A Ripple from the Storm

Four years passed between the publication of A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm, the third volume in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, during which Lessing wrote Retreat to Innocence, the novel she later disowned, a collection of short stories, The Habit of Loving, and a memoir, Going Home. By the end of the ironically titled A Proper Marriage, the world was at war, and Martha’s marriage to Douglas Knowell existed only in name as she had left both him and her young child. To others it might appear her husband had been supplanted by one of the many RAF officers now stationed in the colony – and, indeed, Martha is having an affair with one of them – but he has been more firmly ousted by her increasingly radical political beliefs and her desire to forge her own identity.

Lessing makes this political focus clear from the novel’s opening scene – a meeting of ‘Aid for Our Allies’, which raises money for the Russian war effort, and is one of the organisations which Martha and her fellow Communists participate in and hope to influence. This Communist group, which has only recently declared itself a ‘party’, is few in number: here we meet her lover, William, Jackie (another RAF officer), Marjorie, Jasmine and Anton Hesse, a German exile. Jackie is the most charismatic, but he is also the most chaotic, as we see when he tells the committee of ‘Aid for Our Allies’ they are “cowardly, lily-livered social democrats” and they promptly resign.

As the Communist group expands, tensions occur between the RAF members, who come and go as they are posted, and the ‘colonials’. These are, in part, class tensions as some of the airmen are working class whereas none of the settlers are, the working class of the colony being black. We see this in Martha’s experience with Bill, who speaks to her as if “patiently explaining to an imbecile” with:

“…a soft jeer. Bill Bruett had cast Martha in the role of ‘middle class comrade’ and never let her forget it.”

(Martha being assign identities by men is a constant theme of the novel). The RAF members also tend more towards action and this often clashes with party discipline, infuriating Anton.  When Bill explains why they spend more time than the allocated one afternoon a week in the coloured quarter (“There are so many things to do: people in trouble, and the women want advice about their children”) Anton replies:

“How many Coloured people are there in this colony? A few thousand. They are unimportant, economically and politically.”

Anton’s analytical approach makes him appear cold and unfeeling, and also at times ridiculous, for example when he insists that because the group voted to keep the party secret it should be kept secret even when everyone knows about it. During ‘criticism’ he is described as “an arrogant, stiff-necked, domineering bastard,” albeit with an element of humour. All the more surprising, then, that Martha ends up marrying him – though ideas of marriage are clearly in the air as at one point she comments:

“That means that all the RAF members have proposed to us all in the last month.”

It follows Anton looking after her when she falls ill:

“Suddenly he’s human. She was also thinking: Suppose he is in love with me? The thought was half exciting, half pure panic.”

As with her previous marriage, the agency seems to be entirely with the man, though she is also influenced by her duty to the party. Already one of the RAF members, Andrew, has married an unmarried pregnant woman, Maisie, because she does not want to have an abortion. Typically, on the day of her wedding, Martha goes to an important meeting immediately after the ceremony. Once they are married, she talks about how “outwardly she was affectionate and compliant with her husband” suggesting the continued disparity between how she lives her life and the life she longs to live, which she still cannot articulate. In this sense she is torn in two:

“Martha watched in herself the growth of an extraordinarily unpleasant and upsetting emotion, a self-mockery, a self-parody, as if she both allowed herself an emotion she did not approve of, allowed it and enjoyed it, but at the same time cancelled it out by the mockery.”

This uncertainty, Martha’s constant questing for something better, is the series’ greatest strength. We see it both in her personal life, and in her political journey. Lessing does not pretend there are easy answers. In particular, there are disagreements about how the Communists can help the black population – some want direct action, but the others argue that this will simply lead to the RAF members being posted, and Anton being interned. Instead, they work with the Labour party to allow black membership – in a segregated group. (Lessing also personalises this problem by having one of the RAF men visit the black community one night in the name of ‘friendship’). Of course, for many readers the politics will be out-dated, but Lessing is very good on the dynamics of political groups, and how the political mixes with the personal. By the novel’s end Martha is “overwhelmed with futility,” her innocence further eroded, and no clearer to understanding who she is.

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2 Responses to “A Ripple from the Storm”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds like this series is definitely worth exploring Grant – and is probably what we would now call autofiction!

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