Motherhood was understandably a touchy subject for Doris Lessing. I have no intention of judging her because I don’t know the truth of her circumstances when she left her children behind. She certainly seems to have been attentive to a later child. Still, her pronouncement – and from a writer of her stature it can feel like the last word on the subject – her pronouncement irritates me. Which is not to say she was wrong necessarily.
When you start to go through the pantheon, Austen, Woolf, Eliot… all childless. Fanny Burney had one son but she didn’t write much after he was born. Charlotte Bronte would have been a mother had she survived the pregnancy but she didn’t, so we cannot know how her writing would have fared with a grizzler clinging to her knee. You can see where Doris was coming from. So what about the vast army of us scribbling away with squished banana in our hair. Has our work suffered? Or do we just take ourselves and our, ahem, profession less seriously?
Someone asked me recently how many books I’d written. I’m never sure. I gave her a ballpark figure. It was, she said, a huge achievement. Well, yes and I did take pleasure in her compliment. But my greater achievement by far has been the raising of four children and the founding of a small dynasty of grandchildren. Nature requires those of us who can procreate to do so and to make as good a job of it as we are able. If our novel-writing suffers, so be it. They’re only novels, after all. And perhaps they’re not weaker or less eloquent. Perhaps they’re just different.
Publishing is a fickle friend as Lessing’s wonderful Jane Somers experiment proved. More satisfying by far to have heard the twang of the bowstring as you launch living arrows into the future. I’m just saying…