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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Doris Lessing & Jane Austen

Yesterday, I posted the following in Austen-L and Janeites:

I am sure many of you read of the recent death of Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize winner in literature a few years back.

I have never read any of her fiction, but I asked my wife, who reads a lot of contemporary fiction, and she said that she had read at least one of her works, which was written some decades ago, which she found prescient in terms of Lessing's anticipation of current societal trends.

Anyone here a Lessing fan? If so, any recommendations on what to read, and why (especially if you see an Austen connection)?

I always wonder about any contemporary female writer's engagement with Jane Austen, so I Googled Lessing re that, and was led to the following very interesting 12-page essay by Lessing about Jane Austen:

While Lessing does not peer into the shadows of JA's fiction, she does an excellent job of addressing a number of themes and issues in Pride & Prejudice and a bit about JA's bio and some of the other novels.

I recommend it.

I then received an interesting response from Ellen Moody…

Ellen: "Thank you to Arnie. I'll get that book. I'm a strong admirer of Doris Lessing: I enjoy her realistic fiction intensely, her memoirs, essays, journalism; she wrote one of the two best books on cats (the other is by Olivia Manning)."

…to which I now respond as follows:

You're welcome, Ellen.

I enjoyed Lessing's discussion of Jane Austen, even though I did not agree with half of what she wrote, in particular that Lessing was unable to imagine that there was another, radically different but still plausible, way of seeing Mary Bennet, Mr. Bennet, Charlotte, etc. Lessing, for all her independence of thought, remained imprisoned inside Lizzy's subjective perceptions. It made me wonder what she thought about Miss Bates, but she limits her discussion of  JA’s fiction to P&P---I suspect she pitied Miss Bates, but did not understand that there was more to Miss Bates than Emma realizes.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed following Lessing's writerly way of constructing an argument --now after browsing through Ellen's blog about Lessing's book about cats (our cat, by the way, is named Rufus, purely by coincidence with Lessing's Rufus) it occurs to me that Lessing stalks her ideas, the way a cat stalks a lizard (we have lots of tiny lizards here in South Florida)-- indirectly, craftily.

It's an infectious writing style, and not a bad "infection" to catch.

Here are a few passages in Lessing's essay on Jane Austen that I especially liked, having to do with JA’s own life:

“Jane and her sister Cassandra felt themselves to be, and were often treated as, poor relations, dependent on presents, little trips and handouts from better-off and generous relatives. Not until – late – Jane earned some money writing, did she enjoy any kind of independence. Her situation was a common one then for poor unmarried women anywhere in Europe.”

So Lessing is knowledgeable about JA’s biography, and good on her that she has not been seduced at all by the mythology of the Great Big Happy Austen Family which kept  JA safe and secure, and nurtured JA’s genius. And then Lessing attacks the mythology head on—I love it!:

“What do we have here? A woman of the kind I remember from when I was a girl [Lessing was born nearly a century ago], the unmarried maiden aunt, ready to be useful to others, without any life of her own, a pitiable figure. Austen was supposed, so we have often read, to be a sheltered woman, her experience limited to village life and a narrow middle-class circle…[quoting a 1943 biographer] ‘Jane Austen was protected  by a hedge of unquestionable values…’Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, her situation among the genteel poor exposed her: there can be few worse positions in society, even if often useful for the creation of literature….Above all, Jane was enmeshed in the lives of female relatives and  friends, who were always pregnant, nursing, giving birth to innumerable children who died then so easily and often. And, more potent as an influence than anything, Jane was sent as a tiny child to  boarding school, and there was as miserable and neglected as Jane Eyre was at her school.
The triumph of JA’s art was that the little piece of ivory she claimed as her artistic territory was carved out of such an abundance of experience and material.
…it is useful to remember here that Cassandra reported Jane’s moments of exultation at being free and unmarried. Free from what? Surely, childbearing. Again and again, one reads how some cousin, or friend, has died in childbed with her eighth or ninth child, having been pregnant or breastfeeding for all those years. Matrimony at the level it was being observed by Jane and Cassandra cannot have appeared salubrious. Looking back now it is hard not to conclude that perhaps those despised spinsters had the best of it….There is a dark under-stratum in Austen’s novels where the ill health, mostly of women, is hinted at. Not only childbirth killed women: people died then as they do not now.”
Bravo, Doris Lessing! Spot-on in all the points she makes about JA’s opinions about the precariousness of female health in a world of serial pregnancy.

And as to the effect of JA’s early experience sent away from home to boarding school where she almost died, I wonder if Lessing, who published this essay in 2004, had a chance to later read the following 2005 essay in Persuasions Online by Linda Walker, which goes into great, insightful detail on that very point of the traumatic memory of JA’s being sent away at seven:

But most  of all, I wonder what Lessing would have thought about my shadow story interpretations of Jane Austen’s novels—I would like to think that she’d realize that they provide an even deeper and more heartfelt expression of the very same points Lessing made about JA’s own life-i.e., that JA did not limit herself in her novels to sophisticated reworkings of the Cinderella myth (as Lessing asserts at the end of her essay), but that JA was, on a deeper level, warning women of the seductiveness of such myths, and the danger of a young woman like Lizzy believing she is equipped to protect herself from all the subtle  manipulation and influence she is subject to from others.

ADDED 12:30 pm EST 11/19/13:
From a 1999 interview when Lessing was asked to name three books about or by women that were very significant for her (the second paragraph is the one Janeites will focus on):

"Doris Lessing: This is very difficult. There are so many. Olive Schreiner, a South African writer who came to London before the first World War -- her novel THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM is extraordinary. She was a very original thinker, a feminist. She was asking questions that I don't think people got around to asking until the '60s. She was a socialist of that kind and time. She wrote about things such as trade unionism, the labor struggle, and birth control. She was truly remarkable. Also Nadezhda (the word for "hope" in Russian) Mandelstam: She was the wife of Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet, and she wrote a book called HOPE AGAINST HOPE, a pun on her name, about the persecution suffered under poets under Stalin. It is one of the greatest books of this century, and I recommend it. She wrote another called HOPE ABANDONED. These two books together are extraordinary.

Also a biographer, Claire Tomalin -- she wrote a book about Jane Austen called JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE, recently out. What is admirable about this is that we have been used to seeing Austen rather as a maiden aunt observing the world from a corner, but Claire puts her into the context of a great web of family relations of that time, a detailed society. Jane Austen was very busy indeed, working with friends, family, and children, and had a hard time -- there was never any money. There is a refrain throughout this book -- cousin Fanny died in childbirth with her tenth child last summer -- and a whole new picture is painted for us of this time. Really great detail in this book -- what people were eating, how they were dressing, how they traveled. It is a completely new picture of a lady believed to have never gotten dust on her hands -- which is very far from the truth." END QUOTE seems clear that Lessing's 2004 essay about Jane Austen was sparked by Lessing's having read Tomalin's bio of JA in 1999, which led her to change her prior understanding of Jane Austen in a fundamental way. It remains endlessly fascinating to me to see the reactions to Jane Austen of later writers, especially later female writers.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

I wrote my dissertation in part on Lessing. If you still haven't read any of her work, I recommend her novella "The Fifth Child" as an excellent place to start. It was the first book I read by her, only a year or two after it was published, and it motivated me to read all her work. A compelling that I still think about often, 25+ years after I first read it and 20+ years after finishing my dissertation.