Here we are again, Doris and I, at loggerheads and in union at the same time. A Proper Marriage is the sixth Lessing book that I have read in the last two years, which is quite startling to me, as it makes her second only to Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen in terms of the greatest number of books read by the same author. There is definitely something between us. And yet everytime I embark on another of her novels I have to rediscover all over again what it is that I like about her. The first fifty pages or so are nothing but slog. It is like setting out to climb a mountain, and being in the foothills before the adrenalin and the views kick in. I know instantly what it is that I dislike about her writing: the cold irony, the seething bitterness, the suspiscion of simple human actions of love and kindness and hope. It takes a while for me to remember that she is also a writer of desperate clarity and fluency, and an advanced student of human character. This last continues to surprise me, although I've read the evidence of it now over and over. Lessing herself strikes me as all toughness and determination, not a person who is necessarily good at feelings; but somehow this gives her an extroadinary power of observation, and the freedom to say things about emotional experience that other writers simply do not say, or do not say so clearly.
A Proper Marriage (1954) is the second book in the Children of Violence quintet, and thus the sequel to Martha Quest (1952). It continues almost seamlessly from where that novel left off, as we rejoin Matty Quest in the first weeks of her shotgun marriage to Douglas Knowell. After an uproarous honeymoon shared with the overgrown 'kids' from the Sports Club, nineteen year old Martha finds herself a virtual prisoner - both physically and mentally - in her new husband's apartment. She wakes up each morning to an interminable drag of a day, waiting for Douglas to come home for his lunch and then for his dinner, before accompanying him to the inevitable sundowner party at 6pm. At these parties she turns up her persona, becomes 'one of the girls', even while her daytime self fractures and flounders in apathy. She is in a bind. It is 1939 and she is far too modern a person to just be a housewife, settled into domesticity like a bird in a nest; but she is not motivated to find any work either, and so she just drifts about listlessly. She has yet to find her purpose in life. She reads a lot, often rather unhelpfully from self-help manuals which she riffles for soundbites to assuage her guilt and unhappiness. She is desperate to be reassured: all marriages begin like this, all young women feel this way. She looks about her at the marriages of her friends, and of her parents' generation, and finds very little comfort or encouragement there.
And then there is the question of babies. The opening scene of the novel finds Matty visiting a women's doctor for advice on contraception; she is absolutely determined not to have children, for two different reasons. First (this is vain and flippant Matty), so that she won't loose her perfect figure; second (this is Matty's embryonic political consciousness), because the whole world is in turmoil and there is going to be a war. It is a signal of Matty's divided self - the socially vivacious chit co-existing with the potential social activist - that she sees no ideological conflict in her thinking. Still, it doesn't matter what she thinks: biology is destiny and Matty is already pregnant. It turns out that the seed was sown even before the wedding, much to the disgust of her latent prude.
After a short, brutal and naive attempt to burn and jolt the baby out of her (by taking scalding hot baths and then jumping repeatedly off a table), Matty's apathy reasserts itself and she watches at a remove as her body changes in the act of creation. Sometimes she sits for days, smoking and concentrating on not thinking; at other times the firey, independent side of her is ascendant:
She was essentially divided. One part of herself was sunk in the development of the creature, appallingly slow, frighteningly inevitable, a process which she could not alter or hasten, and which dragged her back into the impersonal blind urges of creation; with the other parts she watched it; her mind was like a lighthouse, anxious and watchful that she, the free spirit should not be implicated; and engaged in daydreams of the exciting activities that could begin when she was liberated... Martha reacted with a cold, loathing determination that she must keep brightly burning that lamp above the dark sea which was motherhood. She would not allow herself to be submerged.
The 'creature' is born on the eve of war, just before Matty's husband ships out to North Africa, in a chapter which clearly owes much to Lessing's own experience of labour. It is the most intense and wrathful of the book. Abandoned in a side-room until the point of birth, Matty is literally torn apart by the experience, unable to remember who she was before the pain and unable to imagine who she will be afterwards. It is a moment of pure egotism; Matty barely thinks of the baby she is about to have. When it finally comes, after the perfunctory slip and slither, it is snatched away by the midwives and Matty is made to wait 24 hours before she can see her daughter again. Lessing's disgust at this unfortunate practise is tangible; in a way, she appears to suggest that this initial seperation of mother and baby is to blame for everything that comes after.
Like Lessing herself, Matty is puzzled by the experience of motherhood. It is not that she is a bad mother exactly. She follows the manuals; feeds Caroline the right foods; takes her for walks and puts her down to sleep at the appointed times. It is just that she is a clinical sort of mother. She knows what to do because the books tell her, and she does it right because she is an intelligent and resourceful young woman. It is the intuitive, immediate acts of caring that she can't quite figure. She doesn't feel the essential 'natural' emotional bond with her child that other mothers' seem to do. She is quite happy to pass along responsiblity to other carers when the opportunity arises:
It seemed that something must have snapped between her and her daughter. It increased her persistent uneasiness, which expressed itself in interminable puzzled humourous monologues: 'It's all very well, Caroline, but there must be something wrong when you have to learn not to care. Because the trouble with me is not that I care too much, but that I care too little. You'd be relieved, my poor brat, if you knew that when you were with my mother I never thought of you at all - that's a guarantee of your future emotional safety, isn't it?'
She rationalises her feelings as a positive detachment. The fraught relationship with her mother arises because mother is too attached and controlling with child; Matty will be neither attached nor controlling. Instead she will engage with Caroline as little as possible, thus allowing her to grow up 'pure' without the pressures and expectations of love always bearing down on her. Having read Lessing's autobiography it is clear that this was (and perhaps still is) her own philosophy of child-rearing. As with so many of Lessing's ideas about interpersonal relationships, it is shocking to 21st century sensibilities. At one point she goes so far as to suggest that it would be better if children were seperated from their parents from birth; it is the only way to stop the older generation from imposing their outmoded beliefs on the younger.
After Caroline's birth, Matty continues to lead a double life. She spends half of her evenings dancing with airforce pilots as one of the 'girls', giving in to frivolous youth and the temptations of Douglas' absence. She takes advantage of her power, as a beautiful woman showering affection on vulnerable young men far from home and family. Thus, alone in her flat with one particular pilot whom she finds vaguely unpleasant:
He had wept on her breast like a child - he had lost his nerve, he would never be able to go up again, he wished he had been killed when the aircraft had tipped over on its wing that morning. Martha had cradled him, and felt such a depth of emotion that afterwards she could not bear to think it it. It was terrible to her that weakness should have so strong an appeal.
This is one of those observations that Lessing gets so right. Matty is turned on by vulnerability in men; it makes her feel strong, in control, when in fact she is used and powerless. She finds her husband repulsive except when he is suffering from his stomach ulcer and needs her to care for him; at those times her love knows no boundaries. Perhaps this is why so many romantic heroes have a tragic flaw (like being a vampire for example, or harbouring a painful, shameful secret). Empathy is sexy.
She spends her other evenings attending radical political meetings. In Martha Quest Matty dabbled briefly with Communism before flinging herself bodily into the bustle of mainstream society. Again she finds herself drawn back to the misfits and foreigners, unable to fully subordinate her awareness of the racism and injustice of the colonial society in which she lives. As the novel progresses she moves further and further towards a break with the assumptions of her youth:
She burst out, 'I hate it, I loathe it, I wish I could take the first train out of it. It's like a - Victorian novel. They talk about their servants at tea parties and say the lower orders are ungrateful. They even go so far as to pay them twelve pounds a year, like our grandmothers, and say they are spoilt. It's all so boring, things happen the same way over and over again. And in fifty years' time, people will be saying about now, "How backward they were then!" But in the meantime they fight and make speeches and write articles over every sixpence, and all the time with moral language, religion and all the rest of it. What's it all about, that's what I was to know? It's all so stupid and unnecessary."
This is Doris Lessing, however, and Matty is no political idealist (although she is surrounded by them at her meetings). Oh no, she is as bored and cynical about inequality as she is angry about it. At her core there is an ironic self-awareness: she cannot be passionate about her cause because she is not a passionate person. She is a realist - about peoples' capacity for change; about her own capacity to care. She may empathise with the pilots, with her husband, with the black majority, but she recognises that this empathy is, in some ways, ungenerous. It is as much, if not more, about the way it makes her feel, as it is about the way others feel. It hurts her that she is this way. Time and again in the novel she tries to rebel against this essential quality of her nature - her ability to see and understand things, but not to feel them. She tries to be a good mother; she tries to be a good wife; she tries her hand at acceptable charity, helping organise a concert by 'coloured' children for her white middle class friends. It is no good. Matty is simply not made for that sort of life. When she leaves Douglas and abandons a toddling Caroline at the end of the novel, it is with determined tears to be who she really is.
And who is she? She is as unforgiving as the landscape in which she has grown to adulthood and which she craves despite herself:
And why was it that nothing but the veld she had been brought up on, the sere, empty, dry vleis, the scrubby little trees, the enormous burnt windy spaces of the high veld, could satisfy her feeling for what nature should be? Dryness, barrenness, stunted growth, the colours that are fed from starved roots - thin browns and greys, dull greens and sad yellows - and all under a high, dry, empty sky: these were what she craved.
It sounds a harsh character portrait and it is. But there is no denying that, like the veld, it is also grand, expansive and heart-breakingly beautiful.