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Friday 19 January 2024


Doris Lessing’s second book in her semi-biographical ‘Children of Violence’ series, A Proper Marriage (1954) is her sequel to Martha Quest (1952). Certain observations made below are not spoilers – they are mentioned briefly in the book blurb.

The point-of-view is omniscient, so we get inside the heads of several characters, often in the same scene. The story is set in the fictional African country of Zambesia (not a million miles away from Southern Rhodesia where Lessing lived most of her formative years (1925-1949)): ‘The small colonial town was at a crossroads in its growth: half a modern city, half a pioneers’ achievement; a large block of flats might stand next to a shanty of wood and corrugated iron, and most streets petered out suddenly in a waste of scrub and grass’ (p10).

Martha is now nineteen and married to a clerk, Douglas Knowell. She is strong-willed, restless and not particularly enamoured of boring married life – though at the beginning of the book she has only been married five days... ‘Until two weeks ago, her body had been free and her own, something to be taken for granted...’ (p37).

It’s the start of the Second World War, though at the outset this does not seem to affect the township. The townsfolk are conscious that there is a ‘big issue’ with the black population, however: ‘any expression of a desire for improvement on the part of the natives was immediately described as impertinence, or sedition, or even worse’ (p62). The parson’s wife observes: ‘If they learn to use arms, they can use them on us... this business of sending black troops overseas is extremely short-sighted. They are treated as equals in Britain, even by the women’ (p66).

When Douglas and his pals sign up to fight, Martha is taken aback; she is not enough for him, he prefers to ‘rush off to war’... (Douglas) ‘had not known how intolerably boring and empty his life was until there was a chance of escaping from it’ (p80).

When Martha learns that she is pregnant and the illegality of an abortion crops up, she ‘flew into an angry tirade against governments who presumed to tell women what they should do with their own bodies; it was the final insult to personal liberty’ (p106).

Throughout the book there are fine examples of Lessing’s eye for description: ‘The jacaranda were holding up jaded yellow arms. This drying, yellowing, fading month, this time when the year tensed and tightened towards the coming rains, always gave her a feeling of perverted autumn, and now filled her with an exquisite cold apprehension. The sky, above the haze of dust, was a glitter of hot blue light’ (p113). Another brief example: ‘Soon the wings of her joy had folded’ (p124). ‘Martha drifted to the divan, where she sat, with listening hands, so extraordinarily compelling was the presence of the stranger in her flesh’ (p129).

The actual scenes running up to and encompassing the birth are very well done. ‘Every particle of her flesh shrieked out, while the wave spurted like an electric current from somewhere in her backbone and went through her in shock after shock...’ (pp163-167). [Lessing gave birth to her first child in 1940].

One observation is certainly no longer true in the age of social media: ‘... one of the minor pleasures of power is to exchange in private views which would ruin you if your followers ever had a suspicion you held them’ (p188)! Also relevant, perhaps: ‘Unfortunately nine-tenths of the time of any political leader must be spent not on defeating his opponents, but on manipulating the stupidities of his own side’ (p365).

Martha gets involved with a group expounding Communism which appeals to her disenchantment with the rich crowd she has been with; and while Douglas is away training, she also flirts with RAF pilots stationed nearby. This is a depiction of a disintegration of a marriage – a marriage perhaps she should never have embarked upon.

There is very little feeling that there is a war ‘in the north’. No wounded, limbless survivors of conflict appear; food and material shortages are not evident.

Martha will appear next in A Ripple in the Storm.



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