Review: Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing

Review: Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing
A beautiful reflection on how we embroider and unpick our parents' lives, says Isobel Montgomery

Doris Lessing's half-fiction, half-memoir is a clever example of just how sharply counterfactual history can illuminate life's wrong turns and paths not taken. What if her parents had met but never married? That Lessing would not exist is not her point here, though it is one that the reader cannot avoid. Rather, she allows her father, Alfred, to move contentedly through an eternal Edwardian summer of cricket and gentle English farming; no war to break his health, no rash emigration to Rhodesia with a disappointed wife. For her mother, Emily, nursing and a loveless marriage provide opportunity and means to become a philanthropic educationalist with money to spare for elegant clothes. Yet there is no gain without loss: an England without the first world war and with all its Edwardian hierarchies intact is still troubled, and contentment is hard won for both Alfred and Emily. Lessing's hybrid is a beautiful, wise reflection on how we simultaneously embroider and unpick our parents' lives in an effort to understand ourselves.


Isobel Montgomery

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Review: The Cleft by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing's parable of slobbering walrus-women, The Cleft, puzzles Ursula K Le Guin.

Ursula K Le Guin

10, Feb, 2007 @2:02 PM

Article image
Lisa Allardice interviews Doris Lessing

A life in writing: The Golden Notebook made Doris Lessing a reluctant feminist icon in 1962, but her many works since then have often confounded her disciples. Her latest novel is no exception.

Interview by Lisa Allardice

20, Jan, 2007 @10:24 AM

Article image
The Golden Notebook: multiple narratives
John Mullan on Doris Lessing’s use of multiple narratives in The Golden Notebook.

John Mullan

13, Jan, 2007 @11:48 PM

Article image
Jessie Greengrass: 'Frog and Toad Are Friends contains one of the best jokes ever written'
The author on underrated ‘great of feminist literature’ Gaudy Night, looking forward to every Ian Rankin novel, and never finishing Middlemarch

Jessie Greengrass

19, Mar, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Doris Lessing’s library: a life in 4,000 books
When Nick Holdstock was asked to catalogue the books left behind in Doris Lessing’s home, he found annotations, drawings, dedications – and a few surprises

Nick Holdstock

07, Feb, 2017 @1:08 PM

Article image
Review: The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing's latest collection of stories, The Grandmothers, deals in the dangers of self-delusion

Maya Jaggi

22, Nov, 2003 @1:26 AM

Article image
Margaret Drabble on Doris Lessing's short stories

Questioning, liberating, sometimes deeply disturbing - Doris Lessing's short stories are as fresh as when they first appeared, writes Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble

06, Dec, 2008 @12:01 AM

Doris Lessing's acceptance speech for her Nobel Prize for Literature

Last night Doris Lessing, aged 88, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In her acceptance speech she recalls her childhood in Africa and laments that children in Zimbabwe are starving for knowledge, while those in more privileged countries shun reading for the 'inanities' of the internet

Doris Lessing

08, Dec, 2007 @11:54 PM

Article image
Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook, 50 years on

Lessing's radical exploration of communism, female liberation, motherhood and mental breakdown was hailed as the 'feminist bible' and reviled as 'castrating'. Four generations of writers – Diana Athill, Margaret Drabble, Rachel Cusk and Natalie Hanman – reflect on what it means to them

06, Apr, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
Jane Rogers revisits Doris Lessing

Jane Rogers revisits Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, a novel she was first drawn to when she was living in a squat.

Jane Rogers

03, Dec, 2005 @1:51 AM