Years ago a friend who shared my enthusiam for Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest books took a dark road for awhile. She quit her job, unplugged her telephone, and spent a lot of time alone. I don’t know what happened: did she go back to her professional job? Many of us took similar paths, because we didn’t want to do the expected thing. Lessing’s passages about emotional reactions, resistance, and rebellion against societal expectations still make me shiver.
Lessing calls The Four-Gated City a bildungsroman, but I think it is more than that. Her analysis of 20th-century politics, history, class, and the socialization of women is so lucid that we apply it to ourselves and feel that we are reading about ourselves.
Rereading The Four-Gated City is an extraordinary experience. It is the culmination of Lessing’s five-book Children of Violence series, a stunning portrait of a woman in her thirties, Martha Quest, who, leaves family, friends, and the Communist party to immigrate to England from Africa.
The Four-Gated City is not just a personal portrait, though. It also examines post-war London torn by the Cold War, persecutions of Communist Party members, fear of the McCarthy era, terror of war, women breaking down from pressures, and more.
There is so much in this novel. Take Martha’s relationship with her mother.
The highly competent Martha, who takes a job as a secretary-housekeeper of a writer, Mark Coldridge, breaks down when her mother writes to say she is coming to England. For years Martha has been unable to read her mother’s letters. The letters start to arrive in batches. She begins to read them carefully.
“A third letter. The arrival was a few weeks off. This letter had to be read carefully. It began: My darling girl, and ended, Your loving mother. In between were pages of reproof, reproach, hatred. Martha had always got letters like these from her mother. For years and years–when had they started? But she could not remember. She did not read them. Or rather, she had learned a technique for reading them, skimming over them fast, to extract necessary facts, but insulated against pain.”
Lessing is never sentimental, and elucidates the details of Martha’s relationship with her mother so realistically that we utterly identify with Martha.
I know someone who received similar letters from her mother.
A note on a factory novel: Frances Trollope’s Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy is the next logical factory novel for me to read after Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Mary Barton. I’ve never yet read Frances Trollope.
Fantasy recommendation. E. D. Kain in The Atlantic says R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy is “perhaps the best fantasy series written in the past decade…” Never heard of it, but I’m always interested in good fantasy novels.