Naïveté or Willful Misreading? Lara Feigel’s “Free Woman: Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing”

Doris Lessing

The Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing (1919-2013) had a powerful effect on my thinking when I read her at age fifteen, and nowadays, as a Woman of a Certain Age, I  continue to read and reread her work.  I began with  The Golden Notebook,  her famous experimental novel about “free women” (as she ironically says) and the breakdown of personality.  In her novels in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Lessing illuminated aspects of women’s sexuality, radical politics, marriage, madness, and the break-up of the nuclear family.  Later, she  wrote experimental novels and science fiction about the consequences of war, nuclear power, pollution, and the disintegration of society If you’re a Lessing novice, don’t start with The Golden Notebook: The Children of Violence series, a  group of semi-autobiographical novels about the character Martha Quest, is her best work, and has stood up better over time.

As a Lessing fan, I recently picked up a copy of Lara Feigel’s new bibliomemoir, Free Woman:  Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing. I expected to love it.  But, alas, as with many bibliomemoirs, there is a crashing contrast between the stylistic powers of the memoirist and the Great Author.  Lessing is bold and outspoken, while Feigel is mousy and slyly querulous.  Again and again, Feigel professes admiration for Lessing only to turn around and conclude that her own choices are better.  And the structure of the book is very strange:  Feigel has pasted an ostensible study of Lessing on a the framework of her own memoir about miscarriage, motherhood, and trying to get pregnant.   The real paradox is that motherhood was not one of Lessing’s subjects.

Here is the premise of Feigel’s book.  When she rereads The Golden Notebook in her mid-thirties, she is envious of Lessing’s adventurous spirit.  She would like to be a “free woman,” like Anna Wulf, the heroine of The Golden Notebook.   It angers her that her friends keep getting married, instead of staying free.  Of course she, too,  is married, but she projects her anger on them.   She is  a disappointed wife and the ambivalent mother of a son, whom she claims she has trouble leaving at day care.  But she often retires to  a cabin by the sea to write her book while her husband cares for their son at home.  (Doesn’t that sound idyllic?)  She wishes she could have affairs like Lessing, but she waffles about the problems of open marriage.

Then she has a miscarriage and mourns because she can’t  conceive again.  Trying to have a second child becomes the focus of her life.  And so, driven by the imperative of her own emotions,  Feigel turns her attention to Lessing’s abilities as a parent.   Although Feigel repeatedly claims she is not one of those women who criticize Lessing’s performance as a mother,  she spends at least one-fourth (and probably more) of the book doing that very thing.  How could Lessing walk out on her husband and “abandon” her two children in Africa when she left their father?   If you read the second and third of the Children of Violence novels, A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm,  Lessing herself will provide the answers.  She married at 19, before she felt ready, and felt trapped by the traditional role of a suburban motherhood.  Both Lessing and the heroine Martha Quest leave the children with their prosperous, middle-class  father, a civil servant.

“Bad mother” accusations are hardly new, but they represent the height of sexism and hypocrisy.   Lessing  left her children with her husband, a middle-class civil servant, surely not abandonment. Can’t men raise children? Must every woman be a mother? Can’t some women be great writers:  surely it is accepted that it is tough to write when you’re doing child care.   Peter Stanford wrote an excellent article on this subject for the Telegraph, “Doris Lessing:  A Mother Much Misunderstood.” And in Lessing’s A Ripple from the Storm, Martha Quest (Lessing’s alter ego) describes her ambivalence about leaving her daughter Caroline.

Most of the time she was very careful not to allow herself to think of Caroline.  Once, missing Caroline, she had borrowed Jasmine’s car and driven several times up and down past the house, to watch the little girl playing in the garden with the nurse-girl.  The sight had confused her, for she had not felt as unhappy as she had expected.  She had continued to drive up and down past the house until she saw a female figure through a window and believed she recognized Elaine Talbot.

But damned if you do and damned if you don’t:  Feigel also fails to understand why Lessing had a third child at age 30.  Feigel wonders why bad mother Lessing didn’t “abandon” her son Peter in Africa.  (Lessing and Peter moved to London.). And then Feigel accuses Lessing of being a smother mother, because Peter lived with her till his death a few months before Lessing’s.  Peter had multiple health problems, diabetes, heart problems, and perhaps a mental illness.  So if Lessing hadn’t cared for him, she would have been the other kind of bad mother.  (Are you rolling your eyes?)

The alienation never stops.  Feigel even criticizes Lessing’s menopause.  At the smug age of 35, Feigel is convinced that menstruation is a sign of true womanhood. She  doesn’t believe Lessing didn’t grieve or suffer or feel any change when she stopped bleeding, though that is what Lessing said.  Let me assure you, menopause is painless for many of us!  My mother and I both “went through” early menopause at 42, i.e., we stopped having periods, never had a hot flash, and gleefully were free from tampons!  The thirties are tough:  hormones are out of wack, marriages are out of wack….  Menopause is a serene state.

The only flicker of life in this sad little book is when she flies to L.A. to interview Clancy Sigal, who was Lessing’s lover in the ’60s, the model for Saul in The Golden Notebook. Sigal doesn’t give interviews, buy said he’d  have coffee with her if she ever came to L.A.  The interview was very short, but he is by far the liveliest character in the book:  he mocks Feigel’s ideas of freedom and says he never read anything Lessing wrote.  Refreshing!

All right, I can’t spend any more time on this disappointing book.  But–spoiler alert–Feigel and her husband are divorced at the end and she has a daughter conceived (if that’s the right word) via IVF.  Freedom?

3 thoughts on “Naïveté or Willful Misreading? Lara Feigel’s “Free Woman: Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing”

  1. I have been avoiding this book and you’ve just made that easier, thank you! I read the Golden Notebook first and it remains my favourite of hers (not helped by the fact that I don’t really like books about Africa or sci fi). I must read it again, actually: it did have a powerful effect on me as a teenager.

    Oh, and I’d say “conceived” is the correct word, btw. Whichever of several ways it’s done, a sperm is introduced to an egg and fertilises it, which is conception. IVF does funny things to the mind and if Feigel wrote the book just after having it, I can sort of understand her weirdity, though someone shouldn’t have let it get published.

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    • Yes, she certainly focuses on very odd facets of Lessing’s character, and that could be the IVF speaking!
      I, too, love The Golden Notebook, even though the Martha Quest books are my favorites. Lessing was unlike anyone else.

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  2. I was so disappointed by this book, I thought that the sections outlining Feigel’s personal life were weak, and although I felt for her loss in terms of her miscarriage, there was far too much that seemed self-indulgent. I also thought that a lot of her early discussion of Lessing was weak, the later sections where she returns to a more literary critical approach were slightly more successful but at that point I’d given up. I think your review is a more reasoned representation of my own reading. Her earlier books were so much stronger.

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