Alfred and Emily

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In this profoundly moving book, Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing explores the lives of her parents, each irrevocably damaged by the Great War. In the fictional first half of Alfred and Emily, she imagines the happier lives her parents might have made for themselves had there been no war. This is followed by a piercing examination of their relationship as it actually was in the shadow of the devastating global conflict.

"Here I still am," says Lessing, "trying to get out from under ...

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In this profoundly moving book, Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing explores the lives of her parents, each irrevocably damaged by the Great War. In the fictional first half of Alfred and Emily, she imagines the happier lives her parents might have made for themselves had there been no war. This is followed by a piercing examination of their relationship as it actually was in the shadow of the devastating global conflict.

"Here I still am," says Lessing, "trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free." Triumphantly, with Alfred and Emily, she has done just that.

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Editorial Reviews

"Laced with the subtlest of observations and the wryest of wit...This unusual marriage of fiction and memoir (and family photographs) results in a book at once spellbinding, rueful, and tragic."
Michiko Kakutani
“An intriguing work . . . [that] shimmers with precisely remembered details.”
Washington Post Book World
“A clever, moving coupling of fiction and nonfiction. ALFRED & EMILY is...a testament to [Lessing’s] ongoing literary vitality.”
Christian Science Monitor
“A truly intriguing piece of work...the book is also an interesting glimpse of an empire and an era.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A stirring exploration . . . gently yet deeply moving”
USA Today
“Alfred and Emily reveals why Lessing deserved literature’s highest honor. There is a remarkable level of courage, honesty, and wisdom in Alfred and Emily. . . . Lessing, nearing 90, continues to surprise.”
Booklist (starred review)
“Laced with the subtlest of observations and the wryest of wit...This unusual marriage of fiction and memoir (and family photographs) results in a book at once spellbinding, rueful, and tragic.”
Wall Street Journal
“She has never displayed her potent imagination to better effect, or her gift for probing realism . . . a profoundly moving memoir and portrait of a marriage.”
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“An odd and powerful excursion into lost time. . . . a powerful reminder not only of Lessing’s past but also of how each of us can return to our own and come back with something precious.”
Michiko Kakutani
Writing with the incandescent clarity of her 88 years, Ms. Lessing—the 2007 Nobel laureate—conveys the appreciation she now feels for the hardship of her parents' lives, and the anger she often felt as a young girl in rebellion against her mother…[the] fictional portion of the book lacks all the beautiful specificity of the memoir part of the volume, which shimmers with precisely remembered details about the African countryside, Ms. Lessing's parents' house in the bush and her own difficulties negotiating the rocky ground of her girlhood.
—The New York Times
Caryn James
The entire project of Alfred and Emily is more revealing than either part of the book alone. The novella can be flat-footed; the biographical material is more thorough in Under My Skin. But it's amazing to witness Lessing, at 88, still ferociously grappling with the meaning of her parents' shattered lives. Of course, in explaining them she is also explaining herself…In its generosity of spirit, its shaped and contained fury, Alfred and Emily is also an extraordinary, unconventional addition to Lessing's autobiography. She's said she has written her last book (well, she has said a lot of silly things), but there isn't the slightest tone of valediction or summing up here. That's why she remains so vital: even in old age, she sounds as fierce and passionate as a girl.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly

The 2007 Nobel Prize in literature was a "bloody disaster" for Lessing, she recently told the BBC. This curious work-half fiction, half memoir, hampered by slapdash prose and an unfocused organization-may be the result of that unsettling time, when she said she didn't have the energy to write a full novel. The opening novella (the longer of the two pieces) is what might have become of her parents, Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh, if they had never married. The sluggish account of their parallel lives is notable mainly for Lessing's commentary on the changing economic, social and cultural mores in England before and after WWI. The second section is a rambling series of recollections that describe the family's failed farm in Southern Rhodesia. Lessing describes her mother's dominating personality, attributing her mother's smothering attention to her frustration at having given up a successful wartime nursing career and a vital social life to raise a family. Lessing's longtime readers will find little new in her autobiographical disclosures, and new readers will look in vain for the talent that won the Nobel. 11 b&w photos. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Lessing here showcases the uncanny abilities that earned her the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. Author of over 50 works (including novels The Grass Is Singing and The Golden Notebook), Lessing again visits the autobiographical theme of her upbringing. The first half of her latest book is a fictional novella detailing what Lessing imagines the lives of her parents would have been like without the interruption of Word War I. Relying on traits of character, wistful thoughts, and personality clues, Lessing casts her father, Alfred Tayler, as a kindhearted farmer. Her mother, Emily McVeagh, takes shape as a nurse turned socialite turned charitable school administrator. The book's second half is the true story of Lessing's childhood in Persia and Rhodesia. Describing the impact of her father's war injury and her mother's physical and mental losses, Lessing investigates the differences between what might have been and what truly happened. Her book is recommended for public and academic library collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/15/08.]
—Erin E. Dorney

Kirkus Reviews
In her first post-Nobel book, Lessing (The Cleft, 2007, etc.) imagines what her parents' life-and England-would have been like if World War I had never happened. That's the premise of the shrewd novella that comprises the most interesting half of this slightly scattershot assemblage. In real life, Emily McVeagh and Alfred Tayler met as nurse and gravely wounded soldier in a London hospital, married and settled in Rhodesia, where Lessing and her brother were raised while the Taylers tried to carve a good living from a colonial outpost that wasn't at all what they expected. (A bracing nonfiction section following the novella delves into that.) In "Alfred and Emily," they come from the same small English town, but he stays there to become a prosperous farmer while she defies her father's wishes to train as a nurse in London. She marries a prominent doctor (unhappily); he marries a warm, comforting woman beloved by his drunken best mate nearly as much as by Alfred. Without the traumatizing World War, England remains affluent and comfortable, but also class-divided and stagnant; Lessing's taste for discomfiting truths is as evident as ever. The diverse pieces that follow have their ups and downs. The material about her parents will be familiar in its broad strokes to anyone who read Lessing's autobiography (Under My Skin, 1994, and Walking in the Shade, 1997), but it forms a pointed and instructive counterbalance to the novella. A few shorter, more casual pieces ("Insects," "Provisions," Servant Problems," etc.) don't add much to what Lessing has written before about Africa, but "My Brother Harry Tayler" gives the author a chance to expatiate on her sibling, her own children and the end ofwhite rule in Rhodesia with an acuity all the more impressive since it requires barely eight pages. At age 89, the author may be slowing down a trifle, but the best parts here are as bracing and engaging as anything she's written in the past 30 years.
The Barnes & Noble Review
"In our family, as far as we are concerned, we were born, and what happened before that is myth," pronounced V. S. Pritchett in A Cab at the Door, the entertaining 1968 memoir about his English childhood.

In the fictionalized first half of Alfred and Emily -- a hybrid that sutures together a novella and a memoir -- Doris Lessing concerns herself not with what actually preceded her birth but with what might have. She extends Pritchett's notion by erasing herself from the picture and conjuring mythical versions of her parents, reimagining their lives without World War One. The result is they would never have married and, by Lessing's admission, would have thus been much happier.

In a 1988 interview with The Paris Review, Lessing was asked to explain a short autobiographical piece she'd written for the literary magazine Granta. The interviewer observed that while the title implied that it was "about your mother. In some ways it really seemed to be more about your father."

Lessing replied: "Well, how can one write about them separately? Her life was, as they used to say, devoted to his life."

Alfred and Emily takes the rhetorical question in this response and uses it as a springboard, separating her married parents from each other -- the obverse of the fantasy of many children of divorce. What she then seeks to do in the book's second part -- her true account of what happened -- is to separate them from herself.

Writing the first section as a novella allows Lessing the freedom to perform a kind of benediction; she gives her parents the lives they said they really wanted. It's an unusual conceit and, both for the imagined Alfred and Emily as well as the reader, it turns out to be a mixed blessing.

Without the war to bring her parents together, Lessing imagines that their influence on each other was peripheral. She stages their eventual meeting at a cricket match in their late teens, as Emily McVeagh is preparing to become a nurse and Alfred Tayler, a farmer. Having been disowned by her father, who views her career choice as inferior, Emily marries an emotionally detached cardiologist, a character based upon the man Lessing's mother loved -- and lost -- in the war. The couple has no children, or romance, and Emily's life only finds happiness and purpose following his death, when she uses her inheritance to fund new schools. She dies at 73, as in real life, though the fictionalized death is far more brutal than heart failure; she intercedes to stop some boys from picking on a dog, and the boys turn on her.

Alfred, meanwhile, accomplishes "his heart's desire" by running an English farm and marrying a soft, affectionate woman named Betsy, with whom he has twin boys. Instead of dying of diabetes at 62, he lives to a ripe old age. Describing the earlier writing she has done about her father, Lessing says: "He comes out clearly, unambiguous, all himself," and the same can be said for his fictive double.

In the Paris Review interview, Lessing confessed: "[H]e was a remarkable bloke, my father. He was a totally impractical man. Partly because of the war, all that. He just drifted off, he couldn't cope. My mother was the organizer, and kept everything together."

The generosity Lessing has bestowed upon her parents in this novella -- in giving them their ostensible dream lives -- is of course for her own benefit. Despite all of the tragic and unfulfilled aspects of her mother's experience, she writes, "The real Emily McVeagh was an educator....This is how I want to remember her."

Leaving behind this thought-provoking but somewhat weightless fictive frame, the stronger, more immediate latter half of the book picks up after the Great War, "the war to end all war," when Lessing's parents moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her father hoped that growing maize would yield enough money to afford a farm in the English countryside. What lay in store, however, was a terrible misadventure, with a farm "too small to achieve anything in the way of serious profit." Isolated, each of her parents struggled with depression and other aftereffects of the war.

A wartime nurse, her mother met her future husband in the hospital after he'd lost his right leg. Throughout Lessing's childhood, her father obsessed about his experiences in the trenches. "It took me years," writes Lessing, "and years -- and years -- to see it: my mother had no visible scars, no wounds, but she was as much a victim of the war as my poor father." Though she survived physically unscathed, her own ordeals there were as traumatic as his.

Winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize, Lessing also received, like Pritchett, a Golden PEN Award for her prolific contribution to contemporary literature. Best known for her feminist novel The Golden Notebook (1962) and for her science fiction, she has also written about her family, with various levels of bitterness. Martha Quest (1952), her autobiographical second novel, burns with outrage toward the character of the heroine's mother, in a thinly veiled depiction of Lessing's own mother-and-daughter battle. "It was cruel, that book," she admits in Alfred and Emily. "Would I do it now? But what I was doing was part of the trying to get free."

All these decades later, she is still struggling to break away. One of the primary differences between this work and her previous memoirs is that here, even though she still espouses abhorrence for her mother, she circles back to their shared history with the benefits of hindsight. Lessing is nearing 90; this book, which she claims will be her last, shares with her other great books a lofty concept and forcefully direct language. What sets this work apart from Lessing's prior books is her accessibility. When reading of her relationship with her parents, especially her mother, it's difficult not to cringe in recognition of one's own fight for autonomy. Lessing hated her mother, but instead of devoting her considerable energies merely to describing her outrage and disgust, she acknowledges: "I owe to her, my mother, my introduction to books, reading -- all that has been my life."

In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, Lessing writes of the beautiful dresses her mother brought along to Rhodesia, planning for regular garden parties and dances. Completely unsuitable for the harsh realities of Africa, the gowns were eaten by moths and eventually handed over to Lessing. "You can use them for dressing up. Or cut them up," her mother said, before running out of the room to cry.

Insofar as those dresses represent her mother's desires, Lessing did cut them up. Between the honest cruelty of Martha Quest and the equally authentic compassion of Alfred and Emily, Lessing has succeeded not in breaking free from her parents but in recognizing the impossibility of such a mission. She does succeed, as much as any of us may hope to do, in making sense of their legacy, treading through their thwarted dreams and mistakes to arrive, finally, at the end of her own life. From a tragic and terrible childhood, and her mother's meddlesome and oppressive stake in her identity, Lessing has sewn together an astonishing reminiscence. --Sarah Norris

Sarah Norris, arts editor of The Villager, has reviewed books for The New Yorker, Village Voice, Time Out New York, and other publications.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060834890
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/20/2009
  • Pages: 274
  • Sales rank: 785,818
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Doris  Lessing
Winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, Doris Lessing was one of the most celebrated and distinguished writers of our time, the recipient of a host of international awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the David Cohen Memorial Prize for British Literature, the James Tait Black Prize for best biography, Spain's Prince of Asturias Prize and Prix Catalunya, and the S. T. Dupont Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature.


"Doris Lessing is the kind of writer who has followers, not just readers," Lesley Hazleton once observed. But the Nobel Prize-winning Lessing, whose classic novel The Golden Notebook was embraced as a feminist icon, has seldom told her followers exactly what they wanted to hear. For much of her career, she has frustrated readers' expectations and thwarted would-be experts on her work, penning everything from traditional narratives to postmodern novels to mystic fables.

Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) and grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her father made an unsuccessful attempt to farm maize. Though she loved living on the farm, her family life was often tense and unhappy. Lessing married at the age of 20, but three years later, feeling stifled by colonial life and increasingly distressed by the racism of her society, she joined the Communist Party, "because they were the only people I had ever met who fought the color bar in their lives."

Soon after that, she left her husband and first two children to marry fellow Communist Gottfried Lessing, with whom she had a son. They divorced, and she took her son with her to England, where she published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, to high acclaim. After several more novels, including the semi-autobiographical series Children of Violence, Lessing wrote The Golden Notebook, a postmodern, fragmentary narrative about a writer's search for identity. The Golden Notebook gained a passionate following in the feminist movement and "left its mark upon the ideas and feelings of a whole generation of women," as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote.

To Lessing's dismay, she was frequently cited as a "feminist writer" after that. Yet as Diane Johnson pointed out in a 1978 review of Stories, Lessing "also understands men, politics, social class, striving, religion, loneliness and lust." Johnson added: "Mrs. Lessing is the great realist writer of our time, in the tradition of the major Continental novelists of the 19th century, particularly Stendhal and Balzac, but also Turgenev and Chekhov -- a masculine tradition with which she shares large moral concerns, an earnest and affirmative view of human nature, and a dead-eye for social types."

But Lessing, who once called realist fiction "the highest form of prose writing," soon launched into a science-fiction series, Canopus in Argos: Archives, which baffled many of her fans. Lessing used the term "space fiction" for the series, which recounts human history from the points of view of various extraterrestrial beings. Though Lessing gained some new readers with her Canopus series, her early admirers were relieved when she came back to Earth in The Fifth Child, the story of a monstrous child born to ordinary suburban parents, which Carolyn Kizer deemed "a minor classic." Later novels like Mara and Dann included elements of fantasy and science fiction, but recently, with the publication of The Sweetest Dream, Lessing has returned to domestic fiction in the realist mode, which many critics still see as her best form.

Throughout her life, Lessing has been drawn to systems for improving human experience -- first Marxism, then the psychiatry of R. D. Laing, then Sufi mysticism. But her yearning for a single, transcendent truth coexists with a sharp awareness of the contradictory mix of vanities, passions, and aggressions that make up most human lives. As Margaret Drabble noted, Lessing is "one of the very few novelists who have refused to believe that the world is too complicated to understand."

Good To Know

Lessing's African stories painted a grim picture of white colonialism and the oppression of black Africans, and in 1956, Lessing was declared a prohibited alien in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. In 1995, she was able to visit her daughter and grandchildren in South Africa, where her works are now acclaimed for the same content that was once condemned.

Though she was briefly allied with the Communist Party in Salisbury, Lessing has frequently insisted that the picture of her as a political activist is exaggerated. "I am always being described as having views that I never had in my life," she once told the Guardian. She has, however, been an outspoken critic of the racial politics of South Africa, and she once turned down the chance to become a Dame of the British Empire on the grounds that there is no British Empire.

To demonstrate how difficult it is for new writers to get published, Lessing sent a manuscript to her publishers under the pseudonym Jane Somers. Her British publisher turned it down, as did several other prominent publishers (though her American editor detected the ruse and accepted the book). The Diary of a Good Neighbour was published as the work of Jane Somers, to little fanfare and mixed critical reviews. Lessing followed it with a sequel, If the Old Could..., before revealing her identity as the author of both.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Doris May Tayler (birth name), Jane Somers (pseudonym)
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 22, 1919
    2. Place of Birth:
      Persia (now Iran)
    1. Date of Death:
      November 17, 2013
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England

Read an Excerpt

Alfred and Emily

By Doris Lessing
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008

Doris Lessing
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060834883


The suns of the long summers at the beginning of the last century promised only peace and plenty, not to mention prosperity and happiness. No one remembered anything like those summer days when the sun always shone. A thousand memoirs and novels averred that this was so, and that is why I may confidently assert that on that Saturday afternoon in August 1902, in the village of Longerfield, it was a splendid afternoon. The occasion was the annual celebration of the Allied Essex and Suffolk Banks, and the place was a vast field lent every year by Farmer Redway who usually kept cows in it.

There were different focuses of activity. At the end of the field, excited cries and shouts told that here were the children's games. A long trestle table laden with every kind of foodstuff stood under some oaks. The main arena of attention was the cricket match, and around the white-clad figures clus-tered most of the spectators. The whole scene was about to be absorbed by the shadows from the big elms that divided this field from the next where the expelled cows watched the proceedings, while their jaws moved reminiscently like those of gossips. The players in their fresh whites, which were a bit dusty after a day of play, knew their importance in this summer festival, conscious that every eye was on them, including those of a group of townspeople leaning over afence, who were determined not to be left out.

Not far from the cricket pitch there were, sitting on the grass with cushions, a large, fair woman, whose reddened face said she did not enjoy the heat, a tiny shred of a girl, her daughter, and a girl who had just leaned forward, her eyes on Mrs Lane's face to hear what she was saying. 'It is a very serious thing, my dear, quarrelling with your father.'

At this moment, a youth was coming forward to stand with his bat at the stumps, and the fair woman leaned to send him a wave, which he acknowledged with a smile and a nod. He was strik-ingly good-looking, dark and well built, and that there was something especial about his standing there was shown by a sudden silence. The bowler sent down a ball and the batsman easily knocked it well away.

'Sssh,' said Mary Lane. 'Just a minute, I want to see …' Daisy, the little girl, was already leaning forward to watch, and now Emily McVeagh, the other girl, watched too, though she was certainly not seeing much. She was flushed with excitement and determination, and kept glancing sideways at the older woman, hoping for her attention.

Another ball sped down towards the handsome youth, another prompt rebuff, and now there was a ripple of applause.

'Well done,' said Mrs Lane, and was ready to clap, but the bowler had begun his run forward.

Again … again … a ball came close to where they sat and the fieldsman ran to retrieve it. The innings went on, there were several scatters of applause, and then a burst of clapping when the youth sent a ball almost as far as the children's games.

It was time for tea. The long trestle table was besieged, while a woman stood by the urn and handed out cups. 'I could do with one, Daisy,' said her mother, and the girl ran to join the queue.

Now Mrs Lane remembered that very much more was being expected of her by the girl Emily, so she turned her attention to her and said, 'I don't really think you know yet what you are in for.'

Mrs Lane was a woman with influence, friends in useful places, and she had been finding out from a dozen different sources just what Emily McVeagh was in for.

The girl had defied her father, and said to him that, no, she would not go to university, she would be a nurse. 'She'll be a skivvy among skivvies,' Mrs Lane had said to herself, shocked at the girl's decision.

She knew John McVeagh well, knew the family, had watched Emily's triumphant schooldays with admiration tinged with regret that her daughter was not as clever and with as much presence and attack. The girls were friends, had always caused people to marvel at their unlikeness. One was retiring, easily overlooked, apparently frail, the other immediately mistress of herself and of circumstances, always first in everything, head girl at school, carrying off prizes: Emily McVeagh, friend and champion of little Daisy.

'I know I can do it,' said Emily, calmly.

'But why, why?' Mrs Lane was wanting to ask, and perhaps would have done, except that the youth who had been earning applause came up to her and she leaned up to kiss him and say, 'Well done. Oh, well done.'

There was a little history here.

He accepted a cup of tea from Daisy, and a vast piece of cake, and sat down by his friend, Mrs Lane. She had known him all his life.

Two brothers: the older one, Harry, was adored by his mother. She was known to be discontented because her husband, the boys' father, a bank clerk and hating it, spent every moment of his spare time playing the organ in the church. Instead, it was clear, she felt, of trying 'to get on'. He was unambitious, but the elder son had been offered a job, much more than most schoolboys could expect, before he had even finished school. He, too, had been the clever one, easily passing exams, winning prizes. But this mother had not liked her second son, Alfred, or behaved as if she didn't.

Beating children in those days meant no more than an intention to listen to the wishes of God. 'Spare the rod and spoil the child.' But Mrs Lane, observing, had been shocked. She, too, was the wife of a bank clerk, a senior one, but her husband was a pillar of the Church, and involved with local activities.


Excerpted from Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing
Copyright © 2008 by Doris Lessing. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This is a fascinating combo historical biographical fiction and a short biography

    "Alfred and Emily: A Novella". Alfred Taylor is a farmer who becomes affluent and marries a warm caring local. Ignoring the rage of her father, Emily McVeagh leaves town and goes to London where she becomes a nurse who marries a doctor. World War I never occurs so they never meet as a wounded soldier and a nurse.

    "Alfred and Emily; Two Lives. Alfred Taylor was severely injured in combat on the continent. He was medically evacuated back to a London hospital. There he met Nurse Emily McVeigh. As he healed, they fell in love and got married. They move to Rhodesia after the war and have two children Doris and Harry, but their colonial farm fails.

    This is a fascinating combo historical biographical fiction and a short biography. The novella is a terrific alternate history of the author's parents while the biography provides a short guide to compare what if to what happened. Fans of the great author will appreciate this fine book although the fiction overwhelms the nonfiction as the latter is too minute for newbies and too repetitive for fans while the former provides an intriguing look at probably what would not have happened if the liberating of the masses did not happen because the mechanism WWI was never fought.

    Harriet Klausner

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    Posted November 21, 2008

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