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Doris Lessing: Children of Violence series

The five books follow Martha Quest from the 1930s to 2000. Quest is, of course, based on Lessing herself. The first book starts in the thinly disguised country of Zambesia (Rhodesia where Lessing grew up) where the fifteen-year old Martha lives with her parents on a small farm. Martha can’t wait to get out and does as soon as she can. She goes to town, where she works for a law firm. She gets married and has a child. The next book is about her marriage to Douglas Knowell, the birth of her child, her affair and her introduction to politics, with her involvement in a communist party organization. The book ends with her husband having gone off to World War II and she having ended the marriage. The third book sees Martha joining a group dedicated to fighting for the working man of Zambesia. All the group are white except for one, who is a government spy. Martha marries the group’s leader but neither the group – which disbands – or the husband bring her happiness.

The fourth novel in the sequence was published seven years later, with a different publisher. In the meantime, she had written her best-known book The Golden Notebook, which changed the perspective on the last two volumes of this series. In the fourth book, it is nearly the end of World War II and Martha remains unhappily married but has an affair with Thomas Stern who is a Polish Jew working as a gardener. The affair is short-lived but Lessing readily accepts firstly that their communication is telepathic and, secondly, that Thomas dies insane but that his madness is not necessarily any worse than sanity. The last novel is the longest of the series and certainly the most complex. Martha is now in London after World War II She is staying with the Coldridge and, through Martha and the Coldridges, we see the changes happening in Britain and the world during the post-war period. And, once again, telepathic communication becomes the key element for Martha as she establishes a close relationship with Lynda Coldridge in this way and, when there is a nuclear holocaust at the end, it is this method of communication that some of the survivors who had foreseen the catastrophe use to carry on.

The entire five book sequence is, of course, far more complex than I have painted it here. First and foremost, it is a Bildungsroman with a clear feminist perspective. Secondly, it becomes a political statement, from the left-wing point of view, on colonialism and war. Finally – and this is something that comes towards the end with Lessing’s changing views and her increased interest in Sufism and the work of R D Laing – there is the transcendental view, the idea that what really happens is not what we see but way beyond that. You may agree or disagree with Lessing’s perspective but it colours her novel in way that you cannot ignore. Martha’s quest for the four-gated city has been circular rather than linear. There is not a direct progression as in other Bildungsromans but, rather, a more circular development, each stage building on the preceding one. This is not an easy book – particularly the last one – but, apart from The Golden Notebook, the most rewarding.

Publishing history

Martha Quest
First published 1952 by Michael Joseph
A Proper Marriage
First published 1954 by Michael Joseph
A Ripple from the Storm
First published 1958 by Michael Joseph
First published 1965 by MacGibbon & Kee
The Four-Gated City
First published 1969 by MacGibbon & Kee