Over the past decade, there has been a crop of books about growing up as a white child in Africa in the final years of white rule. Now the publication of Doris Lessing's powerful Alfred and Emily is a reminder that she has been visiting this theme for well over half a century, drawing on her girlhood in colonial Southern Rhodesia to write many of the books that brought her international acclaim and the Nobel Prize.
Alfred and Emily is a book about Lessing's parents: Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh; or rather, it is two books. The first is a "novella", in which she rewrites their lives; the second is based on fact. In the first half, Southern Rhodesia is conspicuous by its absence: Alfred and Emily never marry each other (and so Lessing is never born) and never go to Africa. Instead, Lessing abolishes the First World War.
Her father is not wounded in the trenches and enjoys a long life – in contrast to his real one, with a wooden leg. He becomes an English farmer, always his dream, and he marries not Emily but kind and pretty Betsy: "I enjoyed giving him someone warm and loving." Emily's life in this fiction is also more fulfilled. She does not experience the horror of nursing soldiers from the trenches, sometimes without morphine. Nor is she driven "pathetic, demented" by the constraints of life in the African bush, wasting her energy in "titanic" battles with her daughter. After a short marriage to a doctor, she is left a rich and childless widow, using her talents to set up schools for the poor. She is not a coloniser, but a philanthropist.
The second half is a memoir: of Alfred and Emily's actual lives together, farming unhappily in Southern Rhodesia. It is presented through their daughter's eye and fragmentary childhood episodes. But whereas the first part is a page-turning narrative, this is disjointed and edgy, with no clear framework. It is punctuated by diverse reflections on issues ranging from the glory of Russian fiction ("none of us has written anything as good as War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Dostoyevsky") to the problem of "minds rotted by TV or the Internet".
This difference in style between the two halves intensifies the contrast between the lives that might have been, and the sad reality – the tensions and difficulties not only of the Taylers' marriage, but of life in British Africa. The master-servant relationship, which provided the explosive core of Lessing's first novel, The Grass is Singing, reappears here as a matter-of-fact detail in colonial life, where grown men working as servants are called "boys". There is a category of meat called "boys' meat", which is "all kinds of scraps and bits and bones". From time to time, "complaints were made by the 'boys' that the dogs' meat was better than theirs".
Lessing left Southern Rhodesia in 1949, 16 years before Ian Smith's UDI. But the roots of minority rule had already been planted. "In any Southern Rhodesian town," she recalls, "the blacks were only allowed to stay if they had a job. This was the same policy as the infamous 'apartheid' of South Africa." In the Liberation War, she was "on the side of the blacks", while her brother supported the whites. But visiting the farm in the early Eighties, she is hurt when a "drunk black man, tall, very thin" accosts her, refusing to accept her memories of the place and her name for a tree. "Interesting," comments Lessing, "watching history being unmade, the past forsworn".
Robyn Scott's Twenty Chickens for a Saddle also recalls a girlhood in Africa, from the viewpoint of a woman in her twenties. By contrast with Lessing's book, it is not about colonial, but post-colonial Africa – in this case, Botswana, which borders Zimbabwe. But Botswana, shows Scott, is a country of hope. Her grandfather yells, "Land of opportunity... If you've got vision, you can do anything here. Democratic! Peaceful! Untapped!"
The book records Scott's 15 years in Africa, starting with her family's arrival from New Zealand in the late 1980s, when she was six. Her father Keith is a private doctor working in busy clinics, coping with the ravages of Aids; her mother Linda is a scientist, her career interrupted by children. They live in a converted cowshed in a small village, where Linda throws her energies into holistic medicine and home-schooling. The title refers to a project Scott is given by her parents, as a way of learning self-reliance: "Their jolly-well-do-it-yourself approach to life – the sell-eggs-to-buy-a-saddle philosophy."
Twenty Chickens for a Saddle is a fresh and enjoyable read, although there is a surfeit of crocodiles, snakes and witch doctors, as in many other memoirs of white childhoods in Africa. Scott does more than simply record her African adventures. She tackles the difficult issue of race, revealing a shift in white attitudes across the generations. Her grandmother, who grew up in Zambia when it was a British colony, opposes Linda's plan to educate her gardener: "he's your garden boy". Linda rejects this set of values and insists: '"GardenER, Mum'."
Botswana is largely "colour-blind", writes Scott. But she is suddenly exposed to white racism when the family move to a farm near the South African border. Here, in a community dominated by Afrikaans farmers, mixed-race dancing provokes disapproval. Scott's education in racism continues at a boarding school in Zimbabwe. In many adult white Zimbabweans, she discovers a racism lurking "just beneath the surface", bubbling up in bitterness: "Ruining their own country... happens every time in Africa". At Heroes' Acre, a monument to those who fell in the liberation struggle, Scott is appalled by "the years of white repression and brutality". For the first time, she feels "really white" and resents the weight of history: "I longed, silently, for Botswana."
Scott's great strength is to remind us that southern Africa has many different histories. Lessing's own, remarkable achievement is to question the inevitability of those histories. The very structure of Alfred and Emily brilliantly interrogates the shadow of empire and war – the contrast between what actually happened, and what might have been.
Susan Williams's 'Colour Bar' is published by Penguin