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!

Rereading Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence Series: A Proper Marriage

Doris Lessing A Proper Marriage 6a00d8341c674653ef012876eeae79970cDoris Lessing is my favorite writer, and I like periodically to reread her work.  I have decided to reread the Children of Violence series.  I am starting with the second volume, A Proper Marriage.

Many of you know these as the Martha Quest books.  Indeed, that’s how I usually refer to them.  But Martha and her generation are indeed children of violence:  Martha’s father fought in World War I and her mother was a nurse who met him in the hospital; Martha and her peers come of age at the beginning of World War II.   The first four novels are set in Africa; the last in London.  Lessing grew up in Southern Rhodesia and then moved to London, and the series is autobiographical.

Martha is a rebel.  In the first novel, Martha Quest, she escapes her parents’ farm and begins to live on her own.

 A Proper Marriage opens after 19-year-old Martha has impulsively married Doug Knowell, a cheerful man who represents everything bourgeois she has stood against, a man who likes to party.  They go to sundowner parties and dances every night.  There is much looking in the mirror: her friend Stella likes what she sees; Martha, who is getting fat, does not.  She is cross, does not know why she married, did not even have a wedding night, because their drunken friends pursued them on their honeymoon.  Annoyed with herself, she goes to her Communist friend’s commune and asks him to let her live there.  She goes home and decides wryly she had done the predictable thing a woman does after her marriage:  tried to escape.  She and her friends, Stella (whom she does not like), and Alice, a nurse, chat about abortions.  Martha assumes she would have an abortion.  But when Martha discovers she is pregnant, and probably was pregnant when she married,  she suddenly goes into baby-clothes-making mode, as does her friend Alice.  It has solved her life (she thinks).  Only for a short time, though.

As Martha’s father says, he supposes in this mad world that it doesn’t matter much if one girl ruins her life.

Her mother, on the other hand, who gave up her nursing profession to live on a poor miserable African farm, is delighted that Martha, whom she has always disliked, is trapped.

Martha thinks about marriage a lot.  “The situation was, as she jauntily and bleakly put it, unsatisfactory.”
And so she turns to literature and psychology.  She kneels in front of her bookshelves.

Words.  There must surely be some pattern of words which would neatly and safely cage what she felt–isolate her emotions so that she could look at them from the outside.  For she was of the generation who, having found nothing in religion, had formed themselves by literature.

How many of us have felt this, even though we are not of Lessing’s generation?

It is an amazing novel, much better than I’d remembered.  Lessing really comes into her own with the fourth and fifth books, Landlocked and The Four-Gated City,  which she wrote after her experimental novel, The Golden Notebook.   She wrote the Children of Violence series over two decades, Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1969).

It is a stunning series.  I’ll be blogging periodically about my rereading.