Dorris Lessing' s classic series of autobiographical novels is the fictional counterpart to Under My Skin. In these five novels, first published in the 1950' s and 60s, Doris Lessing transformed her fascinating life into fiction, creating her most complex and compelling character, Martha Quest.
The book certainly feels like a weighty tome at over 650 pages and does deal with so called universal themes and it is also a Bildungsroman in that we continue to follow the development of Martha Quest thinly disguised in places as Doris Lessing herself. It is the fifth book of her Children of Violence series and while the first four in the series deal with Martha/Doris’ early life in Southern Rhodesia (Zambia) this one starts with her arrival in London in the very early 1950’s when the city was still in the grip of the aftermath of the second world war. Martha has little money and must find work and accommodation (a rented room above a fish and chip shop) in South London where bomb craters are still very much part of the scenery. She meets Jack a procurer of women for the sex trade and balances this with the good natured working class family life of the cafe owners) who have “taken her in”. She adapts to the rhythm and pace of life and like many young visitors to a big city she walks and walks; sometimes taking buses but breathing in the atmosphere of the city. Desperate to move on, she uses her Southern Rhodesia connections to get a job as a live in secretary/housekeeper to Mark Coldridge. She expects to stay for just three months while she gets herself settled in London, but fourteen years later she is still there. It appears to me that Lessing has now largely abandoned her autobiographical approach to the series and I think it is this that largely sets this book apart from the previous novels in the series and makes it superior: a step up in class. She still of course uses her experiences in London to add detail and authenticity to her writing but now we are firmly in the head and mind of her character Martha Quest.
Mark Coldridge is the son of a well connected family. He owns a rambling house somewhere near central London and Martha comes into his life when he needs some organisation. Martha sets to the task of making rooms more habitable and it becomes a magnet for a sort of extended family for the younger Coldridges. Mark’s wife Lynda is in a mental institution but becomes well enough to be allowed out to live with a friend in the basement. Mark is in love wth his wife but she will not allow him to touch her, continuing to lead a shadowy existence with her mentally ill friend in a cocoon of their own choosing. The sickness in the basement is in danger of permeating through the household which now contains younger members of the family and Mark’s new left wing/communist cronies. Martha feels sucked in, sucked down to the basement.
”Mark and the comrades, all furious energy and defence: Lynda and her Dorothy in the twilight of their basement: Martha all passivity; the two sad children, who were the pasts and the future of the adult people: but an onlooker, someone looking into this house as if it were a box whose lid could be taken off would be struck by a curious fact. Martha defeated by the house, by the currents of personality in it, was the one person in it, who had no reason at all to be suffering; to be weighed down: yet she was the only person who (at that time during that particular spring) was weighed down, was suffering, who thought of death”
The house in Radlett Road is the centre of Martha’s life and yet she is not a member of the family, but we see the house and its occupants through her eyes as they grow and develop, Martha soaks up their issues like a sponge. As the years go by, the occupants change with Martha and Mark being the only constants, others come and go and Lynda is in and out of hospital.
The treatment of mental illness becomes a significant theme in the book and Marth’a own descent into near illness becomes a significant factor. The working of the mind the subtle lines of perceived mental incapacity/capacity becomes a central theme as Lessing takes this idea to open out her book into something of an apocalypse. This I think is the main feature of the books claim for greatness as it enters the world of a future dystopia nurtured it would appear from the currents that pass through the house in Radeltt road. Original certainly, prophetic maybe, but certainly containing an element of fantasy that would have delighted E M Forster.
A theme of how people adapt to those around them, how they manage to accommodate friends and family, how they are stirred by passions and how they cope with changing situations are superbly caught in this novel. Characters may do surprising things but they are not “out of character” in the way that Lessing has developed them. Mark Coldridge lies at the centre of the household a man locked in with his own desires and feelings, unable to talk about them. We know he is not a man without feelings, but his inability to express himself at that level is one of Lessings superb character creations and there are others just as finely drawn: Paul the young conman/entrepreneur shaped by his unstable home life who can be irrational or compassionate at the turn of a dime, Jimmy Woods a successful psychopath writing his science fiction novels and inventing machines that may do real harm, but functioning as a working partner to Mark: too many others to list.
The novel is also an important chronicle of the times. Lessing has always been a political animal and her experiences in the communist party and socialist groups is brought into play in her depiction of the politics of the late 1950’s early 1960’s. After the defeat of the Labour government in Britain after the war the left were in retreat. Marks uncle is a Labour MP, a socialist too far to the left to be of use when the Labour party finally comes back into power. Lessing is familiar with the intellectual groupings on the left and the right and it is here and in the class system that real power is held. The early sixties with the CND movement (campaign for nuclear disarmament) spilled over into popular culture and Lessing captures this with her depiction of a rally in Hyde Park at the culmination of one of the Aldermaston marches. Most of the Coldridge family and friends were marching or involved in the organisation. I was at the Hyde Park rally that Lessing describes and I felt I was back their savouring the atmosphere of those times. I think Lessing was consciously setting down markers of the significant events of those times albeit from a left wing standpoint and this shapes her novel into something more than a Bildungsroman. It depicts an atmosphere that readers today may not be aware of or have forgotten and that is the threat of living with the possibility of nuclear war, when people faced imminent destruction perhaps for the first time; could it happen? many believed it could and would, and so it is logical for Lessing to take that next step and document a future dystopia.
While reading the novel I felt that there was a certain sprawl to it. perhaps it lacked E M Forster’s rhythm and pattern. The element that springs to mind is the episode where Martha transmorphs back into Doris Lessing and deals with her conflict with her mother. It feels as though Lessing is writing this passage as some sort of self-analysis of the issues that she faced. Does it fit with Martha’s own development? perhaps it does, however thinking back and writing this review makes me feel that there is more logic, more organic development than I was immediately aware of on a first reading. Having read all of Lessings previous novels I am certain that this is her finest achievement to date. It is certainly her most ambitious and even if it feels a little unbalanced, I think it is a great novel, perhaps a masterpiece and essential reading for me and one I hope to read again. A Five star read.
Readers who come to this having read the previous four Children of Violence novels might be a bit thrown, since at times it feels like a completely separate book whose central character happens to share the same name. Though as I write that, the continuities do suggest themselves: the frustrated obsession with social justice, the refusal to accept easy answers, Martha's wonderfully prickly and bloody-minded feminism – all these qualities are consistent, just transposed to a European context.
It is fascinating seeing Lessing's painstaking, analytical style finally being applied to English social mores – nowhere more so than when it comes to sex, which becomes a major theme of this volume. She writes about it like no one else – long, meticulous descriptions which are too long to quote but which show a constant attention to the mental gymnastics and psychological quirks that accompany any kind of sexual interaction. Often these manage to be funny and touching and frustrating all at once, as when Martha pays a visit to what we'd now call one of her FWBs – and as they're lounging around naked, one of his other girlfriends suddenly turns up, leading to a weirdly polite and English sort of pre-threesome scene:
Joanna gave Martha a slow once-over.
‘You're very pretty,’ she said.
‘I'm sure that I'd think the same of you!’
Meanwhile Jack sat, not at all embarrassed, or amused, or annoyed. He was pleased and interested. […]
‘The thing is, Jack, either we both have to get dressed, or Joanna has to be undressed.’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Joanna in her brisk fair English way.
Jack wanted Joanna to get undressed. Afterwards he said to Martha: the tears positively drowning his eyes: ‘If she had trusted me so much: if she had taken her clothes off – then I swear, I'd have been so happy, I can't make you feel how happy I'd have been. But not yet. She will though. I'm sure she will.’
He left it to them, the two women, to decide when to trust him. Martha began to dress. That had been during the heatwave, and she had put on, but not too fast, while they watched, bra, pants, slip and a narrow blue linen dress. Joanna had admired the dress. Then Jack had got dressed and they had all gone out to eat lunch at the Indian restaurant.
There are lots of scenes in here dealing with situations for which we now have a sort of pre-formed script of how people ‘normally’ behave or react, but which here come across as entirely new to the world. It's remarkable. Jack goes through a bizarre journey in this book from sexual sensitivity to sexual perversion and predation – all very uncensoriously described – and Martha is baffled by the way the same language is used to describe all points on this spectrum.
She was desperate. But what was being created in her was not the never-to-be-sated ‘woman in love’, ‘wife’, ‘mistress’, etc. etc. Sex…What is sex? We keep using all these words, and what do they mean after all? The word sex has to do for so many different experiences, and like the word energy, it is what you make of it[…]. She thought: If I were a man I'd go to a prostitute.
Martha herself is living in a strange ménage-à-trois with a wealthy writer, Mark Coldridge, and his mentally unstable wife Lynda, who (in an inversion of the madwoman-in-the-attic trope) lives in the basement. The investigation in this book into the nature of Lynda's ‘instability’ is, again, quite extraordinary: in an effort to understand her, Martha visits therapists, undergoes psychoanalysis, takes drugs, spends days sitting with Lynda in her room and banging her head against a wall; and, finally, shuts herself away for weeks on end to explore the depths of her own mind. She emerges from this self-induced breakdown to find that the rest of humanity seems completely alien to her, and there is a hallucinatory, pages-long section where she simply reels through the streets of London in horror:
There they were all around her, with their roundish bony heads, that had flaps of flesh sticking out on either side, then the protuberance in the middle, with the air vents in it, and the eyes, tinted-jelly eyes which had a swivelling movement that gave them a life of their own […] And they stank. They smelled abominable, awful, even under the sweet or pungent chemicals they used to hide their smell. They lived in an air which was like a thick soup of petrol and fumes and stink of sweat and bad air from lungs full of the smoke they used as a narcotic, and filthy air from their bowels.
And all the time, Martha is getting older. What happened to the ambitions and stresses she had as a girl in southern Africa? Now she has responsibilities! There are children to look after! Not her own – her daughter, Caroline, is still in Africa and only alluded to – but, worse, other people's children, whom Martha has reluctantly come to care about, take responsibility for – raise. Everything shifts very quickly, and Lessing doesn't miss any of it.
Oh, how hard it is to be a middle-aged woman, who has to stand in for everyone's difficult mother, and who has to take – and return – looks from younger women examining their futures, exactly as one used to do oneself, and who are thinking, what a short time I've got left.
Indeed – though time hardly seems short in this book, which even its biggest admirers would have to describe as occasionally stodgy. I always picked it up with a slight sense of weariness, but always put it down feeling hugely rewarded. Partly because I kept thinking that I've never read anyone who writes like this before, and partly just from aesthetic pleasure – there are frequent passages of descriptive beauty:
Next night, she walked down a quiet middle-class street where only two or three windows still shone yellow in a strong white moonlight. Decorous little trees, like children allowed to stay up late, stood in patches of garden that defined individual front doors, each on its best behaviour, shining knocker, letter slit, bell. […] Elsewhere the moon rocked oceans in their beds, stuffed pillows full of uncomfortable dreams, made doctors double their dosage of sedatives for sad lunatics in hospitals, set dogs howling and drew fish up to goggle at the streaming white light.
What is perhaps most extraordinary about The Four-Gated City is what happens to its form towards the end: it cannot, finally, hold the content. We are in the last fraction of the last volume in a five-novel sequence, and suddenly, almost without any warning at all, this ruthlessly focussed naturalism breaks down – or, perhaps, is augmented – with elements of…well I was about to say ‘magic realism’, but that's not right, and anyway anachronistic. Elements of the supernatural and speculative descriptions of a dystopian future. One of the minor characters in here is a science-fiction (‘space fiction’) writer, and you can see Lessing examining the genre with interest, noting its possibilities, noting also the way it better allows authors to keep their biography separate from their work.
It's as though, ultimately, realism is not enough for Lessing to say everything that she wants to say, and so this gigantic realist project ends in a flourish that announces: this is what fiction allows me to do. (After this was published in 1969, she started experimenting with science fiction in earnest, leading to the Canopus in Argos series from 1979; here you can see that concept start to take hold.)
How to sum up the Children of Violence series? I think it's a real masterpiece – a completely unblinking look at how a person engages with the pressures and responsibilities of their society, and very aware of the fact that no one is a neutral ‘person’, everyone comes with specific attributes that entail their own weight of preconditions – Martha is female in a world where men have disproportionate power, white in a society where whites have disproportionate power; most of all, perhaps, she is politically aware in a culture that has perpetrated two world wars and built the military infrastructure of global extinction. These are colossal questions, and what you see in these books is something you don't see that often: someone with fierce intelligence and literary gifts addressing them head-on.
There were times when I couldn't read more than a sentence, or even half a sentence, without falling into a dream in which I wrote my own text. There were many times I wished I hadn't started the book. The ending is Britain-centric, terribly dated, post-apocalyptic, and unsatisfying.
For the writing effort and the many themes that can be discussed, 3 stars. For the sheer drudge of getting through it, -1.
But it still contains some pretty amazing writing - anyone who doubts Lessing’s abilities should just have a glance at the Aldermaston chapter. Brilliant stuff. Altogether, it's one of the most perceptive fictional accounts of the fifties and sixties I've seen, provided you can allow for the remarkably narrow field of view. Apart from the opening chapter, where we encounter a few promising working-class characters, the social scope of the book is strictly confined to the sort of people who attend (left-wing) political dinner parties in London, their children, and their children’s lovers. That was something that struck me as odd: in the African books the narrowness is obviously a deliberate way of drawing the reader’s attention to the invisibility of black people in colonial society, but it's not really clear why she maintains it when she gets to London.
I don't think it has worn as well as The Golden Notebook, but it is definitely still worth reading. Probably especially so if you're interested in Lessing’s science-fiction side, as this book establishes a kind of bridge between realistic and speculative writing, and also contains quite a bit of discussion about the role of “space fiction” and the way it is perceived in the larger literary world.