A Down-to-Earth Visionary

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I read Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City in 1969, when it was published, and I have a hardback first edition of it, still in its original dust wrapper. When I rediscovered my copy and reread it in the autumn of 2019, to prepare for a seminar at the University of East Anglia to celebrate her centenary, I found that I had been using a bus ticket as a bookmark. I must have been reading it on the No. 24 bus, on my way to or from South End Green in Hampstead. I had forgotten what London bus tickets looked like. The printing was a pale mauve. I couldn’t read that volume on a bus now. It is far too heavy. I can hardly read it in bed.

Lessing would have been fascinated by the pandemic. This novel is the last in her five-volume sequence Children of Violence which traces the fortunes of her protagonist Martha Quest from her upbringing in Southern Africa to her arrival in 1950 in England, not long after the Second World War. The Four-Gated City opens in the dreary bombed landscape and rationed food of 1950s London and moves on through the extreme sexual experimentation of the liberated Sixties to an apocalyptic future of poison gas, Porton Down, World War Three and bare survival. It spans a vast historical stretch, and encompasses a large cast of characters from all ranges and ages of English social life, and from several ethnicities – dockers, Jewish refugees, communists, Old Etonians, intellectuals, African politicians, trades unionists, writers, actors, disturbed adolescents, spies, psychiatrists and servants.

Lessing is not afraid of the word ‘servant’, as some middle-class English writers are: she addresses ‘the servant question’ frontally, reminding us that in the Fifties the middle classes found servants ‘plentiful and cheap’. It’s strange to look back on this now, but it was indeed so: child-minders and cleaners cost a few pounds a week. The bohemian and vagabond Martha finds herself a position as a kind of

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About the contributor

Margaret Drabble has written nineteen novels and a volume of short stories, as well as editing the Oxford Companion to English Literature. Her memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet, which revolves round the history and appeal of the jigsaw puzzle, was reissued in 2020 to mark the pandemic-inspired resurgence of interest in puzzles.

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