Before losing myself for five days of engrossed rereading of The Sweetest Dream, I vehemently maintained that the Children of Violence series was her masterpiece, and the best place for neophytes to begin. Indeed, that five-book series, which comprises Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked, and The Four-Gated City, is s 20th-century classic. (You can read my long piece on it).
But autres temps, autres moeurs. The Sweetest Dream, published in 2001, is more traditional than her postmodern novels of the ’60s, The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City. If her experimental novels seem dated to some 21st century readers, The Sweetest Dream is an abbreviated, straightforward retelling of The Four-Gated City.
Like The Four-Gated City, which is the last of the Children of Violence series, The Sweetest Dream is a political novel that delineates the lives and fortunes of a flamboyant extended family in London over three decades (sans the science fiction elements of TFGC).
The first part is set in London. The heroine, Frances Lennox, a writer and a single mother, is a more tepid version of Martha Quest. She longs to be an actor, but must work as a freelance journalist for a greater salary. Her feckless ex-husband Johnny, whom she despises, has kept her sons insecure because he contributes nothing to the family. Johnny, a star of the communist party on false pretenses–he pretends he was in the Spanish Civil War, but was not–devotes his talents to schmoozing with other communists in hotel rooms, on the Party’s expense account.
As the novel opens, Frances has received two letters with job offers: one to be an actor in a prestigious play in a small theater, the other as an agony aunt for a newspaper (and this will remind some of you of the magazine job of Anna’s alter-ego, Ella, in The Golden Notebook ).
Lessing writes of Frances:
She had been writing on all kinds of subjects for years. At first she had tried her wings in local papers and broadsheets, any place that would pay her a little money. Then she found she was doing research for serious articles, and they were in the national newspapers. She had a name for solid balanced articles that often shone an unexpected and original light on a current scene.
She will take the agony aunt job, because it pays well, but it will give her no pleasure. She will freelance on the side to make ends meet.
She is utterly practical, and long ago, as a young mother, had to put aside her own talents and needs for her sons. Throughout the ’60s, Frances’s extended family and expenses grow. She and her two sons live on the lower floors of her mother-in-law Julia’s house; Julia charges no rent, but Frances must pay the utilities and other expenses. Then her sons’ teenage friends begin to move in, dropping out of their families and schools, occupying every available room in the house. Frances is an earth mother, feeding them every night, and is just absorbed enough in their family stories not to make them go home (though she stays in touch with their parents when possible). And she worries, especially about her sons.
Both her sons have attended expensive schools, paid for by Julia. Her oldest son, Andrew, is smoking dope in his room all day, a wastrel taking a year off before going to Cambridge. Her younger son, Colin, wants to drop out of his progressive school.
As the extended family grows, Andrew and Colin have no choice but to mature. Johnny’s second family, his stepdaughter, the anorexic Sylvia, and eventually her depressive mother Phyllida, move in. Sylvia is very ill, might die, and Andrew comes out of his room to help her. It is Julia who saves Sylvia, by simply not putting up with the anorexia: Sylvia must eat and go to school if she wants to stay. Sylvia eventually becomes a doctor.
The postwar generation are “screwed-up,” as Frances and Julia admit, because of the war. They have everything they want, but want something more. They pursue different dreams, that of course become the same dreams.
Over three decades, Lessing traces political movements and social change, from communism to civil rights and feminism, single motherhood and divorce to extended families that includes children’s friends, au rigeur shoplifting and dropping out of school to yuppiehood and leadership, and the uselessness of “Mrs. Jellyby internnational aid organizations” when compared to the work of an individual, i.e.. Sylvia, a doctor in the bush
When the children grow up (and mostly leave), Frances can love again. And though Frances finally lives with a man she has known for years, another journalist who hates his profession, they can never give up writing altogether because relatives and friends still need their support. Frances begins to write sociological books.
In the last 200 pages, Lessing shifts the action mainly to Africa. Sylvia is the second heroine: she is now the doctor at a mission, where the hospital is a few dusty huts and lean-tos in the bush. She treats over 40 patients a day, many with AIDS (called “Slim”). And she forms strong relationships with people in the village.
Books are one of the most important things to the African villagers, and they need them for their school. Sylvia buys them exercise books and reads to them from her few books, and then lends them out. But she begs Andrew to bring books for their small library when he visits, and sends him a list. When Andrew forgets, Sylvia cries.
Now he remembered that when he was in her room he had seen shelves on the wall, and above it a printed card: Library. ‘Wait,’ he said, and went into her room. She followed. There were two books on the shelves, one a dictionary and one, Jane Eyre. Both were falling to pieces. A sheet of paper was nailed to the brick: Library Books. Taken out: Returned. The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Lord of the Rings. Christ Stopped at Eboli. The Grapes of Wrath. Cry the Beloved Country…
You get the picture.
The dreams of Africa, of health, of decency are there–and there are small results. It takes a family like the Lennoxes,to save people. They cannot save everyone, but it is very moving what they can accomplish.