Reading The Golden Notebook During a Summer of Too Many Weddings
On Doris Lessing's Exploration of the "Free Woman"
There were too many weddings that summer. White weddings, gold weddings; weddings in village churches, on beaches, at woolen mills. Collectively, they seemed to go on for too long and to involve too much effort, whether it was the effort of the congregation to reach these much-loved remote places or the effort of the bride and groom to coordinate flowers, music, seating plans, personalized vows, homemade confetti and take-home marmalade. At all of them I chastised myself for my own mean-spiritedness and hypocrisy (I too am married, and once devoted a summer to it) but determined that at some point when not at a wedding I would work out why I minded it all so much.
I came closer to understanding my own truculence when I attended the wedding of a school friend while halfway through reading The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing’s 1962 exploration of the artistic and sexual life of a “free woman.” Lessing’s voice is powerful and it had taken hold of me, 50 years later, to the extent that it seemed to muffle the voices around me. I could hear her sentences in my ears as I sat below a hundred meters of tasteful Liberty print bunting that the bride, her sister and their mother (three intelligent and expensively educated women) had sewn by hand.
Troubled by the mental picture of a needle threaded, pulled through and along the fabric, back through, in again, back through, ad infinitum, I heard Lessing’s central character Anna Wulf’s pronouncement: “I am interested only in stretching myself, in living as fully as I can.” For Anna, living fully means living freely. She has been married, and is prepared to marry again, but she’s aware of the fragility of any relationship because love experienced authentically is dangerous. And she remains uncertain whether she’s willing to allow a sexual relationship to define her place in the world.
Thinking about her, I realized that my main objection to these weddings wasn’t a feminist one. I was certainly troubled by the ease with which we perpetuated the symbolism of the pallidly virginal bride being handed from one man to another, and perturbed in this case that it was the women who had done all that sewing. But it wouldn’t have been much better if the groom had taken up needlework as well. What I minded more strongly was the apparent assumption that this remained the only way to live. Weddings celebrated on this scale seemed to take for granted a happy-ever-after of decade after decade of safely monogamous marriage, with appropriate numbers of children born at appropriate intervals along the way. They ushered in a world where work was a means to the ultimate end of enjoyable family life; where love was the “love you” at the end of a phone call. I felt uncomfortable partly because it seemed to co-opt everyone in the room into this vision and this made me claustrophobic, needing urgently to insist on my right to live fully, without quite knowing what I would want that to entail.
Sitting under that tasteful bunting, I was talking to two school friends at a table that had been emptied as people headed towards the dance floor. I asked them what they felt about this industrious celebration of love and was relieved to find that they were skeptical too, though one of them was preparing to get married a few months later and was even (occasioning more irritation on my part) planning to change her name. We were all aware that this was not what we’d had in mind when we read Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence in adolescence, aware that we had once thought of love as something freer and more radical.
We remembered an evening during the summer of our A levels when the three of us had lain talking and drinking on the grass of one of their gardens and, as the sky darkened, each had confessed, to the surprise of the others, that we were still virgins. We had all had boyfriends, but we’d assumed an old-fashioned coyness in delaying the moment of deflowerment, partly out of fear and partly out of a reluctance to relinquish the independence of self-sufficiency, though I’m not sure we could have defined it so coolly at the time. Reared at a school where we’d been taught that girls could do everything and had no need of boys, we felt that there would be an element of self-betrayal involved in entering a state where we became dependent on the desire, approval and companionship of men.
As the band began to play in the adjoining room, I told them about The Golden Notebook; about Anna Wulf, who like us was in her mid-thirties, and her struggle to live as honestly as possible. I described what I saw as Lessing’s central dilemma, and how it had helped me to see in retrospect what it was that we had feared would be lost once we had succumbed to a life of sex with men.
“It seemed that Lessing was a writer to discover in your thirties; a writer who wrote about the lives of grown-up women with an honesty and fullness I had not found in any novelist before or since.”
Anna wants to be free, believes that she cannot thrive as a writer or a woman if she does not exist independently of her lovers. But she cannot be happy without the love of a man and she cannot love fully unless she relinquishes control enough to lose herself in him. Sexually, she wants to be created by his desire; to have the pleasurably overwhelming feeling of experiencing his body as hers. Emotionally, she wants both to depend on him and to be needed by him so that together they can feel the vulnerability required to be transfigured by love. She is aware that the price for this transfiguration could be a loss of freedom. Indeed, she’s prepared to accept that it might lead her to marry for a second time. Now, thinking about Anna as we rose to join the dancing, I thought that there might not be anything wrong with her acceptance of this, but that it was possible still to remember that it was a high price to pay, even while paying it, and that this required an ambivalence that seemed incompatible with all those meters of bunting.
This was the second time I had read The Golden Notebook. I read it for the first time as an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 1990s, when it did not make much impression on me. As a cheerfully capable 19-year-old student, I found Lessing’s heroine unnecessarily lugubrious and found the failure in connection that characterized her relationships alienating. This meant that I had been curious rather than excited when I started it again. After Lessing’s death, friends in their sixties and seventies had reminisced to me about what Lessing had meant to them in their twenties and thirties. The women had read about their most intimate experiences in print for the first time; the men had discovered how women talked about men when they were alone together. This had intrigued me enough to send me back to the novel but I was surprised when I found it immediately enticing. Anna Wulf ’s world had become easily accessible, despite the great differences separating her time from mine.
The failures, the longueurs, even the moments of stylistic ugliness, all now seemed bravely realistic. Arguably, you cannot describe the daily life of an intelligent heroine without describing moments of boredom, irritation and alienation. The politics no longer seemed as distancing as they had done either. Lessing was describing Anna’s commitment to communism as a personal leap of faith made by a woman desperate to believe that she can have some impact on her world. Anna, like her creator, was an idealist in an age when it appeared more possible to be idealistic than it ever had to me, one of “Thatcher’s children,” growing up in an era of PR-driven pragmatic politics.
It seemed that Lessing was a writer to discover in your thirties; a writer who wrote about the lives of grown-up women with an honesty and fullness I had not found in any novelist before or since. The questions troubling Anna were questions that troubled me: how as a writer to write stories you believe in while constructing books with a beginning, middle and end that people would actually want to read; how as a woman to reconcile your need to be desired by men with your wish for sexual equality; how to have the freedom of independence while also allowing yourself the freedom to go outside yourself through love; or how, in Lessing’s terms, to be a “free woman” who is also happy.
Lessing’s notion of the “free woman” is at once alluring and frightening, because her free women seem doomed to disappointment. Anna observes that “every woman believes in her heart that if a man does not satisfy her she has a right to go to another. That is her first and strongest thought, regardless of how she might soften it later out of pity or expediency.” This is freedom as sexual liberation; the kind of statement that the next generation of feminists took to be a sign of Lessing’s commitment to Women’s Lib. But if Anna is making the case for sexual promiscuity then she is making it inconsistently, because she is uneasily aware that in order to be satisfied she needs to be both desired and loved by a particular man.
She is convinced (and the sexual explicitness is astonishing, given that the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been lifted only two years earlier) that women can only have vaginal orgasms with what she terms “real men,” and only when those men are allowing the possibility of mutual love. This may sound unappealing, but although in Lessing’s formulation, real men are indubitably heterosexual, they are not quite as visibly macho as they might sound. They need not beat their chests or proclaim their sexual potency to the world; instead they need to be courageous in confronting the sexuality of women and loving and desiring them without fear. For Anna, such a man “from the whole of his need and desire takes a woman and wants all her response.” If The Golden Notebook became a bible for strident feminists haranguing increasingly frightened men, then it was a bible that castigated men for not desiring women enough. In a way, Lessing was asking for more physical objectification rather than less of it, although the bodily adoration had to be entwined with an appreciation of the woman’s mind.
“Lessing placed sexual fulfillment at the center of women’s lives, while at the same time insisting on the urgency of their need to distance themselves from the expectations created by their sexual roles.”
What was compelling here was that Lessing placed sexual fulfillment at the center of women’s lives, while at the same time insisting on the urgency of their need to distance themselves from the expectations created by their sexual roles. Anna in bed is a traditional creature who needs to lose herself on the tide of male desire. Anna out of bed is passionately determined that she cannot be defined in relation to her lover. A similar paradox is present in relation to Anna’s motherhood. There are moments when her daughter Janet is the center of her physical and emotional world, when her whole body responds to the girl’s smell and touch. But there are other times when she has to repudiate these feelings because she has to have a mental and bodily existence that is wholly independent of her child.
A significant element of my irritation that summer was frustration that the women I encountered at weddings seemed to define themselves foremost in relation to others. They began by identifying as part of a couple and then once a child arrived they identified themselves primarily as mothers. I often had a sense that their whole notion of life was now family life; that once the marriage had evolved to be more about triangular family love than sexual intimacy, all their need for intensity was fulfilled by their relationships with their children. And I half knew that I minded this so strongly because I was essentially one of them. Certainly I would look no different to the outside eye.
Of course, it was not this simple. Many of us were probably secretly imagining sex with men other than our husbands, or thinking about writing or painting something that could matter to us more than our children, or wondering how we might go about changing the world. But the point for me was that mothers with young children would rarely express this, or would only reveal it with guilt, where in The Golden Notebook Anna is completely open about the separation between her lives as a mother, lover and writer. This is in part the result of a compartmentalization that both Anna and her creator see as a fundamental problem of their society, but I think it’s more that she takes it for granted that in any moment she may be overwhelmed by feelings for the man she is in bed with or the book she is writing, to the extent that her love for her daughter recedes into the background. Similarly, however intense the love or the heartbreak she is experiencing in relation to a man may be, she is able to become an observer both of him and of herself when she sits down to write, moving fundamentally apart from him.
It seemed to me that Anna’s refusal to define herself primarily as a wife, mother or lover was a significant part of the audacity of The Golden Notebook. I was starting to feel that there was a world that Lessing’s generation and my feminist friends in their sixties and seventies had fought to bring into being that my generation seemed willing to let fall away. Crucially, this was a world in which it was more important to live fully than to live contentedly.
This doesn’t mean that I was reading The Golden Notebook without uncertainty. But it was uncertainty that Anna herself shared in the novel. It may make us uncomfortable to watch her spending a whole evening cooking a breaded veal escalope for a man whom she knows is about to leave her; who turns out not even to be intending to come to dinner. But it makes Anna uncomfortable too. She is worried both that in seeking happiness in this way she is making herself less free, and that if she does not allow herself to love like this she will not be able to enjoy the sex she has freed herself for in the first place.
It was because of her inconsistencies, rather than in spite of them, that reading about Anna had enabled me to see my own world more clearly. She had allowed me to see my own sense of the inextricable nature of body and mind, of the personal and the political, as the basis for thinking about life. She was helping me to understand the questions I needed to ask, even if I was no closer to knowing the answers. And so, as the weddings continued into the autumn, I continued to read Lessing.
My reading had become more systematic now, and I wanted to write about her. But I couldn’t yet imagine integrating my reading of Lessing into my life as an academic. This was the kind of urgent reading that was more characteristic of my book-fueled adolescence than of my professional life and the feelings it was stirring up in me felt too illicit to be categorized as work. My identification with her had a naivety of a kind that I would discourage in my students.
I was convinced that the ingenuous hunger that she was inducing in me as a reader was a sign of her power. It didn’t matter that her prose was uneven and that I was only occasionally seduced by her sentences. Many of them were rough-edged, workaday constructions, perhaps because Lessing like Anna Wulf distrusted surface beauty. If anything, though, the patchiness of the prose drew me in further, because it meant that I had to respond personally as well as aesthetically. It seems true of all the most enduring novelists, from Tolstoy to George Eliot to Lessing, that they illuminate our lives, and that we live differently as a result of reading them. It had been several years since I had encountered a novelist with this influence, or perhaps since I’d allowed myself to be shaped by fiction in this way.
From Free Woman: Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2018 by Lara Feigel.