Doris Lessing and Me: How Martha Quest Saved Me

“The bad time had been going on for-  but one of the qualities of a bad time is that it seems endless”–Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City 

One summer evening when I was sixteen, I found myself eating dinner at a posh house in Westchester County, New York.  The 32-year-old lesbian teacher with whom I  lived (she’d seduced me, I realized later, because I was not living with my parents) was visiting her wealthy ex-father-in-law.  First we went on a “tour” of his house, which was not quite the Metropolitan Museum of Art; but  he pontificated about a few framed prints on the walls.  Later, the European housekeeper served us dinner, something simple, perhaps chicken.  

It was a difficult, nearly intolerable situation.  He radiated disapproval, and in retrospect, I understand that it is far from ideal for an ex-daughter-in-law-turned-lesbian to show up with a teenage girlfriend.  And the butler at his dark New York penthouse, where we had stayed a few days, had reported that we didn’t let him cook for us.  The lesbian, whom I will henceforth call Hilda, was on a steak diet, so had cooked for herself.  Her ex-father-in-law found this absurd.  I remember little else about the conversation, except I said I  liked Doris Lessing’s books, and he informed me that he “couldn’t read her; her writing was flat-footed.” 

On this particular trip, I became resigned to disapproval. A few days earlier, in a small college town in the Midwest, Hilda’s professor brother had stormed out of the house and refused to speak to her after he saw she was dating a child.  His wife and daughters were kind, trying to save the relationship, I suppose.  But there was something definitely wrong with Hilda:  she  confided she was “attracted to” one of her nieces.

I felt trapped by Hilda, and also felt bored:  my close friends knew all about her (“We thought she was a dirty old woman,” one of them told me years later), but I had to keep the dark secret at school, because she told me it was illegal, and she would get fired from her job; and, to make things worse,  I always had a yeast infection.  (I never had another after I left.)  To show you how far I was from any semblance of maturity, my friends and I used to bicycle at night and hang glittered tampons (feminist art) on trees.   

During this period of anxious cohabitation with Hilda, Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest novels saved me.  That will sound like an exaggeration, but the books were a lifeline. Not only did I become the character when I read; I became the books.  Martha, the heroine of Lessing’s five-book Children of Violence series, was my role model, and everybody else’s, as I learned when I was older.

Martha encourges us to resist and struggle out of traps.  In many ways, she is an escape artist, trying on roles and rejecting them. The cycle of books, Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked, and The Four-Gated City, delineates Martha’s experiences from her teens and young adulthood in Africa, and, finally, in the last novel, she immigrates to London, where she lives into old age–until a disaster makes London a dystopia.

From the beginning, Martha is a resister.  In  Zambesia, a fictitious name for Southern Rhodesia, the white-dominated colony in Africa where Lessing grew up, we first meet 15-year-old Martha, a dropout who spends her days reading Kinsey, Freud, and Marx.  After battling her controlling mother, she moves to town, where she becomes a secretary, and attends”sundowners” at the country club every night.  Soon she is astonished to find herself married to a dull man and the bored mother of a toddler, Caroline.  She leaves the marriage and her daughter, feeling guilty about Caroline, but convinced she has set Caroline free–and maybe she has, because Martha was so unhappy.

The next three books concentrate on politics and sex (which is mostly bad, alas), as Martha struggles to escape the deadening conformity  of a provincial, racist, sexist society.  Martha, a member of the Communist party, does her typing job between meetings and lectures, and is always sleep-deprived (it makes me tired just to read it). Lessing’s descriptions of the leftist group dynamics and political jargon are  fascinating and familiar; there are countless fights and complex sexual interactions, just as there are today. And yet Martha makes another tragic mistake:  she marries Anton Hesse, a German refugee and a leader of their Communist group, so he won’t be interned or deported.  The two are sexually incompatible, and she is once again trapped. But once again she escapes:  In the fourth novel, Landlocked, she has great sex with a charming married farmer who she knows will never leave his wife. Finally, Martha!   But Martha has always meant to go to London, and finally she does. 

The first four books are starkly realistic, an African coming-of-age story, and of these Landlocked is by far the best.  But the last, The Four-Gated City, an experimental novel, is the one I’ve returned to agains and again.  It not only charts the changing politics of post-war London but the changing  trends and styles during the ’50s and ’60s.  In the last part, Lessing turns London into   dystopia, after an unknown disaster strikes the world.

Why did The Four-Gated City speak to me?  Is it because I was trapped, and Martha gets out of her trap?   Back then, we were gloomy about the bomb, the environment, overpopulation, etc.   I could only too easily imagine a dystopian catastrophe, but The Four-Gated City does offer some hope.  

Certainly Martha knows we need dreams to survive, though she  leads an extremely difficult life.  At one point,  Martha and Mark, her employer in London, a writer and factory owner, discuss an ideal city.  Mark begins describing it to tease her out of bad humor.

“Do you know what it is you’re really wanting, Martha? ’

And he proceeded to tell her. She was seeking, without knowing it for the mythical city, the one which appeared in legends and in fables and fairy stories, and (here he laughed at her, but affectionately) it was a hierarchic city, which is why she refused even to consider it. He proceeded to describe it, as clearly as if he had lived there; and she, laughing affectionately at him, who knew this archetypal city so well yet said he believed in nothing but a recurring destruction and disorder joined him in a long, detailed, fantastic reconstruction which, by the time they had finished, was as good as a blueprint to build.”

I left Hilda when I was eighteen. My mythical city turned out to be books, boyfriends  (I married the man I loved), and taking walks in the country.

And though life is always a struggle, it helps to read Doris Lessing.  Really, it does.

Coupons, Coffee, & Quarantine


 Is this Barnes and Noble coupon the most exciting thing that has happened in months?  You would think so. I went to Barnes and Noble to buy a book, and though  I suppose I should have  quarantined it when I got home,  I did not.  And the coupon fell out!  (The whimsical laws of “quarantined”objects in my home differ from those of the super-hygenic humans.)

For years B&N has given me coupons for a free cookie–perhaps you have to buy a cookie first; I don’t know.

But coffee!  If only I’d known the cafe was open.  I saw chairs piled on top of tables from afar… 

But is drinking coffee at B&N going too far? 

I would have taken the coffee outside, of course.  

WHY DO I WISH THE  LIBRARIES WOULD OPEN?  I have amused myself in the last few months by making  a list of scholarly books I might like to read.  The samples at Amazon have that slightly overstuffed-chair style, as if the writers are afraid they will be mistaken for Georgette Heyer. But you can’t judge a book by its sample.

For $126.99, you can buy Cupid and Psyche: the reception of Apuleius’ Love Story since 1600, edited by Stephen Harrison and  Regine May.  Apuleius is one of my favorite novelists (yes, there were novels in ancient times), and we’ve all taught the Cupid and Psyche myth.  But the public library would never buy this one. 

I am also intrigued by Jana Norton’s The Tragic Life Story of Medea as Mother, Monster, and Muse ( $99).  I love the title!  The description says,  “This volume offers a critical yet empathic exploration of the ancient myth of Medea as immortalized by early Greek and Roman dramatists to showcase the tragic forces afoot when relational suffering remains unresolved in the lives of individuals, families and communities…)

And soon I will offer you “a critical yet empathic exploration” of  a book I just read.

Happy reading!  And have you ventured out to a bookstore yet?

Miscellaneous Notes:  D. H. Lawrence’s Essays and the Risks of an American Protest

WHAT I’M READING.  The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays by D. H. Lawrence.  Last year I declared D. H. Lawrence my favorite writer on the basis of his masterpiece The Rainbow–though I admit his later novel The Plumed Serpent was trying, with excessive descriptions of drumming and dancing by Mexican rebels in an Aztec cult.

Fortunately, his nonfiction is fascinating.  In this brilliant collection of essays and criticism, my favorite piece is Memoir of Maurice Magnus, an account of Lawrence’s reluctant friendship with M–, a penniless German who became a professional sponger.  Lawrence first meets M__ at a cheap Italian hotel, where his friend D–  is staying; and M–  is so infatuated with D– that he runs the errands, ensures that the gourmet food is cooked properly, and is virtually a slave to him.  Later, Lawrence visits M–at  a monastery where he claims he wants to become a monk–until the police come after him for his debts. And from here all is downhill for M–.   Lawrence’s wife Frieda hated M–, who admittedly was a woman hater, and fumed at the top of the stairs when he came to beg Lawrence for money.  This sad, comic memoir reads like a novella.

THE RISKS OF AN AMERICAN PROTEST.  Like the majority of Americans, I am shocked by the racist police brutality that killed George Floyd. I wept over the video of his death.

But I cannot in good conscience support the continued protests.

Both blacks and whites are protesting, but we should remember that a disproportionate number of blacks have died of the virus.  According to the CDC, the highest death rates in  New York City have been among African Americans and blacks (92.3 deaths per 100,000 population) and Hispanics (74.3 per 100,000 population).  A study by APM Research Lab in May found that African Americans have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 20.7 for whites, 22.9 for Latinos and 22.7 for Asian Americans.

The virus is still raging.  Isn’t it time to move on and get the vote out for November?

Summer Charm:  “Mrs. Gaskell and Me” and “The Thin Man”

Every summer I  hunker down with a classic like The Tale of Genji, Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, or Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander.  It is an automatic affectation for me to pick up a weighty classic, while others pretend to read slim books with pink covers.   I have found that a classic from your Not Urgent List is best perused in the psychedelic heat while sipping an Arnold Palmer with a little umbrella in it.

Bu this year is different.  I do not have a reading list.  I have wept over scenes of protesters and police kneeling together on the news; and every time I cough I wonder, Is it the virus? 

And so I have not committed to a magnum opus–yet.

But let me tell you briefly about two charming books.

Nell Stevens’s Mrs. Gaskell and Me, published in the U.S. as The Victorian and the Romantic:  A Memoir, a Love Story, and a Friendship across Time, is a splendid biblio-memoir. It is partly a historical novel about Elizabeth Gaskell, written in the second person; partly a memoir of Stevens’ Ph.D. research on Gaskell. In the novel, Gaskell struggles with accusations of immorality and libel in  her biography of Charlotte Bronte, which she later has to censor; longs to escape from her narrow-minded husband, a minister, in Manchester; and travels to Rome with her daughters, where she forms a romantic friendship with Charles Eliot Norton, an American writer and scholar.

Stevens’s book is not all fiction, or at least seems not to be.  Stevens interweaves a memoir of her own reading of Mrs. Gaskell , which an affair with a moody, selfish writer she met in an MFA program in Boston often impedes. Stevens is more frail than Gaskell, but we all have been obsessed with that moody guy in grad school, haven’t we?   Much of the book is enchantingly lyrical, and it is blessedly short.

I am a great fan of Dashiell Hammett’s noir screwball comedy, The Thin Man.  I agree with Dorothy Parker, who said:  “All I can say i say is that anyone who doesn’t read him misses much of modern America.” 

In The Thin Man, Nick and Nora, the most charming couple in a 20th-century American mystery, are enjoying their stay in a luxurious New York hotel, spending their time at speakeasies, parties, restaurants, and Radio City Music Hall.  The trouble starts on the first page when Dorothy Wynant shows up at a speakeasy and asks Nick, a former detective, if he can help her find her father, who was once his client.

And then a string of murders follows, and Dorothy’s mother, Mimi, finds the first body.  But since Nick knows Mimi is crazy and lies about everything, he does not take her story seriously. Not surprisingly,  the ex-cons, among them Studsy Burke, owner of The Pigiron Cub, are more honest than the upper-class neurotics and avaricious businessmen who demand  Nick’s help. 

You may have seen the excellent movie The Thin Man, with William Powell and Myrna Loy. .  And of course he wrote The Maltese Falcon

I hope your summer reading is going well!

Coronavirus Spit

Elinor and Marianne on a walk in “Sense and Sensibility”

In the spring of 2020, the world changed. Travel was discouraged, sometimes forbidden. It was eerily quiet.  We stayed home more than anyone in the world outside the novels of Jane Austen. (The Bronte and Eliot heroines are more mobile.) 

We stayed home to make the world a safer place.  Some of us embroidered, some read books, some watched TV, still others turned it off, others did puzzles, others played games, still others coughed, still others died. 

When the states reopened, politicans were fully informed of the dangers.  (There have been a few investigations of possibly fudged numbers at test sites.)  Dr. Anthony Fauci repeatedly explained the danger of reopening until the states met federal guidelines. “There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control.”

Epidemiologists and public health officials continue to warn against gathering in crowds.  Churches,  parks, and beaches are teeming with people.  But pent-up energy has become so explosive that people believe what they want to believe, and many ignore the warnings.  And yet the globs of coronavirus spit travel a long way when people talk, chant, and sing.  

And now there are the protests.  A group that was doubtless clinically insane recently stood on the State Capitol steps and protested AGAINST VACCINES.  One misinformed, evil man  announced that no one had died of Covid-19.  And there is the national wave of protesters against racist police brutality and the unjust killing of George Floyd.  However good the cause, it is unwise to protest in a crowd during a pandemic.  Would Floyd, who  tested positive for Covid-19, have wanted protesters to infect or be infected?  With the utmost sincerity, I believe it is time to listen to Obama, who reminds us in an essay at The Medium, How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change,” of lessons  we can learn from Civil Rights history about the importance of negotiatinv with state and local leaders.  

Obama writes.

…I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobediencethat the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.

“When we think about politics, a lot of us focus only on the presidency and the federal government … But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.”

Where We’re Coming from: Reading Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories & Dismayed by Too Much News

I have gone through phases where I read only  Katherine Mansfield, and phases where I find her unreadable.

On a third reading of Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories (1920), I once again admired her spare, elegant style. With grace and sharp wit, she  pays homage to Chekhov’s stories and plays, and her detailed descriptions  of nature and interiors of houses are beautiful and revealing. 

Mansfield (1888-1923) grew up in New Zealand, later lived in London, and also traveled widely and lived in Europe. She married John Middleton Murry, a critic and editor, and socialized with D. H. Lawrence (who portrayed her as Gudrun in Women in Love), Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and the Bloomsbury group.  She died  of tuberculosis in 1923.

She is often compared to Virginia Woolf, her great rival and sometime friend.  I have never understood the comparison.   Mansfield’s realistic stories are wryly understated and lyrical, while Woolf’s prose is brilliantly poetic and often experimental.   

Mansfield is particularly astute at describing women and the parties they give.  In “Bliss,” Bertha Young, a 30-year-old wife and mother, is inexplicably excited before a dinner party. “…she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, or throw something in the air….”   She walks around the house checking details:  she has bought a big cluster of purple grapes that matches the dining-room carpet; and a bowl of vivid colorful fruit makes her ecstatic.  As she dresses for the party, she looks forward to the arrival of her mysterious new friend, Miss Fulton, to whom she is very attracted. Her husband grumbles about Miss Fulton, saying she will put on weight like “all blondes.”  Bertha shows Miss Fulton the garden and feels utterly appreciated.  But a scene at the end of the party shocks her out of bliss.

I am also a fan of “Pictures,” in which Mansfield describes the life of a middle-aged woman who is fallin into poverty.  Miss Ada Moss, a contralto singer with no work, lies in bed in her room in Bloomsbury, craving a big breakfast she cannot afford.  Her landlady comes into the room and threatens to evict her if she doesn’t pay the rent.  Ada isn’t overly-worried, but shea spends the day going from bar to bar, and theater to film studio, trying to find work as an actresss, snubbed because she is middle-aged.  Finally, she sits down for a cup of coffee.  If she is to live, she  must do something.  This story reminds me  of Storm Jameson’s excellent novella “A Day Off,” about another down-and-out middle-aged woman.

I also loved “Revelations,” in which a wealthy self-indulgent woman spends the morning in bed with a headache .  She feels indignant that no one recognizes her pain, and that her husband invites her to lunch when she is suffering.  Finally, she takes a cab to her hairdresser’s where she often goes when she feels blue.  But everyone is silent at the salon, and she doesn’t get the attention she wanted.  Her  inability to deal with real problems underscores her shallowness.

I do love the stories, and doubtless will reread the others later this summer.  


TOO MUCH NEWS. I can only keep up with one tragedy at a time.

Although the pandemic is still very real, the newspapers have moved on to the George Floyd protests. I worry not only about the racist police brutality, but also about the spread of the virus in crowds.  

On one particularly horrible night of TV news, three reporters, speaking on Zoom or Skype, were fervently condemning one of Trump’s tweets.

I burst out laughing.  “Three grown-up white men on Skype, criticizing Twitter:  do they ever wonder how they reached this point of unreality?”

I had to turn the TV off because I was hysterical.

The unreal is more real than the real these days.  Twitter isn’t real, is it?  How can anyone take it seriously?

We’re living in a novel by John Brunner or Philip K. Dick.

“I Can’t Breathe!” The Connection between Police Brutality & Covid-19

Some people are peacefully protesting; others are rioting; and still others come in from the suburbs for Instagram selfies.

This is already a tragic time, with more than 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the U.S.  And now we are witnessing what may retrospectively be considered viral genocide against protesters who march and gather in huge crowds. Their cause is just,  but the outcome may  be shattering.  Experts say it  will spread the virus, and they expect to see a spike  in the next two weeks.

If only our government leaders would  acknowledge the horror of the murder of George Floyd, talk with the protest leaders, and find a way to work together.  They could abate the violence and prevent a new wave of Covid-19.

Education about the transmission of the virus has failed among the majority of Americans, who were so eager to get back to the beach–some protested with guns– that lockdown was prematurely lifted.  Many of the protesters against the police killing of George Floyd  are wearing masks, but there is no possibility of social distancing. And  I hate the idea that thousands of protesters, black and white, may fall into the hands of white supremacists, who will certainly not lament their illness or deaths.

According to The Atlantic,:The virus seems to spread the most when people yell (such as to chant a slogan), sneeze (to expel pepper spray), or cough (after inhaling tear gas). It is transmitted most efficiently in crowds and large gatherings, and research has found that just a few contagious people can infect hundreds of susceptible people around them. The virus can spread especially easily in small, cramped places, such as police vans and jails.”

Someone needs to intervene and help…

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