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.”

Alternate History: D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction

Windsor Faction d. j. taylorThis summer I have read several alternate histories (sometimes known as counter-factual histories).

It is a fascinating genre.  Both science fiction and literary novelists have experimented with this “what if” form, among them Philip K. Dick,  D. J. Taylor, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth, Jo Walton, Pamela Sargent, and Joanna Russ.

I have just reread D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, a finalist for this year’s Sidewise Awards for Alternate History.

Taylor, whose novel, Derby Day, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and whose biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Biography Award in 2003, is a versatile, brilliant writer of fiction, biographies, and literary criticism.

In this elegantly-written, suspenseful page-turner,  set in England from 1936 to 1941, King Edward VIII did not abdicate the throne because his mistress, Wallis Simpson, whom he intended to marry, died in 1936.

And, at the beginning of World War II, the King has fascist sympathies.  A group of powerful men who oppose the war  and are mostly pro-Hitler call themselves “The King’s Party” or “the Windsor Faction.”

Taylor’s novel is told in multiple forms–traditional narrative, diary entries, notes, and newspaper articles.  His vivid understanding of the details of the period gives the book a striking hyperrealistic tone,  though, of course, the subtle changes of history are factored in to the plot.

The most sympathetic character is Cynthia Kirkpatrick, an intelligent young woman who is bored by  life in Colombo with her parents in the late 1930s.  When we first meet her, she is dreading a dinner party with her parents’ friends, the Bannisters, and knows she will be expected to entertain their son Henry, who has a reputation as an “awful young man.”

Taylor portrays the atmosphere perfectly:

There was not a great deal to do at the villa during daylight hours.  In fact, there was not a great deal to do at any time.  The garden, which had been cool and mysterious by night, turned hot and noisy, and the Bougainvillea burned so bright in the sunshine that it might have been overlaid with poster-paint.  Mr. Kirkpatrick went off to see his broker at Galle Face Green.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick had herself driven to Madame Bandaraike’s salon in Barnes Place, where the assistants had names like Evangeline and Margot and spoke in passable imitations of Home Counties accents.

Cynthia’s reluctant relationship with the Bannisters is cemented after the Henry dies in a car crash on an after-dinner drive.  This cements the reluctant Cynthia’s relationship with the Banniser family.  Back in England, Mr. Bannister joins the Windsor Faction.

In 1939, after the Kirkpatricks return to London, Cynthia escapes from the strict conventions of colonial life and is thrilled by her job at a literary magazine  in Bloomsbury, which is “bound to be a success, people said, because the cinemas were closed and there was nothing for pleaure-seekers to do in the evenings except read.”

Taylor writes sharp, funny office scenes:  Cynthia types, her friend and housemate Lucy translates French, and Desmond, the talkative editor, corners people to gossip about the glass panes of a dog track roof’s being painted over for a blackout.

But there is an office spy:  don’t all literary magazines have one?  (Well, I’m thinking about Peter Matthiessen, the CIA spy at the Paris Review.)  Anthea, a bright, bohemian woman who seems to know everybody, is a spy who casually, informally “conscripts” Cynthia to get information about the Windsor faction: Cynthia’s boyfriend, Tyler Kent, is a cipher clerk at the American Embassy; and then she also knows the powerful Nazi sympathizer, Mr. Bannister.

Beverley Nichols, the English writer of humorous garden books, journalism, and novels, is another vivid, often endearing, character, a Pacifist who collaborates with the King on his Christmas speech.  From Beverley’s diaries, we learn not just about his pacifist politics; he also shares literary gossip, and writes about his homosexual encounters with young men. Nichols is hilarious:  He says of the King’s room, covered with mementos of Wallis everywhere:  “Definite air of Miss Havisham in her chamber, so that one almost expected to see ancient wedding cake sunk under cobwebs.”

A fascinating unputdownable book:  really a great summer read, and if we Americans don’t all know our English World War II history  as well as we should, I recommend you start with the Author’s Note at the back of the book.

All will become clear.

Alternate History: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

Philip K Dick_OMNIBUS_LIBRARY OF AMERICAThose of you who know my fondness for science fiction will not be surprised I have read a few alternate histories this summer.  The genre runs the gamut from science fiction to literary fiction, from Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory series to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, from Doris Lessing’s Alfred and Emily to D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, from Jo Walton’s Farthing to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Perhaps the most famous alternate history is Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel, The Man in the High Castle, which won the Hugo Award in 1963.  Even if you think you don’t know Dick’s work, you probably do:  Blade Runner is based on his superb novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Minority Report on his story, “The Minority Report.”

Ursula K. Le Guin has called Dick the “American Borges,” and the brilliant writer  Jonathan Lethem, who won the National Critics Book Circle Award in 1999 for Motherless Brooklyn, has heavily promoted Dick’s work in recent years.  He has edited three volumes of Dick’s  novels for The Library of America; edited The Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick; and written, with Pamela Jackson, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

In The Man in the High Castle, the Nazis and Japanese won World War II. They squabble for power in the U.S., keep Americans down, hunt down Jews, and inflict most people with an inferiority complex about their culture. The Jews must change their names and hide their Jewishness, so as not to be deported to Nazi Germany.  Other Americans, too, are high-strung about the fascist government.  And the Asian influence is so strong that all the characters consult the I Ching.

There are multiple story lines, and I will not attempt to write about all of them.  The novel opens with the owner of an antique Americana shop, Mr. R. Childan,  terrified because a Civil War recruiting poster has not arrived promptly for a high-ranking Japanese trade commissioner, Mr. Tagomi.

In another part of San Francisco, Frank Frink,  a Jew born with the name Frank Fink, has quit his job at a factory that makes fake antique weapons. Unless he can persuade the boss to rehire him, he will be blacklisted.  And so, like all the other characters  he pulls down the I Ching and the yarrow sticks.

Aloud he said, ‘How should I approach Wyndam-Matson in order to come to decent terms with him?’  He wrote the question down on a tablet, then began whipping the yarrow stalks from hand to hand until he had the first line, the beginning.  An eight.  Half the sixty-four hexagrams eliminated already.  He divided the stalks and obtained the second line.  Soon, being so expert, he had all six lines; the hexagram lay before him, and he did not need to identify it by the chart.  He could recognize it as Hexagram Fifteen.  Chi’en.  Modesty.  Ah.  The low will be raised up, the high brought down, powerful families humbled; he did not have to refer to the text–he knew it by heart.  A good omen.  The oracle was giving him favorable counsel.

Frank’s friend, Ed McCarthy, persuades him to go into business with him, designing and making original jewelry.  Although it is gorgeous, R. Childan, the shop owner, cannot sell it to rich Japanese customers, who prefer Mickey Mouse watches and old American artefacts.  It is not in their interest to encourage Americans to develop their culture.

Frank’s wife, Juliana, has moved to Colorado, where she works as a Judo instructor. After an Italian trucker picks her up and more or less moves in with her, she learns he is obsessed with a banned novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate history in which the U.S. and the Allies won World War II.  Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of this banned book, is said to live in a high castle in Wyoming.

This novel within a novel has a huge influence on the characters.  Even the Japanese are reading and commenting on it.

The Man in the High Castle is a masterpiece, and I urge you to try it even if you are not a science fiction reader.  The best science fiction ranks up there with classics.