NL 2013/11

From Mrs. Skeffington and Many Other Women (and Men): Thank You, Doris Lessing!

Doris Lessing (1919-2013) dealt with so many important themes in her rich body of works, one has almost been forgotten: the criminalisation of abortion. In her autobiographical 'In Pursuit of the English', published in 1960, she described the fate of her neighbour Mrs. Skeffington, a genteel woman, neglected by her husband, who mistreats her own child. After becoming pregnant once again, she tries everything possible to induce a miscarriage. Consulting a doctor isn’t possible: abortion was illegal in Great Britain until 1967 (1975 in Austria).

“One morning I heard a crash outside my door. Mrs Skeffington had thrown herself down one flight of stairs, was on the point of flinging herself down a second. ‘Leave me alone,’ she muttered, and before I could stop her, she launched herself into space again. On the landing below she picked herself up, slowly, slowly, gasping and pale. ‘That ought to shift it,’ she said, with an attempt at a smile, and dragged herself, breathing heavily, up the stairs to Rosemary.”

Lessing wants to intervene, but the other residents of the working-class boarding house in London stop her:

“How about a doctor for Mrs. Skeffington?”

“My Lord, are you crazy, do you want her to go to prison?”

“She might die!”

“She won’t die. There’s a time for doctors. Mrs. Skeffington’s managed without, and good luck to her, and I didn’t think she had that much fight in her. But you call a doctor now, sweetheart, and you’ll do for her, you will really.”



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