Book Review

Martha Quest by Doris Lessing (Children of Violence #1)

"the classic coming of age novel... for women"

4th July, 2022, Tottenham

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m quite the fan of Nobel laureate Doris Lessing.

This summer, I am planning to read through the first (and much longer!) of her two five-book novel cycles (Children of Violence, published between 1952 and 1969), after thoroughly enjoying Canopus in Argos: Archives (published between 1979 and 1983) during the horrors of the COVID-ravaged recent past.

While Lessing’s second long-form narrative project was a universe and planes-of-existence spanning space opera (with a stellar personal essay slid in about ¾ of the way through), her first was much more ambitious in terms of intention, if less expansive in terms of scope. At least, that’s how it starts.

To the best of my knowledge – though I’m writing this after having read only Martha Quest (1952) from this tetralogy (is that the right word? I hesitate to use it because it sounds stupid) – the first four novels in Children of Violence are loosely autobiographical, while the fifth is about twice the size of all the rest and set in a post-nuclear war dystopian nightmare of a[n at time of publication] near-future 1990s.

I ask: Will that dystopia be the same dystopia as found in Lessing’s 1974 novel The Memoirs of a Survivor?

Is it possible to search through the Canopean archives available to us and find the alternative history lived through by the elder Martha nee Quest presented as fact?

Is all of this true?

Was Lessing a prophet, a conduit?

Was the alien super-race of the Canopeans speaking knowledge of the future through Lessing’s words?

No, of course not, and tho Lessing was a bit of a nerd I don’t think she was nerdy enough to ensure all of her writing cohered into one canonical Lessingverse, and although every time I read another book by Lessing I try and find a helpful website where someone even nerdier than me has already done the heavy-lifting on this and offers a coherent Lessingverse theory, I think at this point that I’m possibly Doris Lessing’s biggest (or, at least, “most online”) non-academic fan, so there is no help on this whatsoever. A quick Google shows that (as of time of writing) the only previous use of the word – and it is a word – “Lessingverse” is on TriumphoftheNow.com. Come on, lit fans – let’s light up the internet with more Lessingverse chat!

Maybe, though, there is a place these answers could be found: “TikTok”

However, as I am 33 years old (disgusting, I know: no one has any business being alive over 25, it’s embarrassing, uninteresting and (imo inarguably) right wing to be neither young nor dead), I don’t want the data harvesters to think I’m either in denial about my undeniable ancient age or a danger to society. Alas, if anyone is going to produce an online exploration as to whether or not there is a coherent literary Lessingverse, it’s going to have to be me! And I’m far too depressed to make that happen!

///

On the back of my copy of Martha Quest, a north American edition claiming to be from 2005, in a large gold banner across the top of the cover is the following message:

THE CLASSIC
COMING OF AGE NOVEL
FOR WOMEN

That’s right, Harper Perennial (I think, but I’m not going to check because I’m sitting down and the book is two metres away) wanted all potential readers of Martha Quest to know that it is the – note not “a” – classic coming of age novel, albeit a coming age novel that is not for everyone, but for – you guessed it – “women”.

The classic coming of age novel for women.

It’s a book, a novel, for women.

It’s the classic coming of age novel for women.

It’s the classic coming of age novel for women.

Oh, Martha Quest?

Yes, I know that book, it’s a classic coming of age novel.

No, it’s more than that, if you’re women or a woman, it’s the classic coming of age novel.

Is it?

Anecdotally, I’ve never heard or encountered anyone name-checking Martha Quest as a classic coming of age novel. It’s not The Bell-Jar, is it?

It’s not that Salinger one I can’t remember the name of because I didn’t read it until I was already an adult so it didn’t really “work” for me?

It’s also not one of the ten other novels I can think of off the top of my head that are good coming of age novels that are about women, or one of the maybe like two coming of age novels about men that are not terrible…

the coming of age novel, the bildungsroman, is very rarely effective when it’s written by and exploring a man’s life, right?

If we are to behave like an iconoclast and consider all seven books of a la recherche du temps perdu as separate novels (they are not), then there is an incredibly good “coming of age” novel in there, but everything I can think of where people with penises “come of age” ends up being a combination of smug, pretentious, dull and sleazy (e.g. Less Than Zero, that first Martin Amis novel, my unpublished Catholic cocaine novel White Lines, Black Truffles, the least interesting Thomas Mann novels, the Dickenses I haven’t read because they look too boring), and I do mean that in a bad way.

So, then again, maybe the publisher’s decision to stick that label on was not to dismiss Martha Quest, but rather to elevate it: yes, it’s a classic coming of age novel, but it’s one that women can read, it’s not an autophallichagiography: it’s good!

///

Martha Quest is about a few months in the life of Martha Quest, a lower middle class English girl-woman whose parents moved to colonial Southern Africa in a failed attempt to “get rich quick”.

Tho they have status and land, they don’t have any money or much fun, and after ageing out of high school (but not finishing her exams) at the end of the 1930s, Martha decides to move to the local city and get a job so she doesn’t have to stick around at home.

Martha studies shorthand, she has a few love affairs (one that is very chaste with a man, Donovan, who is very queer-coded tho this is never explicitly discussed as the cause for their relationship’s chasteness), she shags a couple of guys, gets engaged, makes plans to leave the town for a better city, reads some intellectual books, tries to write a bit, pisses off her parents by getting engaged and then married on the cheap, and then that’s basically the end.

It’s evocative and exciting and super super engaging – I really struggled to stop reading this tbph – Lessing’s prose is witty, perceptive, phenomenally descriptive of landscape and detail and place, and her people feel real, i.e. rounded and flawed and confused and malleable. 

An excellent novel, I’ll continue onwards to A Proper Marriage later this month!

2 comments on “Martha Quest by Doris Lessing (Children of Violence #1)

  1. Pingback: a proper marriage by Doris Lessing (Children of Violence #2) – Triumph Of The Now

  2. Pingback: A Ripple From The Storm AND Landlocked by Doris Lessing (Children of violence #3 AND #4) – Triumph Of The Now

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