Classic book: Winter in July

Sarah Shoraka looks back at Winter in July by Doris Lessing

February 1, 2014 · 5 min read

Doris Lessing would not have approved of this review. In her autobiography she rails against the study of literature and literary criticism. She claims it is a barrier to would-be writers putting pen to paper. Lessing herself left school at 14 and was self-taught. She was a prolific writer with more than 50 books to her name on a myriad of topics using many different forms. The collection of short stories, entitled Winter in July, is not the first, the best, the most important or the most typical. However, it is one of her works that I keep coming back to and that I can’t seem to forget.

The collection takes South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as its backdrop. Indeed, Africa looms so large that it not only overshadows all the characters but almost becomes the protagonist itself, connecting all the stories with its magnetic power. The writing draws on Lessing’s childhood and life in her early twenties. When she was six, her parents moved to a farm in Southern Rhodesia. Here, her political education and beliefs were formed and she married and divorced twice and became a mother before leaving for the UK in 1949. Africa is not simply a pervasive atmosphere; it is a framework that Lessing uses to hang the theme of the collection, a theme that I would argue is the central one of her writing – the use and abuse of power.

Lessing’s critique of the exercise of power, and the way that it brutalises both the wielder and the one over whom it is exercised, does not simply extend to economic or class power but also race, age, political, religious, and sexual power. In this sense, it can be seen as anarchist. This is not surprising given that shortly before the collection’s publication she had left the British Communist Party, severely disillusioned after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, and the same year was banned from Southern Rhodesia and South Africa for campaigning against colonial rule and apartheid.

Lessing’s depiction of colonialism and apartheid in Winter in July seems at first startling as she chooses to depict white characters who are kind and on friendly terms with the black community. In ‘The Second Hut’, Major Carruthers is a ‘gentleman farmer going to seed’ who has ‘a hint of softness’ and a sick wife. He describes himself as ‘a good employer, proud of his reputation for fair dealing’ and deduces that his ‘simple human relationship with his workers was his greatest asset as a farmer’. Because of financial pressures Carruthers is forced to take on an assistant, an ‘Afrikaner’ man named Van Heerden, and feels obliged to take his side in a battle of wills between Van Heerden and the black workforce. This ends in tragedy arising from Van Heerden’s cruel treatment of the black workers.

In ‘Little Tembe’, Jane McCluster ‘likes nursing natives’ and throws herself into working in a clinic after her attempts to have a child fail. She saves the life of a baby named Tembi and lavishes him with extra privileges and attention – with devastating consequences. In ‘Leopard George’, George Chester employs his childhood friend Old Smoke as a head labourer. Their ‘great liking’ for each other is derailed when George begins sleeping with some of the black women in his compound, one of whom turns out to be Old Smoke’s wife.

The characterisation demonstrates how colonialism and apartheid infects every relationship and breaks down the very fabric of society and culture. Even those trying to do good or who see themselves outside colonialism are ultimately implicated in it. Lessing’s critique resists a reformist solution; just acts in an unjust regime cannot create lasting change.

Colonialism and apartheid are the major expressions of power and oppression in the book, but gender and class are often significant. In some stories there is a web of power relationships that never leaves the reader time to get comfortable in their position. In ‘The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange’, Mrs Gale has become accustomed to her lonely and unfulfilled existence as a farmer’s wife. The arrival of the De Wets as farm help throws her peaceful life into chaos as she projects her suppressed unhappiness onto the young wife. But she fails to acknowledge her privileged position, based on class and age, and her subsequent influence on the young girl.

There is an energy in these stories that is difficult to place. Is it the iconic nature of time and place coupled with Lessing’s unique gift for storytelling? Yes, but it is something more. Could it be the fierce anger that Lessing directs at colonialism or apartheid? Perhaps, but the stories are complex and rich and resist easy interpretation or obvious sympathies. Perhaps it is also the shifting perspectives that leave the reader dizzy and uncertain but hungry for more.

One of the things I love about Doris Lessing is that she resisted being labelled. Her work has been characterised as pioneering feminist, political, spiritual, even sci-fi, but she always kept moving and defying those interpretations. I think, for this reason, reading her work evokes in me an immense sense of freedom.

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