Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing; drawing by David Levine

“The older you get the freer you are,” Doris Lessing told a British interviewer the year before last. In a long and distinguished career, one of Lessing’s marked characteristics has been that she’s not afraid to change her mind. This new novel bears evidence of rethinking. Its sixty-five-year-old heroine is anything but free. She is chained to her past selves and in thrall to emotions she had thought would never trouble her again.

The book begins with a description of a room. It is both a modern office, with a fax machine and a word processor, and a theatrical props store, with masks and posters, a red velvet curtain, and a gold bust of a Roman woman: it’s all our todays, and all our yesterdays. The viewpoint is eerily detached, as if Lessing were indeed describing a stage set. Onto the set walks a woman—the novel’s performer. Sarah Durham is long widowed, still attractive. She has two children settled on another continent; they will not impinge on the narrative, as they do not impinge on her life. She is a confident and energetic woman, and believes that certain troublesome aspects of life—like the business of falling in love—are behind her. She can look on the romantically troubled with a cold eye, and deplore their antics. Yet she detects in herself the beginnings of the reflex intolerance of the old, and so she issues herself a warning. “There seems to be a rule that what you condemn will turn up sooner or later, to be lived through.” It is a forceful point, when made on page two; its impact is diminished when it is made again on page nine: “You must suffer what you despise.”

The crowded rooms of Sarah’s flat hold all the detritus of her life. Half-heartedly, she is contemplating a cleanup. There is one messy corner of her life which she knows will defy the duster and mop. For years, she has devoted time and energy to her niece, Joyce, who has been a problem since she was born. Unable to get on with other children, she has grown up aimless and feckless, and Sarah cannot imagine why. Her family is an ordinary one, her two sisters are as normal as can be. In her late teens she developed anorexia, made suicide attempts. The parents have managed to edge out of their responsibilities, and Joyce has spent months at a time living with Sarah. She has now moved out, runs with a druggy crowd, reappears from time to time to disrupt Sarah’s working life.

Sarah is involved in managing a prestigious and successful fringe theater. Her colleagues are sketched for us—in too much detail and yet with too little thought: the talented designer, a homosexual, is “volatile, shrill, and moody.” They have worked together for years, think of themselves as a team, and are all versatile and ready to do any job which presents itself. They have taken on an ambitious new production, Julie Vairon. It is a play with music, based on a true story from the close of the last century. The fascinating Julie was a quadroon, born in Martinique, daughter of a white plantation owner and a mulatto woman, Sylvie, whose involvement with Julie’s father did not end with his marriage to a suitable Frenchwoman. Julie was given a good education, and grew up intelligent, cultivated, and beautiful. A young army officer called Paul fell in love with her. They ran away to his home in the south of France, but his family would not receive her. Paul set her up in a little stone house in a wood, and visited her each day in this sylvan retreat, until the army forgave his lapse, recalled him to duty, and posted him to the Far East.

Julie was now alone, in exile. Paul’s father, a magistrate, sent her money and found her work as a tutor in neighboring families—on condition that she did not contact Paul again. Resisting persuasion to live a more regular life among townsfolk, she returned each evening to the forest, and passed her time drawing self-portraits, keeping journals, and composing music. In time she was engaged to teach the daughters of a Comte Rostand, one of the leading families of the district. The Comte’s youngest son, Rémy, fell in love with her. She had a daughter by him, who died in infancy. There were rumors in the district that she murdered the child.

Rémy’s anxious family removed him into the army. Their parting was an agony of grief for them, but Julie survived it, and resumed her strange and solitary life, supporting herself by copying music and sometimes singing at festivals. Five years after Rémy passed out of her life, a man called Philippe Angers proposed marriage to her. He was fifty years old, a printer with a good business, respectable and kindly; he could offer Julie security. But a week before her marriage she drowned herself, in the cold forest pool where she was said to have drowned her child.


At the point where Lessing’s narrative begins, Julie’s music, art, and writing have been rediscovered and are becoming fashionable. Sarah Durham has written a play about her, using Julie’s own songs to counterpoint the action. The play is to be staged in France, in the pine woods near the small Provençal town where Julie lived and worked. It is to be an international effort, with American input and sponsorship, and money also from a wealthy Briton, Stephen Ellington-Smith, who is a considerable patron of the arts. Stephen himself has written a play about Julie. Sarah finds it overromantic and sentimental, portraying Julie as a victim, rather than as mistress of her own destiny. Nevertheless, she has an amicable meeting with Stephen, and they decide to work together for the greater glory of their subject. Stephen’s interest is no ordinary one. He tells Sarah, “I am hopelessly in love with Julie.”

As the cast assembles, it becomes evident that Julie’s story works deeply on the sensibility of its various members. Sarah muses, “What is it about that bloody Julie: she gets under people’s skin; she’s under mine.” There is something a little too easy and pat in Julie’s story, as Lessing tells it. She is the perfect image of the artist—an exile, ahead of her time, a free spirit. She was born, in fact, to be a face on a tee shirt, and this is what she becomes. For the production is a resounding success. One year later, a Julie industry will have taken over the small French town, and there will be Julie Vairon lockets, Julie Vairon scarves and a Julie musical for the masses—who would find Sarah’s original play too mysterious and difficult. Thousands of people, it seems, can assimilate Julie into their lives, can identify with her, are at ease with her image. And this is not because a dangerous story has been sanitized by Sarah’s play; we are invited to think that it represents Julie fairly.

There is an incipient problem here. Julie upsets the actors and their supporters, but apparently no one else. The shade of the long-dead woman manipulates the living; we have to take Lessing’s word for it. (Sarah Dunham becomes ecstatic, becomes miserable, at her creator’s whim. The grammar of her emotions is hidden from us.) We must assent to Julie’s glittering, baleful power. It is only a matter of time before the word “witch” crops up.

Sarah…wondered more and more what witchery that woman must have had to influence people so strongly after she was dead. One might even fancifully see her as Orpheus, charming victims into dark places, by the power of her music and her words.

When Sarah falls in love, most unsuitably, with the handsome boy who plays Paul, this is somehow Julie’s fault; she has stirred up buried emotions. Bill is bisexual, or possibly just homosexual, so there is more than the age difference to prevent the consummation of this relationship. What Sarah is going through is a teen-age crush. It is appalling, intense, nonsensical. She compares herself to Aschenbach in Death in Venice. Like him, she is falling in love with some earlier version of herself. Of course, in Sarah’s case, it is a version with a different gender, but maybe this is because she has always been a sexual buccaneer, full of confidence and swagger and sure of her own force and charm. Suddenly, she doesn’t feel old at all. “This body of hers, in which she was living comfortably enough, seemed accompanied by another, her young body, shaped in a kind of ectoplasm.”

Bill is an elusive character. We are constantly assured of his lovable qualities, but do not see them demonstrated in any way. He has a habit of assuming different accents, different personae—in other words, acting like an actor—and one takes this to be extremely irritating, though Sarah finds it irresistible. “Every line of him was conscious of itself, and when he turned his head with a smile, or bent over an empty chair to kiss an invisible hand, he made a gift of himself to them all. The marvellous arrogance of it, protested Sarah to herself….”

There’s nothing doing with Bill, but Sarah’s old (yet well-preserved) body soon gets back into the habits of love. Not being one to waste a palpitation, she next falls in love with Henry, the play’s American director, who is some ten years nearer her own age. Henry is married, and his wife and child turn up to thwart Sarah again. The bossy, egotistical wife is sharply realized and makes an impact, though she is hardly on the page. As for Henry, he is not memorable at all, though he has interesting feet. Seeking to convey his restless qualities of mind and body, Lessing writes, “And the idea of movement was emphasized by his shoes, for they would have been useful for a marathon. For that matter, all their shoes seemed designed for a hundred-yard sprint.” As marathon and a sprint are so many miles apart, what is the phrase “for that matter” doing in this sentence? Homer nods, naturally; but somewhere out there is an editor who ought to lace up his running shoes and race away to a more fitting career.


There are of course other incipient pairings among the actors. As Lessing inelegantly phrases it: “In fact Molly did rather fancy Stephen, or would if she were not besotted by Bill.” Lessing works hard to chart the group’s crosscurrents. It is important to her to capture for the reader the intense inner life of people engaged in a common enterprise. But her main device is to describe the seating plan every time they sit down to a meal or a cup of coffee together. We are constantly been told how much fun they are having—again and again we find them in “an uproar of laughter.” Unfortunately, paper laughter is not infectious. The fact that they are entertained does not mean that the reader is entertained. One begins to think of the troupe as a flock of macaws—gaudy, brainless, strident.

Sarah thinks a great deal about aging, about love and its physical effects. Her thoughts are depressing to anyone over the age of thirty—she does worry so. Her creator’s thoughts are not original—on the topic of unsuitable, unsuccessful love, they could hardly be that. They could, however, be profound, because Lessing is one of those authors who can perform fiction’s essential feat, and transform the specific into the universal. Here she does not exert herself. Stendhal and Proust are wheeled on stage to add authority, and Sarah asks Stephen, “Have you read The Sorrows of Werther recently?” which surely must be the most ludicrous question one fictional character has addressed to another for quite some time.

The difficulty with Sarah as a character is that she has not lived the examined life. She does not appear to know much about herself, and this does not make her attractive. There is a certain smugness about her, as she congratulates herself on the newly glowing presence she sees in her mirror, when she thinks back on her past and remembers how “men were always falling in love with me.” There are curious blank areas in her experience of life. Repeatedly she wonders why emotion connects to physical pain—why sorrow puts a weight in the chest, why falling in love breeds physical agitation. Would it not be more surprising if mind and body were not connected in this way? Images come back to her of herself as a small child; she seems to be reliving, under intense pressure, the entire life history of her emotions. Lessing’s account of this process would be moving if the writing were not so perfunctory, and if she did not seek to gain force by mere repetition.

The book is unbalanced by the fact that Stephen’s romantic obsession with the dead Julie is more interesting than Sarah’s obsession with the two half-vivified young men. Her feelings seem trivial; his seem tragic. Being in love with a person who is dead: what does this mean? How is it sustainable, by a human being who in every other department of life is sane and even rather dull? Stephen describes Julie as “that side of myself that was never allowed to live.” Sarah observes Stephen, draws mixed conclusions. “She believed he was doing himself real harm…. ‘His Julie was in some deep place inside him where he visited her.” Nineteen pages on, his obsession “did not seem to be doing much harm.”

But it does destroy him in the end. Like Julie, he kills himself. The story of Julie as poisoned anima, rushing up from the depths to kill the man who contains her, is intensely dramatic and could have been powerfully frightening—but the impact is lost, for the real, everyday Stephen has never been other than a shadowy character. As for Julie, she is a creature of contradictions—a glowing spirit of life, of creativity, and at the same time a demon of loss and destruction. The Julie who lived in history insisted on defining her individuality, claiming for her person its liberty. But the Julie who lives in the psyche of the actors is a symbol of femininity, transcending the personal. She turns her bright face to them, then her dark face, and how they receive her glance depends on the stage they have reached in their own inner lives. So far as these contradictions are willed by Lessing, they are valid and make psychological sense. Contradictions are fertile—but inconsistencies are not, and they weaken the book. The reader misses that strong controlling intelligence which has always informed Lessing’s work. As she ushers her creations toward their Jungian nemesis, her attention sometimes seems to be elsewhere.

It is the book’s little strokes of brilliance that show us what we are missing. This is a description of a Frenchman who is involved in the production of Julie Vairon: “He was dark, good-looking, well-dressed, combining in that uniquely French way correctness, politeness, and a practiced scepticism, as if at university he had taken Anarchy and Law as his main subjects, and these had merged and become subdued to a style.”

Again, the strand of the story which concerns Joyce, the hapless niece, contains some acute, hard-won psychological insights. The arrangement for her care is one of those that arise in families by an invisible process; they are never planned or calculated, but soon the rules are written in iron, and when Sarah tries to bend them she is made to feel that she is in the wrong. Sarah’s friends think she is being exploited, and when they talk about Joyce they use “the hot and indignant voice she was used to hearing from people who feel threatened, because they are thinking, If you take on such a burden, then perhaps I shall be expected to sacrifice myself too.”

Unfortunately, Lessing seems to lose interest in Joyce. How wise is it for an author to set up a character for whom she has only contempt? Lessing explains Joyce as “not viable. Perhaps one day soon ‘they’ (meaning, this time, the scientists) would come up with an explanation. Joyce had an ‘I cannot cope’ gene or lacked an ‘I can cope’ gene, or had one in the wrong place, and her life had been governed by this.”

Now, presumably Lessing knows that there can be no such gene—this is a gene-for-the-sake-of-argument. It is a debating point; it is an idea. Ideas are necessary to drive Lessing’s fiction, and perhaps this is the central problem with the new novel. Though Lessing has an acute understanding of many aspects of individual psychology, she is a writer who needs to grapple with big ideas, with social themes. In her monumental work The Golden Notebook (1962) she gave feminists an early sacred text. She has explored Marxism and mysticism with equal fervor. She has written her way through whole belief systems, from communism to Sufism, and out of the other side. But here, ideas are struggling to break into the text. Sometimes Lessing rides a hobbyhorse against the narrative flow. There is, for instance, a discussion of sadomasochism, and whether its practices can be incorporated into a smooth domestic routine. It is funny, cogent, and totally unnecessary to the narrative. It is a thought that has been looking for a home, and has invaded the present novel like an illegal squatter. So has a pen portrait of a mother with two young children, seen in a London park. It is one of the book’s most winning, vivid stretches of writing: but why is it there? It is like one of the little half-tales from which Lessing made her book London Observed (1992), a scrapbook of sketches, short stories, and fictionalized incidents.* One understands that there is a temptation for an experienced writer to notice an incident “frame” it in prose, and then wait for it to accrete to itself significance; for the less established author, such vignettes are the stuff of those broken-backed short stories that get consigned to a drawer. And perhaps this mother and child do, in Lessing’s mind, relate back to Sarah’s vision of her unloved infant self; in that case, her intent has not shaped itself onto the page. Yet Lessing would be justified in saying, to almost any critic, that this is a book about love and old age: if you do not see its force, you have been too much or too little loved, and as a matter of fact, you are not old enough to understand it.

It is impossible to read this novel without the shadow of Lessing’s recent autobiography falling heavily over the page. Under My Skin (1994) is a frank, unapologetic document. It is only a first installment, covering Lessing’s early life in Africa, her two marriages, her youthful commitment to communism. The public part of her career has yet to be discussed, but we are now able to see the relation of her life to her fiction, whereas before we could only speculate about a body of work that has a strongly autobiographical flavor. There is a certain fatalism in her autobiography which can be traced in this novel, too. Sarah Durham falls in love without her volition, because—most unpredictably—the time has come for her to do so. For Lessing, there are situations in life where, though you appear free, you have no effective choice. The choice has been made for you; you will live by the logic of your life to that point; the zeitgeist is more powerful than individual will. The genesis of mistakes lies early in our lives—and perhaps, at that, they are not mistakes, though to the outside world they may seem like disasters.

The autobiography explains how, in a manner almost nonchalant, the young Doris Lessing jogged along with destiny, and arrived in London with her first novel in her bag, to become one of English fiction’s most significant voices, her energy and her intellectual impatience compensating for the frequent gracelessness of her style. Her work has always been in transition, always exploratory, attuned to cultural shifts almost before they begin. In the figure of Sarah Durham, we are seeing Lessing in many versions, at many ages. Like the author, her creation looks back to a loveless early childhood, filled with a misery that can hardly be articulated: to an adolescence in which she bubbled with precocious, confident sexuality, to a womanhood in which childbirth and a multitude of admirers were calmly assimilated. It is significant to note that it is Sarah Durham’s early self we see most clearly and precisely. The present-day Sarah lacks color, line, definition. If, as a writer, you are going to extend your autobiography by other means, you cannot expect to provide a self-portrait that is other than nebulous. When all the “i”s are dotted and all the “t”s crossed, it is time to put down the pen, and until then you can only produce something like this novel, a deeply felt but half-realized connect-the-dots affair.

Perhaps we want too much from Lessing. We have accorded her the status of prophetess and seer, so we expect from her robust ideas and an emotional education. Ideas do not have full play here—and love is not enough. As for the emotional education—it is reasonable for her to refuse to provide one. It does not seem likely to Doris Lessing that people learn from their own experience—let alone from anyone else’s.

This Issue

April 18, 1996