The Grass is Singing

Last year, for the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, I began reading her novels in chronological order – a project which will continue into this year, with seven still to read. 2019, however, marks the centenary of the birth of another important British writer, Doris Lessing. Though very different in style – Spark, sharp and certain, Lessing discursive and doubtful – their lives were not entirely dissimilar. Both spent time in Southern Rhodesia – Spark after she married in 1937, Lessing when her parents moved there in 1925 – before coming to London in 1944 and 1949 respectively. Both left children behind them.

Lessing is personally important to me as she was one of the first modern writers I read who could be described as ‘literary’. I was introduced to her at school where we studied her first novel, The Grass is Singing. Unusually this didn’t put me off, and I went on to read the copy of Briefing for a Descent into Hell I found in the school library, and then her Canopus in Argos series, which was being published at that time. Later, I was lucky enough to see her a number of times at The Edinburgh International Book Festival where she was a frequent visitor.

The Grass is Singing is Lessing’s response to the racism of the continent, and life, she left behind to bring the novel to England where it was published in 1950, but it also touches on a number of other themes which she would return to over the years. Like Spark, Lessing was not afraid to use genre to her own ends, and the novel begins with the murder of Mary Turner by her black servant, Moses. With both victim and murderer known the interest for the reader is in discovering how we reached this point. As Marston, Dick Turner’s new assistant, tells neighbouring farmer, Charlie Slatter:

“You know as well as I do this case is not something that can be explained straight off like that… It’s not something that can be said in black and white, straight off.”

Marston is new to the country, and quickly convinced that finding the truth of what happened is not in the best interests of the white settlers:

“When old settlers say, ‘One has to understand the country,’ what they mean is, ‘You have to get used to our ideas about the native.’”

Lessing, however, is primarily interested in Mary, asking the same question as Marston: “What sort of woman had Mary Turner been before she came to this farm and had been driven slowly off balance by heat and loneliness and poverty?” Mary’s life begins in relative poverty, we discover, with an alcoholic father and a mother driven desperate by making ends meet. Her happiest times are at boarding school – “so happy that she dreaded going home”. However, she is able to leave this life behind:

“By the time she was twenty she had a good job, her own friends, a niche in the life of the town.”

Ten years later, nothing has changed – “The truth was she had no troubles.” What, then, makes her consider marrying a poor farmer and moving many miles away from the city life she is used to? Simply the social pressure to be married:

“But all women become conscious, sooner or later, of that impalpable, but steel-strong, pressure to get married.”

The marriage is a mistake, but one which cannot be undone. Her husband, Dick, is well-intentioned but feckless. Year after year he scrapes by, always dreaming that the next year will be the one when he strikes it rich. A series of money-making schemes fail one after the other – keeping bees, breeding pigs, opening a store – Mary sees their onset in his “familiar rapt expression.” Mary’s repeated request to have ceilings put in their house is one example of her inability to escape from the poverty of her surroundings, and contributes to her obsession with the heat, which she feels “beating down from the iron over her head.” Worst of all, she feels like she has been returned to the childhood she thought she had escaped from, becoming:

“…possessed with the thought that her father, from his grave, had sent out his will and forced her back into the kind of life he had made her mother lead.”

She also finds it difficult to deal with the natives employed both on the farm and in the house. A series of houseboys leave or are dismissed, much to her husband’s frustration:

“If you get yourself into a state over your boys then you are finished.”

When Dick falls ill, Mary takes over, at first reluctantly, the running of the farm, and is as unforgiving with the labourers as she is with her houseboys, going as far as to whip one in the face. It is this ‘native’ who will later come to work in the house, and eventually murder her, but the assumption this is simple revenge is complicated by the relationship they develop, which begins when he catches her watching him wash:

“What had happened was that the formal pattern of black-and-white, mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relationship.”

As well as condemning the endemic racism in Southern Rhodesian society, the novel is also concerned with Mary’s treatment as a woman. At the heart of her deterioration lies her lack of opportunity to use her abilities and intelligence:

“If only she had something to fill her time, that was the trouble.”

When she is running the farm she finds herself “exhilarated by the unfamiliar responsibility.” She also discovers that their poverty “was not a question of bad luck, it was simply incompetence.” When she recommends changes to Dick she is hopeful for a while, but soon he returns to his old ways. The way in which women are both marginalised and consigned to madness is, of course, a theme Lessing will return to again.

The Grass is Singing remains a powerful novel perhaps because, even though the society it describes is no longer with us, the attitudes are. Above all, it is a painful portrait of an unfulfilled life, one where the pressure to conform leads to first isolation, then death.

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8 Responses to “The Grass is Singing”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I love how you’ve described your introduction to Lessing, and your relationship with her work over the years. Does she ever feature in your own lessons with students? And if so, how do they react to her work in the context of today’s world.

    • 1streading Says:

      I haven’t taught The Grass is Singing – it would require some considerable context. I suspect they would be incredulous that she a) got married and b) doesn’t just leave (though this is explained in the novel). I know The Fifth Child is sometimes taught, and I have used her short story ‘Through the Tunnel’. Perhaps as I reread her work I’ll find something to teach next year!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I only read this fairly recently – in fact, it’s only my second Lessing (my first was The Golden Notebook) – and I found it very powerful. I’m slightly envious of you studying her at school, but I imagine that my reaction would have been very different to what it was recently.

    • 1streading Says:

      I generally disliked every book I was taught at school, even if I came to love them later! Perhaps I can persuade you to read another of her novels as the year progresses!

  3. banff1972 Says:

    I’ve taught it several times, and it goes over very well. I taught GN once, also pretty successful, but you need to devote so much time to it. For a while I taught Summer before the Dark regularly, but I got a bit tired of it. Grass was my favourite of those.

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