‘To Room Nineteen’ by Doris Lessing

Lessing’s fiction has gone out of fashion. Perhaps it’s her seriousness – her engagement with Marxism and the ideas of Freud – which makes her unpopular at a time when feminism is reduced to individual ‘empowerment’ and identity politics. This story, written a few years before the Women’s Liberation Movement took shape, shows what an indispensable writer she is. The narrative seems impersonal, a case history. Susan and Matthew are a privileged couple with a comfortable life. Yet Lessing shows us how they are bound together in a kind of growing incomprehension. It is simply not enough, as Woolf suggested, for a woman to have money and a room of her own, if she remains tied to familial expectations. Various means of escape are tried, but for Susan, ultimate freedom is only to be found in Room Nineteen. 

First published in A Man and Two Women, Simon & Schuster, 1963. Collected in To Room Nineteen: Collected Stories Volume One, Flamingo 2002. Available online here

‘Through the Tunnel’ by Doris Lessing

I shouldn’t like this story: its metaphor (a boy swimming through an underwater tunnel as part of a dare and comes out on the other end a changed person, the coming-of-age trope personified) is too on-the-nose. But as soon as the “young English boy” in a foreign land jumps into the water at the end, the effect is overwhelming. Maybe it’s worth pointing out that ever since I nearly drowned as a child, water has terrified me, so this may not seem as anxiety-inducing to you all who enjoy swimming. But there is something about the short, clipped, sentences almost forcing the reader to take shallow breaths, making the panic experienced by the boy actually felt in the prose.

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 1955. Collected in The Habit of Loving, Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1957. Story can be found online here