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Alfred and Emily Paperback – October 20, 2009

4.1 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The 2007 Nobel Prize in literature was a bloody disaster for Lessing, she recently told the BBC. This curious work—half fiction, half memoir, hampered by slapdash prose and an unfocused organization—may be the result of that unsettling time, when she said she didn't have the energy to write a full novel. The opening novella (the longer of the two pieces) is what might have become of her parents, Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh, if they had never married. The sluggish account of their parallel lives is notable mainly for Lessing's commentary on the changing economic, social and cultural mores in England before and after WWI. The second section is a rambling series of recollections that describe the family's failed farm in Southern Rhodesia. Lessing describes her mother's dominating personality, attributing her mother's smothering attention to her frustration at having given up a successful wartime nursing career and a vital social life to raise a family. Lessing's longtime readers will find little new in her autobiographical disclosures, and new readers will look in vain for the talent that won the Nobel. 11 b&w photos. (Aug.) ""
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

In Alfred & Emily, groundbreaking author Doris Lessing returns to the subject matter explored in her 1994 autobiography, Under My Skin. Fans will recognize common themes and details, but Lessing’s outlook and tone have softened. Critics were touched by her genuine attempt to understand her overbearing, self-absorbed mother, though her writing is still tinged with resentment. Lessing’s fictional novella is no fairy tale, but most critics found it unconvincing. Why invent a fictional life if it isn’t compelling? They much preferred the memoir: its somber tone and gritty details bring the unhappy couple wrenchingly and heartrendingly to life, its fractured, unconventional structure reminiscent of that of The Golden Notebook. While Lessing has penned a powerful and unsparing portrait of a marriage framed by the physical and psychological damages of war, a few critics suggest that general readers might do best to start with Under My Skin, The Golden Notebook, or another of Lessing’s novels.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (October 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060834897
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060834890
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,947,889 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is a somewhat unusual book. Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing chose to write about her parents, Alfred Taylor and Emily McVeigh, but rather than stick to their actual lives she took the liberty in the first half of the book to imagine them as they might have been had there never been a World War I. The second half of the book deals with them as they actually were.

Lessing imagines her parents as what they seemed to have wanted to be-a farmer and a head nurse-who never married each other. The farmer had a wife and family. The nurse married a doctor who was not a very loving individual and who died young. Alfred and Emily met each other, but never were a couple, in their daughter's imagination.

The imagined story is stilted and old-fashioned in style. Possibly because the main characters were people she knew well in other circumstances, Lessing doesn't do much with their development. While events occur, she doesn't really give any insight as to why the individuals behave as they do. Toward to end of the novella she finally gives them some life, but by then it is hard remain interested.

The second half of the book that tells about their real life is rather rambling and disjointed. Lessing is 87 years old and in the manner of many older people she seems to repeat herself fairly often while describing her parents' life.

The real Alfred Taylor wanted to be a farmer, but he went to "The Great War" and lost most of his right leg from shrapnel wound. He spent a very long time in the hospital recovering and that is where he met his wife, Emily McVeigh, a nurse. She was a wonderfully talented upper-middle-class woman who decided to defy her father's wishes and became a nurse. After the war they moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.
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Format: Paperback
In the first part of the book Doris Lessing imagines her parents lives as if they had lived easier and happier lives, lives in which they did not marry each other. Lessing is a first- rate storyteller and thus this part of the work is readable. But it is not really deep in feeling and not compelling on an emotional level.
In the second part she tells the story of her father who lost a leg in the First War, and also lost most of his good friends there. A tough and determined character haunted by nightmares of the war he went on to make a new life for himself and his family- though the injuries of the war soon got to him and he died quite young at sixty after suffering greatly. Her mother who nursed the father during the war and enjoyed the time of their social whirl in Tehran also had an extremely difficult life. Lessing speaks of her terrible conflict with her mother and her having married to get away from her. She describes the world of her Rhodesian early years and the period of her early adulthood right after the war. She has a great ability to create an atmosphere of Time and Place. In speaking of her parents difficult emotional lives she makes the comment that 'children learn the emotions of their parents'. Certainly she gives a sense of having some of the same kind of toughness, and determination that her parents had. She also speaks of her mother's remarkable storytelling ability and how this was transmitted to her. This comes as a kind of grudging thank- you note to a mother who she repeatedly accuses of having interfered too much her life. Lessing also tells the story of her brother who narrowly survived the sinking of his ship in the Second World War, and who lived for many years with what she calls a kind of 'dullness' of mind.
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Format: Kindle Edition
As a devoted fan of Doris Lessing for many, many years, I found "Alfred and Emily" extremely disappointing; in fact, I wonder if it had not been better for her literary image if she had never written it. It was a book that I kept putting to one side, wondering whether or not I would eventually have the energy to see it through to the end. The prose is laboured and the two parts - the real and the fictional - work against each other to cause confusion. The idea of writing two stories about her parents, both as they were and as Lessing would have liked to them to have been, did not work for me; it is possible that the book may have gained by being completely factual or completely fictional but not as a mixture of both. I also felt that Lessing used the book as a platform to expound on her own talents, which, for me, seemed very out of sync with what one would expect from Lessing. There is a point where the dancer hangs up his/her dancing shoes, and, perhaps, there should also be a point where the writer lays down his/her pen.
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Format: Paperback
"Alfred and Emily: A Novella". Alfred Taylor is a farmer who becomes affluent and marries a warm caring local. Ignoring the rage of her father, Emily McVeagh leaves town and goes to London where she becomes a nurse who marries a doctor. World War I never occurs so they never meet as a wounded soldier and a nurse.

"Alfred and Emily; Two Lives. Alfred Taylor was severely injured in combat on the continent. He was medically evacuated back to a London hospital. There he met Nurse Emily McVeigh. As he healed, they fell in love and got married. They move to Rhodesia after the war and have two children Doris and Harry, but their colonial farm fails.

This is a fascinating combo historical biographical fiction and a short biography. The novella is a terrific alternate history of the author's parents while the biography provides a short guide to compare what if to what happened. Fans of the great author will appreciate this fine book although the fiction overwhelms the nonfiction as the latter is too minute for newbies and too repetitive for fans while the former provides an intriguing look at probably what would not have happened if the liberating of the masses did not happen because the mechanism WWI was never fought.

Harriet Klausner
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