Alfred and Emily

“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 her new book, 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.

Twenty years ago, in an 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 1988 Paris Review interview, Lessing confessed: “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.