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!