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In this collection of the very best of Doris Lessing's essays, we are treated to the wisdom and keen insight of a writer who has learned, over the course of a brilliant career spanning more than half a century, to read the world differently. From imagining the secret sex life of Tolstoy to the secrets of Sufism, from reviews of classic books to commentaries on world politics, these essays cover an impressive range of subjects, cultures, periods, and themes, yet they are remarkably consistent in one key regard: ...
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In this collection of the very best of Doris Lessing's essays, we are treated to the wisdom and keen insight of a writer who has learned, over the course of a brilliant career spanning more than half a century, to read the world differently. From imagining the secret sex life of Tolstoy to the secrets of Sufism, from reviews of classic books to commentaries on world politics, these essays cover an impressive range of subjects, cultures, periods, and themes, yet they are remarkably consistent in one key regard: Lessing's clear-eyed vision and clearly expressed prose.
If there is one generally popular novel in the English language, it is Pride and Prejudice and this was true before a recent successful television version. It has always been taken seriously by the eminent in society and in literature: Jane Austen was celebrated from her first book, Sense and Sensibility. It is a very English novel, and foreigners have been known to question our admiration. Class and money! -- and where are the great themes of Life and Death? So come the criticisms, still, and the reply often is that class and money defined the lives of the novel's characters, not to mention the life of the woman who wrote it. So let us deal with these issues first, leaving aside for the moment the real themes of the book.
Jane Austen was a member of a network of middle-class families that merged upwards into the aristocracy, but her own family was poor. Her father, with six children -- two girls and four boys -- to feed and clothe and find careers for, had to take in pupils, so the home was for part of the year a school, noisy and full of rambunctious boys. Jane and her sister Cassandra felt themselves to be, and were often treated as, poor relations, dependent on presents, little trips and handouts from better-off and generous relatives. Not until -- late -- Jane earned some money writing, did she enjoy any kind of independence. Her situation was a common one then for poor unmarried women anywhere in Europe.
She has often been portrayed as a conventional spinster, partly because of Mary Mitford's unfriendly description of her as 'a poker' -- upright and judging. She was malicious -- this time the critic is Virginia Woolf quoting not very attractive bon mots at others' expense. She wrote her immortal novels in corners, always ready to set them aside to take part in tea and gossip. What do we have here? A woman of the kind I remember from when I was a girl, the unmarried maiden aunt, ready to be useful to others, without any life of her own, a pitiable figure. Austen was supposed, so we have often read, to be a sheltered woman, her experience limited to village life and a narrow middle-class circle.
Here is a quote from an article by a once influential critic, Demetrius Capetanakis, in the very influential periodical New Writing and Daylight for winter 1943-4 -- that is, in the middle of the war. 'Round every page of Jane Austen's novels one feels the hedge of an eighteenth-century English home. It is the hedge of ''sense'', of logic, or rather the logic of a person leading a secure life in the midst of a secure society. Jane Austen was protected by a hedge of unquestionable values . . .' Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, her situation among the genteel poor exposed her: there can be few worse positions in society, even if often useful for the creation of literature. She had a close woman friend in the fashionable world, a cousin, probably Warren Hastings' illegitimate child, married to a French count who lost his head to the guillotine. The whole course of the French Revolution and its aftermath must have seemed as close to her as news from her own family. Her four brothers were often off fighting in the Navy against Napoleon, in danger, and afflicting their family with anxiety. Above all, Jane was enmeshed in the lives of female relatives and friends, who were always pregnant, nursing, giving birth to innumerable children who died then so easily and often. And, more potent as an influence than anything, Jane was sent as a tiny child to boarding school, and there was as miserable and neglected as Jane Eyre was at her school.
The triumph of Jane Austen's art was that the little piece ofivory she claimed as her artistic territory was carved out of such an abundance of experience and material. She excluded and refined. That means for people now who know even a little about that time, her stages seem confined brightly lit places where all around loom and mass shadows, dangers, tragedy. Nowhere in an Austen novel does an aristocrat lose his head, a woman die from milk fever or puerperal fever, or give birth to a mentally sick child, like her cousin Eliza. Pain and grief are cured by love, kindness and presumably kisses, though I cannot imagine more than a chaste kiss in an Austen novel: more and the delicate fabric, the tone, would be destroyed.
Jane Austen loved well and lost, young. He was Irish and he loved her too, and now it seems this marriage would have been made in heaven, but he was poor, had a mother and sisters to support, and so he must marry for money. This abnegation was understood by both sides. But she did love him, and he her, and the pain of it is, so it is generally thought, in Persuasion.
Later, when her single state was at its most circumscribing and difficult, she was asked in marriage by a neighbouring estate owner, who was rich, with a big house. The temptation was such that she accepted him, and the prospect of running an estate, being wife to a man of considerable standing, having children, leaving behind for ever her status as poor relation. But next day she changed her mind and refused him. This seems to me as sharp a glimpse into her mind as any we have. It is suggested that the memory of her love for Tom Lefroy made it impossible for her to marry anyone else. But it is useful to remember here that Cassandra reported Jane's moments of exultation at being free and unmarried. Free from what? Surely, childbearing. Again and again one reads how some cousin, or friend, has died in childbed with her eighth or . . .
Excerpted from Time Bites by Doris Lessing Copyright © 2005 by Doris Lessing. Excerpted by permission.
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|2||D. H. Lawrence's 'The fox'||13|
|3||Carlyle's house : newly discovered pieces by Virginia Woolf||21|
|5||The man who loved children||42|
|6||Kalila and Dimna - the fables of Bidpai||59|
|7||Speech at Vigo on getting the Prince of Asturias prize 2002||68|
|9||The forgotten soldier, Guy Sajer||79|
|10||Preface to Ecclesiastes, King James version||85|
|12||The amazing Victorian : a life of George Meredith||104|
|13||Bulgakov's The fatal eggs||107|
|14||'Now you see her, now you don't'||113|
|15||Stendhal's Memoirs of an egotist||121|
|16||Lost civilisations of the Stone Age||130|
|17||Henry Handel Richardson||134|
|18||A reissue of The golden notebook||138|
|21||Trail of feathers||149|
|22||William Philips, who died in 2002||153|
|24||Niccolo Tucci's Before my time||159|
|25||The wrong way home||164|
|28||The Maimie papers||179|
|30||When I was young ...||201|
|31||Preface for the Writers' and artists' yearbook 2003||202|
|32||Simone de Beauvoir||206|
|34||A book that changed me||212|
|35||The autobiography of an unknown Indian, Nirad C. Chaudhuri||214|
|37||Professor Martens' departure||217|
|38||How things were||220|
|39||A Nazi childhood||226|
|40||Knowing how to know : a practical philosophy in the Sufi tradition||228|
|41||The tragedy of Zimbabwe||231|
|42||East meets West : The elephant in the dark||247|
|43||'What novel or novels prompted your own political awakening?'||251|
|44||The most significant book to come out of Africa||253|
|46||The ice palace : frozen secrets stranded in a waterfall||269|
|47||Problems, myths and stories||273|
|49||The past is myself, Christabel Bielenberg||295|
|50||The story of Hai||297|
|51||Sufi philosophy and poetry||302|
|53||A week in Heidelberg||315|
|54||Dancing with Cuba, Alma Guillermoprieto||321|
|55||For a book trust pamphlet||326|
|56||The three royal monkeys, Walter de la Mare||329|
|57||Catlore, Desmond Morris||331|
|58||The Englishman's handbook||333|
|59||A. E. Coppard||336|
|60||A festschrift, Idries Shah||342|
|61||The nine emotional lives of cats||348|
|62||Mukiwa : a white boy in Africa||351|
|64||Summing up : when Idries Shah died||357|