chapter  5
16 Pages

‘The past forsworn’: colonialism and counterhistory in the work of Doris Lessing: Victoria Rosner

In a 1980 interview, Doris Lessing speculated about ‘the effect the proportions of buildings have on the people who live in them’, insisting, ‘this is not a metaphorical thought at all. This is a practical thought, which I think about more and more’ (Lessing 1994a: 61). The building most crucial to Lessing’s own self-construction was the rickety old settler’s farmhouse her family built and lived in for years in the Lomagundi district of Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe). ‘No house,’ Lessing writes, ‘could ever have for me the intimate charm of that one’ (Lessing 1994b: 54). That first house was simply a thatch-topped homestead, rapidly constructed in the local style, with linoleum laid over floors of dung, mud and blood, and earthen walls in which hornets would occasionally nest. From the day it was built, that house began to erode, and only attentive maintenance kept it from merging back into the bush that spawned it. The ephemeral nature of Lessing’s childhood home should not be taken as a measure of its influence or importance. It is a topic Lessing returns to repeatedly, almost compulsively: it figures prominently in her first book, the novel The Grass is Singing (1950), in one of her most recent works, Alfred and Emily (2008) and in many others in between. The house is a touchstone for Lessing, an anchor for a writer whose unusually diverse works have ranged across space, time and genre. The cultural practices associated with the building and maintenance of this house provide an interesting view into a British settler culture rooted in a set of contradictions about the form and meaning of domestic space, contradictions that have played themselves out throughout Lessing’s body of work. Insecure in both form and status, the house where Lessing grew up becomes, in her work, part of the larger historical and personal problem of her family’s unhappy relocation to Southern Rhodesia.