In 1956, in the middle of writing her Children of Violence series, Doris Lessing published her now neglected novel, Retreat to Innocence. Reprinted in 1967, it has never reappeared, largely as result of Lessing’s own dismissal of it as ‘shallow’ and ‘soft-centred and sentimental.’ Perusing the substantial list of Lessing’s works which often preface her books, including poetry, operas and drama, you will find no trace of it. This, of course, raises the general question of whether writers should be able to censor their own canon, and the more particular one of whether Lessing was correct in allowing the novel to vanish like a disgraced comrade from a photograph.
Retreat to Innocence works with a small cast of characters to tell a love story where the political dimension is as important as the emotional. Julia is the innocent, a young woman from a privileged background who is now making her own life London. Quite by chance she meets a middle-aged Czech refugee, Jan in a café; he has experience in excess. She, of course, dismisses any idea of being attracted to him, but later finds she cannot forget him:
“She shut her eyes to feel the happiness; and clear against her lids came the picture of the man in the coffee-house. She saw his mouth, tense and quivering; his eyes, shadowed – tormented. She had not seen them then: now she could see nothing else.”
Soon she finds herself heading back to the café without entirely admitting to herself that is her destination. Their relationship follows the traditional path of initial dislike and distrust to love and passion. Just observe the description of their second conversation: “she frowned”; “she bit her lip and gazed furiously at him”; “she said aggressively.” Lessing, however, is interested in more than a young girl’s infatuation with an older man; Jan is soaked in politics, with a background as an active Communist in his own country. Julia, on the other hand, dismisses politics entirely:
“We don’t plot and dream about the future and carry on an intrigue – …My generation…I tell you, if we’re ever tempted to have anything to do with politics, we’ve only got to look at you and that’s enough.”
Lessing is keen to point out that this is a generational rather than an individual contrast, and characters frequently refer to differences between the generations. Her father, clearly a pillar of the British establishment, also observes a similar difference:
“A more self-centred, selfish, materialistic generation has never been born into this unfortunate old country.”
(Interesting how this has been said by every generation of the next since). Julia’s innocence is, as the title suggests, willed, a refusal to look beyond her own happiness. Her relationship with Jan forces her to leave her comfort zone and engage with a wider world. This does, of course, mean that much of the novel is taken up with Jan talking patiently to Julia, interspersed with her often inane interruptions. When he says, a few moments after they have slept together for the first time, “Now listen, Julia, I shall give you another little lecture,” it’s not a euphemism.
However, the novel does not entirely lack complexity. As usual with Lessing, all the characters are presented with some sympathy, even stiff upper lip types like Julia’s father and her boyfriend, Roger. Lessing is particularly good on the relationship between Julia and her room-mate Betty, one minute best friends, the next resenting some slight or bad habit. This relationship allows us to see Julia as a more rounded character; with Jan she is inevitably diminished, particularly as Lessing at no point describes the physical aspect of their relationship, or presents it from his point of view outside of what he tells her. Jan, too, has depth. His certainty is not all-encompassing: he cannot decide whether to return to Czechoslovakia or not – his brother lives there, but he also has friends who have been imprisoned or executed.
The novel’s main weakness seems to originate in the feeling that the relationship between Jan and Julia has been created only to explore particular themes: the difference between the generation which fought the war and that which came after; between East and West; between youth and experience. Jan is apparently based on a man whom Lessing did have a relationship with, but Julia is not Lessing and her attraction to Jan never entirely convinces. This is not the same, however, as saying that the novel deserves to be consigned to oblivion. When Julia asks:
“Are you quite sure that even in your half of the world people want what you want, and not just comfort and being able to get out the rain?”
she is asking a question as pertinent to politics now as then. Whether it should be reprinted is an economic question (though it will soon have been out of print for fifty years – fairly good publicity, I would have thought). It does seem, though, the kind of novel that should be available electronically, now that we have that option.