Alternate History: Doris Lessing’s Alfred and Emily

Doris Lessing alfred and EmilyDoris Lessing’s Alfred and Emily was her last book.

Lessing, a Nobel winner, is one of my favorite writers.  (I have many favorite writers.)  I have written many times of my love for her books, especially the Children of Violence series.

When she announced in 2008 that Alfred and Emily was her last book, I thought,  Oh no, please not.

I did not like to think of a future without Doris Lessing.

Lessing died last November.

I am reading the few Lessing books I never got around to, and just finished  Alfred and Emily. Lessing often experimented with science fiction, and the first half of the book is an alternate history about what her parents’ lives might have been like had World War I not happened

The war theme predominates in the alternate histories I have recently read:  in  Philip K. Dick’s complex science fiction classic, The Man in the High Castle, the U.S. is ruled by Germany and Japan after they win World War II ;  in D. J. Taylor’s brilliant novel, The Windsor Faction, a finalist for this year’s Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, he speculates about what might have happened in World War II if King Edward VIII had not abdicated the throne to marry his divorcee-mistress, Wallis Simpson (who, in the novel, dies in 1936); and Conqueror Fantastic,  an alternate history anthology, edited by Pamela Sargent, of 13 stories about conquerors such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Kennedys, and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Lessing’s novel is a good match with the aforementioned.  In Alfred and Emily,  she experiments with genre and form, as she did in The Four-Gated City, the last book of the Children of Violence series, and Memoirs of a Survivor, a post-apocalyptic fable which, by the way, features a character named Emily.  The novella in Alfred and Emily is balanced in the second half of the book by a memoir/history about her parents’ actual lives.

Many of us know about Lessing’s parents from her autobiographical novels.  The heroine Martha Quest(COV) struggles to escape her domineering mother, a clever, controlling woman who does not have enough to do on their isolated farm in Africa.  Martha’s charming, likable father does his best with the farm, but he was shell-shocked and often ill.

In the novella, Lessing wanted to give them better lives.

She explains the purpose in the Foreword,

My parents were remarkable, in their very different ways.  What they did have in common was their energy.  The First World War did them both in.  Shrapnel shattered my father’s leg, and thereafter he had to wear a wooden one.  He never recovered from the trenches.  He died at sixty-two, an old man.  On the death certificate should have been written, as cause of death, the Great War.  My mother’s great love, a doctor, drowned in the Channel.  She did not recover from that loss.  I have tried to give them lives as might have been if there had been no World War One.

In the novella, there is no war.  England is prosperous.  Alfred plays cricket (he is a local star) and works  on the farm of his best friend Bert’s father.  (Lessing’s father had wanted to farm in Norfolk or Essex, but ended up in Africa). Alfred is treated as a son of the house, and eventually manages the farm because his friend, Bert, is an alcoholic, and he is in a way Bert’s caretaker.  Alfred marries Betsy, a plump, happy, sexy nurse who makes him happy.  (He and Emily were incompatible in real life.)  Life is difficult, but satisfying.

Emily, however, is the real star of the novella.  As a girl she rebels and goes to London to study nursing:  her father tells her “never to darken his doors again.” Emily becomes head nurse at a London hospital and then marries her doctor (the one who in real life died in the war).  Surprisingly, it is not a happy marriage:  she is a trophy wife and hostess without enough to do. After his death, she discovers a talent for storytelling  to children, and founds a charity to create schools for the poor.

And so her energy finds an outlet.  And so Lessing pays tribute to her mother, who introduced her to many books and stories.

Lessing’s alternate history, like Taylor’s, is not entirely different from history.  For instance, there is a servant problem.

She writes,

The plenitude and wealth of Edwardian England had not ended.  this was a time of great prosperity–well, it was for the said classes.  And the servants were deciding that to work in private houses with their restrictions and rules was not for them.  Within a mile or os of Clarges Street there were a new glove factory (‘French’ gloves), a French milliner, an upholsterer whose other shop was in Paris, a luxurious chocolate shop, a department store whose five floors were crammed with fashion and frivolity.  And the craze for everything Russian, Mir.  That was where Emily’s servants had gone.

Perhaps the memoir is the most poignant part of the narrative, but it might not have been as moving if we had not read first the alternate history.

Lessing’s father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and her mother went to bed with a nervous breakdown, which she called a “heart attack,” after the family finally settled in Africa.

[Emily] had nursed the wounded of a world war, and now it is easy to see she was in a state of dreadful anxiety, she was full of panic, she could look ahead and she she was trapped, with no way out.

Lessing openly admits that she hated her mother from early childhood.  But she wonders, Could being stricken twice with malaria have been the cause of some of her parents’ problems?

She believes antidepressants would have helped them with their psychiatric problems.

She also writes about the role of antidepressants in helping people cope with old age.

This is an important book, a combination of speculative fiction and a speculative memoir.

The two halves of the novella and memoir are perfectly balanced, though this is on the surface a simple book.

And Lessing, though she said she was not a feminist, so very clearly was by my standards.  Her mother was clearly not meant to have children.  She writes, “And now there are women, more and more, who decide not to have children, and what a great thing that is.”

One thought on “Alternate History: Doris Lessing’s Alfred and Emily

  1. Hi, Kat! Waving from Iowa City.
    I read The Golden Notebook and The Summer Before the Dark, then nothing else. I’ve been meaning to read more by Lessing.


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