Martha Quest

Doris Lessing’s second novel, Martha Quest, appeared in 1952, two years after her debut The Grass is Singing, and was the first in the five novel Children of Violence series. (It is worth noting, however, that although the second volume followed in 1954, her lost novel, Retreat to Innocence, appeared before the third, and the final volume came after The Golden Notebook in 1969). The early volumes are clearly autobiographical, but as Lessing has noted “It’s impossible to write autobiographically”:

“The point is that at the very moment you start writing about something that has happened, it’s no longer yours – all other things come in and change it; you remember something like it, or somebody who looked like that.”

We are first introduced to Martha as an adolescent, living on a farm in the fictional African country of Zambesia and in permanent opposition to her mother. She feels confined by her parents’ generation – “She was merely expected to play the part ‘young girl’ against their own familiar roles” – and attempts to rebel, a rebellion that is both furious

“For she was suffering that misery peculiar to the young, that they are going to be cheated by circumstances out of the full life every nerve and instinct is clamouring for.”

He rebellion will be a constant theme throughout the novel as she attempts to find her place in the world, and the people among whom she feels she belongs. At this point only the Cohen brothers, who lend her books, offer the type of companionship she is looking for – “those occasions when she could visit them at the store were the happiest of her life” – yet what she reads only makes her even more frustrated as she cannot see any way to combine her intellectual life with her day-to-day existence:

“…she knew quite well that if she read them she would only be in possession of yet more information about herself, and with even less idea of how to use it.”

Yet, there is a passivity to Martha, almost an acceptance of being a ‘victim of circumstances,’ which is at odds with her desire to forge her own identity.  At sixteen, for example, when she is due to sit her matric exam, which she is expected to easily pass, she comes down with ‘pink eye’ (conjunctivitis) and the exam is avoided. (We can perhaps see something of her father’s insistence that he is ‘ill’ with an as-yet-undiagnosed condition in this). In fact, it is only when Joss Cohen (who ironically calls her “the rebel who never leaves home”) finds her a job with his Uncle Jasper that she leaves the farm for the town.

Even in town, she cannot escape her mother, who visits the boarding house where she is staying not long after Martha has arrived, going as far as to unpack for her – Martha reacts by flinging all her clothes onto the floor and then rearranging them in much the same way as her mother. Martha also finds herself visited  by a young man, Donovan, because “My mother had a letter from your mother…” Donovan introduces her to the Sports Club and she becomes ‘Donovan’s girl’ – though Donovan’s homosexuality is suggested by his frequent fashion advice and Martha’s later reaction  to the idea they might have slept together: amusement. Lessing dissects the mores of the Sports Club with the sociological eye she often brings to her fiction:

“…it was all so public, anything was permissible, the romances, the flirtations, the quarrels, provided they were shared. These terms, however, were never used, for words are dangerous, and there was a kind of instinctive shrinking, and embarrassment, against words of emotion…”

Serious relationships are discouraged, and there is an institutional immaturity, with the epithet ‘kid’ being the most commonly used. This does not sit well with Martha’s radical ideas, and a visit from Joss makes her repudiate Donovan and his friends, but her “revulsion” doesn’t last. Joss gives her a list of people to ‘look up’ but here, too, she finds herself out of place, her subscription to the Observer being met with ironic glances. In her personal life, however, she continues to be drawn along with the tide, even as she feels she is rebelling. She loses her virginity to a self-pitying Jew, Adoloph King (“You wouldn’t be seen dead with me in there, would you?”), despite disliking him:

“She hoped nervously that he had found her dull, and would not attempt to get in touch with her again.”

Most disastrously, by the novel’s end she is married to a man she has only known for weeks, Douglas. They bond over The New Statesman, and in their relationship she finds an “easy warm friendliness” but their first sexual encounter is ruined by his inability to express or accept desire – she afterwards discovers that she is the first girl he has made love to, at the age of thirty. An incident where they encounter a protest where she sees the Cohens makes her doubt whether their views are quite so similar:

“…she knew quite well she would marry him; she could not help it; she was being dragged towards it whether she liked it or not. She also heard a voice remarking quietly within her that she would not stay married to him…”

And so the novel ends ironically with a marriage which we suspect will not be happy one, an irony that continues in the title of volume two, A Proper Marriage.

Reading Martha Quest seventy years after it was written, and forty after I first read it, what strikes me most is Lessing’s portrayal of Martha’s search of her own identity which is demonstrated as much by her conformity as her rebellion. At times she angrily rejects what society offers and at other moments is swept along with what is expected of her, two forces which seem as evident in adolescence today as ever.


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6 Responses to “Martha Quest”

  1. Kathleen Parks Says:

    A very interesting analysis. Thank you!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    As someone who is currently recovering from a shingles rash around the eye, I can sympathise with Martha and her conjunctivitis/pink eye!
    Lessing is a major gap for me – one of many I suspect. The themes she is exploring here still feel very relevant today – and while the specific context may have changed since Lessing’s day, the emotions remain largely the same.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It does sound rather like the eternal teenager being portrayed here, although obviously filtered through Lessing’s eyes. Interesting how little has changed.

  4. A Proper Marriage | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] the end of the first volume of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, Martha Quest, Martha finds herself inextricably drawn into a marriage with Douglas Knowell, even though she has […]

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