Doris Lessing | Critical Review by Caroline Moorehead

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Doris Lessing.
This section contains 1,008 words
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Critical Review by Caroline Moorehead

SOURCE: "Memoirs of a Survivor," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 327, November 4, 1994, pp. 38-9.

Moorehead is an English journalist and nonfiction writer. In the following review, she praises Under My Skin for its vivid and evocative depiction of Rhodesia and for the insights the book offers into the relationship between Lessing's life and fiction.

Neither Bertrand Russell nor John Cheever emerged well from their children's portraits of them; one was Olympian and cruelly exacting, the other alcoholic and homosexual. Maude McVeagh was not successful or well-known, but as Doris Lessing's mother she has come to prominence in the first volume of her daughter's autobiography as a desperate manipulative woman with a limitless urge for control. It is a devastating indictment not just of an unhappy woman but of parenthood. The saddest thing is that she tried so hard to get it right.

Under My Skin occupies that no-man's land between biography and autobiography, where the characters who play the main parts from time to time take over the narrative and the author is defined more by what is observed than by what is said. In this first volume, which takes her up until her departure from Rhodesia for London in 1949, Doris Lessing also does for herself what biographers traditionally do for literary subjects: she traces the links between the real people and places of her past and the ones in her fiction. Those who enjoyed the sequence of novels about embattled Martha Quest when they appeared in the 1950s will recognise her heroine constantly in these pages.

Few recent writers have brought to their earliest years quite the clarity and definition with which Doris Lessing recalls her childhood. Like Patrick Leigh Fermor minutely describing the central Europe he walked through at the age of 20, at a distance of nearly 50 years, Doris Lessing retrieves texture, smells and sounds most of us have, if not lost, certainly allowed to fade. Alienation, not simply from parents but from most of the human species, began early; few of these recollections are pleasant. Adults, to the watchful three-year-old girl, were smelly and unsavoury, with their "enormous pale bodies, like milk-puddings … flailing large pale arms". They have "loose bulging breasts" with "whiskers of hair under arms" and "snot on a face that is grinning and shouting with pleasure".

It is a terrifying world, in which being tickled is a nightmare, more bullying than fun, and yet "a necessary preparation for life". For Doris Lessing, childhood was a major war, played out across several battlegrounds with vastly inferior weapons, her only defence disguise into another persona, with the name of "Tigger": a cheeky little girl who could make everyone laugh. But even Tigger was no match for Maude McVeagh, a "vibrating column of efficiency and ruthless energy" whose over-attentiveness yet lack of proper love grinds bitterly through the years. The hatred is chilling. No surprise, perhaps that many of the adults took more to Harry, her younger brother, a gentle, responsive child who does not seem to have viewed the world with quite such unremitting hostility.

Under My Skin falls into two distinct parts: the years of childhood—a short spell in Persia, then to a farm in Rhodesia and a life of poverty and claustrophobia, clinging to the values of home with liberty bodices and steamed syrup puddings, redeemed only by the magic of the surrounding bush—and ten years of young adulthood before the longed-for departure for England. In these years came two marriages, both precipitate, and a steady output of writing she makes little of.

There was also absorption into the new Communist Party of Rhodesia, a moment of political awakening explored in the Martha Quest books and told at some length here, with incredulity at the misplaced belief in Stalin and nostalgia for a time when "our map of the world was still innocent". From the first marriage came a son and a daughter, both left with her husband; from the second, another son, who went with her to London. What the loss of the first two children cost her is not dwelt on; nor is the cost of her loss to them.

Not that Doris Lessing is easy on herself. She is as tough about her own frantic desire to break away as she is about the hypocrisy and evasions she found so contemptible in her parents. She takes the business of writing autobiography very seriously, and has thought out her position with care. Under My Skin was conceived, at least in part, as an act of self-defence, as five biographies of her are currently being written in America.

Had her memoirs been written in her thirties, they would have been, she says, overly combative; in her forties, full of despair and guilt. In her seventies, a far more detached curiosity is possible, though she is strict on the subject of truth, condemning as absurd the notion that it is the duty of friends, lovers and comrades to tell all, and admiring those who, as they grow older and are told more secrets, learn to keep their mouths shut. At least, by 70, the tricky landscape of memory has become more stable.

Under My Skin is a stern book. Wonderfully evocative of both people and places—especially the Rhodesian countryside seen through the eyes of a child—it is sometimes a little thin on humour. There is not much affection or comfort to be found in its pages. The inability ever to remember the good times, but always the bad, is a refrain that she turns to again and again, attributing this pessimism in part to having been born in 1919, "when half of Europe was a graveyard".

The "dark grey cloud, like poison", that settled over her early childhood, fanned by the bitterness of her father who had lost a leg in the war, filled her with this endless "struggling panicky need to escape". It is with a cold eye, and at times an accusatory glare, that Doris Lessing looks out from the "defended observation post" that was her childhood self.

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This section contains 1,008 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Caroline Moorehead
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