Doris Lessing’s new book, Alfred and Emily, is an unusual hybrid, part fiction, part memoir, about her parents, Alfred Tayler and Emily Maude McVeagh. It is not the first time that Lessing has written about her family. Her battles with her mother as a young girl growing up in Southern Rhodesia are vividly recorded in her novel Martha Quest. There are also two volumes of autobiography, and numerous glimpses of her family history in novels and short stories. Now in her eighties, she is still struggling to understand the drama of her parents’ lives, and to free herself from what she describes as the ‘monstrous legacy’ of the trenches. How did the competent and sociable Sister McVeagh of her mother’s early life become the suffering woman trapped on an African smallholding?
In her Foreword, Lessing writes that ‘the Great War, the war that would end all war, squatted over my childhood’. Her father was badly wounded, his leg shattered by shrapnel, and henceforth he had to wear what he called ‘my wooden leg’, a crude contraption of wood and metal. He