Doris Lessing: Stories (Post 4/4)

Lessing 05

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Doris Lessing: Stories Introduction Post

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[129] “Mrs. Fortescue”

1 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Fred has conflicted sexual feelings about the upstairs tenant, Mrs. Fortescue, and his teenage sister, Jane.

A cruel, ugly, meaningless story which feels depressingly male or from the viewpoint of a self-hating woman.

I’m a horror fan and I’ve watched my share of torture-based movies. They’re not my favorite. They usually lack a point beyond, “look how gross this is – can you handle it?” This story is the literary version of that: “look how depraved and cruel and twisted this boy is – can you handle it?” I can read it, but I’m not going to like it if you don’t give me a point along the way.


He scooped [the baked beans] out of the dish with the edge of his fried bread, and she said: “What’s wrong with the spoon?”

“What’s wrong with the bread?” he returned, with an unconvincing whiskey glare, which she ignored.


[131] Reference:

“That’s me when I was a Gaiety Girl.”



Gaiety Girls were the chorus girls in Edwardian musical comedies, beginning in the 1890s at the Gaiety Theatre, London, in the shows produced by George Edwardes. They would appear onstage in bathing attire and the latest fashions.

[132] Vocabulary:

A doll in a pink flounced skirt lolled against the pillow, its chin tucked into a white fichu over which it stared at the opposite wall.



noun – a small triangular shawl, worn around a woman’s shoulders and neck.

[133] “An Unposted Love Letter”

1 out of 5 stars.

 The Plot:

Actress Victoria Carrington’s letter to a married man she believes herself to be in love with.

The shit’s really hitting the fan, folks. I’ve never continued reading a short story collection after having this many misses in a row but I had that terrible reader’s dilemma: after reading five-hundred pages (and only being one-hundred from the end), it had to be finished.


I’m no foreign country to you.


[135] Eleanor Rigby-type image:

Our basic face is so worn down to its essentials because of its permanent readiness to take other guises, become other people, it is almost like something hung up on the wall of a dressing room ready to take down and use.


[136] Vocabulary:

Cauterized that wound with pain like styptic.



adjective – (of a substance) capable of causing bleeding to stop when it is applied to a wound.

noun – a substance capable of stopping bleeding when applied to a wound.

[137] “Lions, Leaves, Roses…”

 1 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A walk through the zoo and park.

The second of the three park stories (see also “A Year in Regent’s Park”, Post 3, note [117] and “The Other Garden”, note [153]).

[138] References:

The avenue that runs from St. Mark’s Bridge Gate to the memorial to Sir Cowasjee Jehangir was silent with warm sun.


I think the avenue Lessing is referring to is “The Broad Walk,” which, north of the Jehangir memorial, leads into the London Zoo and park from St Mark’s Square/Prince Albert Road (with St. Marks Church overlooking the gate area and bridge).

A description of the memorial on

Fountain: Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney

Erection date: 1869


(On a modern plaque:)

This fountain erected by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was the gift of Sir Cowasjee Jehangir (Companion of the Star of India), a wealthy Parsee gentleman of Bombay, as a token of gratitude to the people of England for the protection enjoyed by him and his Parsee fellow countrymen under the British rule in India. (…)

Site: Readymoney fountain (3 memorials)

NW1, Regent’s Park, Broad Walk

You can Street View Regent’s Park on Google and it’s gorgeous. I can understand why Lessing used it as a walking/inspiration location.

[139] This sort of prose simply does not capture me:

The trees are big here, each one claiming attention, and the air lies heavily, the felt essence of tree. Not only tree, but goat too, a dozen or so white, smelling goats, and when they are passed, the wire paddock, where wolves whose howls will keep good people awake on the winter nights that are coming play charmingly around a tree trunk.


…in fact, I think this is horrible writing.

[140] Reference:

Mayakovsky said: “Not a man, but a cloud in trousers.”



Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a Russian Soviet poet, playwright, artist, and actor. His poem, A Cloud in Trousers, was written in 1914 and first published in 1915. It was written from the vantage point of a spurned lover.

[141] References:

I’ll go back by the rose garden, to Madame Louis Laperriere, Monique, and Rose Gaujat, Soreya and Helen Traubel; Rose Hellene, Pink Parfair, Peace and Malagana.


Types of roses. Probably should have been obvious from context…

[142] “Not a Very Nice Story” 

3 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Muriel and Frederick carry on a decades-long affair without their spouses ever finding out, despite the couples being close friends.

Great title.


They soon established (like showing each other their passports or references of decency and reliability) that they shared views on life – tough, but rewarding; God – dead; children – to be brought up with the right blend of permissiveness and discipline; society – to be cured by commonsense and mild firmness but without extremes of any sort.

Everything was well for them; everything would get better.


[144] The narrator becomes a character of sorts, which I really like when it’s done well (and compliment where compliment is due, Lessing does it well):

For it is really hard to get the perspective right, supposed that I had, in fact, described the emotions of the two very emotional courtships (…)


[145] …but I’ll take that compliment back because this writing is being difficult for difficulties’ sake:

And, thinking about it all, as these long sessions with weeping and miserable (enjoyable miserable?) Althea had made her do, she understood, and became determined to hold on to, her belief that her instinct, or compulsion, never to examine, brood, or make emotional profit-and-loss accounts about the sex she had with Frederick was healthy.


Where is your editor? Why are you using all of the commas?


For God’s sake, she cried, stop it, don’t spoil everything, can’t you see the dogs of destruction are sniffing at our door?



Ah emotion, emotion, let us bathe in thee!

For instance, the television, that mirror of us all:

A man has crashed his car, and his wife and three children have burned to death.

“And what did you feel when this happened?” asks the bland, but humanly concerned, young interviewer. “Tell us, what did you feel?”



If we don’t feel, then how can we believe that anything is happening to us at all?

And since none of us feel as much as we have been trained to believe that we ought to feel in order to prove ourselves profound and sincere people, then luckily here is the television where we can see other people feeling for us.



For a while he sulked; he could not forgive life for his being nearly fifty.



Soon after the move to London Henry died. There was no sense in him dying in his fifties.


[151] References:

Frederick attended two days a week and a morning in Harley Street (…) making up by evening sessions and night visiting for time spent in Moneyland.



Harley Street is a street in Marylebone, central London, which had been noted since the 19th century for its large number of private specialists in medicine and surgery. It was named after Thomas Harley who was Lord Mayor of London in 1767.

I assume Moneyland is just a sarcastic swipe at Harley Street.

[152] Typo?

Perhaps driving off onto Hampstead Health to discuss the children.


I think it’s supposed to be Hampstead Heath (?).

[153] “The Other Garden” 

1 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A secret winter garden in the park.

Park story number three (see also “A Year in Regent’s Park” Post 3, note [117] and “Lions, Leaves, Roses…”, note [137]). They get worse as they go.

[154] Reference:

Above each scrolls are shells, like those in Salamanca on that wall where people come to stand and watch the shadows move on dulled pink stone.



Salamanca is a city in northwestern Spain that is the capital of the Province of Salamanca in the community of Castile and Leon. It is about 120 miles west of Madrid.

The Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells) is a historical building in Salamanca. It currently houses a public library. It was built from 1493 to 1517 by Rodrigo Arias de Maldonado, a knight of the Order of Santiago de Compostela and a professor in the University of Salamanca. Its most peculiar feature is the façade, mixing late Gothic and Plateresque style, decorated with more than 300 shells, symbol of the order of Santiago, as well as of the pilgrims performing the Way of St. James.

The shells create interesting shadows on the outside wall, which you can see by doing an image search of “Casa de las Conchas.”

Random fun fact: the “New Cathedral” of Salamanca is home of the astronaut carving (you know, the one that made people believe in ancient aliens but was actually put there during 1992 restorations).

[155] Reference:

A glossy black boy with a mermaid echoes the statue of the chestnut avenue, boy-with-dolphin.



The Triton Fountain is a group of bronze sculptures that depict a sea god or triton blowing on a conch shell with two mermaids at his feet. The group stands in the centre of a round pool (…)

The sculpture group in the Triton fountain was given in Sigismund Goetze’s memory by his wife, in 1950. Geotze was a wealthy and successful artist.

Also from

The marble Boy and Dolphin fountain was made in 1862 by Alexander Munro, a friend of the Alice in Wonderland author, Lewis Carroll. The fountain is located in Hyde Park’s Rose Garden. (…)

The fountain moved to The Regent’s Park in 1962 and returned to Hyde Park in 1995.

Lessing was seeing it in The Regent’s Park when she wrote this story, not Hyde, which is interesting to realize. Also, that is the weirdest looking “dolphin” I’ve ever seen. Image search it. It’s crazy-weird.

[156] “The Temptation of Jack Orkney”

1.5 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

After his father’s death, Jack – lifelong non-dreamer, atheist, and socialist – re-considers all three stances.

The longest story in the collection at 62 pages. Some sections seem like they might be going somewhere – the deathbed sequence with Jack and his siblings, Jack’s meeting with his son – but it all dissolves without payoff. I see no temptation to Jack Orkney, I see a listless and indecisive character (i.e., a listless and indecisive author) and a story that needed several more rounds of editing to nail down themes, structure, plot, etc.

A disappointing end for a collection which started out so strong.

[157] Reference:

This is what it had been really like in Korea, Israel, Pretoria, during such-and-such an event.



Pretoria is a city in the northern part of Gauteng, South Africa. It is one of the country’s three capital cities (along with Cape Town and Bloemfontein).


Cedric and Ellen would be certain to do the right thing, whatever that was.


[159] References (and why the comma after Jack’s name?):

Jack, had in his time swallowed Keir Hardie, Marx, Freud, Morris and the rest.



James Keir Hardie (1856-1915) was a Scottish socialist, politician, and trade unionist. He was the founder of the Labour Party, the first Leader of the Labour Party and the first ever Labour Member of Parliament. He supported votes for women, self-rule for India, home-rule for Scotland, and an end to segregation in South Africa.

William Morris (1834-1896) was an English textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist. He played a significant role in propagating the early socialist movement in Britain.


That he had used another of the obligatory phrases struck Jack with more than amusement: now it was with relief as well. Now the fact that the prescribed phrases made their appearance one after the other was like a guarantee that he was behaving appropriately, that everything would go smoothly and without embarrassment.


[161] References:

He had skimmed through Trollope’s The Small House at Allington.



Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) was an English novelist of the Victorian era. The Small House at Allington (1864) is the fifth novel in Trollope’s series known as the “Chronicles of Barsetshire.”

(In cast you were wondering – because I was – the insult “trollop” is not related to the author or his works.)


To get God, after a lifetime of enlightened rationalism, would be the most shameful of capitulations.


[163] Reference/Translate:

“Does the level matter?” asked Ellen. “Surely c’est le premier pas qui coute?”


French: it’s the first step that costs / only the beginning is difficult

[164] References:

“My eldest was a Jesus freak for a few months, for example. After Winchester, Balliol, the lot.”


I think the speaker is referring to schools (Winchester and Balliol College); as in, “My kid turned religious even after attending chapel in schools. It happens.” Winchester and Balliol could refer to historical figures as well but I’m not sure why Jesus would follow from that…

[165] Vocabulary:

Under an integument that was growing inwards into his flesh.



noun – a tough outer protective layer, especially that of an animal or plant.

[166] Reference:

He read, however, Simone Weil and Teilhard de Chardin; these were the names he knew.



Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French philosopher, mystic, and political activist. In the 1950s and 1960s, her work became famous in continental Europe and throughout the English-speaking world.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a French idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist and took part in the discovery of Peking Man.

Lessing’s writing is average to good, but she often seems to be searching for plot as she goes, calling the work complete even if a story was never found.

Reading this book made me feel like I did when trying to play The Sims: after a while, I wondered what the point was in worrying about the mundane functions of a fake human. When an illusion is so close to the stresses of real life, I feel guilty for neglecting my own. With games, movies, books, I want something different, interesting – something more than mundane. And Lessing shows herself to be master of the mundane in these stories.

Not recommended outside of a few choice selections (“An Old Woman and Her Cat”, especially). I don’t plan to read any more by Lessing after this. I think I’ve seen all her tricks and I’m not a fan.

This Friday, revisiting a book I loved in high school and wondering… does Fight Club hold up?


3 thoughts on “Doris Lessing: Stories (Post 4/4)

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