The Summer Before the Dark

Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark is a novel that we might hope had been superseded by changing social attitudes since its publication forty-six years ago, though how far this is actually the case remains debateable. Its central character, Kate Brown, is a forty-five year old mother, very much defined by that label. Here husband and four children have set the limits of her life, and even when she imagines a life without marriage she questions other possibilities:

“If she had not married, she would probably have become something special in her field?”

Her specialism is languages and it is when she is offered a job as a translator one summer that she finally escapes her now grown-up family, albeit with some reluctance, feeling, with her husband away in America and the house to be let:

“…as if a warm covering had been stripped off her, as if she were an animal being flayed.”

On the other hand, she has a growing sense that the life she is currently living, the identity she is presently inhabiting, is not entirely satisfying:

“The truth was, she was becoming more and more uncomfortably conscious not only that the things she said, and a good many of the things she thought, had been taken down off a rack and put on, but that what she really felt was something else again.”

After a few weeks as a translator she is promoted onto the “organisational side” at Global Foods as “everyone is saying how marvellously helpful you have been in every way”:

“She had become what she was: a nurse, or a nanny… A mother.”

Her new job leads her to a conference in Turkey and there she meets a younger man, Jeffrey, who offers her the chance to travel to Spain with him. In the spirit of her summer of discovery, she decides to accept him as a lover, but when they reach Spain he falls ill, and she finds herself fighting the temptation to mother him:

“She was swearing to herself that when she awoke she would not be maternal.”

She faces the same dilemma when she returns to London and moves into a flat with a young girl called Maureen and must resist becoming a proxy for her mother, particularly as Maureen is deciding whether, and who, to marry (at one point observing Kate and declaring, “I’d live alone for always rather than turn into that.”)

Lessing’s novels never limit themselves to one idea, and the novel is also about Kate ageing – growing old, in fact. At the beginning Lessing tells us:

“What was she going to experience? Nothing much more than, simply, she grew old.”

Forty-five does not, of course, seem particularly old today, a development which Lessing foreshadows when Kate goes to see a production of Turgenev’s a Month in the Country, finding it ridiculous that Natalya thought of herself as “a woman who was getting old, grabbing at youth” at only twenty-nine. Kate’s ageing, like Natalya’s, is linked to how she is viewed by men. At Global Food she finds herself attractive to others even though she makes little effort to seem available

“Meanwhile, though her thermostat was set ‘low’, she parried offers.”

(Lessing uses the idea of a thermostat to suggest then strength of the signals woman display regarding their sexual availability). When Kate, like Jeffrey, falls ill, it changes her appearance, making her, in a short period of time, appear much older. When a young man looks at her she is aware:

“What he was seeing, of course, was an old woman.”

This, in turn, affects the way she is treated, causing her to feel “invisible”. Kate is aware then change is superficial:

“Yet she need only to put on the other dress, twist her hair so and so – and she would be drawing glances a needs with her every step.”

Kate’s journey grants her greater awareness of the choices she has made and those she can still make. It is echoed in a recurrent dream of a seal she must rescue and take to the ocean. At the beginning she is uncertain:

“Where was the water? Where was the sea? How could she be sure of going in the right direction?”

In the end she returns the seal to the sea:

“A seal swam past that had scars on its flanks and its back, and Kate thought this must be her seal, whom she had carried through so many perils. But it did not look at her now.”

Though the seal represents something within herself, it is easy to see how her journey with it mirrors that with her children.

The Summer Before the Dark still resonates with many of today’s preoccupations (even the rise of the far right in the character of Philip). In particular, it dissects that point in everyone’s life where whatever has defined their purpose and identity is taken away from them, and they must look to find themselves anew.

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5 Responses to “The Summer Before the Dark”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It does indeed sound still very relevant Grant. I’ve not really read enough Lessing, but tbh I’m not sure where to go after her first two books. This might be a good one to try!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s interesting how many books published in the ’60s and ’70s still remain relevant to the issues of today. While the context may be somewhat different nowadays, I guess the emotions and feelings people experience are fairly similar. I’m sure the idea of feeling ‘invisible’ will strike a chord with many women today…

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m sure much of it will still strike a chord. Lessing often wrote about things others wouldn’t (which is not to say she got everything right).

  3. The Memoirs of a Survivor | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Lessing’s 1974 novel The Memoirs of a Survivor follows directly from The Summer Before the Dark and shares many of the same preoccupations, particularly of the previous novel’s second half when […]

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