Martha Quest, p.1Doris Lessing
Book One of the Children of Violence Series
Two elderly women sat knitting on that part of the…
Early in her sixteenth year, Martha was expected to pass…
Mrs Quest watched her daughter and husband returning from the fields…
The offices of Robinson, Daniel and Cohen were crushed into…
When Martha arrived in the room she was prepared to…
At the end of a month she found she had…
The Sports Club had come into existence about five years…
On that Saturday morning, Martha was embarrassed because she wanted…
In this town due honour was paid to holidays. Every…
Martha was alone in her room. She felt exposed, unable…
Martha was again solitary, for a few days. She told…
In the event, the visiting sportsmen seemed disinclined to make…
About the Author
Other Books by Doris Lessing
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I am so tired of it, and also tired of the future before it comes.
Two elderly women sat knitting on that part of the veranda which was screened from the sun by a golden shower creeper; the tough stems were so thick with flower it was as if the glaring afternoon was dammed against them in a surf of its own light made visible in the dripping, orange-coloured clusters. Inside this coloured barrier was a darkened recess, rough mud walls (the outer walls of the house itself) forming two sides, the third consisting of a bench loaded with painted petrol tins which held pink and white geraniums. The sun splashed liberal gold through the foliage, over the red cement floor, and over the ladies. They had been here since lunchtime, and would remain until sunset, talking, talking incessantly, their tongues mercifully let off the leash. They were Mrs Quest and Mrs Van Rensberg; and Martha Quest, a girl of fifteen, sat on the steps in full sunshine, clumsily twisting herself to keep the glare from her book with her own shadow.
She frowned, and from time to time glanced up irritably at the women, indicating that their gossip made it difficult to concentrate. But then, there was nothing to prevent her moving somewhere else; and her spasms of resentment when she was asked a question, or her name was used in the family chronicling, were therefore unreasonable. As for the ladies, they sometimes allowed their eyes to rest on the girl with that glazed look which excludes a third person, or even dropped their voices; and at these moments, she lifted her head to give them a glare of positive contempt; for they were seasoning the dull staple of their lives—servants, children, cooking—with a confinement or scandal of some kind; and since she was reading Havelock Ellis on sex, and had taken good care they should know it, the dropped voices had the quality of an anomaly. Or rather, she was not actually reading it: she read a book that had been lent to her by the Cohen boys at the station, while Ellis lay, like an irritant, on the top step, with its title well in view. However, there are certain rites in the talk of matrons, and Martha, having listened to such talk for a large part of her life, should have learned that there was nothing insulting, or even personal, intended. She was merely expected to play the part ‘young girl’ against their own familiar roles.
At the other end of the veranda, on two deck-chairs planted side by side and looking away over the bush and the mealie fields, were Mr Quest and Mr Van Rensberg; and they were talking about crops and the weather and the native problem. But their backs were turned on the women with a firmness which said how welcome was this impersonal talk to men who lived shut into the heated atmosphere of the family for weeks at a time, with no refuge but the farmwork. Their talk was as familiar to Martha as the women’s talk; the two currents ran sleepily on inside her, like the movements of her own blood, of which she was not conscious except as an ache of irritation when her cramped position made her shift her long, bare and sunburnt legs. Then, when she heard the nagging phrases ‘the Government expects the farmers to…’ and ‘The kaffirs are losing all respect because…’ she sat up sharply; and the irritation overflowed into a flood of dislike for both her parents. Everything was the same; intolerable that they should have been saying the same things ever since she could remember; and she looked away from them, over the veld.
In the literature that was her tradition, the word ‘farm’ evokes an image of something orderly, compact, cultivated; a neat farm-house in a pattern of fields. Martha looked over a mile or so of bush to a strip of pink ploughed land; and then the bush, dark green and sombre, climbed a ridge to another patch of exposed earth, this time a clayish yellow; and then, ridge after ridge, fold after fold, the bush stretched to a line of blue kopjes. The fields were a timid intrusion on a landscape hardly marked by man; and the hawk which circled in mile-wide sweeps over her head saw the house, crouched on its long hill, the cluster of grass huts which was the native compound huddled on a lower rise half a mile away; perhaps a dozen patches of naked soil—and then nothing to disturb that ancient, down-peering eye, nothing that a thousand generations of his hawk ancestors had not seen.
The house, raised high on its eminence into the blue and sweeping currents of air, was in the centre of a vast basin, which was bounded by mountains. In front, there were seven miles to the Dumfries Hills; west, seven miles of rising ground to the Oxford Range; seven miles east, a long swelling mountain which was named Jacob’s Burg. Behind, there was no defining chain of kopjes, but the land travelled endlessly, without limit, and faded into a bluish haze, like that hinterland to the imagination we cannot do without—the great declivity was open to the north.
Over it all curved the cloudless African sky, but Martha could not look at it, for it pulsed with light; she must lower her eyes to the bush; and that was so familiar the vast landscape caused her only the prickling feeling of claustrophobia.
She looked down at her book. She did not want to read it; it was a book on popular science, and even the title stiffened her into a faint but unmistakable resentment. Perhaps, if she could have expressed what she felt, she would have said that the calm factual air of the writing was too distant from the uncomfortable emotions that filled her; perhaps she was so resentful of her surroundings and her parents that the resentment overflowed into everything near her. She put that book down and picked up Ellis. Now, it is hardly possible to be bored by a book on sex when one is fifteen, but she was restless because this collection of interesting facts seemed to have so little to do with her own problems. She lifted her eyes and gazed speculatively at Mrs Van Rensberg who had had eleven children.
She was a fat, good-natured, altogether pleasant woman in a neat flowered cotton dress, which was rather full and long, and, with the white kerchief folded at the neck, gave her the appearance of a picture of one of her own grandmothers. It was fashionable to wear long skirts and tie a scarf loosely at the neck, but in Mrs Van Rensberg the fashion arranged itself obstinately into that other pattern. Martha saw this, and was charmed by it; but she was looking at the older woman’s legs. They were large and shapeless, veined purple under the mask of sunburn, and ended in green sandals, through which her calloused feet unashamedly splayed for comfort. Martha was thinking with repugnance, Her legs are like that because she has had so many children.
Mrs Van Rensberg was what is described a
Both ladies had been living in this farming district for many years, seventy miles from the nearest town, which was itself a backwater; but no part of the world can be considered remote these days; their homes had the radio, and newspapers coming regularly from what they respectively considered as Home—Tory newspapers from England for the Quests, nationalist journals from the Union of South Africa for the Van Rensbergs. They had absorbed sufficient of the spirit of the times to know that their children might behave in a way which they instinctively thought shocking, and as for the book Martha now held, its title had a clinical sound quite outside their own experience. In fact, Martha would have earned nothing but a good-natured and traditional sigh of protest, had not her remaining on the steps been in itself something of a challenge. Just as Mrs Quest found it necessary to protest, at half-hourly intervals, that Martha would get sunstroke if she did not come into the shade, so she eventually remarked that she supposed it did no harm for girls to read that sort of book; and once again Martha directed towards them a profoundly scornful glare, which was also unhappy and exasperated; for she felt that in some contradictory way she had been driven to use this book as a means of asserting herself, and now found the weapon had gone limp and useless in her hands.
Three months before, her mother had said angrily that Epstein and Havelock Ellis were disgusting. ‘If people dug up the remains of this civilization a thousand years hence, and found Epstein’s statues and that man Ellis, they would think we were just savages.’ This was at the time when the inhabitants of the colony, introduced unwillingly through the chances of diplomacy and finance to what they referred to as ‘modern art’, were behaving as if they had been severally and collectively insulted. Epstein’s statues were not fit, they averred, to represent them even indirectly. Mrs Quest took that remark from a leader in the Zambesia News; it was probably the first time she had made any comment on art or literature for twenty years. Martha then had borrowed a book on Epstein from the Cohen boys at the station. Now, one of the advantages of not having one’s taste formed in a particular school is that one may look at work of an Epstein with the same excited interest as at a Michelangelo. And this is what Martha did. She felt puzzled, and took the book of reproductions to her mother. Mrs Quest was busy at the time, and had never found an opportunity since to tell Martha what was so shocking and disgusting in these works of art. And so with Havelock Ellis.
Now Martha was feeling foolish, even let down. She knew, too, that she was bad-tempered and boorish. She made resolutions day after day that from now on she would be quite different. And yet a fatal demon always took possession of her, so that at the slightest remark from her mother she was impelled to take it up, examine it, and hand it back, like a challenge—and by then the antagonist was no longer there; Mrs Quest was simply not interested.
‘Ach,’ said Mrs Van Rensberg, after a pause, ‘it’s not what you read that matters, but how you behave.’ And she looked with good-natured affection towards Martha, who was flushed with anger and with sunshine. ‘You’ll have a headache, my girl,’ she added automatically; and Martha bent stubbornly to her book, without moving, and her eyes filled with tears.
The two women began discussing, as was natural, how they had behaved when young, but with reservations, for Mrs Van Rensberg sensed that her own experience included a good deal that might shock the English lady; so what they exchanged were not the memories of their behaviour, but the phrases of their respective traditions, which sounded very similar—Mrs Van Rensberg was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church; the Quests, Church of England. Just as they never discussed politics, so they never discussed—but what did they discuss? Martha often reflected that their years-old friendship had survived just because of what had been left out, everything of importance, that is; and the thought caused the girl the swelling dislike of her surroundings which was her driving emotion. On the other hand, since one lady was conservative British and the other conservative Afrikaans, this friendship could be considered a triumph of tact and good feeling over almost insuperable obstacles, since they were bound, by those same traditions, to dislike each other. This view naturally did not recommend itself to Martha, whose standards of friendship were so high she was still waiting for that real, that ideal friend to present himself.
‘The Friend,’ she had copied in her diary, ‘is some fair floating isle of palms eluding the mariner in Pacific seas…’ And so down the page to the next underlined sentence: ‘There goes a rumour that the earth is inhabited, but the shipwrecked mariner has not seen a footprint on the shore.’ And the next: ‘Our actual friends are but distant relations of those to whom we pledged.’
And could Mrs Van Rensberg be considered even as a distant relation? Clearly not. It would be a betrayal of the sacred name of friendship.
Martha listened (not for the first time) to Mrs Van Rensberg’s long account of how she had been courted by Mr Van Rensberg, given with a humorous deprecation of everything that might be described (though not by Martha, intinctively obedient to the taboos of the time) as Romance. Mrs Quest then offered an equally humorous though rather drier account of her own engagement. These two heavily, though unconsciously, censored tales at an end, they looked towards Martha, and sighed, resignedly, at the same moment. Tradition demanded from them a cautionary moral helpful to the young, the fruit of their sensible and respectable lives; and the look on Martha’s face inhibited them both.
Mrs Van Rensberg hesitated, and then said firmly (the firmness was directed against her own hesitation), ‘A girl must make men respect her.’ She was startled at the hatred and contempt in Martha’s suddenly raised eyes, and looked for support towards Mrs Quest.
‘That’s right,’ said Mrs Quest, rather uncertainly. ‘A man will never marry a girl he does not respect.’
Martha slowly sat up, closing her book as if it were of no more use to her, and stared composedly at them. She was now quite white with the effort of controlling that hatred. She got up, and said in a low tight voice, ‘You are loathsome, bargaining and calculating and…’ She was unable to continue. ‘You are disgusting,’ she ended lamely, with trembling lips. Then she marched off down the garden, and ran into the bush.
The two ladies watched her in silence. Mrs Quest was upset, for she did not know why her daughter thought her disgusting, while Mrs Van Rensberg was trying to find a sympathetic remark likely to be acceptable to her friend.
‘She’s so difficult,’ murmured Mrs Quest apologetically; and Mrs Van Rensberg said, ‘It’s the age, my Marnie’s just as bad.’ She did not know she had failed to find the right remark: Mrs Quest did not consider her daughter to be on a level with Marnie, whom she found in altogether bad taste, wearing grown-up clothes and lipstick at fifteen, and talking about ‘boys’. Mrs Van Rensberg was quite unconscious of the force of her friend’s feeling. She dismissed her strictness with Martha as one of those English foibles; and besides, she knew Marnie to be potentially a sensible woman, a good wife and mother. She continued to talk about Marnie, while Mrs Quest listened with the embarrassment due to a social gaffe, saying ‘Quite’ or ‘Exactly’, thinking that her daughter’s difficulty was caused by having to associate wit
In the meantime, Martha, in an agony of adolescent misery, was lying among the long grass under a tree, repeating to herself that her mother was hateful, all these old women hateful, every one of these relationships, with their lies, evasions, compromises, wholly disgusting. 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.
After a short time, she grew more composed. A self-preserving nerve had tightened in her brain, and with it her limbs and even the muscles of her face became set and hardened. It was with a bleak and puzzled look that she stared at a sunlit and glittering bush which stood at her feet; for she did not see it, she was seeing herself, and in the only way she was equipped to do this—through literature. For if one reads novels from earlier times, and if novels accurately reflect, as we hope and trust they do, the life of their era, then one is forced to conclude that being young was much easier then than it is now. Did X and Y and Z, those blithe heroes and heroines, loathe school, despise their parents and teachers who never understood them, spend years of their lives fighting to free themselves from an environment they considered altogether beneath them? No, they did not; while in a hundred years’ time people will read the novels of this century and conclude that everyone (no less) suffered adolescence like a disease, for they will hardly be able to lay hands on a novel which does not describe the condition. What then? For Martha was tormented, and there was no escaping it.
Martha Quest by Doris Lessing / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes