Politics and the Threat of Reading in Doris Lessing’s “The Sweetest Dream”

In Doris Lessing’s The Sweetest Dream, one of her neglected later novels, she reconstructs the political themes of her two great 1960s experimental novels, The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City.  She sketches the hypocrisy of the post-war Communist party in Britain, recalls the very real terror of the atomic bomb, and explores the alternative cultures of hippies and dropouts. 

But The Sweetest Dream is straightforward and realistic—there are no flights into science fiction, and any portraits of mental illness are clinical rather than empathetic.  This solid book is more accessible than her masterpieces, and it is a page-turner.  It might be a good place to start reading Lessing.

Lessing writes a note at the beginning of the book explaining that she never wrote the third volume of her autobiography because she did not want to hurt people.  She offers this novel in its place. And though she claims the characters are not based on any people, her readers will recognize recurring themes and characters from her canon.  

The Sweetest Dream begins in  the 1960s and takes us through the ‘90s.  It is a bookish novel, alluding not only to Lessing’s earlier novels, but to the role of reading in the characters’ lives. It focuses on the Lennoxes, an extended family which expands to include the children of the ex-wives of Comrade Johnny Lennox, whom his mother Julia calls “an imbecile.” 

The Lennoxes live in a large house in London, a house where people don’t particularly like each other. It is managed by Frances, an actress and journalist, the first of Johnny’s ex-wives, and is  owned by Johnny’s mother, Julia, a German aristocrat who came to England after World War I.  Frances and Julia  dislike each other but tolerate each other for the sake of Frances’s two teenage sons, who need a stable home.  Andrew and Colin have been traumatized by the irresponsibility of their father, “Comrade” Johnny, a Communist superstar who left them years ago and has since ruined the lives of other vulnerable women.  

And though the house is not meant to be a rooming house, Frances is too kind to turn people in need away. Partly out of guilt toward her sons, she allows their friends to “crash” on weekends.  Soon some of the “waifs” are living there.

The most problematic of the “waifs” is Rose, a furious girl whom no one likes, who moves into the basement flat and refuses to leave.  Her hatred of the Lennoxes, especially Frances, poisons the atmosphere.  Years later, when Rose joins the Communist party, Rose jeers at the elderly Julia as she struggles through a crowd at an anti-war rally.  When Julia faints on the curb, trying to call a taxi,  Rose yells to the crowd that “Ma Lennox” is drunk, and the crowd laughs.  Rose does get a taxi for the old woman, but continues her campaign to discredit the family.

But what I’m really interested in is the role of books in Rose’s burgeoning hatred and resentment of the Lennoxes.

Since Rose had first come into this house she had been possessed by a quiet fury that these people could call it theirs, as of a right.  The great house, its furnishings, like something out of a film, all that money…but all that was only the foundation for  a deeper anguish, a bitter burning that never left them.  It was their ease with it all, what they took for granted, what they knew.  Never had she mentioned a book—and she had a period of testing them out with books no sane person could have heard of—that they hadn’t read, or hadn’t heard of.  She would stand in that sitting-room, with two walls all books from ceiling to floor, and know that they had read them.  “Frances,” she challenged, being found there, hands on hips, glaring at the books, “have you actually read all these books?”  “Well, yes, I believe I have.”  “When did you? Did you have books in your house when you were growing up?”  “Yes, we had the classics. I think everyone did in those days.”  “Everybody, everybody!  Who’s everybody?”  “The middle classes,” said Frances, determined not to be bullied.  “And a good proportion of the working class as well.”

This goes on for pages.  A young African boy  is also intimidated by the books, but, unlike Rose, he is awed and thrilled to read them. 

Books so often are the center of debate, aren’t they?  Especially in this day and age, when the Left and the Right both “censor” books by discrediting the writers’ politics or personal lives. This is a very strange time, but maybe we’ll forget all about it in ten years.

I wonder what Lessing would have thought.

2 thoughts on “Politics and the Threat of Reading in Doris Lessing’s “The Sweetest Dream””

  1. “have you actually read all these books?” “Well, yes, I believe I have.”

    Are we supposed to believe Frances, though? Someone “with two walls all books from ceiling to floor” almost certainly bought some to read eventually. Are we supposed to think Frances is “at war” with Rofe in an active way? Does Rose read any of the books?

  2. In general, Frances doesn’t think about Rose, and so this exchange is seen from Rose’s perspective. (Lessing follows the lives of several characters for decades.) But, yes, Frances seems not to have a TBR. She is too busy writing for a newspaper (often in cafes to get away from everyone). I did want to know more about the books on the shelves.

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