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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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 housekeeper, personal assistant and cook for an English writer, Mark, who lives in a square in Bloomsbury, in the heart of old cultural London: she becomes deeply involved with him, his demented and hallucinating wife, and his entire family.

One of the salient ‘servant’ passages occurs when Martha’s unhappy, problematic mother makes a prolonged and deeply unwelcome visit from South Africa and berates her daughter for not being able to ‘manage’ the other servants in Mark’s household, bemused as she is by Martha’s ambiguous status in it. Lessing gives us an acute insight into the shifting sands of social class, and of the perpetual embarrassment of left-leaning women who, like Virginia Woolf, employed other women to do their dirty work for them. This is a theme in Francesca Wade’s interesting recent sociological survey Square Haunting, which examines the overlapping lives of five women writers living in Bloomsbury between the wars, including Woolf.

I interviewed Lessing in 1972 for the West Coast left-of-centre glossy magazine Ramparts. I knew her quite well, and I remember that over lunch in my home we talked of many things – prophetic dreams, cooking, recipes, drug-taking and the new psychiatric theories of R. D. Laing. We did not talk about feminism as I knew she disliked the subject and did not like to be classified as a feminist. (For the record: she did almost all her own dirty work, all her own shopping and cooking.) She was less than gracious to the American academics who sang her praises and hailed The Golden Notebook as their Bible.

The Four-Gated City is just as interesting as its notorious and distinguished predecessor, though much less well known, partly, perhaps, because of its formidable length – it runs to over 700 pages of small print. She had also by this time come under the influence of the Sufi guru Idries Shah, whose spiritual views had replaced communism as a faith, and his theories are woven into the later novel. She avoided the subject of Sufism when talking to me (just as I avoided feminism when talking to her) as she sensed that I disapproved. The novel has an atmosphere of apocalyptic doom, prefigured in dreams and visions: this was the period when she was trying to persuade us all that we needed to dig nuclear bunkers, as they were doing in Switzerland. In my Ramparts interview, I described her as a Cassandra whom nobody would believe. She foresaw a Britain poisoned by nuclear fallout and nerve gas, looking ‘like a dead mouse in a corner, injected with a deadly, glittering dew’.

This makes the novel sound unremittingly grim, and I had been reluctant to reread it, but I am so glad I did. It is prophetic, but it is also sharply observant of social reality, and parts of it are very funny. There is a good scene near the beginning where the newly arrived and penniless Martha meets Henry, a well-off contact and friend of acquaintances in South Africa, who has offered her a job: she arrives in the shabby-genteel West End restaurant before her host, is treated with ‘an arrogance of bad manners’ by the lean, elderly waiter, realizes she is in some subtle way incorrectly dressed, embarks on an ill- advised political discussion about poverty and the working classes with Henry and, although she has asked for pâté, is treated to ‘scallop shells filled with lumps of cod covered with a cheese-coloured white sauce. That this was a restaurant where people ate, not to eat well, but to eat comfortably, she had understood from what she had seen on the plates near her . . .’ Lessing goes on to catalogue the dirty tablecloth, the stale rolls, the sagging roses, the blanquette de veau which follows the coquilles, the trifle which comes under another name. ‘Throughout the restaurant, people were eating nursery puddings, under French names.’

Martha notes that ‘The wine, however, was very good indeed, marvellous . . .’ In short, a man’s world, summed up in telling detail, a world which Martha and Lessing had come to confront.
It is interesting to note that Martha’s renewed acquaintance with Henry is enabled by the fact that she had casually jotted down his telephone number on a bus ticket. Bus tickets exist no more, or not as we knew them. Mine will be the last generation to remember bus conductors and bus tickets.

One of the things that surprised me, this time round, was the amount of discussion of the merits of private versus state education. There are several references to Eton, which some of the principal characters attended, and to progressive comprehensive schooling. Education was a prominent and ideologically divisive talking point of the Sixties and Seventies and I’m not sure Lessing ever made her mind up about it. She was certainly not as committed as I was to the comprehensive system. The subject has hardly gone away, governed as we have been and are by so many Old Etonians, but it has a dated, hopeless feel to it these days. Perhaps her interest was coloured by the story of the Cambridge spies, with their public-school affiliations and their communism, and in the novel one of her many gripping subplots involves a character suspected of spying: her satirical portrayal of the venal journalists who pursue him is particularly acute and well informed. She was deeply interested in social class, as well as in progressive politics, and had a sharp eye for hypocrisy. She is also very good on the growing power of television (which she herself watched quite a lot):

The television set, its back to her, emitted noises of human beings in violent conflict. This was the real educator of the children of the nation . . . they had absorbed the idea that they, ‘the inheritors of our future, etc. etc.’, were being fed a view of the world, life, that was all killing and violence.

As is manifested by that quotation, Lessing is not an elegant stylist. Nobody could ever praise her ‘beautiful prose’. She is far too interested in getting to the truth of the matter to care much for cadence and sonority. In my Ramparts piece written over forty years ago I noted that:

The point is, The Four-Gated City is littered with sentences that begin, bluntly, desperately, with the words ‘The point is . . .’ And the point follows. Most writers feel compelled to write bridging passages, to plane down the surface, to conceal their points . . . The flexibility of her writing is by now amazing: she changes tense, tone, place, she skips decades, moves from the past to the future, documents, speculates, describes, with relentless urgency. The world of The Four-Gated City is a different world from the world of Martha Quest, though its protagonist is the same, and has endured the same history.

I stand by that judgement and am as full of admiration as ever. I could not quite follow Lessing into the space fiction world of the Canopus in Argus: Archives, though I enjoyed much of her later fiction. For me The Four-Gated City marks a high point in her work. In it, she unites her passionate interest in people and pragmatic daily housekeeping details – the mending of drains and fixing of light switches, the cooking of meals, the washing of clothes, the coming and going of fashions and styles – with her visionary sense of the future, a future which may be even worse than she feared and we now fear.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © Margaret Drabble 2021


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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