At the age of eighteen, one of my favorite novels was Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark. I went so far as to type up my favorite quotes and tape them on the mirror. Looking into the mirror, the heroine, Kate Brown, tries to figure out who she is, under all the gloss and expectations. It made sense to me to read her words on the mirror, because at that time, Lessing’s novels were a template for my life.
This short, intelligent novel is what I call “Doris Lessing-lite.” She explored this material in more detail in her masterpieces, The Golden Notebook and the Children of Violence series. Kate Brown wonders what the point is. Women get points for being a good wife. They get more points for being a good mother. They still get points for being a bad mother. But what happens when no one needs her?
Things get dicey if you are not a wife or mother, Lessing knew. Many disapproved of Lessing for divorcing her first husband and leaving their two children with him. After her death, many women writers raged about her allegedly unmaternal feelings And even though Lessing married a second time, and had a third child whom she raised, these women were still enraged. Astonishing, isn’t it, that some of those women considered themselves feminists?
Over the years, I have internalized Lessing’s doctrines to the point that I see connections between The Summer Before the Dark (1973) with The Golden Notebook (1962) and the last half of The Four-Gated City (1969). In all three novels, the heroines question stereotypes, not just gender stereotypes, but the intricate, yet senseless mechanical organization of society.
Kate Brown is in her forties, a little older than the heroines of Lessing’s ’60s books. In her summer before the dark, she is torn from her suburban home by her husband, Michael, a doctor who plans to spend the summer in some medical research exchange in America: and she knows that he will be unfaithful. One of Michael’s friends needs a translator of Portuguese for a world food conference, so instead of spending a leisurely summer thinking about her future and keeping the house open for her four grown-up children, she finds herself working overtime as a translator, and becoming beloved of her colleagues.
Kate learns that looks – the way she presents herself – define who she is. She gets an expensive, gorgeous haircut and has her hair dyed the dramatic red it was when she was a girl. She buys beautiful, eye-catching clothes. Suddenly she is not just a stand-in but has administrative potential: she is promoted to help the conference-goers with everything from where to buy a certain shampoo to getting an immediate appointment with a top medical expert. Her decades of maternal skills ironically have landed her in a job that pays a staggering amount of money.
But does she want to be a professional? In August, she travels to Spain with a younger man, a dropout in his thirties, who gets very ill. During this horrible vacation, Kate realizes that her flirtatious friend, Mary, would never so much as have looked at this particular young man. Kate knows she should be spending the summer figuring out who she wants to be, not as a mother-figure to a young man in his thirties who is ill but also having a nervous breakdown.
And then, not surprisingly, Kate gets very sick. And she ends up in a very expensive hotel in London, having a breakdown, because she has nowhere to go: her house is rented till the the end of October. At this expensive hotel, a young woman whose role is very like Kate’s administrative role at the conferences is assigned to take care of her. And Kate realizes that rich people all over the world can buy this expensive care and expertise.
Kate loses sense of time. By the time she is recovering, she has become an invisible woman. She loses so much weight that her beautiful dresses hang on her, and her hair has grown out, frizzy with gray roots. People mistake her for a madwoman, and honestly she is a bit mad.
She goes into a greasy spoon restaurant where she is ignored by the waitress. And she is so outraged after years of being treated as that special person, Mrs. Kate Brown, that she spills a glass of water on the table; the waitress says she will change the tablecloth after Kate finishes her meal. Kate wants to cry and scream.
She realizes she needs to learn how to be alone. She rents a room in a basement apartment where she can have her breakdown without expensive intervention.
The basement is the opposite of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife’s attic. In The Four-Gated City, the heroine Martha Quest has a breakdown in a basement apartment, where her employer’s mad wife, Linda, lives. Lessing read Laing in the ’60s, and Martha and Linda are not mad but in touch with other realities that could help mankind. The basement is significant: closer to the earth? More escapable?
Kate’s breakdown is a source of pain and grief. She may not have wasted her life, but she has painted by the numbers. She has never lived alone. As a young girl, she devoted herself to finding a man. She dropped out of college to get married.
And then there is the issue of invisibility. In her billowing clothes, she is an old woman, a stick figure. Men ignore her, and she has always been noticed. But when she wears a tight sheath given her by her roommate, the men look and ask her out.
Before the summer is over, Kate will have to decide whether to work or return home. And if she goes home, she will win back her status, but will she be able to hang onto herself? The Summer Before the Dark is not quite my jam anymore. But Kate’s life is more ordinary than Martha Quest’s or Anna Wulf’s, so I think this novel would be more relatable to new readers than her 1960s classics.