In the mid-1960s, David and Harriet spot each other across the room at their office Christmas party and know immediately that they are meant for one another. They stand at the outskirts of the crowded room, quietly dismayed at the noise and the attention-seeking gestures of their coworkers, noting that their grins could just as easily be grimaces of pain. Harriet, when viewed from across, the room forms little more than a pastel blur: unfashionable, stern, a body better suited for gardening than dancing. David, an observer, watches curiously as couples come together on the dance floor and separate. He is handsome enough to have lured girls’ attention before, but his evaluative gaze eventually puts them off. Harriet is a graphic designer in the sales department and David is an architect.
The first thing readers learn about David and Harriet is that they met in a fateful way, drawn together because they feel like outsiders in their work environment. The pair, despite the pragmatism that prevents them from enjoying the party, fall immediately under the sway of idealism, believing in love at first sight. The details given about the characters establish their ways of being, rather than just their appearance. Harriet is grounded and severe, while David is observant if a bit anxious. From their professions, we come to understand that David has a more advanced position at the company.
Harriet and David are well-matched because of their antiquated ideas of sex in the 1960s: David has had only one affair with a woman he didn’t like, who believed he was trying to reform her. She said, “I do believe you imagine you are going to put the clock back, starting with me!” After they parted ways, David found himself disappointed to learn that she had slept with most of the firm. At the party, David watches as she blows him taunting kisses from the dance floor, and he smiles back, not regretting his decision.
The story is set in during the sexual revolution, when norms about sex were changing quickly. Within this frame, David and Harriet are notably inexperienced. David’s one previous girlfriend felt that David was trying to change her into a more chaste being. Instead of succeeding, David learns his attempt has had the opposite effect: she sleeps with many other people in the firm, marking the first instance of a character trying to change another and failing.
Harriet, a virgin, has been teased by her friends for seeing her virginity as a present she might give to a carefully chosen partner. She dislikes that promiscuity has become common and she blames women especially for what she sees as their acts of immorality. Harriet is well aware that those same girls are saying of her, “It must be something in her childhood that’s made her like this. Poor thing.” Indeed, Harriet wonders if there’s something wrong with her because of the number of men unwilling to put up with her refusal. She spends time with a younger girl friend until that friend, too, loses her inhibitions. Harriet decides she is a misfit and seeks reassurance from her mother who confirms that Harriet is old-fashioned and that other girls would love to be like her.
Similarly to David, Harriet is considered prudish for her time and her friends tease and ostracize her for her old-fashioned ways. As the girls attempt to understand Harriet by guessing that something must have happened in her childhood to stunt her sexual development, Lessing introduces the powerful effects of one’s upbringing on their adult personality. Harriet’s mother’s reassurance that the girls’ judgment of her was rooted in jealousy foreshadows the way Harriet and David assume others are jealous of them as the novel progresses.
Harriet and David spot each other and begin their approach at precisely the same moment, moving to another room where they find a seat and talk to each other hungrily. They then retire to his apartment where they lay on his bed, kissing, talking, holding hands and then falling asleep.
David and Harriet moving toward each other at the same time establishes the even balance of power between them at the beginning of the novel. The innocent way they spend their night further shows how deeply rooted their ideals are.
Harriet moves into David’s flat right away and they decide to marry in the spring, believing they’re meant to be. It is revealed that Harriet grew up one of three daughters, to parents Harriet is proud to say never divorced. She expects to spend her life raising a family instead of being a career woman. David’s parents, however, had divorced when he was seven, and David felt split between his homes. His mother, Molly, had remarried an academic, Frederick—both are “kind, if remote,” and they live in Oxford. David spent most of his childhood with his mother, calling his room in her house his truest home. His wealthy father, James, had remarried wealthy Jessica and he lives the life of a jetsetter, relocating regularly. The division between his parents has caused David to envision a very different, stable family life for his own children.
Harriet and David move at an accelerated pace, right away, committing to each other and forming a family of their own, without taking much time to make sure they are making the right decision. In learning about their upbringings, it becomes clear that, though they had quite different family lives, they both arrived at a desire for the same ideal: a strong, intact family life. This result both affirms the triumph of nurture over nature and denies it, providing reasoning in the way they were nurtured for what they desire in their lives, but also indicating that two very different ways of being nurtured ended in the same result. Perhaps this suggests the possibility of an innate desire born into both individuals.
The house they find outside of London is enormous, three stories, and perfect for a very large family, which, it turns out, is exactly what they both want. They want as many as six kids, a truth they know they should keep to themselves for fear of judgment. The home is too expensive for them, but they decide to proceed, agreeing they’ll manage somehow. They’ll have to wait a couple years to begin having children, ensuring their double income until David moves up the payscale enough in his architecture firm to pay their mortgage alone.
The house David and Harriet decide to purchase is the clearest symbol of the idealist family life they hope to create. Despite the house being too expensive for the couple, they follow their ideals and decide to purchase it anyway, trusting that somehow they will make it work. They try to balance this idealism with the pragmatic plan to work for a while before having children to ensure their financial safety.
On the day the sale closes, Harriet and David wander the house, admiring every small detail and planning their life. They spend the day making love in their bedroom despite not having contraceptives with them. Harriet notes that David seems to be making love with purpose, and by the end of the day, they’re certain they’ve conceived. When night falls, it feels as though the room has changed into a cave, and that Harriet doesn’t actually recognize David. He quiets her with a surprisingly strong grip, and they wait for the ordinariness to slowly return to the room.
As soon as the house is theirs, Harriet and David abandon their pragmatic plan to wait to have children. When the room changes into a cave and David becomes suddenly strange and unusually strong, the reader becomes aware of Harriet’s tendency toward anxiety and apprehension, as well as David’s ability to be firm. This also foreshadows the strained atmosphere that develops much later in the novel.
It is confirmed that Harriet is pregnant and Harriet and David worry about how they’ll pay their bills, and also how they’ll be judged for having taken this responsibility on. David knows he could ask his father for money, but he never has before, unlike his sister who preferred his father’s lifestyle. One afternoon, Molly and Frederick visit, surprised at the size of the house and at the large family that David and Harriet have planned. At dinner, Molly notes that they’ll have to ask for help from James, which David finds uncomfortable to think about, but knows to be true. Molly comments that raising children is a lot of work, and David says it will not be so bad for Harriet as it was for Molly because Harriet is maternal, a slight Molly takes with a grain of salt.
David and Harriet, despite knowing the likelihood of pregnancy based on their actions, are somewhat overwhelmed by their deviation from their pragmatic plan. Molly and Frederick appear as voices of staid pragmatism, calling out the obvious fact that they’ll need financial help and assistance with raising the children. Harriet and James, rather than seeing this as a voice of supportive concern, take these recommendations as judgments and they strike back defensively instead of reflecting on their choices.
Molly suggests that James should visit, and soon afterwards he arrives with his wife, Jessica. They stand outside the house with David and Harriet evaluating it. James confirms the house is a good price probably because it’s too big for most people. He offers to take on the payment of the 30-year mortgage, admitting that he didn’t give the couple much of a wedding present. Jessica reminds James they’ll have to give something of equal value to David’s sister Deborah, but James says they already have, and that, anyway, they have more than enough money. Jessica laughs at this and David acknowledges that he’ll now be beholden to the wealth that he’s otherwise rejected in his life. Jessica asks how many children they plan to have and jokes about how it wouldn’t be her choice.
The way James and Jessica react to the house, as compared to the way Molly and Frederick responded, is important to note because it is closer to the response David and Harriet were looking for: praise for the investment they’ve made, financially and in their future, though Jessica seems put off by the size of the family they hope to have. James and Jessica also introduce the importance of nurturing both their children equally in acknowledging that a gift to one child should be balanced with a gift to the other. David accepts the offer, as reluctant as he is to owe his father any credit for their happiness.
Harriet and David assume that Harriet’s mother, Dorothy, a widow, will agree to live with them and help Harriet with childcare. Dorothy appears immediately judgmental of the size of the house, though she keeps her opinion to herself for several days. She had a hard time raising her three daughters with her husband in a house where there was never enough money, and she knows “the cost, in every way, of a family, even a small one.” One evening, Dorothy sits the couple down to warn them against rushing into everything. She observes that the young couple is behaving as though they might lose anything they don’t pin down right away. Harriet and David agree that this is their point of view. Bad news plays on the radio behind this discussion. Dorothy begs them to reconsider, saying that sometimes David and Harriet scare her.
Harriet’s only parent, Dorothy, more closely matches Molly and Frederick’s surprise at the house’s opulence, but it’s important to note that Dorothy keeps this opinion to herself for days. Dorothy is a measured woman, careful to express herself clearly and think carefully about what she decides to speak up about and what to keep quiet on. Like Molly, she recognizes the hard work that goes into raising a family, especially because their income never quite matched their expenses. Dorothy’s concern over their hasty decision making in essence is asking the couple if they might be content with what they have for a moment, rather than grabbing for more and more.
Harriet argues that in some countries, large families are not nearly so rare and David agrees. Dorothy counters this by saying that people in poorer countries expect half their children to die and don’t need to worry about educating them, and rich people can have lots of children because they have the money for it, but middle-class people must be careful to have only as many children as they can properly support. In her eighth month of an uncomfortable pregnancy, Harriet worries aloud about why she and David are always criticized, and Dorothy, sensitive to having offended her daughter, mentions that at the beginning of the last war, people said it was irresponsible to have children at all, but she had them anyway, and David and Harriet find themselves vindicated.
In this interaction, Dorothy identifies the way that David and Harriet contradict themselves in having bought a house that is beyond their means while also wishing for the simple life of people who live outside the realm of a more formal society. She predicts that the decisions Harriet and David have made so far are not anomalous, but predictive of the way they’ll proceed with their choices, and she forewarns the pair to reconsider what is most important to them. In the end though, Dorothy is able to identify, in her own life, a precedent for the way Harriet and David ignore the advice of others.
Just after Christmas in 1966, Harriet gives birth to Luke in the family bed. He’s a good-natured baby who is easy to care for. David and Harriet grasp this new version of their happy family possessively. Right away, the house becomes a hub of family life, drawing family for a long visit around Easter including David’s father, his mother and her husband, and Harriet’s sisters Angela and Sarah and their families. It’s clear to all that Harriet’s family is of a lower class than David’s. The big dining room table attracts people day and night, and the house is filled with laughter that thrills the young couple. Harriet and David keep it secret that they are pregnant again, despite their plans to wait before having more children.
Harriet and David’s idealism is rewarded with a well-behaved first child and they desire to show off the perfection of their family life by inviting the extended family over for the holiday. While those present come from different backgrounds, everyone gets along quite well, a success that Harriet and David take personal credit for while not allowing this praise to be tainted by the judgment that might come from revealing that they’ve abandoned pragmatism again and become pregnant a second time.
When Harriet and David tell Dorothy shortly after, she takes the news quietly, acknowledging that they’ll continue to need her help. Harriet is, again, uncomfortable and she vows to wait longer before their third child. The same guests from Easter arrive to celebrate Christmas for some ten days, including some additional family and friends, and they all agree that Harriet and David have a gift for hosting. David’s sister Deborah also arrives, unmarried, normally not fond of family gatherings like this, but drawn in by this one. Neighbors appear at the party, but the sense of familial bonds pushes them away, and Harriet and David’s values are reinforced by this effect.
Again, Dorothy withholds her judgment, instead focusing on the pragmatics of what the situation will require of her. Harriet, still blind to her insatiable idealism, promises to wait before having the next child, but a pattern has been established. Deborah provides a counter to the family life created here, as she lives the wealthy, single life of a jetsetter. Even Deborah, though, is not immune to the charms of the Lovatt house, which further confirms for David and Harriet that they’re doing the right things.
The second child, Helen, is born in the family bed, too, in 1968. Helen moves into the baby room attached to Harriet and David’s bedroom, and Luke is moved to the next room over. Despite Harriet’s fatigue, she insists the extended family visit for Easter—Dorothy and Harriet’s sisters must do the work of hosting. That summer of 1968, the house is full of visiting family and friends. Guests offer to contribute to the costs, but it’s never quite enough because they’re aware that the Lovatts receive financial help from James. In truth, money is always tight. Harriet’s sister, Sarah, casts a shadow on the atmosphere by quarreling with her husband, William. A divorce is not possible because they’re expecting their fourth child, though.
Harriet again exhibits her idealism in insisting that the family visit for Easter and the summer holidays despite how tired she is. She assumes that her mother and sisters will take up the work of hosting so that she might enjoy the festive atmosphere without having to do much of the labor herself. David must ask James for even more money, rather than ruin the illusion that the Lovatts are prosperous enough to host guest all this time. A precedent is set for a child being born in less than ideal circumstances in the discord established between Sarah and William, as well as the idea of a family staying together because of hard times, rather than being pulled apart by them.
Christmas and Easter are again celebrated by the larger family. Sarah’s daughter Amy is born with Down Syndrome, confirming that Sarah and William must stay together to properly care for their children. Dorothy wishes there were two of her so she might help both Sarah and Harriet, and occasionally she leaves the Lovatt house to help Sarah instead. Harriet and David’s third child, Jane, is born in the family bed in 1970. Dorothy scolds Harriet and David for moving too quickly and all of the children shift down a room to make room for the new baby. David and Harriet are blissful; they believe their happiness is “what they had chosen and what they deserved.”
Sarah and William provide a counter to the Lovatt’s situation in that they don’t have the option of obtaining financial help from anyone else, and so must remain together to provide for their increasingly demanding family. The birth of perfect Jane in contrast to Amy provides an opportunity for Harriet to affirm her thinking that lives are decided only by choice and not chance, implying that her sister’s daughter being born with a disability was what her sister deserved.
David fails to receive the promotion he expected he’d get. William also loses his job. Sarah jokes that she and William get all the bad luck, but Harriet mentions to David that she doesn’t believe it’s bad luck. Instead she thinks that Amy was born with Down Syndrome because of Sarah and William’s constant fights. David criticizes this fatalistic line of Harriet’s thinking. Crime has increased in the small town over the past five years. Gangs of disrespectful youths hang about cafes in town, brutal crimes and burglaries have become more common. Harriet and David force themselves to read the news, but would prefer to remain safe and sequestered in the unaffected sanctuary of their home.
If Harriet really believed her ideas on people receiving their just deserts, then David’s failure to get the promotion he was seeking must indicate that they’ve earned a bit of bad fortune themselves, but the situation is still comparatively good, so Harriet blinds herself to this fact. Because William has lost his job, Harriet continues to see Sarah as the unlucky one, punished for her inability to remain civil with her husband. The mood in the surrounding area begins to become sinister in the way news of the outside world seeps into the well-sealed utopia of the house, despite Harriet and David’s best efforts to keep it out.
In early 1973, the fourth child, Paul, is born in the house after another uncomfortable pregnancy. The family visits for Easter and stays for three weeks, and James needs to write an additional check to pay for it. The children move into one room to make space for guests, and Dorothy wonders why the children couldn’t always stay together. David refuses this idea, insisting, “everyone should have a room,” and the family bristles at this odd sticking point in his vision for happy family life. Angela, Harriet’s other sister, admits that she feels that Sarah and Harriet use all of Dorothy’s time and leave none for her. Sarah feels the need to hide little Amy behind a blanket because the sight of her upsets people. Harriet is irritable because she is overtired.
Paul, of course, is the analogous child to Sarah’s fourth child, Amy, and so when he is born happy and healthy, David and Harriet feel affirmed that they’re undeserving of any of the bad luck that Sarah and William have experienced. David’s insistence that everyone have a room is tied to his belief that his one true home as a child was his childhood bedroom, rather than either of his parents’ houses as a whole. Resentment is finally made plain in the way that Harriet and Sarah use up Dorothy’s time leaving none for the third sister, an indication of the limited resources a parent can provide. This is the first indication that Harriet, previously cheery, is allowing her irritation to show through plainly.
William speaks up, saying what the rest of the family is thinking: that Harriet and David should stop having children. Harriet says they plan to wait three years to continue growing their family, but insists that this is the type of life most people want. It’s just that they’ve been “brainwashed out of it.” James says that the idea of family life being best is antiquated, but Harriet questions why he wants to spend time with them if that’s the case. David’s young cousin, Bridget, the product of a complicated family life, says she hopes for the same type of family life when she gets older. The family carries on fighting about whether the Lovatt children will be educated privately or publicly. James vows to help with those costs within limits. Eventually, the family gives up on convincing Harriet and David and they go for a picnic.
The frank conversation goes on when William, whom the rest of the family sees as being far from an ideal husband and father, advises Harriet and David to stop having children because they might be tempting fate to give them a child with some issues similar to what his daughter Amy experiences. James and Harriet argue in favor of the family life that the rest of them seem to enjoy fine until its threatened by the increasing demands on people’s time and finances. Bridget provides an outside perspective on the dynamics of the family, convinced that she wants a similar life for herself, not having been made privy to any complications.
The family visits again for summer. Bridget is present again, soaking in the idyllic atmosphere of the family, and David and Harriet recognize, almost uneasily, their excessive happiness. They justify this feeling by believing that life is this happy if the right choices are made. Before Christmas, Harriet finds out she is pregnant with a fifth child, to the couple’s dismay, despite their efforts against it. Dorothy is away helping Sarah and her children, and though Harriet has tried out three different girls as helpers, none of them has worked out well. Harriet complains that she thinks the new fetus might be poisoning her. Dorothy, despite her condition, begs David to host Christmas again because it’s easier when she has help around. David worries about the cost of having company over again, despite his having taken on extra work to cover their expenses.
It is significant that David and Harriet begin to become uneasy about their happiness when they allow themselves to look on their situation from the outside. When living purely in the moments created in the family, the bliss is overwhelming, causing confusion when they feel judged by others for their happiness. When they allow themselves to look at their lives through Bridget’s eyes, though, they see that at some point their happiness must have a peak. It’s this awareness of the expiration date on their ecstatic joy that underlies Harriet’s belief that there is something wrong with this fetus. Again, rather than pulling back on the reins of their aspirational happiness, they double down on their idealism by deciding they’ll host Christmas, despite the strain it will put on the family.