Doris Lessing Reinvents Her Parents in Alfred & Emily


Doris Lessing has announced that Alfred & Emily will be her last book. While it’s not surprising that she would again choose to visit her family’s past, as in Under My Skin (1994), Walking in the Shade (1997), and Martha Quest (2003), the Nobel laureate’s latest work is a curious undertaking in which she rewrites her parents’ unhappy lives as if World War I had never taken place.In real life, Lessing’s father Alfred wanted a simple pastoral existence, but ended up injured during the war and was forced to wear a wooden leg; her mother Emily’s true love drowned in the Channel. Alfred and Emily wed and moved to Persia and, several years later, to Africa. Alfred was thoroughly unsuited to life in colonial Rhodesia, where he ended up a failed landowner. Doris, born in 1919, was sent to a convent boarding school at age seven.Strangely, in her fictional story, Lessing gives her parents rather pedestrian lives. Her father starts a family and runs a rural English farm. Emily marries a prominent but dreary surgeon and is doomed to be a socialite before finding her true passion—starting progressive schools for the English poor. As for Lessing herself, she disappears from the reimagined story altogether. Why she chose not to appear in her parents’ new lives is anyone’s guess. In the second half of Alfred & Emily, Lessing treats us to an in-depth commentary on the preceding 100 pages: “Do children feel their parents’ emotions? Yes, we do, and it is a legacy I could have done without.” The author’s explanations in this section, however, undermine the first part’s undertaking: Lessing’s prose, elegant and measured as always, speaks for itself. Yet anyone who has been sensitive, as Lessing is, to the sadness of parents can only be touched by Alfred & Emily, a flawed but lovely literary gesture.