Thursday, 27 December 2012

Fiction Reads: Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing


There is something about the unforgettable and inimitability in Doris Lessing’s writings. Alfred and Emily is no exception to the rule and one such read indeed. Inspired by and based on the lives of her parents, this book is divided into two parts. As she mentions in the foreword of the book, “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.” The first part of the book contains the ‘lives’ or the reconstruction that Lessing sketches for them as people who live their lives and pursue their aspirations and lead fulfilled lives. For Alfred, he lives the life of an English farmer. Emily nurses the sick and the wounded at the historic Royal Free Hospital during the ‘Great War.’ Later she marries a renowned doctor and is subsequently widowed. She turns into an educationist setting up schools all across England and Scotland.

Part One (Alfred and Emily: a novella) unfolds in the 1902 summer at the village of Longerfield in England. Alfred is a carefree and happy-go-lucky boy who plays cricket and enjoys farming and the archetypical village life. Emily on the other hand is ambitious and wants to train as a nurse to which her father is obstinately reluctant. He wants her to go to university instead. When he finally does not acquiesce and tells her with finality – ‘never darken my doors again’, she leaves to be interned at the hospital. There begins her career while Alfred stays on in the village and life goes on.

Part Two (Alfred and Emily; Two Lives) is a memoir of Lessing’s parents. She speaks of a time when Alfred was high on energy in Persia despite the handicap of a missing leg (the mishap of the Great War). She says, “He would ride, in Kermanshah, Persia, to his work at the bank. I’ve seen him go down a rough fine shaft in a bucket, his wooden leg sticking out and banging against the rocky sides. He ran, or hobbled, in fathers’ races at my brother’s school. He climbed a difficult tree to a tree-house made by my brother and me. He would go stomping through the bush, more than once taking a fall, or clamber over the great clods in a ploughed field.” This was before diabetes sapped his life. Emily works as a nurse where she meets wounded Alfred at the Royal Free Hospital. They marry and live in Persia where they raise a home with children.

However the family decides to move to former Rhodesia (current Zimbabwe) in 1925. They find nothing of the ‘Happy Valley in Kenya’ in Rhodesia. They are there to grow maize and manage a farm of their own. This is where Lessing is educated by her mother’s fervent purchase of books while Alfred’s health moves downhill. They are also a witness to racial prejudice, something of the apartheid scene in nearby South Africa. It is a time of immense historic change and in a few decades, Mugabe would come to power.

What is really unique about this book is Lessing’s forte in providing a sense of the time and place.Former Salisbury which is present-day Zimbabwe comes to life; the farm life, the so-called society that is almost non-existent due to which Emily McVeagh silently suffers, her meals and her care for the underprivileged are wonderfully described. There is something of the magnanimity and progressive in Emily McVeagh. Lessing left her children and husband there to pursue a life of writing; something of her mother’s high-mindedness is reflected in this quote, “For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing.There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn't the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother.”

(Article by Kabita Sonowal) 

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