The Summer Before the Dark
Reading Guide by Cornelius Collins
Cornelius Collins (Ph.D., Rutgers University) teaches in the English Department at Fordham University, the Bronx, NY. He is the President of the Doris Lessing Society, 2015-17, and a member of the Editorial Board of Doris Lessing Studies. His published essays on Doris Lessing include “‘A Horizontal, Almost Nationless Organisation’: Doris Lessing’s Prophecies of Globalization,” Twentieth Century Literature 56.2 (Summer 2010), and a chapter in the edited collection Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook After Fifty (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015): “‘Through That Gap the Future Might Pour’: Dreaming the Post-Cold War World in The Golden Notebook.”
Published in 1973, The Summer Before the Dark can easily be overlooked in the shadow of Doris Lessing’s more obvious masterpieces from the 1950s and ’60s: Children of Violence, the five-novel coming-of-age series that begins with Martha Quest (1952), and The Golden Notebook (1962). Yet by taking up and developing many similar themes in a less sweeping mode, The Summer Before the Dark offers an equally rewarding introduction to the author’s work.
Doris Lessing wrote The Summer Before the Dark in a period when the experiences usually seen as most influential on her perspective as an author — her youth in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, her two marriages and political involvements during the Second World War, her emigration to London and association with the British New Left, and her experience with psychoanalysis and discovery of Sufism — had already taken place. And perhaps most immediately relevant to this novel, by 1973, Lessing had the experience of raising a child into adulthood, as does her protagonist Kate Brown.
In the novel, the departure of her husband and nearly grown-up children for various summer sojourns suddenly puts Kate Brown, a mother living in the suburbs of London, in an unfamiliar situation: “this was the first time in her life that she was not wanted.” When readers first see Kate, she is poised on the back doorstep of her house, facing outward, lending an immediate sense of expectation and transition to the story. Perhaps likewise, this novel occupies a space in Lessing’s writing career where she seems to be exploring where to go next. Whatever the cause, her interest in experimentation at this time led to some of her most fascinating and compelling work, with The Summer Before the Dark a chief example.
The title’s reference to the change of seasons and the running motif of “the cold wind” sensed by Kate Brown furnish images for the novel as a commentary on the experience of aging, particularly for women. Readers should keep in mind, however, that Kate, in her mid-40s, is younger than Lessing by about 10 years (as evidence suggests that the novel is set in its current moment, the early 1970s). Kate’s reflections on the “phases” of her life and marriage call to mind popular discussions of such topics in the 1970s — as in Gail Sheehy’s bestseller Passages (1976). But the narrative makes clear that Kate is not out of her sexual maturity yet. Rather, the idea that menopause must be what she is going through is one of the social myths put upon her by family, others, and even herself: a readymade idea that allows her feelings as an individual person not to be recognized or dealt with. Kate will spend much of the novel, in fact, trying to understand what her personal feelings really are.
The novel is divided into 5 sections, each fairly lengthy: “At Home,” “Global Food,” “On Holiday,” “The Hotel,” and “Maureen’s Flat.” Setting seems to be the organizing principle at work. Critics have long noted that Lessing often creates deeply imagined spaces in her fiction. The border between objective descriptions of houses, for example, and their subjective or connotative dimensions is often blurred, and descriptions of such places may shift over the course of a novel or story. In this novel, it might be noted that Kate appears to do less (or learns to do less?) in each successive setting. Whereas it is one of the story’s chief ironies that her work as a housewife and mother have perfectly prepared her for a managerial role in the offices of Global Food, and whereas “on holiday” with her American lover, Jeffrey, she alternately resists and fulfills her maternal inclinations, in the last two chapters, we find Kate laid up with an illness — where other women tend to her — then taking up a short-term residency in a room let by a younger woman whose problems Kate is not always sympathetic to.
On the opening pages of her previous novel, Briefing for a Descent Into Hell (1971), there appears a label for what Lessing seemed to be proposing was a new category of writing: “inner-space fiction.” As a motto for this category, she writes: “For there is never anywhere to go but in.” This concept of “inner-space fiction” is useful to consider when reading any of Lessing’s deeply contemplative novels of the early 1970s: not only Briefing, but also The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and The Summer Before the Dark. Much of the interest of this novel lies in the richness of Kate Brown’s reflections on her life to this point, in particular the gaps between what she thought she was doing and what she only now realizes she was actually feeling and how she was being perceived. She uses the unexpected events of the summer, which remove her from her normal life, as an opportunity to examine “what her life had become, what it was going to have to be.” Toward the novel’s conclusion, Kate reflects that she is now “at the other end of what she suddenly was feeling as a long interior journey.” A question for readers to explore is where, precisely, she has come to.
The public and the personal
One of the main conflicts Kate awakens to, from the outset of the novel, is the discrepancy between the accepted modes of speaking about emotional matters and the ways these are actually felt by individuals. Even before departing from the normal course of her life, simply standing on her back step as the story begins, Kate senses change in the air, but she is dissatisfied with the phrases that come into her mind to describe it. Like choosing “dresses off a rack,” she suggests, subjects in modern society select the closest cliche from a register of stereotyped phrases — “I am not as young as I once was,” for example — to substitute for genuine emotion and real comprehension. The gap between what people say and what they really mean, therefore, must be read from the severity of the “ironical grimace” they wear when speaking these inadequate phrases, especially when trying to address the catastrophic events such as wars, epidemics, and famines that are reported from elsewhere in this novel. “We ought to be doing something about it” is the most that people in the privileged, secure parts of the world find to say about these crises. In this way, Kate reflects, the “old patterns … attributed to habit” determine individual behavior to a greater extent than modern liberal mythology would suggest, and she wonders how long it has been since she has made a genuine choice.
Lessing’s pioneering articulation of women’s experience continues in this novel. She shows that in the conflict between the public and the personal, it is particularly the private feelings of women that struggle to find expression in a male-dominated world. Notice the kind of tasks Kate performs as she effortlessly moves into work at Global Food: before organizing their international conferences, she is asked to work as a translator. For this role she draws on the advantages of her education in the upper middle class (another point of difference between Kate Brown and Lessing, who stopped her formal education at age 14), but also on her accustomed skill in erasing herself to accommodate the voices of others. For example, Kate meets her husband, a doctor, at Oxford, but, on marrying him, drops out rather than completing her degree in Romance languages. And when she is offered the summer job at Global Food and first wonders who will manage the house in her absence, she feels “dismissed, belittled” by her husband for even raising “the problem of the house.” To him the issue seems “unimportant,” something to be resolved with one phone call. Later in the text, Kate experiments with how to present her body in public. Particularly fascinating and memorable are the different reactions she draws as she appears variously as a “sensible” mother and wife, then a stylish professional, then a disheveled “old woman.” Special focus is placed on the connotations of her hairstyle and the question of whether she will dye it again at the end of her journey.
Signs of a general worsening
Global Food is Lessing’s version of what is now called a nongovernmental organization, an NGO or “think tank” for developing, in this case, ideas for improving the efficiency of the world’s food supply chains. Recall that the effects of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, the program of introducing Western agricultural science to the Third World, were at this point still being measured. Lessing does not give the members of the “international civil services,” or “the new elite,” a favorable portrayal. The narrator (who is not Kate Brown, exactly — the story is told in the third person) takes palpable relish in mocking the worldly manners of the cosmopolitan class, “these indispensable fortunates,” who, she suggests, are making successful careers off serious problems they have no real plan for solving. Some actual think tanks at this time, such as the Club of Rome with their widely read book Limits to Growth (1972), forecasted dire ecological consequences if current levels of economic and population growth were maintained. Lessing’s scathing attitude toward her fictional Global Food organization predicts today’s criticisms of what some call “the charitable industrial complex,” the nonprofit sector of aid societies and advocacy groups.
It also points toward the deeper picture of social collapse that haunts the background of this novel. Even as Kate Brown focuses on navigating her intensely personal, “inner-space” journey, she senses an external decline in “the general condition of man.” This, she feels, “would soon worsen and darken everywhere.” “Wars, strikes, floods, earthquakes”: “these events, once high and rare (or had they ever been, was that just false memory?), were moving into the first place of everyone’s experience, as if an air that had once been the climate of a distant and cataclysmic star had chosen to engulf our poor planet.” This vision of incipient global catastrophe can be found in each of Briefing for a Descent Into Hell, The Summer Before the Dark, and especially The Memoirs of a Survivor. Questions for readers to consider are how valid Lessing’s dire, near-apocalyptic forecast has turned out, and how it is meant to connect to the style of “inner-space fiction,” which in some ways seems to turn away from such public or political concerns.
After the counterculture
Another topic that arises in The Summer Before the Dark is Lessing’s concern for the political direction of the rising generation. This emerges as a central theme in such novels of the 1970s and ’80s as The Good Terrorist (1986) and The Fifth Child (1988), but it can also be traced back to the character of Tommy in The Golden Notebook. Here, Kate and Michael Brown’s children range across the political spectrum, with one a socialist, one a budding conservative, and the others uncommitted. Jeffrey, Kate’s fragile traveling companion in Spain, self-mockingly considers his options for becoming a “middle-aged hippie” at age 30, but Kate predicts that after this last undecided summer, (in a manner reminiscent of Tommy) he will take a position in his father’s Washington law firm.
More troubled, and troubling, are the young people Kate encounters when she returns to London, where Maureen’s flat is occupied by an unpredictable cast of countercultural types. Maureen herself, a former dancer, is, like Kate and Jeffrey, not as young as she looks. At 26, she wears her hair in pigtails and eats baby food. Readers can ponder the significance of these eccentricities, but it is perhaps most disheartening that the chief question on her mind is which of several suitors she should choose in order to determine the course of her life. Her most charismatic paramour, Philip, is from the working class, a proud member of “the Young Front,” and dresses in dark blue denim and military jackets, in “what was obviously the new uniform.” This description and Philip’s nostalgic, nationalistic rhetoric about Britain tie him to far right parties like the National Front, which was formed from several smaller groups in the late ’60s and grew in popularity through the mid-1970s. For Lessing, the new youth’s lack of historical memory and their disconnection from a meaningfully organized Left (for all its problems) leave them psychologically vulnerable to the worst kinds of political appeals.
Dreams of rescue
Readers of this novel will likely be intrigued by Kate’s dreams, particularly the sequence that tracks her attempts to rescue a seal from exposure and starvation. Dreams figure often in Doris Lessing’s fiction, and in literature as in life, they cry out for symbolic interpretation. But here the symbolic connections are perhaps not so obvious. In considering the significance of the seal, we should not neglect to consider Kate’s frightening vision of carnivorous “dressed-up animals” sitting around her in the theater on her return to London. (The play she watches is A Month in the Country, by Ivan Turgenev.) And comparing Kate’s dream of the seal to her “long interior journey” may raise more questions than it answers. For example:
- Is Kate’s interior journey as successful as her arduous trek with the seal? In what ways, if at all, has it changed her?
- Has it brought her to a clearer understanding of her self and her world?
- Does it promise her more hope for the future, or less?