The sweetest dream : Lessing, Zimbabwe and Catholicism

03 May 2016

In her later work, Lessing refers frequently, if in passing, to Roman Catholicism, often as part of her growing interest in spirituality, which began while she was writing The Golden Notebook. Some of these references are in the accounts of her travels in Zimbabwe, but they are also to be found in her autobiographies, reviews and occasional journalism. Because of their frequency, she cannot be regarded as entirely indifferent to the church. A valid line of enquiry into Lessing’s work asks whether her dislike for the church, formed during her traumatic four years as a young child in the Salisbury convent, remained her dominant impression, or whether in later life she found in Catholicism, particularly in Zimbabwe, an institution that invited more complex responses. An answer is provided in The Sweetest Dream, her last long novel that deals directly with Africa. The novel is partly set in Zimlia, a country that clearly suggests Zimbabwe. It avoids representing Catholicism and traditional spirituality as antagonistic; the complex plotting at its end rejects a confident division between the sacred and the secular, and suggests that, although Catholicism is on the whole a force for good, its powers in Zimlia are limited, confronted as the church is by the literal epidemic of AIDS and the power of traditional spirituality. One possible reading suggests that this latter power prevails.