Portrait of a Lady
THIS IS A BOOK about what Doris Lessing, as always with a straight face, describes as "a pretty, healthy, serviceable woman." Her name is Kate Brown. She is upper-middle-class English. Unlike most Lessing women, who are versions of Lessing herself, she is no intellectual. She is bright, though, and at 45 has long since acquired at some pain those caring virtues necessary to bring up a family: "Patience, self-control, self-abnegation, self-discipline, chastity, adaptability to others."
This is also a book about beginning to grow old. As death approaches, so does the need to satisfy a feeling, "perhaps the deepest one we have," Kate reflects, "that what matters most is that we learn through living." None of the received ideas she can reach down off the rack, along with those becoming dresses from a boutique called Jolie Madame, are much consolation: "Marriage is a compromise." "A lot of time, a lot of pain, went into learning very little." The possible reactions to much of what is going on in the world today are a rather hopeless twosome: "We ought to do something about it" or "Oh Woe, Alas!"
What would normally be in store for Kate? Literarily, she might in this day and age wind up embalmed as the heroine of a Jean Kerr comedy, or a case history for Women's Lib (Anatomy is not Destiny, etc.). In life, Doris Lessing notes, Kate's future would be a slow, desperate struggle against the signs of decay—"tinting her hair, keeping her weight down, following the fashions carefully so that she would be smart but not mutton dressed as lamb."
But Novelist Lessing, 53, does not have time for all that now. In the past 20 years she has written and lived her way through and forsaken such pangs and consolations as marriage, Freud, and the accomplishments of applied Marxism seem to offer. She is increasingly haunted by a vision of society's collapse, and maybe the world's—a coming darkness which at best will bring with it changes so radical that such things as the plight of the individual ego, for instance, or Women's Lib, will "look very small and quaint."
Fever. Kate Brown and the reader, accordingly, must face the shock of age, the loss of beauty, with dramatic speed. And if that means that the plot must groan like a Paris elevator, or the prose sometimes has to scuff along in rundown slippers and an old dressing gown, Doris Lessing has never been one to take the cosmetics of fiction seriously.
Kate's family flees for the summer. Kate gets a job—first as a translator, then as a coordinator of international foundation programs. (She discovers that running a foundation is very like running a family.) Yes, Kate also has an affair, bravely trying not to be maternal about the poor, charming young man who drags her off to unsanitary Spain. There she gets fever, makes it back to a London hotel, descends into darkness for some weeks. When she awakes—hair no longer dyed, all her shape gone—she looks like a 140-year-old woman just escaped from Shangri-La.
Oh Woe, Alas? Not exactly, for wisdom comes from loss. Pretty women, as everyone knows, are given special treatment. But beauty is a costly possession, and women pay for it by pretending that the skin is the self, and carrying on a discreet, lifelong flirtation with the world that encourages in them longer than usual the human delusion that the face you put on is really you.
Caring. For a pretty woman, matrimony puts the highest sort of premium on that view, and the book, naturally, has some harsh words about what even a good marriage does to women. Are there any alternatives? Kate wonders. Probably not, Doris Lessing decides, at least for those women who seem to be born (as well as ingrained) with a sense of caring. Kate is intrigued and provoked, though, by a neighbor —either a mutant monster or the Woman of the Future—who seems to have no sense of responsibility and whose children still seem to have turned out well enough.
For a while she shares quarters with a young girl, also a middle-class escapee, who subsists entirely on baby food. Kate has a recurring Jungian dream about a long, cold struggle to carry a wounded seal to water and so save its life. Eventually she goes home, for the first time since her marriage more concerned about herself than about her body or her children. As a small emblem of independence she wears her gray hair untinted. "The light that is the desire to please had gone out."
Fiction is destroyed by précis — Doris Lessing's more than most writers'. Her power lies in the kind of nonpartisan gravity that overrides any specific levity a cynical reader may generate. She encourages the kind of brooding about the questions of life which knows at the outset there are no answers. "I haven't been married for years," she told an interviewer recently. "No one knows the virtues it requires, and I haven't got them." Have them or not, she knows them well enough, their value and their cost as well.