Doris Lessing’s If the Old Could…

Diaries of Jane Somers Doris LessingIn the early 1980s, Doris Lessing published two remarkable novels under the name Jane Somers, The Diary of a Good Neighbor and If the Old Could...

“I have been thinking about writing a pseudonymous novel for years.  Like, I am sure, most writers.  How many do?  It is in the nature of things that we don’t know.  But I intended to come clean from the start, only wanted to make a little experiment,” Lessing wrote  in the preface of the paperback edition,  The Diaries of Jane Somers, which was published after she admitted to the authorship,

She said she wanted to be reviewed on merit, and hoped it would be a freeing experience to write pseudonymously.

And it did turn out that as Jane Somers I wrote in ways that Doris Lessing cannot.  It was more a question of using the odd turn of phrase of an adjective to suggest a woman journalist who is also a successful romantic novelist:  Jane Somers knew nothing about a kind of dryness, like a conscience, that monitors Doris Lessing whatever she writes and whatever style.

Indeed, few recognized Jane Somers as Doris Lessing.  Her British publishers, Cape and Granta, rejected Jane Somers’ novels, though Robert Gottleib of Knopf in New York immediately knew it was Lessing and asked, “Who are you kidding?”  According to the dust jacket bio, Jane Somers was a well-known woman journalist.  Reviewers didn’t look beyond that.

Last year I wrote briefly about The Diary of a Good Neighbour, which I consider the better novel of the two.  The middle-aged narrator, Janna, a women’s magazine editor and romantic novelist, befriends Maudie, a woman in her nineties, and their difficult friendship changes her ideas about obligations to the elderly.  She does more for Maudie than she did for her own mother.

Doris Lessing, the 1980s

Doris Lessing, the 1980s

In If the Old Could…, Janna, now in her fifties, still at the magazine, has no time for romance.  Masturbation has been sufficient for her sexual needs since her husband Freddy’s death years ago.  But as the novel opens, she falls into a romance. When she steps off a train and catches her foot in the gap, an attractive man catches her and she finds herself lying in his arms, laughing. And then Janna notices a scowling girl behind him (his adult daughter).  The man walks away with her, and Janna expects never to see him again.

In his fifties, I should say.  Like me….  I went slowly up and out, more shaken than I had thought, and by more than my fall.  I was thinking, That was an unusual man, one that would stand out anywhere, in any crowd.  You forget how mediocre most people are.  Then, suddenly, one of the other kind.  What did he think of me?  Well, I knew, there was no mistaking that.

The next day she retraces her footsteps to Soho Square, and as she looks at spring flowers, she sees Richard.  The two fall in love, and it is true love, that dizzying flow of sexual and psychic connection.  But there are obstacles to their having a sexual affair. His daughter Kathleen stalks them, and soon Janna’s disturbed niece and new flatmate, Kate, is also stalking Janna. (And, yes, the girls are doubles.) In this multi-layered narrative, love is the province of the young, while the “old” must deal with doubles, dreams, shadows, and messes.

Family life is so intricate that Janna and Richard cannot jump into bed with each other.  Janna is ready for love, but Richard has some issues.  Richard’s wife is a superstar doctor, while he is ostensibly content to be a family doctor.  They have three children: Matthew is his young, insensitive lookalike-double, and Kathleen is unhealthily attached to the child with Down’s Syndrome who is the center of the household (and also to Richard).   The childless Janna should be free, but she is now very involved with her nieces. A few years ago Jill, a cool, bright young woman who is now working in the editorial department of the magazine, showed up at her flat in London and persuaded Janna to let her move in.  Now that Jill is living with her boyfriend, her younger sister Kate has moved into Janna’s flat.  But Kate is different.  She is one of those people who have been born without skills, who cannot take care of herself, and destroys everything she touches.  Where does Kate belong?  In the squat nearby where she has made friends?  In addition to the burden of Kate, Janna feels responsible for Annie, an old woman who was a neighbor of the late Maudie.

It is Richard himself who is the biggest obstacle to their love affair, though.  After he requests a picture, and Janna gives him a snap of herself as a beautiful young woman, he is unsettled.  Perhaps she is out of his league?  And when she arranges for them to have a weekend alone at her flat, he says her bedroom doesn’t look like her and they do not go to bed together. Yet Janna blindly continues to love him, to spend all her free time with him, and makes him the center of her life.  Their long walks and nights at cafes are idyllic.  But their obligations are such that they cannot love as they could have when they were young.

I kept thinking, Poor Jane. Like so many of the men in Lessing’s novels, Richard fears strong women.

And yet…that’s what it’s like, isn’t it?

Except in the movies.

Poor Janna.

Poor Doris.

4 thoughts on “Doris Lessing’s If the Old Could…

  1. Yes, men still fear strong women. Maybe it’s too emasculating for them and they can’t find identities outside of the male stereotypes. Sounds like I will need to track down more Doris – most definitely!

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  2. These two novels are actually quite good, though I don’t hear anything about them anymore. Maybe because they were not originally published under her name? Lessing’s characters are always getting metaphorically punched by men who resent their strength. Janna keeps on loving Richard, though.

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