Books · Colonisation · Gender · Whiteness & racism

social body

A Proper MarriageA Proper Marriage by Doris Lessing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel follows
Martha Quest
and personally I advise readers to come to this after reading the beginning of Martha’s story. The tone of self reproach (taking Martha to be an avatar of the author) is perhaps a little softer here, and the character seems more psychologically independent from her creator and a stronger individual, although she is still written as someone at the mercy of the currents she strays into (making her tale a perfect canvas to sketch the contours of a history). Once again it is amusing and infuriating and it strikes uncomfortably true how everyone says something other than what they feel and does something other than what they say! Martha’s relationship with her parents continues in the same vein, but Lessing deepens the reader’s insight into it. I love how she develops the scene, the atmosphere, the tension, to emphasise the significance of some ostensibly banal exchange.

One thing that connects with me is Martha’s painful attention to her own body; this is distinctly female writing, capturing the self-regarding aspect of feminine sexuality encultured by the trope of the female body as a prize. But it goes beyond, it goes far beyond that trope of the ‘flawless’ teenage body as ‘a sharp sword’ (to enter into what battle? How can we unthink sexuality as violence?) marked, unmade, desecrated by childbirth, though all these anxieties weigh in and meet critical attention. Martha’s body, Lessing notes, is ‘sanctioned for use by society’ and thus marked by contrast as rightfully her own. How Martha experiences her body and navigates her own and others’ claims on it is written in the light of that feminist bottom line. Lessing also has much to say about dressing the body, she is an author who largely ignores food but energetically writes the significance of clothes, the fraught surface of signs we write on the body, which presents a canvas varyingly cooperative and disruptive to what we intend or are forced to communicate.

The detailed account of giving birth was very striking. I can’t remember where I read that all women cry out for their mothers in labour… where do we go, what selves do we inhabit in that place of primal pain? Time itself is out of shape, memory is broken, sensation fills the universe like a scriptural ocean.

I was painfully enervated by the account of Martha’s experience in the nursing home; Lessing emphasises the senselessness and stupidity of separating mothers and babies and restricting feeding to regimented hours. This destructive imposition reflects the colonial attitude to nature, to all things outside the mind, at all levels; prosperity is attained through arbitrary discipline.

As in Martha Quest, the side of the novel concerned with political meetings was not very interesting to me, but I found the politics of the personal, especially the gender dynamics of Martha’s marriage, utterly compelling. The set-piece at the club where the black waiter was made to dance in MQhad a parallel scene in this book, where children from the ‘Coloured’ community performed a variety show for a White audience. Despite its politically innocuous (indeed vacuous) content, the effect is near incendiary, and illuminates some of the distinctive features of racial emotion-politics in white-occupied Southern Africa.

The scenes of Douglas and Perry at the army hospital were also fascinating to me. Unlike in Martha Quest, where Lessing sketches the White character through appearance in author voice, here she uses an English army doctor’s observations to underline the key trait of wounded entitlement that Martha also observes in Douglas. His murderous proprietorial attitude towards his family, typical of the patriarchal indoctrinate, is again shown to be part and parcel of the colonial mindset.

My favourite scene in the book has heavily pregnant women amok in the rain, luxuriating in mud holes like hippos. Civilisation and liberation stand at opposite poles here.

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