During the Obama years, I read Lessing’s 1962 masterpiece almost as a historical novel. I admired the experimental structure, and the way it captures the fragmentation of the post-war society, the fragile psyche of a mid-twentieth-century radical woman, and the difficulty of writing meaningfully. And, as always, I felt Lessing was expressing my feelings for me. But would parts seem dated to modern readers, I wondered? Do women still feel the strain of being “free women,” i.e., living without husbands and raising a family alone?
This summer I am reading the book slowly, and am finding it especially pertinent to our political times.
The heroine, Anna Wulf, a blocked writer, and her friend Molly, an actress, are both single mothers and”free women,” as they ironically call themselves. They love sex, but their married lovers will never leave their wives, and Anna was shattered when her lover Michael, a psychiatrist with overwhelming personal problems, abruptly left her. Men have ambivalent attitudes toward Anna and Molly: sometimes they treat them as equals, sometimes as courtesans.
Anna lives off the royalties from her popular first novel, the story of an interracial relationship in South Africa. She considers it sentimental and a failure. She says she will never write another novel.
But Anna does write. She writes for hours every day in four notebooks, each a different color. She tries to compartmentalize her life, since the novel didn’t work. She writes,
I didn’t buy them on a plan. I don’t think I ever… actually said to myself: I keep four notebooks, a black notebook, which is to do with Anna Wulf the writer; a red notebook, concerned with politics; a yellow notebook, in which I make stories out of my experience; and a blue notebook which tries to be a diary. In Molly’s house the notebooks were something I never thought about; and certainly not as work, or a responsibility
This time through, I am paying special attention to the red notebook, her political notebook. In the red notebook, Anna vividly describes her war years in Africa, her political activities in a small communist group, and her brief incompatible marriage of convenience to a German communist. In 1950 in London, she has briefly given up on writing her personal reactions, and experiments with recording brief news items from different newspapers. Is this closer to the truth than recording her personal story, she wonders?
The modeller calls this the “H-Bomb Style,” explaining that the “H” is for peroxide of hydrogen, used for colouring. The hair is dressed to rise in waves as from a bomb-burst, at the nape of the neck. Daily Telegraph
July 13th, 50
There were cheers in Congress today when Mr Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat, urged that President Truman should tell the North Koreans to withdraw within a week or their towns would be atom-bombed. Express
July 29th, 50
Britain’s decision to spend £100 millions more on Defence means, as Mr Attlee has made clear, that hoped-for improvements in living standards and social services must be postponed. New Statesman
Aug. 3, 50
America is to go right ahead with the H Bomb, expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Express
Grim, isn’t it? Why did I never notice how terrifying Anna’s times were? And not so different from our own.
When I was growing up in a university town, this book seemed utterly real and true, the story not yet of us, the feminist girls in wire-rimmed glasses, but of the radical women who formed collectives, co-ops, and discussed women’s liberation, as it was called then. The Women’s Liberation Movement faded long ago, but The Golden Notebook is a relevant book for our times.