Marriage and the Family in Doris Lessing’s A Proper Marriage

Doris Lessing A Proper Marriage 6a00d8341c674653ef012876eeae79970cMarriage and the family were dead.

I was a 19-year-old woman who read classics and feminist criticism, wore bell bottoms and Earth shoes, and enjoyed sex: but I would never marry.  And then suddenly I married an older, often drunken, man, in a casual ceremony by a justice of the peace.  The marriage lasted three years.

You would think Doris Lessing’s autobiographical quintet of novels, Children of Violence, which I devoured in my teens, would have taught me to avoid the misfortune of early marriage.  Alas, books do not work that way.

The heroine of A Proper Marriage, Martha Quest, is a rebel, but she, too, impulsively marries at 19.  She has left her parents’ farm and believes she is independent, though she does not find quite what she wants in a small African town.   She is bookish, analytical, leftist, and  determined to live a different life from her mother’s. Then she falls in with a group who attend sundowner parties , gets drunk every night, and she marries Douglas, a hearty, red-faced civil servant, in a civil ceremony.  . She is stuck in an apartment with Douglas and their  child, Caroline, until the beginning of World War II when Douglas enlists.  Then she and Caroline are alone.

A Proper Marriage is very much a young woman’s novel.  Although I love the later books in the quintet, I have reread this with some reluctance.  Young women suffer so much pain and insecurity.

The Children of Violence series consists of five novels, which follow Martha from adolescence through old age:  Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1969).  The last two, written after the success of her experimental novel, The Golden Notebook, are mature works of fiction.

A Proper Marriage is a raw naturalistic account of Martha’s thoughts and feelings, and remarkable for that.  Lessing uses the third-person singular point of view, but the narration does not feel detached:  we are inside Martha’s skin, even though it is at a remove.  Occasionally Lessing switches point of view:  Mr. Maynard, an older man , a judge, is attracted to Martha, and we see her from his perspective. Critics have complained about Lessing’s “flat-footed” style, but the  precision and straightforwardness of Lessing’s early naturalistic novels give her a voice that does not spare the terror of a woman’s hating her life and the inability to go beyond stating a problem.

Lessing’s description of a woman’s anger and boredom is astonishingly honest.  Martha believes she will leave her marriage and her baby someday; it is just a matter of when. . When her husband, Douglas, enlists in the Army, she is both stuck and more independent.  She often hates her strong-willed baby, Caroline, with whom she fights daily battles trying to get her to eat. She is terrified that Caroline, who will not eat according to the Baby Book rules, is starving to death

Here is one of Martha’s battles with Caroline, observed by Mr. Maynard:

He saw a small lively girl striving energetically against the straps that bound her to a high chair, her cheeks scarlet and tear-stained, her black eyes rebellious….  On the platform before her was a heavy china plate, and on that a squelch of greyish pulp. Martha, planted on her two sturdy legs, her own lips as firmly set as Caroline’s, who was refusing the food she was trying to push between them.  As the spoon came near, Caroline set up an angry yell, and bright sparks of tears gleamed through squeezed lashes…  Martha was pale with anger, trembling with the contest…

This is a sad, horrifying scene, not what we expect from Martha, but we see that Caroline is not behaving like the Baby Book baby, and Martha has panicked.  Eventually Martha learns to ignore Caroline at meals, and finally Caroline begins to eat.  But Martha has to teach herself everything.  The books and other young mothers often fail her.

When Douglas returns from the war after a year with an ulcer, he moves the family into a big bungalow with black servants.  Martha does not know how to “handle” servants.  She “spoils the natives,” her mother says.  Martha tries to ignore her mother and Douglas and to live her life.   She joins a Communist discussion group. She gives a lecture on Russian education.  She is naive and passionate.  Not until the very end of the novel does she leave Douglas.

Mr. Maynard says ironically when he sees her leaving,

I suppose with the French Revolution for a father and the Russian Revolution for a mother, you can very well dispense with a family.”…After a while she conceded, “That is really a very intelligent remark.”

Not a great book by Lessing, but each one in the series improves until finally we read the last two masterpieces.

I’m hanging on for that!

6 thoughts on “Marriage and the Family in Doris Lessing’s A Proper Marriage

  1. Interesting post, especially as I have the Lessing book in my TBR pile. From what you say, some of the themes are very similar to The Grass In Singing, another early book, perhaps her first (?). I found that book slow going at first, but my involvement grew along with the heroine’s problems.


  2. I see here is a book I should read — even old as I now am. I love traditional books; I can’t read science fiction and when the author departs too radically and continually from novelistic conventions of coherence, I get lost. It is true that all the books in the world don’t begin to have the direct influence on a young woman (or man probably) that their peers and the norms around them do. I feel it’s not that late we are less susceptible but that later these kinds of choices have been made, we are no longer enmeshed into a continual group of people our own age (if we ever are — some people are never, and I was not for long and it happened when I was in my later 20s, already married), we may have a job and its demands take over. Upshot: we can’t make the same mistakes. Women are especially prone to leap at marriage.

    The scene of the woman and her baby and their contest over food is salutary because truthful. How rare to tell the truth of bringing up a baby. I had this experience of a contest twice. The first my mother bullying me beyond my capacity to eat; bullying me to eat chocolate because it offended her I didn’t like it. I had no sweet tooth. In later years I became anorexic. The second with my first daughter: I found myself in this contest and didn’t know how it happened; I did succumb for a couple of months but then when I realized what had happened, I stopped it by putting the food on the plate and after a couple of minutes of just sitting by her walking away. She need not eat it I said; I didn’t prepare a separate meal for supper for her and just gave her a bowl of cereal for breakfast, left it there and if she didn’t eat it, sobeit. I would not give her candy (which is what she wanted) or cookies or snacks. I kept none in the house. She grew thinner, but did not starve. The contests ceased because I refused to fight. That’s my way sometimes too. I refuse to fight a battle, just walk away when the battle is the point.

    Thank you for this blog. I hope young women come across it and read it.


    • Doris Lessing still seems to me to be the premier woman writer when it comes to writing scenes like this. Things are messy, Martha is desperately bored, and not cut out for this kind of suburban life. She does not like what is expected of her as a woman. The Children of Violence series is very intense. This book is much, much better than I remembered, and the next two are even better. The Four-Gated City is the only one in this series that is SF.

      I’m sure being a mother is made up of so many of these struggles. Fascinating that you went through it, too. I can’t think of anyone but Lessing who writes about the rawness of these experiences.


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