“Frump with a Bun?” & Other Literary Matters

Doris Lessing

Although I have cut back on reading reviews because I don’t have room on the shelves for more books (sound familiar?), I was excited to discover Sara Wheeler’s fascinating review at The Spectator of Lara Feigel’s new book,  Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing.  

“Free Woman,” a phrase Lessing uses throughout The Golden Notebook,  is a smart title for a book that is a mix of criticism and personal writing.  As I  wrote about The Golden Notebook last fall,  “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.”

What does it mean to be a “free woman”?  Are we “free”?  Were we ever? Lessing doubted it.   And we are now so big on censorship online–do say this,  don’t say that, and apologize on Twitter if anyone complains–that I wonder what Lessing would say.   One phrase in Wheeler’s excellent review bothered me.  I must emphasize that I am not complaining, but criticizing one phrase.    Wheeler says  that Feigel’s book moves chronologically “from childhood… [to] the post-menopause adoption of an identity of asexual frump with a bun.”  And I hate that word “frump.”

Why concentrate on a writer’s looks at all?  We don’t talk about male writers as frumps, do we? But from George Eliot (ugly) to Virginia Woolf (beautiful), from Carson McCullers (a bit odd) to Mary McCarthy (great smile), we are fixated on women writers’ looks.

In one of my favorite novels, The Summer Before the Dark, Lessing criticizes the pressure to look young and writes about the transformation of the middle-aged heroine Kate’s looks.  When her family is away for a summer, she takes a job as an interpreter and has an affair.   And then she spends the remainder of the summer in a rented room in London, having a breakdown.  At the end, as a middle-aged woman, she ceases to try to look youthful.

Her experiences of the last months, her discoveries, her self-definition; what she hoped were now strengths, were concentrated here–that she would walk into her home with her hair undressed, with her hair tied straight back for utility; rough and streaky, and the widening gray band showing like a statement of intent.  It was as if the rest of her–body, feet, even face, which was aging but amenable–belonged to everyone else.  But her hair–no!  No, no one was going to lay hands on that.

Personally, I think Lessing was beautiful, but I don’t have a problem with frumps. Some of us do our hair, some do not.

Wheeler’s review certainly made me want to read Lara Feigel’s Free Woman. The book is not available in the U.S. yet.


Erin Kelly at The Guardian wrote a fascinating article, “Ebooks are not ‘stupid’ – they’re a revolution.”  She wrties,

I was a relatively late convert to the e-reader, getting my Kindle five years ago when it became clear that reading 600-pages of A Suitable Boy while breastfeeding wasn’t going to work. After a frenzied few months of almost exclusive e-reading, I returned largely to the traditional printed book for a number of reasons: screen fatigue, a tendency to scrawl in margins, because I want my kids to see me reading, and because I’m a passionate supporter of bookshops and booksellers. Hachette Livre CEO Arnaud Nourry recently called ebooks “stupid” – but last summer, they changed my life.

The Women’s Prize longlist has been announced.  The only one I’ve read is The Idiot–I loved it and wrote about it here.

3.  And Barnes and Noble just launched its first nationwide book club.  The first selection is Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion,  and you get free coffee and a cookie at the book club.  May 2 is the date.

8 thoughts on ““Frump with a Bun?” & Other Literary Matters

  1. I completely agree – frump is a terrible word and this attitude reminds of the kind of crap Mary Beard has to deal with all the time. Does anyone call Julian Barnes a frump? No. Surely it’s time we moved on from this kind of snidey gendered abuse!


  2. About women’s looks, male critics mostly just don’t get it. I remember one who explained that George Eliot took up intellectual activities and wrote books because she was so ugly (what else could she do!) Well,, as they say, in the dark all cats are black and Eliot had a multi-year very loving relationship with Lewes.


    • Yes, I couldn’t agree more! It always bothers me to read about Eliot’s “ugliness” when it really didn’t matter, and she had friends and lovers!


  3. I love Lessing’s essays. I admired her for not trying to make herself into an unreal knock-off of a Barbie doll, or model herself on some other icon of social acceptability. She looked like she really looked. Which of us is free? how can we be in any sense of the word in a deep way. I would not want to live isolated or all alone. Yes some of us are freer than others economically, politically, and socially depending where we are born, live, how much money we have. Just reading Blind Assassins by Atwood, partly a result of something you wrote: she is Lessing’s peer but my guess is she won’t be given the Nobel prize until she’s 90 either.
    Another woman writer who deserves the Nobel is Margaret Drabble.

    I’m going on a trip next week and all my four books will be real paper books. I just can’t get into a kindle ebook or ipad ilibrary. The text does not feel alive, next to me, much less there. I can’t tell where I am in the book as I read; it’s not easy to turn pages. If I click something wrong, the whole text disappears. I love covers, I love to scribble in the margins, at the back of the book, underline sentences.

    Codexes for me. We haven’t bettered them yet by anything.


    • Lessing was very smart, and beautiful and clearly made a choice in middle and old age to be dignified rather than pretty. Yes, there are several on my personal Nobel list who are getting older…

      There’s nothing like a real book, but I like e-books, too.


  4. I misread the title as “Trump with a bun” and I was trying to wrap my mind around that, when i realized my error. You have to admit its quite a vision!


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