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A Proper Marriage is the second novel in Doris Lessing's classic Children of Violence series of novels, each a masterpiece on...
A Proper Marriage is the second novel in Doris Lessing's classic Children of Violence series of novels, each a masterpiece on its own right, and, taken together, an incisive and all-encompassing vision of our world in the twentieth century.
It was half past four in the afternoon.
Two young women were loitering down the pavement in the shade of the sunblinds that screened the shop windows. The grey canvas of the blinds was thick, yet the sun, apparently checked, filled the long arcade with a yellow glare. It was impossible to look outwards towards the sunfilled street, and unpleasant to look in towards the mingling reflections in the window glass. They walked, therefore, with lowered gaze as if concerned about their feet. Their faces were strained and tired. One was talking indefatigably, the other unresponsive, and -- it was clear -not so much from listlessness as from a stubborn opposition. There was something about the couple which suggested guardian and ward.
At last one exclaimed, with irritated cheerfulness, Natty, if you don't get a move on, we'll be late for the doctor.'
'But, Stella, you've just said we had half an hour to fill in,' said Martha as promptly as if she had been waiting for just this point of fact to arise, so that she might argue it out to its conclusions. Stella glanced sharply at her, but before she could speak Martha continued, deepening the humorous protest, because the resentment was so strong, 'It was you who seemed to think I couldn't get through another day of married life without seeing the doctor, not me. Why you had to fix an appointment for this afternoon I can't think.' She laughed, to soften the complaint.
'It's not easy to get an appointment right away with Dr Stem. You're lucky I could arrange it for you.'
But Martha refused to be grateful. She raised her eyebrows, appeared about to argue -- and shruggedirritably.
Stella gave Martha another sharp look, tightened her lips with calculated forbearance, then exclaimed, 'That's a pretty dress there. We might as well window-shop, to fill in the time.' She went to the window; Martha lagged behind.
Stella tried to arrange herself in a position where she might see through the glass surface of reflections: a stretch of yellow-grained canvas, a grey pillar, swimming patches of breaking colour that followed each other across the window after the passers-by. The dresses displayed inside, however, remained invisible, and Stella fell to enjoying her own reflection. At once her look of shrewd good nature vanished. Her image confronted her as a dark beauty, slenderly round, immobilized by a voluptuous hauteur. Complete. Or, at least, complete until the arrival of the sexual partner her attitude implied; when she would turn on him slow, waking eyes, appear indignant, and walk away -- not without throwing him a long, ambiguous look over her shoulder. From Stella one expected these pure unmixed responses. But from her own image she had glanced towards Martha's; at once she became animated by a reformer's zeal.
From the glass Martha was looking back anxiously, as if she did not like what she saw but was determined to face it honestly. Planted on sturdy brown legs was a plump schoolgirl's body. Heavy masses of lightish hair surrounded a broad pale face. The dark eyes were stubbornly worried, the mouth set.
'What I can't understand,' said Martha, with that defensive humour which meant she was prepared to criticize herself, even accept criticism from others, provided it was not followed by advice -- 'what I can't understand is why I'm thin as a bone one month and as fat as a pig the next. You say you've got dresses you wore when you were sixteen. Well, this is the last of mine I can get on.' She laughed unhappily, trying to smooth down crumpled blue linen over her hips.
'The trouble with you is you're tired,' announced Stella. 'After all, we've none of us slept for weeks.' This sophisticated achievement put new vigour into her. She turned on Martha with determination. 'You should take yourself in hand, that's all it is. That hair style doesn't suit you -- if you can call it a hair style. If you had it cut properly, it might curl. Have you ever had it cut properly -- ?'
'But Stella,' Martha broke in, with a wail of laughter, 'it needs washing, it's untidy, it's. . .'
She clutched her hair with both hands and moved back a step as Stella moved to lay her hands on it in order to show how it should be arranged. So violent and desperate was her defence that Stella stopped, and exclaimed with an exasperated laugh, 'Well, if you don't want me to show you!'
In Martha's mind was the picture of how she had indubitably been, not more than three months ago, that picture which had been described, not only by herself but by others, as a slim blonde. Looking incredulously towards her reflection, she saw that fat schoolgirl, and shut her eyes in despair. She opened them at once as she felt Stella's hand on her arm. She shook it off.
'You must take yourself in hand. I'll take you to have your hair cut now.'
'No,' said Martha vigorously.
Checked, Stella turned back towards her own reflection. And again it arranged itself obediently. Between the languidly enticing beauty who was Stella before her glass and the energetic housewife who longed to take Martha in hand there was no connection; they were not even sisters.
Martha, sardonically watching Stella in her frozen pose, thought that she would not recognize herself if she caught a glimpse of herself walking down a street, or -- a phrase which she saw no reason not to use, even to his face -managing her husband.
Stella saw her look, turning abruptly, and said with annoyance that they would go that moment to the hairdresser.
'There isn't time,' appealed Martha desperately.
'Nonsense,' said Stella, She took Martha's hand in her own, and began tugging her along the pavement: an attractive matron whose sensuality of face and body had vanished entirely under the pressure of the greater pleasures of good management.A Proper Marriage. Copyright © by Doris M. Lessing. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted March 30, 2011
No text was provided for this review.