Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Martha Quest

Doris Lessing by Godfrey Argent, 1969
Martha is the main protagonist of a five-novel series called The Children of Violence [published from 1952 to 1969] written by Doris Lessing. It begins in southern Rhodesia where Martha lives on a farm with her parents. Her mother tries to maintain a proper British household, controlling her children. Her father has been maimed by World War I. Rage and bitterness fill the house. Martha spends her time reading everything she can get her hands on. The elemental African landscape also sustains her. In a memorable image, we see Martha in a grass-stained yellow dress, reading and smoking, a gun across her lap.

To get away from home, Martha takes a job in Salisbury. Though she has been reading leftist texts, she is at the mercy of the currents swirling around her and falls in with a careless middle class group. She marries at 19 and has a child, Caroline, right away. But she is full of anger at the colonial attitudes she runs into. Her ideals compel her to take responsibility for them. When she leaves her marriage to again take up work of her own, her husband refuses to let her see Caroline. She tells her child, “I’m leaving to change this ugly world. You must live in a beautiful world with no race hatred or injustice.”

Martha then joins a group of communists, the Left Book Club, who are fiercely opposed to the color bar in Rhodesia. The meetings of the group are a study in personalities, as factionalism dominates. Martha marries the ideologue leader of the group, Anton, rather than the more human Athen. World War II intervenes, but nothing is accomplished. Black people’s struggles are unchanged and the whites have a na├»ve lack of insight into their lives. Martha’s growth, however, makes her a traitor to the race and class she was born into.

After the war, Martha’s marriage and her faith in the leftist group disintegrate. She is somewhat at sea, though she has an affair with a Polish ex-patriate which brings her some happiness. She begins to look back on her idealism and tries to make sense of things. She leaves Africa for London in 1949.

London is still recovering from the war. It is dirty and has no good food or nice clothing. Martha, after wandering around a bit, becomes secretary to Mark Coleridge, an author, and moves into the troubled Coleridge household. Lynda, Mark’s wife, is in an asylum, and his son Frances is joined by Mark’s nephew Paul, whose physicist father has defected to Russia and whose mother has committed suicide. Photographers and journalists surround the house. Martha keeps house. When this crisis dies down, Lynda moves into the basement with her helper Dorothy.

Though at first she tries to leave, Martha becomes the nurturer who holds the household together. She and Mark are lovers, though Mark longs for Lynda, who cannot bear his touch. Martha is wise and restrained, watching the young people as London changes, becoming the swinging city of the 1960’s. All of them participate in the protest marches from London to the Aldermaston atomic weapons research labs each Easter.

As the young people grow up, Martha spends more time with Lynda, exploring her inner space and experimenting with what fasting and not sleeping do to her perceptions. Martha wonders whether people designated mad by society are simply not more aware of what is going on. Evil acts are born of not being self-aware. In the end, the cataclysmic nuclear event which hangs over the narrative, happens. Martha survives, living on the west coast of England, helped by the young people.

Reading the Martha Quest books during my own period of self development and questioning, I was very grateful for Doris Lessing’s honesty and her capacious world-view. At the time, we were all exploring our perceptions, trying to expand our human potential. Though I didn’t have the crushing pessimism which led Lessing to her conclusions, I am not afraid of looking at things squarely, partly because of her example. Her books underscore the fact that one’s personal life is always political.