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The Grass is Singing


White mistresses and menservants
Doris Lessing Writer
Comments (1) Please sign in or register to add comments
Thursday, 05 September 2013 06:16 PM
High admiration for this vignette about how the society under the British Empire and the servants...
High admiration for this vignette about how the society under the British Empire and the servants were treated. Additionally adding that in Rhodesia they used male servants and explaining what it was culturally for an African man to take orders from a woman. One sees, feels and hears the shame. Many still try to deflect this history or justify it.

So once again I'd far more money doing that, so with this money I started to write a book in the afternoons. At that time I had a child as well, but luckily he was a very good child, who never cried. So, I wrote The Grass is Singing, and there were problems about... I remember thinking, what was I going to write, because I had far too much material. You know, my... even as innocent as I was, I realised my life had been quite amazing; I had all that stuff, I didn't know how to attack it.

So I... I had this little cutting from a newspaper which went something like this... The Rhodesia Herald, one of the world's great newspapers: last week in so-and-so, the cook of so-and-so murdered his mistress and is now awaiting, whatever – hanging, presumably – and no one knows why he committed this crime, that was the thing that got to me. So that is why I took that, because I knew perfectly well why he had committed this crime because of my upbringing. No one now can believe the... what it was like. For example, on the next farm there was a woman who was gossiped about because she would allow her cook-boy to button up the back of her dress and to brush her hair. Now, this is so appalling, I cannot begin to tell you what a violation this was of... of our behaviour, I mean, you couldn't do that. It was so awful, you could hear the voices hushed... as the story went around the verandas: she allows him to button up her dress! This kind of thing.

Well, I thought this a perfectly good reason why, if one minute she was... he was buttoning up her dress and brushing her hair, if she then behaved as white mistresses behaved towards their servants. It was perfectly obvious to me why it had all happened: she had treated him like a friend, and then started treating him like a servant. And believe me, they treated them abominably. Not because they meant to... they're stupid... stupidity, like most of these things.

These... there was a saying, or it was said, that the white women didn't know how to treat their servants, and it was obviously a sex thing – hidden, of course: it was because here is... in African culture for a woman to tell men what to do was impossible. Yet all these houses had menservants, not female, as they would have in South Africa; they were all menservants. All these menservants had white mistresses who always spoke to them in a kind of high, harassed angry voice, because they didn't know how to talk to them. They couldn't talk to them like people, because that was impossible, so they had this – God, that voice, I can sometimes hear it – it's a dreadful, peevish voice, in which all these poor black servants were spoken to; this is how they spoke to them. I'm not going to try and imitate it, just not spread the virus of horror. Anyway, this... you'd listen to this and you'd curl up with shame.

Anyway, so this is why Mary Turner was murdered, and I... perfectly obvious to me why it was. So I thought, but first I'm going to have to leave that at that point and say I wrote two books before that.

British writer Doris Lessing (1919-2013) was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her novels include 'The Grass is Singing', 'The Golden Notebook', and five novels collectively known as 'Canopus in Argos'. She was described by the Swedish Academy as 'that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny'. Lessing was the 11th woman and the oldest ever person to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: The Grass is Singing, Rhodesia Herald, South Africa, Mary Turner

Duration: 4 minutes, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2007

Date story went live: 21 October 2011