Reading a novel from each decade shows up the sudden changes in literary practices. One such moment occurred when Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing arrived on the literary scene of post-war London. Published in 1950 it was like nothing that had come before. Doris Lessing had recently arrived from Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She brought with her Peter, her youngest child, and the manuscript of this novel. Her writing was tough and implicitly political. It was a new kind of novel, new in terms of location, material and treatment. Doris Lessing went on to forge a long career in fiction until she died in November 2014. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.
It is for these reasons that I have chosen The Grass is Singing for the 1950s in my Decades Project (see below).
The novel The Grass is Singing
The opening chapter poses the question: why did these people behave in the way they did? There was a murder, why wasn’t more pity shown for the victim? Of for her husband, who has gone out of his mind? What did the murder reveal about relations between the natives and the white farmers? This is not a whodunit. Moses, the houseboy confesses when the native police arrive.
In this first chapter we are introduced to the characters, the location (a small farm in Southern Rhodesia), and the attitudes of local white people through the eyes of the newly arrived manager Tony Marston, a young man who is due to take over the management of the farm. Charlie Slatter, who runs the neighbouring farm very profitably and Sergeant Denham appear to be warning him about his reactions to the murder and this alerts the reader to relationships that will be unfamiliar.
From the second chapter the narration becomes more omniscient as Doris Lessing begins to chart the early life, marriage and disintegration of Mary Turner, the victim. Mary had an impoverished and unhappy childhood, but was able to escape to Salisbury (now Harare) where she was happy with a job in an office, accommodation in a hostel and an active social life without intimacy. She was not looking for marriage or children until she overheard her friends suggesting that there is something wrong with her. From this moment she latches onto the idea of marriage and when Dick Turner appears in her life they quickly decide to marry.
She moves out to Dick’s farm where it quickly becomes apparent that she is out of place and that she has mistaken ideas about marriage. And so does Dick. He is a farmer, but has no success. Her role is to manage the house, by managing the houseboy, a native. Brought up with no contact with natives and having absorbed the white population’s distain and fears, Mary is incapable of being decent towards them. Indeed, while supervising the field workers during a bout of Dick’s malaria, she strikes one of the workers when he dared to ask for a break for water. This is Moses who later comes to work in the kitchen.
Doris Lessing leads us towards the eventual breakdown between Mary and Dick, and the disintegration of both Turners.
Reading the novel
Reading this novel for the third time I am struck again by how tough a read it is. Mary’s response to words overheard, to her marriage, to the poverty of the farm, to the heat and the other conditions of life on the veldt, these are described in harsh detail. One can only be disappointed in her inability to see more clearly and to extricate herself from her difficulties. So often she just sits vacantly. The men who turn up at the scene of the murder believe that Mary had ‘let the side down.’
But over all this is the shocking brutality of the racist society in which she lived. What Mary had done was have a relationship with a native. It was a very distorting and unhealthy relationship but
[Tony Marston, the recent arrival] would see the thing clearly and understand that it was ‘white civilization’ fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, ‘white civilization’ which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or for evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it. So, above all, it cannot afford failures, such as the Turners’ failure. (26)
And for ‘white civilization’ read justification for colonization, or for exploitation of the African population, or repeated abuses of human rights.
Doris Lessing seems to be telling us that we are all tainted by this idea of ‘white civilization’, even the poorest of the whites, the most incapable of the white population, and certainly the abused black people, they are all damaged by society based on racism.
The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, first published in 1950 by Michael Joseph ltd. I used the edition from Flamingo (1994) 206pp
The Decades Project
I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.
Previous posts in the Project
They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926
O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905
The next decade: 1960s
I have decided to read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin in July for the 1960s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1970s and 1980s.
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