Women against Men

Anita Brookner

  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
    Joseph, 638 pp, £9.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 7181 0970 8

The Golden Notebook takes one back not only in time but in consciousness. It is just 20 years old, and yet, reread from the standpoint of 1982, it seems to belong to an immensely confusing period, weighed down by the anxieties of a decade that now seems remote, incomprehensible to those for whom the Sixties signify permissiveness, euphoria, liberty, and pleasure. It reminds us, among other things, that the Sixties inherited the dilemmas of the Fifties, surely the dreariest decade this century, and made an all too conscious attempt to bury them. Reading The Golden Notebook when it first appeared, I remember being impressed by its entirely grown-up seriousness; it connected in my mind with its not dissimilar counterpart in France, Simone de Beauvoir’s Les Mandarins. Both were concerned, overwhelmingly, with the lives led by thinking women, in and out of politics; both had to do with loyalty, disillusion, the fragmentation of beliefs formerly held to be indissoluble, and the effects of such fragmentation on the personality. More significantly, both had to do with the paradox of the thinking woman’s attitude to love and expectation in her personal life, and it is salutary, and not a little shocking, to reflect on how much has been gained, and how much more lost, in the 20 years of The Golden Notebook’s history.

The Golden Notebook sets out to be a Bildungsroman, and an attempt to give an accurate picture of mid-20th-century England, much as Le Rouge et le Noir and Anna Karenina had set out to do for the France and the Russia of their time. This is Doris Lessing’s explicit intention. In a confused and defensive preface, written for the edition of 1972, she states her dissatisfaction with the English tradition and asserts that no 19th-century novel by an English writer could claim the same sort of success as that enjoyed by Stendhal and Tolstoy. George Eliot, she finds, is disqualified by her morality.

Doris Lessing is a pioneer of feminist self-consciousness in its raw state, and the very rhythm of her remorseless, circular and outstandingly honest narrative reflects the essentially inward-looking perceptions of a woman, as opposed to the linear undertakings of a man. Therefore, instead of writing an up-to-date version of The way we live now, she has produced a seminal, almost a clinical work, a novel, perhaps, but certainly not a fiction, in which the heroine represents all that is most terrifying about the female archetype. And having isolated and delineated that archetype, she establishes it as an entity from which latterday feminists fearfully, hastily, and perhaps cleverly, have done their best to depart. It is an archetype which has as much to do with Freud and Breuer as with the brave new woman fashioned by Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan: yet the liberated woman of today must still contend with it, and measure her success in terms of her ability to do so.

The Golden Notebook was written at a time when women were beginning to have ambitions for self-realisation that came into conflict with their traditional roles. It was a time before instructions had been issued on how to combine domestic happiness with career expectations. But by the same token, the desperation of that edict – only combine! – had not yet come to dominate a woman’s thinking to the exclusion of other relevant factors in the case. The women in The Golden Notebook work because they are independent and slightly eccentric and because it is therefore natural and indeed necessary for them to conduct their lives in this manner. They also need the money, because they are spectacularly unsuccessful at being wives, mothers and mistresses. They attach no emblematic or suffragist importance to the fact that they work and maintain themselves, and, to state the position fairly, they hardly work at all by today’s standards: Anna, the heroine, is a writer, and her friend Molly is a small-time actress. These two women have a strong and rueful friendship and are never more united than when pointing out the shortcomings of a particular man. In the opening chapter of the book their chosen victim is Molly’s former husband, Richard, a vaguely plutocratic figure. They laugh at him: he, quite simply, fails to understand them.

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