Happy Families

Master Bones

Doris Lessing The Fifth Child
Paladin 1989 (1988)

A curious novella, this, and a horror story of sorts. Beginning in a Swinging-Sixties England — when David and Harriet meet and fall in love — it traces the story of how the couple attempt to set up a model suburban Happy Family in the face of disapproval from their own families who, irony of ironies, have their own problems of failed relationships. As Harriet and David produce four offspring one after another their large house becomes a popular venue for the extended family and friends during the long school holidays; with childcare help from Harriet’s mother and financial support from David’s father this otherwise unsustainable operation limps along from year to year. Until Harriet discovers she’s expecting a fifth child.


To say it proves a difficult pregnancy is a massive understatement. Lessing’s slow build-up emphasises the growing unease and near panic suffered by Harriet as she is pummelled from inside by the extraordinarily lively baby. When the child eventually emerges it proves the beginning of a prolonged nightmare for not only the nuclear family but also that extended community who were so tied up with the Lovatts every high day and holiday.

The whispered terms used to describe Ben emphasise his perceived nature — goblin, troll, changeling, Neanderthal — not only from his appearance but also his behaviour. He shows a propensity for menace, cruelty, maybe even violence. The exhausted Harriet wonders if he is a genetic throwback, a manifestation of atavism, but medics and social services wash their hands of responsibility. When familial pressure suggests he needs to go to a private institution Harriet reluctantly agrees; but will her primal maternal instincts kick in despite the evidence that Ben’s return to the household will threaten the mental and physical wellbeing of the others?

Horror often works best within the parameters of what is accepted as ‘normal’, and this is certainly the case here. This is not a tale to be enjoyed by expectant mothers or the sensitive: Lessing’s depiction of the suburban dream indicates that it cannot sustain such an abnormal stress. That we guess that all ends without resolution is not going to calm anybody’s nerves.

So what was Lessing’s purpose here? In a New York Times interview from 1988 — which I only read subsequent to the main part of this review — she candidly tells us that she hated writing it: “It was sweating blood. I was very glad when it was done. It was an upsetting thing to write – obviously, it goes very deep into me somewhere.” Later on she confesses that “I know where it comes from — my upbringing. That damn First World War, which rode my entire childhood, because my father was so damaged by it. This damn war rammed down my throat day and night, and then World War II coming, which they talked about all the time. You know, you can never get out from under this kind of upbringing, the continual obsession with this. And after all, it’s true. These wars did arise, and destroyed a beautiful household with all the loving children.”

So maybe the pain evident in the story is part of her attempt to write about the pain of a family being broken up by the obscenity of war. But it doesn’t stop it also being, in her own words, “a classic horror story.” Although we may have echoes of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1966) or even Ridley Scott’s film Alien (1979) the ideal home Lessing builds up only to knock down may with its different kind of resonance play on specific fears felt by the British middle class. A tale to be admired, maybe, rather than enjoyed.

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9 thoughts on “Happy Families

    1. “Chilling but admirable” — you’ve summarised exactly my thoughts on this, Sue, though it took me a few hundred words to come to the selfsame conclusion!

      1. I find I am best at short comments, I never seem to be able to write long pieces! But I try to capture the essence of something, succinctly!

  1. I probably won’t read this (horror is not my favorite genre), but it’s interesting to learn about this book after reading Jenny Diski’s series of memoirs in the LRB. Diski was partially raised by Lessing and proved to be a troublesome teen — she spent time in an “institution”, but I can’t remember if this was before or while she was under Lessing’s care. At any rate, I can’t help thinking that some of the unrecognized inspiration for Lessing’s book may have been her own experiences with Diski, which Diski describes as pretty awful.

    1. I’ve done some quick googling as a result of your fascinating comments, Lizzie. As far as I can see Diski’s institutionalising happened before she came to Lessing, but I may have read the sequence wrong. What you say about her being a ‘troublesome’ child sounds very likely as a notion that may have fed into The Fifth Child. I’ve just read a critical review of the sequel she wrote about a dozen years later (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/jun/17/fiction.dorislessing) in which we learn a bit about how Ben went off the rails, perhaps a parallel to Diski’s wild living after leaving Lessing.

      All very fascinating, but I can’t say I enjoyed the original (though it still haunts me) nor do I fancy reading the sequel. Thanks though for the background info — food for thought!

      1. Diski’s memoirs, recently published in toto, are definitely worth the read, not only to get another (biased) view of Lessing, but also because Diski herself writes beautifully. What a life she led!

  2. I dislike stories without a resolution – they are NOT true to life as so often claimed, because in life there is always a resolution of one kind or another. Nor can I empathise with her view that the memory of WW1 and living through WW2 could destroy a family built on a firm foundation. In the case of mine and many people I know, the impact was there but the effect wasn’t.
    Still, the book is a compelling read.

    1. “A compelling read”? Does that mean you’ve read it too? As Lizzie suggests above, it’s likely that some of the book was affected by Lessing’s guardianship of Jenny Diski. I wonder if Lessing chose not to resolve the plot because she had a sequel mulling in her mind. Not sure though that this is an excuse. However, I do know that I know that lots of things are not resolved in real life; in stories though we expect resolution, and lack of a resolution weakens a story.

      I don’t know enough about Lessing’s family history to talk about how it was affected by war. It’s probably something I’d need to look at in detail.

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