After watching a couple of films, Chocolat (1988) and White Material (2009), directed by Claire Denis, a French director who spent part of her childhood in colonial West Africa, I went in search of more information about the films' settings. In doing so, I discovered an interview with the director saying that the latter was inspired by Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing.
The novel is set in rural, 1940s Rhodesia, although confusingly the setting is referred to as ‘South Africa’ throughout. Lessing said in an interview that there wasn’t “very much difference between the Rhodesian experience and the South African experience,” although, “The Grass is Singing is very Rhodesian because it was based on the life of the district which I was brought up in.”
The focus of the novel is on Mary Turner, whom we discover at the outset of the novel has been murdered at the hands of her houseboy, Moses. The first chapter deals with the people of the district’s response to the murder and discusses the idea of whether or not they were ‘poor whites’ – a difficult concept for the racially segregated society presented to deal with.
Furthermore, in the opening exchanges, the moral and racial complexity of her murder is hinted in “the way they pitied Dick Turner [her husband] with a fine fierce indignation against Mary as if she were something unpleasant and unclean".
The narrative then moves backwards to start to unpick Mary’s character. She is initially presented as an emotionally isolated character whose life has seemingly begun to pass her by without prospect of marriage, children, or any form of long-term plan to become a 'real' Southern African woman. One evening, she hears a group of her friends mocking her for still being a spinster, and, bowing to pressure, she hastily marries struggling Rhodesian farmer, Dick.
Having lived most of her adult life in an urban setting, with only fellow whites around her, she struggles to fit into a rural society that feels so alien to her. The reliance on black ‘native’ labour to run the farm and the invasive presence of the other whites in the district community both go against the fiercely independent spirit that she has built up during her spinsterhood.
The inherent racism in Mary’s character comes to the fore once she moves the farm and can be shocking to a modern reader. Either way, it greatly juxtaposes with the productive, albeit still exploitative, relationship Dick shares with African farm workers.
During the few bouts of illness that Dick suffers, Mary takes the reigns of the farm. The change from her usually mundane life reinvigorates her, but when Dick recovers, she slips back to her normal life and eventually into a state of depression and vulnerability. It is at this time that a worker, Moses, assumes the role of a houseboy as she becomes increasingly dependent on him. The reader knows how this arrangement is destined to end from the first page of the novel.
The novel is a close examination of many of white colonial society’s great fears, most notably the corruption of the white community’s ‘purity’ and thus cohesion. Many characters take on allegorical roles during the novel: neighbouring farmer Charlie Slatter becomes the embodiment of white colonial society, Dick the hardworking white farmer, Mary someone who transgresses the norms of colonial society, and Moses the threat posed to the colonial society by 'natives'.
Lessing is undoubtedly trying to address what she saw as an unjust society, whereby white males believed themselves to possess all of the power, but critics have argued that this isn’t enough. Some say that Lessing perpetuates the colonial stereotypes: Mary, the character ‘corrupted’ by a black man, dies; Moses, a black African man, is presented as a criminal. Whether one agrees with either perspective is down to the individual reader.
The Grass is Singing is a fantastic novel, one that raises many more questions than it answers about colonial society and is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the representation of Southern African society pre-Independence.
This review owes a great deal to the scholarly work of Bridget Grogan in her article "(Im)purity, Danger and the Body in Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing" published in English Studies in Africa (v. 54 p31-42). This article helped to clarify my personal confusion over exact location and some of the more complicated allegorical meanings of the text.