Review: Alfred & Emily

Doris Lessing’s memoir of her parents and the life that could have been.



Read: Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing

Stars: Three

Drinking: Pumpkin Spice Chai, Twinings

Alfred & Emily reminded me a lot of Atonement.  In the first half, Lessing creates an alternate history for her parents in which World War I never occurs.  Instead, England slips into a long period of peace, in which Alfred and Emily never marry, although they are friends. Alfred is a farmer with a kind wife and two sons.  Emily is a successful nurse, then hostess, and finally supporter of education.  The strange alternate world that Lessing creates is almost more interesting than their lives – a Serbian rebellion and a longing for the young men of England to “have a good war” are just two of the details that appear.  It is an interested, but not necessarily satisfying, story.

The second half is a series of essays about Lessing’s real parents, damaged by the first world war and jaded by the realities of living in Southern Africa. Emily, the socialite nurse, becomes a clingy, desperate mother.  Alfred is a farmer, but not the idyllic British farmer. Farming in Rhodesia is difficult, they have no training, and Alfred’s wounds from the war have made him very ill.  Both spend most of their lives wishing for the time before the war.  Alfred wishes he could have died with his comrades at Passchendale.

The best essay is not about Lessing’s parents, but about her brother, Harry.  Harry was on a ship in the Pacific that was sunk by the Japanese, but he survived to be an old man living in South Africa.  The entire second half of the book – their parent’s lives since World War I – can be summed up by Harry’s comment about his life after the ship sank” You see, Tigs, it’s most of my life: I simply haven’t been here at all.”  Alfred and Emily hadn’t been those people who survived Passchendale or had a lover shot down over the Channel. Those people were gone.  Lessing comes to terms with the absence of the people her parents really were through the alternate history she created for them, where ultimately, they are perhaps happier.

I enjoyed the book, but I’m not sure it really achieved Lessing’s goal.  I think that perhaps if she had used a different format – a short introduction to her parent’s lives, followed by the alternate history – it would  have been more effective.  The essay format does highlight the regrets of her parents and how the war affected them, but it is piecemeal.

Author: Lisa M Fry

Freelance writer & copy-editor. Book lover. Feminist. American in London.

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