In the novels of E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, and Paul Scott, the colonial Englishwoman incarnates the deadliest traits of her species. Frightened in youth and ruthless in middle age, she spends her afternoons with the curtains drawn, drinking gin; at sunset she heads for the club. “Of [Urdu] verbs,” Forster remarks of one such woman, she knew “only the imperative mood.” But she was equally voiceless in her native English; almost surely forbidden to do meaningful work, conscripted, really, into idleness.
The paradox of women without economic or political clout becoming symbols of a powerful system is familiar to feminists. But in bringing together Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, and Nadine Gordimer in an important new study, Louise Yelin helps us imagine how the colonies looked to bright young women of European descent. Questions of identity and belonging were acutely troubling, she asserts; and if one were inclined to Marxism like Stead or Lessing, or to liberal activism, like Gordimer, then these were political questions as well: where can I act? For whom do I dare to speak? Although Gordimer quotes approvingly Desmond Tutu’s injunctions that “blacks must lead and whites must follow, blacks must talk and whites must listen,” women must hear an ironic echo of old-fashioned advice for ladies in such invitations to deference and silence. [End Page 1056]
Stead, Lessing, and Gordimer, says Yelin, encourage us “to explore what it means to choose a national identity, to ‘affiliate’ [. . .] with a particular national (or transnational) culture [, . . .] to think about how, or under what conditions, such choices and affiliations are possible.” Each of her writers makes a different choice. Stead becomes a perpetual expatriate; Lessing reinvents herself as an “English” writer; only Gordimer remains in the land of her birth.
Stead finds a “settled domesticity” or nationality repellent; her novels never offer a sense of home. Her “American” novel, The Man Who Loved Children, was really, Stead insisted, an autobiography. Superimposing the United States onto Australia, it is a “discursive site in which national identity is contested.” In For Love Alone, Australia “is neither home nor exile,” but “a place of origin” from which the heroine “already feels estranged when the novel begins.” Yet the idea of the nation is hard to abandon; describing Australia, Stead falls into “some of the same colonial and imperial rhetorical strategies” she wishes to displace. Nonetheless, Yelin finds in her an admirable “spirit of improvisation,” a constant effort to “refashion gender and nationality” that contrasts favorably with the “excessive nationalist fervor” of our time.
For Lessing, born in Persia, educated in Rhodesia, “home” is no longer on the map. Her In Pursuit of the English defines “Englishness” as a set of attitudes more firmly implanted in colonials than in English natives. This view “authorizes” Lessing as English novelist and cultural critic while allowing her to ignore immigration laws that discriminated in favor of white colonials like herself. The “Englishing” of Doris Lessing is, therefore, “founded on the very structures and privileges” the author had sought to leave. Where others see a rupture between Lessing the Communist and Lessing the Thatcherite, Yelin argues for a more gradual transition; if The Golden Notebook ignored African immigrants, The Fifth Child reinforces Enoch Powell’s rhetoric about an England “swamped by people with a different culture.” In failing to see the possibilities of a genuinely multicultural England, Lessing falls back on a nationalism based on racial exclusion.
Conjuring up a vision of a majority-ruled South Africa even as apartheid raged, Gordimer struggled to invent a place in it for herself. For Yelin, a crucial image of the female colonial appears in The Burger’s Daughter, where Gordimer rewrites the horse-beating scene that haunted Raskolnikov. A white woman watches a black man beat his [End Page 1057] donkey. Guilt paralyzes her; only her race could make the man listen, but he might turn on his wife and child if she intervenes, and then the police would brutalize him. In this scene, Gordimer “offers a paradigm of identity that encompasses multiple...