest chiffons, linen and lace ravaged by moths and fit only for dressing up the dog.
Many of Lessing’s stories are about daughters struggling to escape their mothers, the archetypal figures of clever, demented women who allow themselves to be trapped as “neurotic nurturers”. While Lessing and her father “were complicit in a rage of understanding”, no such intimacy existed with her mother. Having been wounded before Passchendaele, Alfred suffered from recurrent depression. It took Lessing longer to realise the terrible extent of her mother’s damage since there were “no visible scars, no wounds”. The real Emily, she now realises, died in the nervous breakdown she had shortly after coming to the farm. The “real” Emily “was an educator, who told stories and brought me books. That is how I want to remember her.”
An unintentional consequence of the book is that it is shot through with anti-war sentiment. In the alternative lives Lessing invents for her parents, the war, and everything that followed, is airbrushed from history.
In this extraordinary valediction, she challenges the impossibility of escaping what “we were born with” by offering her parents more fulfilling lives. Lessing has asserted that “the story dictates the means of telling it”, and the form she has chosen here conveys a resounding affirmation of her parents’ lives and her own freedom.”
© Lucinda Byatt