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The Summer Before the Dark - Doris Lessing.

Doris Lessing

The Summer Before the Dark

19 July 2009


Doris Lessing has written a lot of books. So many books so that whenever I feel like reading a book by Doris Lessing I am never in the position to read a book twice. There is always another and then another.

Such quantity makes it extremely difficult to say which one I enjoy best. Although I am able to say what subject I think I enjoy best, although her apocalyptic visions are stunning I’m extremely drawn to her books of relationships, women and men. Perhaps The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five has told the eternal tale the best with its mythic proportions whose imagery lasts so much longer than the reading itself. But this book, The Summer Before the Dark, has outdone all of her books I have previously read, again.

The Summer Before the Dark is a novel written from inside Kate Brown’s head. She was a content-ish housewife when the book first began, whose family had mostly grown and whose husband was off to the States for the whole summer. Kate hadn’t ever really been alone, never did she not have anyone to look after, at least not since she married and had four children. And even before that: sheltered and flattered by deference to her every wish. She had never looked at her life, never questioned who, what kind of a person she had become.

With the whole summer before her, without her husband, without her family, she was almost sure of what was going happen and as she stood in her doorway of her competent house with its well cared for garden she watched it coming with foreboding.

Kate Brown accepted a very temporary job with the UN which led to another temporary job with the UN as a mother figure for delegates. An “affair” followed, with a younger man and a trip to Spain. He quickly fell ill which left her alone, alone at last, in a small village where she passed the hot days staring out her hotel window.

Her sexuality—in a vacuum and unsupported by what she thought, what she felt, by what she expected of the future—was a traitor to her conviction that now, at this time, she only had one duty: to think about what her life had become, what it was going to have to be.

She thought:

All those years were now seeming like a betrayal of who she really was.

The Summer Before the Dark is the story of a woman who descends into herself and finds she has nothing much without her role as the stronghold of her family who no longer needs her. No longer able to respect her husband, who has short affairs with young women like a small boy indulging himself with sweets. What does she have left? Her poise? Her nice clothes and well-maintained hair? The Summer Before the Dark is Doris Lessing’s most concise views on marriage. Not a fan of conjugal life herself, “Not made for it,” is what she once said. Kate’s story is a dismal picture of what a woman has to loose.

Patience. Self-discipline. Self-control. Self-abnegation. Chastity. Adaptability to others—this above all. This always. These virtues, necessary for bringing up a family of four on a restricted income, she did slowly acquire.

Throughout the book runs Kate’s serial dream of a seal. She discovered the seal near death one night, as it attempted to drag itself over the rocks. Despite its weight and her own weariness, she began to carry it north, to the sea. The seal was dry and at times in such dire shape that Kate’s dreaming self was certain it would die. But she could not allow that. She had to carry it to water.

The seal, I am sure, is that “something else, the something precious” “she had been holding in her hands” and “offering it in vain… to everyone—but it had not been taken, had not been noticed.” What is the “something else” besides a large heavy seal? Whatever it is, it evades a precise definition. Perhaps it has something to do with self-sacrificing of mother and wife, or maybe it’s a universal.

I am inclined to believe that Kate’s friend Mary is the embodiment of that “something else.” Mary does not love in the conventional sentimental way but loves much more widely, the physical way. Mary is guiltless and self-absorbed in her satisfactions.

Ever since Kate spent a year at her grandfather’s place on the coast of Portuguese Africa, Kate has been a vessel into which anyone could pour their ideas of what a woman should be. Patient and deferred, calm and quiet, attracting yet innocent while under the surface bubbling, a bubbling which can never be contained, more than a vessel and more than can be poured into it. For one can never kill who one really it is; at best we can only cover it.

Near the end of the book Kate moves in with and befriends a young woman named Maureen. Since Spain, Kate was ill and quarantined herself alone in a expensive hotel room in London. Her whole body shrunk and her hair showed grey, no longer the efficient and well groomed housewife from the start. Her clothes fit like sacks and she found that in the street she had become invisible. Maureen, a more liberal version of a young Kate, none-the-less is fighting against her inevitable future: marriage. With whom? It doesn’t matter. Marriage indeed!

While living at Maureen’s, Kate arrives at the climax of her thinking and being about her outward impression of dress, hair and figure. From visible she is suddenly invisible: a calamity! O dear! For a woman who is used to “commanding” attention with looks, she exclaims: That’s what it’s all worth. That’s all. Years and years and years of it. As she switches from an older lady to attractive simply by putting on a large coat or by wearing an ill fitting dress.

Now, this transformation, unlike Maureen who seems infatuated with playing dress-up according to mood, is permanent. Doris Lessing believes that the desire to “command” attention by looks is in woman’s biology1. I don’t. I believe it is our only sense of voice and that if we had more real and confident voices To Look wouldn’t be so important. Attention comes fairly easy—you hardly have to do much—have breasts and legs, follow conventions, be young, walk a certain way or don’t, invite or don’t, it doesn’t matter, eyes will attend to you in the street. Like some man in Spain said to me once, “You should be happy I looked at you.” I’m sorry? My biology says I am most certainly not.

Perhaps this is a generational thing. And anyway, how much can anyone separate the two: nature and nurture, biology and society? Personally, to say that women are biologically set to “command” attention by their looks seems like an oversight of the same caliber as Kate’s “something else.” It leaves something wanted, something missing, the impersonal instead of the personal, shouldn’t there be more? Because when the breasts sag and the skin is stretched and eyes are not so quickly turned, then what happens? Well, look at Kate.

A woman gets married because a man admired her face and body that she worked so hard on, who had babies, four. Now she carries a seal through the dark in a dream, a piece of herself never nurtured before. Like Maureen, who will marry one of those three guys up for bid, have babies ad infinitum. And this is the furthest “commandment” of body and face?

Did a woman choose him, or allow herself to be chosen by him, because he admired that face she had so much attended to, and touched, and turned this way and that—she wouldn’t be surprised, she wouldn’t be surprised at all! For the whole of her life, or since she was sixteen—yes, the girl making love to her own face had been that age—she had looked into mirrors and seen what other people would judge her by.

Regardless of my single disagreement with Doris Lessing, The Summer Before the Dark is a superb book. The writing is almost invisible, all stuck inside Kate’s head. A story forever fascinating, changing and not changing, the singular drama for all time.

1 “I think a good deal of the depression and the mental breakdown of the middle-aged women are due to the fact they suddenly find they’re not able to command attention they way they’ve always been able to command it… A whole dimension of life suddenly slides away, and you realize that what, in fact, you’ve been using to get attention, or command attention, has been what you look like, sex appeal or something like that. Once again it’s something that belongs to the condition of being a young woman. It’s a biological thing, yet for half of your life or more, you’ve been imagining that this attention has been attracted by yourself. It hasn’t.” —Doris Lessing, interview with Josephine Hendin, 1972, from Putting the Questions Differently



Commentary for The Summer Before the Dark


1 On Tuesday 06 May 2014 Aradhana Vaidya wrote:

A interesting book…working on two different levels. Kate’s dream n Kate’s reality. The real woman n the woman she is meant to be. A road to self discovery.


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