‘[…] After all, you aren’t someone who writes little novels about the emotions. You write about what’s real.’
Anna almost laughed again, and then said soberly: ‘Do you realize how many of the things we say are just echoes? That remark you’ve just made is an echo from Communist Party criticism — at its worst moments, moreover. God knows what that remark means, I don’t. I never did. If Marxism means anything, it means that a little novel about the emotions should reflect “what’s real” since the emotions are a function and a product of a society …’.
The above passage, from Lessing’s The golden notebook, marks out what is really interesting about The grass is singing. I haven’t read it in some years and remembered it as a fairly straightforward novel about the colour bar in colonial Rhodesia. The surprise on rereading it is how much of the novel is taken up with the mental disintegration of the central character and the way in which Lessing shows that mental breakdown as being intertwined with the political situation of the white colonialist farmers.
The novel begins with the murdered body of Mary Turner, killed by her black house servant Moses. Lessing gives us the ‘facts’ of the case as set out in the newspaper report of the incident, and then proceeds to examine what she sees as the ‘truth’ of the situation. Mary has married unhappily; her husband Dick is a poor and incompetent farmer in the Rhodesian veldt. Isolated and unhappy on his farm, Mary begins to break down mentally, to the point where she behaves in a way unthinkable to white Rhodesian society of the time and breaks the colour bar, forming a strange and dysfunctional relationship with Moses. In offering us the truth rather than the facts of the case, Lessing leaves out the details of what might be considered the two essential events of the novel: she does not tell us the sexual details of Mary’s relationship with Moses, and she leaves out the details of Moses’ murder of Mary. Instead, Mary’s relationship with Moses is shown only through one scene described through the eyes of another character:
He was struck motionless with surprise. Mary was sitting on an upended candle box before the square of mirror nailed on the wall. She was in a garish pink petticoat, and her bony yellow shoulders stuck sharply out of it. Beside her stood Moses, and, as Tony watched, she stood up and held out her arms while the native slipped her dress over them from behind.When she sat down again she shook out her hair from her neck with both hands, with the gesture of a beautiful woman adoring her beauty. Moses was buttoning up her dress; she was looking in the mirror. The attitude of the native was of an indulgent uxoriousness.
The strangeness of the incident is highlighted by showing it from the viewpoint of Tony, newly arrived from England. Taken aback, his only remark to Mary about the incident serves only to heighten the bizarreness of the situation:
He said, in a jocular and uncomfortable voice: ‘There was once an Empress of Russia who thought so little of her slaves, as human beings, that she used to undress naked in front of them.’
At this point the outsider viewpoint makes it clear how detached Mary is from sanity, and the racism of the colour bar is underlined: Tony realises that Mary has reached a point where ‘other people’s standards don’t count’ any more, which for him is madness. It is only in this state of ‘insanity’ that Mary can have anything approaching a human relationship with her black servant, however warped a form this may take.
But there is no simple answer as to why Mary undergoes her breakdown. Loneliness, isolation, the difference between her expectations and the reality of her marriage, the impossible situation she finds herself in with her husband and his disastrous farming experiences, and their separate sexual neuroses are all factors. But more than that Lessing suggests that the terrible situation of the white colonialists and the racism of their society also create the circumstances for Mary’s encroaching madness. This implication is never crude: one of the really interesting and good things about Lessing as a novelist is the way in which she connects the external circumstances of her characters with their mental states. She has an uncomfortable psychological honesty which makes it difficult to sympathise with any character, but reveals their motivations with an unsettling clarity. At the same time, she evokes the oppressive heat and the bitter struggles of the farming life in a way that allows one clearly to imagine the unbearable physical and emotional pressures that Mary has to endure.
In the end, Mary approaches her death at Moses’ hands in silent acceptance, as he will later submit to arrest by the white authorities. Her behaviour has passed the point of no return long before her husband starts planning a recuperative holiday for her; Dick and Moses are left, one mad, the other taken away by the police. The white people refuse to admit Tony’s views on the situation that led to Mary’s death; her behaviour has been so unthinkable for them that they see her death as the best solution to the whole problem.
I’ve always liked Doris Lessing’s novels, particularly the early ones, and it was interesting to reread this one after thirteen-odd years and see how much is in it that I loved in The golden notebook and the Martha Quest novels. A lot of the themes are recurrent – in particular, the dry bitterness of the unfulfilled woman’s experience. Lessing’s own mother had a disappointing experience in emigrating to Rhodesia; Mary’s experiences may in part be based on hers, but the difficulties that Mary feels with her own mother are more like the way that Lessing describes her own relationship with her mother. Later in Martha Quest she returns to a young Rhodesian woman character who has a similar upbringing to Mary, but whose life turns out differently: rather than the isolation that Mary endures, she becomes politically engaged and ends up a middle-aged activist in 1960s London, where all life is going on. But there too Lessing brings her brutal psychological truths about the dependencies and dysfunctionalities of human experience and the way these reflect and are shaped by the political situation of the time. Again it comes back to the quote from The golden notebook: Lessing’s little novel about the emotions is unquestionably about what’s real.