‘To Room Nineteen’ by Doris Lessing

I first read this story, and The Golden Notebook, when I was in my early twenties. Re-reading it now I see most of it must have flown over my head. Certainly, I did not remember its analysis of an upper class intellectual mid-20th Century English marriage. But Susan’s craving for Room 19, the nothing that she did there, and the absolute necessity of that solitude—a life and death necessity—have been with me continually for more than thirty years now. Perhaps it was the first time I saw my own deep need to be alone on the page and began to understand the stakes of my refusal—already clear—to pursue Susan’s kind of life.

First published in A Man and Two Women, MacGibbon and Kee, 1963. Widely anthologized and available in the collection To Room Nineteen, Flamingo, 2002

‘Traitors’ by Doris Lessing

Most of Doris Lessing’s writings are autobiographical in nature. Her short stories are infused with the heat, sun and arid beauty of rural Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where she and her brother grew up. As a young child Lessing had dreamed of having a sister instead of a brother. 

‘Traitors’ is the story of two intrepid young girls who go exploring in their neighbourhood. Written in the first person, Lessing’s writing style is lyrical, almost poetic, as she describes the animals they encounter — cattle, wild guinea fowl, pigeons and lonely looking dogs. Lessing sets the scene when the girls first set out on their adventure: 

One morning, at sunrise, when the trees were pink and gold and the grass-stems were running bright with drops of dew, we walked, heads down, eyes half-closed against the sun, past thorn and gulley and thick clumps of cactus where wild animals might lurk.

We are never told the names of the two girls. They breakfast on wild plums and pawpaw gained by throwing stones at the tree. One day, believing themselves lost, they suddenly find themselves near the boundary with the neighbouring farm. They have not met the Thompson family and are chased away by the black servant. A few days later the girls hear that Mr. and Mrs. Thompson are coming to visit their parents and feel guilty for having strayed near their farm when their parents would probably have told them not to, and to be wary of people they didn’t know.

Lessing portrays Mrs. Thompson as “a large, blonde, brilliantly-coloured lady with a voice like that of a go-away bird.” The girls’ father clearly takes a dislike to her. The Thompsons had heard that the house they now live in had been rebuilt after a fire, caused by a fallen oil lamp, had burned it down. Mrs. Thompson wants to know if this is true or merely a local legend. The girls’ father takes the Thompsons to the spot where it happened. He shows them the ashes and scarred grass which is still visible. The girls confess that they used to come here to play. Later, sitting on the veranda in the gloaming of the summer evening their mother tells the girls never to go there again. 

My two little girls out there in the bush by themselves is unthinkable. Danger is everywhere,” she says.

Picked by Carola Huttmann. Passionate about art, literature and writing, Carola draws much of her creative inspiration from the richness of landscape, stories, history and traditions of the Orkney Islands which have been her home since 1995. Find her at Twitter: @CarolaHuttmann / https://carolahuttmann.blogspot.com

First published in African Stories, Michael Joseph, 1964, later Flamingo Modern Classics, 2003

‘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