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The Heart of Me

Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949

by Doris Lessing
HarperCollins, 419 pp., $25.00

Presented with snapshots of the Tayler family and asked to pick out the artist or artist-to-be among them, one might at a pinch settle on the father, rather stiff and military but clearly not unintelligent; certainly not on the daughter, pleasant enough but ordinary as a loaf of bread. Yet the daughter had it in her not only to escape a future that one can almost read in her face—marriage to a decent young chap and life on a farm in Rhodesia managing servants and having babies—but also to become one of the great visionary novelists of our time.

Alfred Cook Tayler, Doris’s sadeyed father, having lost a leg in the trenches of World War I, married the nurse tending him and quit a native country he could no longer bear. His wife, already in her mid-thirties, had to sacrifice a career in order to have a family. Their daughter Doris—later Doris Wisdom, then Doris Lessing—was born in Persia in 1919.

Following ideas about child-rearing fashionable at the time, Emily Maude Tayler imposed on her two children a rigid schedule of feeding times and bowel movements, reproducing upon them by new means her own upbringing by a cold stepmother. Doris responded with deep anger against a mother who on principle refused to feed her when she cried and who later made it clear that she preferred her son to her daughter. “For years I lived in a state of accusation against [her], at first hot, then cold and hard.” There is no need to seek out instances of ” ‘abuse,’ cruelty and the rest” when memories persist of how her mother “chatted on and on in her social voice” about “how the little girl in particular (she was so difficult, so naughty!) made her life a total misery.” No child could have stood up to such an “assault on [her] very existence.”

Since her mother would not love her, she turned to her father. “The smell of maleness, tobacco, sweat, the smell of father, enveloped her in safety.” But there was a darker side to his love. The “scarred pitiful shrunken stump” of his amputated leg poked out at her from his dressing gown, an obscenity “with a life of its own.” There was also the tickling game, “when Daddy captures his little daughter and her face is forced down into his lap or crotch, into the unwashed smell…. His great hands go to work on my ribs. My screams, helpless, hysterical, desperate.” For years afterward she had dreams in which she screamed and struggled while brutal male faces loomed over her. “I wonder how many women who submit to physical suffering at the hands of their men were taught by ‘games,’ by ‘tickling.’ ”

After Persia the Taylers moved to Rhodesia—a colony then only thirty-five years old—drawn by the lure of quick fortunes to be made in maize farming. But their thousand-acre farm (“It would not have occurred to [my parents] that the land belonged to the blacks”) was not large enough to be economically viable. Though her mother adapted well, her father lacked the doggedness needed for farming; they were always in debt.

For the children, however, growing up in the bush was a wonderful, formative experience. From their parents they learned about geology and natural history; bedtime stories fed their imagination (Lessing acknowledges that her mother had a genius for teaching). Books were ordered from London, and devoured. (Books were cheap enough in the 1920s for a struggling colonial family to buy them in quantities; no Zimbabwean child of today, and certainly no rural child, can afford the wealth of reading matter that Lessing had available to her.) By the age of twelve Doris knew

how to set a hen, look after chickens and rabbits, worm dogs and cats, pan for gold, take samples from reefs, cook, sew, use the milk separator and churn butter, go down a mine shaft in a bucket, make cream cheese and ginger beer, paint stencilled patterns on materials, make papier mâché, walk on stilts…, drive the car, shoot pigeons and guineafowl for the pot, preserve eggs—and a lot else….

That is real happiness, a child’s happiness: being enabled to do and to make, above all to know you are contributing to the family, you are valuable and valued.

Later Lessing would indict settler society for its “coldness [and] stinginess of the heart” toward blacks; the charge would be fleshed out in The Grass is Singing (1950), an astonishingly accomplished debut, though perhaps too wedded to romantic stereo-types of the African for present-day tastes, as well as in African Stories (1964). Yet Rhodesia was not a wholly bad environment in which to grow up. Aside from the restorative power of the natural world (about which Lessing is unabashedly Wordsworthian), there reigned among the children of the settlers a strongly egalitarian spirit that helped her escape the class obsessions of her parents. And among the 10,000 whites in Salisbury, the capital, she would discover a sizable contingent of refugees from Europe, most of them left-leaning, many of them Jewish, who would exert a decisive intellectual and political influence on her.

Meanwhile, to the confusing signals that her parents sent out, Doris responded with behavior typical of the unloved child calling for love. She stole, lied, cut up her mother’s clothes, set fires; she had fantasies that the Taylers were not her real parents.

At the age of seven, “a frightened and miserable little girl,” she was packed off to a convent boarding school where the nuns—themselves the unwanted daughters of German peasants—frightened their charges with hellfire stories. Here she spent four wretched years. After a further stretch in an all-girls high school in Salisbury, with weekly letters from her mother blaming her for the money she was costing them, she dropped out of the education system definitively. She was thirteen.

Yet she had never been a poor student. On the contrary, if only to please her mother, she made sure she always came first in class. She was popular with the other girls, inhabiting a false self she calls “Tigger” (after the A.A. Milne character), “fat and bouncy,… brash, jokey, clumsy, and always ready to be a good sport, that is, to laugh at myself, apologize, clown, confess inability.” When later she gravitated into Communist circles, she was known as “Comrade Tigger.” She repudiated the nickname once she left Rhodesia in 1949; but, refusing to go away, the Tigger self mutated into what Lessing calls the Hostess self, “bright, helpful, attentive, receptive,” and disturbingly reminiscent of her mother.

Is this a clue to the title of the first volume of her autobiography: Under My Skin? In isolation the title makes a fairly conventional self-revelatory promise. But an epigraph reminds us of its context in Cole Porter: “I’ve got you under my skin / I’ve got you deep in the heart of me / So deep in my heart you’re really a part of me, / I’ve got you under my skin. / I’ve tried so not to give in…” The hidden addressee of the book, the “you” deep in Lessing’s heart, under her skin, emerges all too plausibly as her long-dead mother.

Averse to any display of emotion, her mother had expressed tenderness by persuading her children they were ill and then nursing them to health. Doris played along, using illness as an excuse to spend days in bed reading. But at home she could not find the privacy she craved. When she began to menstruate, her mother trumpeted the news to the males of the household. When she tried to diet, her mother piled her plate. Her fourteenth year was spent “fighting for my life” against a mother who, as she had tried to control her infant bowel movements, now seemed to be asserting ownership over her body.

To escape an unendurable situation, she took a job as a nursemaid. Guided by her employer, she began to read books on politics and sociology, while nightly the same employer’s brother-in-law crept into her bed and ineptly toyed with her. Characteristically, Lessing does not pretend she was a passive victim. She “[fought] the virginity of [her] placid suitor…in a fever of erotic longing.” “It is my belief,” she writes, that some girls—among whom she clearly includes herself—“ought to be put to bed, at the age of fourteen” with an older man as a form of “apprentice love.”

Lessing’s precocious preschool reading had included Scott, Stevenson, Kipling, the Lambs’ versions of Shakespeare, Dickens. (In her time, she notes tartly, “children were not patronized” but on the contrary encouraged to try things that were beyond them.) Now she began to read contemporary fiction, D.H. Lawrence in particular, as well as the great Russians. By the age of eighteen she had written two apprentice novels herself. She was also selling stories to South African magazines. She had, in fact, slipped into being a writer.

Of the three best-known writers southern Africa has produced—Olive Schreiner, Nadine Gordimer, and Lessing (who, though reluctant to accept the label “African writer,” freely acknowledges that her sensibility was formed in and by Africa)—none completed high school. All were substantially self-educated, all became formidable intellectuals. This says something about the fierceness with which isolated adolescents on the margins of empire hungered for a life they felt cut off from, the life of the mind—far more fiercely, it turned out, than most of their metropolitan cousins. It also says something about how desultory the pressure was on girls to proceed all the way through the educational mill, domesticity being their ultimate lot.

Intermittent visits home only confirmed to Lessing that she had done well to escape when she did. Her mother was beginning to conform to the worst of colonial stereotypes, complaining about the servants in a “scolding, insistent, nagging voice full of dislike,” while her father slowly wasted away from diabetes, a “self-pitying, peevish, dreamsodden old man, talking about his war.” When he eventually died, she had an urge to scratch out the words “heart failure” under Cause of Death on the death certificate and write instead “First World War.”

Becalmed in what felt more and more like a backwater (the period is evoked in Landlocked, 1965), she wrote and rewrote The Grass is Singing, the novel that would bring her recognition and, more importantly, a precarious financial independence. “I was waiting for my future, my real life, to begin.” Rhodesians still spoke of England as “Home.” As for her, “I was not going home…I was fleeing from it.”

Lessing’s first marriage, at the age of nineteen, had been to a man much older than herself—a marriage involving not the real woman but the Tigger self, the “jolly young matron.” Not yet ready for motherhood, she gave birth to a son, then neglected him. He responded with anger and bewilderment uncannily like that of the young Doris.

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