Is The Golden Notebook a feminist novel?
For all the suffering its women endure at the hands of men, it’s not hard to see why Doris Lessing disliked her book’s polemical reputation.
The New York Times critic Ernest Buickler once wrote that “a firkinful of scorching aphorisms” could be culled from nearly every page of The Golden Notebook. An exaggeration, of course – but only just. Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel is eminently quotable:
“For with my intuition I knew that this man was repeating a pattern over and over again: courting a woman with his intelligence and sympathy, claiming her emotionally; then, when she began to claim in return, running away. And the better a woman was, the sooner he would begin to run.”
“The real revolution is women against men.”
“If we lead what is known as free lives, that is, lives like men, why shouldn’t we use the same language.”
“One had to be much older than I was then to understand George’s relationship with his wife. He had a fierce loyal compassion for her, the compassion of one victim for another.”
In addition to all the aphorisms, there’s also some scorching dialogue – such as this conversation between two female friends about a married but impotent would-be-lover:
And so this man spent a second night with Julia. With no better results.
“Naturally he left at four, so that the little woman could believe he had been working late. Just as he left he turned on me and said: ‘You’re a castrating woman, I thought you were from the moment I saw you.’”
“Jesus,” said Ella.
“Yes,” said Julia fiercely. “And the funny thing is, he’s a nice man. I mean, I would never have expected that sort of remark from him.”
There are also wonderfully revealing moments:
He sauced her with his eye; sitting up broad, solid, pink-cheeked; very sure of himself and his world in this house.
“Why haven’t you put on the dress you said you were going to wear?”
“I’ve decided to wear this instead.”
“Women,” said the nine-year-old, in a lordly way. “Women and their dresses.”
I didn’t just select these extracts because they are delicious. They provide a neat demonstration of why the Oxford Companion to English Literature describes The Golden Notebook as a landmark of the women’s movement in the 1960s, an achievement Lessing disliked, denying that the novel was a “trumpet for women’s liberation” or an account of “the sex war”.
It would be reductive to describe all of Lessing’s female characters as victims. Most of them are too smart, determined and independent-minded to allow themselves to be beaten down entirely. But the odds are stacked against them, especially in their relationships with men.
Time and again, the men get to do and say dreadful things, then trot off unscathed to their next victims. (Give or take a bit of wounded pride about their inability to “get a hard on”.) The women are left holding the baby, literally and metaphorically, as the consequences of relationship problems fall harder on them. Meanwhile, the men unfailingly abuse their power. They present a physical threat, they have more money, and conventional society tends to take their side, no matter how awful their behaviour.
When one useless, stupid, drunken husband publicly labels his wife as an “ugly whore” and “barren bitch” because she has had an affair, she just has to suck it up. “She lifted her ruin of a face to us,” the narrator says, “pulling at her lovely red hair with both hands, the tears dropping off her chin.” Nobody does anything. The husband continues with the insults.
It’s impossible to read The Golden Notebook without thinking that there’s something very wrong in the gender relations it describes and in the world at large. It’s easy to see why readers might have taken it as a call to arms and feminist inspiration. But even so, it’s just as easy to see why Lessing was annoyed that people might describe the novel in exclusively feminist terms. It’s too complicated and ambiguous to fit any political programme. It isn’t didactic. It doesn’t have a straightforward thesis. Plenty of male characters also fall victim to social inequalities and moralistic absurdities. Many of the female characters are just as problematic as the men. Meanwhile, the most straightforwardly likable character is a man called Cy Maitland, an American brain surgeon who is always “fresh and vital”, enthusiastic and as happy as a labrador jumping into a lake. Lessing doesn’t necessarily take sides – or even suggest that there are any.
The Golden Notebook has as much to say about socialism, racism and literary culture as it does about feminism. It’s also, as Lessing pointed out in her preface, an intimate, claustrophobic and necessarily disturbing portrait of people who are “cracking up”. There’s a lot going on, in other words – but it is a big book, after all.