Pauline Francis studied French at the University of Manchester and became a French teacher in London, before marrying and going to live in Africa. She later studied for an MA at University College London, majoring in Children's Literature, and became a full-time writer. Raven Queen is her first novel and won the Highland Book Award; it was followed by A World Away and Traitor's Kiss. Pauline lives in Hertfordshire and describes writing as 'the dream I never knew I had'. Here she writes about Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing.
Pauline Francis on The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
When I began to write for Young Adults, I chose a character trapped by life (Lady Jane Grey in Raven Queen) because she echoed the feelings I had as a young girl growing up in a small village on the River Trent - Mill on the Floss territory: drab, damp and grey. I was expected to go out to work as soon as possible until I married.
Now I realize that this is a rather serious note on which to begin; it wasn't all doom and gloom in my little village. It's just that it didn't suit me. But isn't that what teenagers are supposed to feel about where they live?
I wanted LIFE: preferably Paris, and anything French - perhaps not a Frenchman. They seemed so obsessed with their appearance.
Then Africa came into my colourless landscape, in the shape of my English teacher's sister, who lived in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). She visited my school. Within minutes, she opened up an unknown world to me - of intense colour and heat. I fell in love with the idea of Africa immediately, although I knew nothing of its politics.
This was the young Pauline Francis who first read The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing's first novel, many years later when I did get away, to become a student at Manchester University.
I'd never heard of Doris Lessing. A friend lent the book to me, insisted I keep it – and I still have the same Penguin edition today. I have never looked for a newer edition or wanted a different book jacket. Mine is in full - though garish - colour, featuring waving grass in the veld beneath a vast and cloudless sky. What more could I want?
It's a short novel, 218 pages – a simply structured story (with a rather conventional opening of the murder of Mary Turner by her 'boy', i.e. her servant, Moses), set in Rhodesia at a time when white settlers were farming the land. Mary is trapped by a loveless marriage (as is her farmer husband) and by the loneliness of the African veld.
At first, I just soaked up the heat and colour of this veld. But Lessing's lyrical descriptions re-ignited my love of Africa. I was determined to go there one day. Then Mary's nightmare got under my skin. I recognized her feelings: of being trapped, of powerlessness, of hopelessness. She had escaped her unhappy childhood in a succession of 'dusty little dorps', but as soon as she felt that she ought to marry and chose to leave the city life she loved for a farmer she didn't love, my mind screamed: Don't go back to where you were unhappy. I willed her to be strong. And she was - at first, living with her husband's obsession for new money-making ventures: bees, pigs, turkeys. They all failed. Then came the store – which she was forced to run for their farm workers.
'It was the store that finished Mary... it seemed a terrible thing, an omen and a warning, that the ugly menacing store of her childhood should follow her here, even to her home.' It was the store that brought back 'the greyness and misery of her childhood'.
Mary survived for some time by living with the dream of escaping to the city. When she failed and had to be fetched back by her husband, her descent into madness was rapid and heartbreaking. 'When she got home, and she found herself back in her usual routine, with now not even day-dreams to sustain her, facing her future with a tired stoicism, she was exhausted.'
What a lesson I learned from this novel. Mary reminded me that you can be so easily trapped, just when you think you might have escaped. Having escaped my own grey childhood, I was determined never to repeat it. I did go to Africa - west, east and south - but with a husband who shared my dream; and never to the isolation of the veld, although I was happy to visit it.
Every time I read The Grass is Singing, it showed me the reality behind my dream of Africa: the treatment of the 'natives' by white settlers; the use of the word 'ni..er', which still shocks me although I often heard it used by expatriates. I cherished the book even more. It forced me to become more politically engaged, to question the apartheid regime I experienced in South Africa.
If I'm honest, I didn't fully understand Mary's powerlessness. My pity for her was always mixed with irritation and that made her character all the more complex, more irrational - and more memorable. I wanted her to be more spirited. I'd escaped my dull life. Why couldn't she? She only had to make the effort, didn't she? But I came to realize that it can be as difficult for people to escape a life they hate.
I hesitated to choose this book because it's not funny: there isn't one amusing thought or word in it (if I'm wrong, let me know) and this may have been the state of Doris Lessing's mind when she wrote it before she made her own escape to London. She brought the manuscript with her and it was published almost straight away.
The Grass is Singing has dated. More than most novels, it is of its time, and its characters will not translate easily to modern life, as, for example, Jane Austen's. So I'm sorry that it's unlikely to be widely read now.
But how could I not choose it? It was my 'rite of passage' novel - and the one that has had the greatest influence on my own writing.
So, thank you, Doris Lessing. You sent me along many paths: to Africa, to political awareness, to feminism, to personal freedom, to compassion: paths I've tried to follow ever since - and to explore in all my writing.
But you never thanked me for the orange juice! You took it from me with a curt nod of the head...
... a few years ago, after her appearance at the Hay Festival, Doris Lessing came down to breakfast in the hotel where we always stay. I was the only other person in the dining room - it was before 7.00 am. For a split second, I imagined us engaged in deep conversation about The Grass is Singing. But I didn't speak; writers deserve their privacy.
She asked me to bring her some orange juice.
Perhaps I shouldn't have worn black and white that day?
But never has a glass of orange juice been poured with such love and care.
She is, after all, the writer of the novel that is the most precious to me.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]