In Alfred and Emily, Doris Lessing offers an alternate version of her parents’ lives, one in which World War I never happened. She bases her vision on what she knows of their characters and on the dreams they had before the war began. This alternate history comprises just over half of this book; the rest explores what actually happened to Alfred and Emily.
I’m fascinated by the idea of alternate histories, and Lessing’s idea of giving her own parents an alternate history seems particularly daring. These are real people, people she knew intimately, and the suggestion they might have lived differently, in a way that would even prevent Lessing herself from being born, has great potential. But the story never quite drew me in. I was impressed that Lessing chose not to make the alternate history all sunshine and light. The war had devastating consequences for a whole generation of young people, but the lack of war would not have meant a lack of difficulty. Emily’s marriage is not what she might have dreamed, and young men go off to fight in pointless battles because they feel deprived and useless. The lost generation becomes the surplus generation, which brings its own set of problems. So there’s much of interest here, but Lessing merely skims the surface; major crises are resolved two pages later, usually through the passage of time, and the people never seem quite real.
I was unsatisfied with the novella, but I hoped that the remainder of the book, which addresses the true story, would put a little more flesh on the characters’ bones. I thought that by knowing something of their real lives, I would be able to see why Lessing chose to have them act as they did in the alternate history. But this portion of the book, a series of reflections on Lessing’s childhood in Rhodesia, is as much about Lessing herself as it is about her parents. And again, Lessing provides just quick sketches. I was often not quite sure what was going on because the stories are not told in sequence. I felt that I was expected to already know details about Lessing’s life, and these stories were just intended to fill in the gaps.
I suspect that part of my problem was that I haven’t read any of Lessing’s other works, particularly the autobiographical ones. Someone who already knows and is interested in Lessing and her family might find this experiment fascinating. But I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to Lessing’s work or her life. It feels too incomplete to stand on its own.