One glimpse of Lesley from the void of her pre-motherhood life comes from Under My Skin, an autobiographical work by Doris Lessing:
Then he might drive me to visit friends, for instance Jack Cope, the writer, and his wife Lesley. He was tall, dark and handsome. She was slim and blonde and beautiful. Both were then Party members. They took soapboxes to Market Square and made revolutionary speeches. They were a wild success, this beautiful couple, particularly Lesley, who was like a princess. The Comrades got sardonic pleasure out of the improbability of this very English middle-class couple on their soapbox. So did the Copes. So did everyone. They lived in a little flat at Sea Point, where from their windows they looked down at the sea sweeping in and out, not far from where I had been in that seedy hotel with the strings of coloured lights six years before.
The second hint comes from the even earlier time of Lesley’s pre-marital state. In Pauline Podbrey’s autobiography, White Girl in Search of the Party, I find the following:
It was Gunther who introduced me to Lesley de Villiers. ‘She’s a lovely girl,’ he enthused. ‘And she lives on her own in a flat in Broad Street. You two should get on well; she seems to share a lot of your ideas.’ This was intriguing and made me impatient to meet her. When I did, she measured up to all my expectations. Here was a girl my age, living alone and independent, earning a living as a hairdresser but finding time to upholster her chairs, sew her curtains, create lampshades and paint pictures. No one in our home made things with their hands – one didn’t count Mother’s cooking and baking and sewing – that was just woman’s work. Manual skill was despised and only intellect counted. Father couldn’t change a fuse but he wrote poetry; Joe didn’t know one end of a screwdriver from the other but he played an excellent game of chess. This was a legacy of the less attractive Jewish tradition, the Ghetto mentality which I despised, the Chasidic culture where women worked to support the men who spent their days and nights studying the holy scriptures.
I, who couldn’t even cook, admired Lesley for all the qualities I lacked – her skills, her artistic ability, her inde-pendence, her good taste in decoration, make-up, clothes. It was in Lesley’s flat that I first heard La ci darem la mano, on her wind-up gramophone and it struck me as right and proper that this heavenly duet should always be associated in my mind with her. Lesley was not only skilful and beautiful and independent but it soon emerged that she did indeed have left-wing views.
‘Where did you get them?’ I demanded arrogantly, knowing how rare it was find someone with my views among Natal whites. In this sphere at least I felt myself to be ahead of her. She didn’t bridle at my assumptions of superiority but explained with great good humour how she had been influenced since childhood by her adored elder cousin, Jack Cope, whose handsome likeness decorated her dressing table. ‘I’m going to marry him,’ she assured me matter-of-factly, and a few years later she did.
Lesley soon became a popular member of our group, courted by quite a number of the fellows. We would gather in her flat, listen to music, drink wine and talk, talk, talk. Henry Woolfson was one of her many admirers. He would stand in the middle of the room, cigarette in outstretched hand, swaying on his heels and dropping ash on the carpet, his eyes half closed and an inane grin on face. ‘For goodness’ sake, Henry,’ Lesley would scold him irritably, ‘can’t you use an ashtray?’ ‘Oh, sorry,’ Henry would mutter and reach for an ashtray. The next moment he was back on his heels, flicking ash on the floor.
A photograph of Pauline Podbrey and her family in Lesley’s old album finds its match in a small picture in White Girl, obviously taken in the same photo-session, and allows me to identify the people. They are H.A. Naidoo, Pauline and their daughters Karen and Sandra, ghosts from that invisible past.
By the time that Lesley arrived at Luitingh’s Guest Farm with her children, Pauline had long left the country for Budapest, where she and H.A. spent a confused and increasingly paranoid time as radio broadcasters for the Communist bloc, struggling with the contradictions involved in propagandising for freedom while enduring an increasingly authoritarian milieu.
Jack had been removed from the UK for his left-wing views in the early years of the war, before Stalin joined the Allies. He was branded a ‘security risk’ and this label stuck, preventing him, to his enormous relief, from enlisting. Lesley did indeed marry him ‘a few years later’. The marriage certificate shows she was nineteen on the day of the wedding. Jack had turned twenty-nine the day before. The year was 1942. The war had been going on for three years.
The person in Pauline’s work is a teenager then, perhaps as young as Pliny on that fateful day of the eruption, and I am left wondering how this young woman invented herself in so short a time, changing from a white boarding-school girl in 1930s Natal into a skilled, cultured aesthete with left-wing views. She didn’t get any of this stuff from her mother, Vere, whom I remember as conservative and not at all creative. Her father had died when she was seven. Her school, Escort High, under a Colonel Martin, was no nurturing-ground for bohemians.
Just how influential was the hand of her adored second cousin Jack, the urban sophisticate and Fleet Street reporter, in her growth? Was she escaping Jim Cunningham, the stepfather whose name appears as a witness to the marriage of his wife’s teenage daughter, but whose image does not appear in Lesley’s albums? How did she grow up so fast? Where is the current stereotype, the sulking and slouching teenager lurking in a darkened room? I do not know.