Bad Housekeeping

The Diaries of Jane Somers: The Diary of a Good Neighbour & If the Old Could…

by Doris Lessing
Vintage, 502 pp., $6.95 (paper)

A while ago Doris Lessing seemed to have given up realistic fiction in favor of a high-flown and involved futuristic fantasy. Five volumes of Canopus in Argos had appeared; though they were praised by some critics, many of her most devoted readers found them impenetrable and profoundly discouraging. For years Lessing had been their guide through the mazes of racism, Marxism, South African politics, feminism, Jungian and Laingian psychology, and Near Eastern mysticism. Now, struggling alone with political and sexual backlash, they felt abandoned in the hour of their greatest need.

Then, late last year, it was revealed that Doris Lessing had in fact recently published, under a pseudonym, two modest but very well-written naturalistic novels. They had been reviewed equally modestly or not at all, and soon disappeared from the bookshops. Reissued under her own name as The Diaries of Jane Somers, they were news everywhere; such is the effect of the literary celebrity system.

Considered in combination, however, The Diary of Jane Somers and Canopus in Argus were disturbing. They suggested that the creative high-tension in Doris Lessing between wild, imaginative energy and practical realism had finally snapped, splitting her into manic and depressive selves who produced, respectively, cloudy, optimistic fantasy and pessimistic tales of modern life.

“Jane Somers,” Lessing’s depressive self, was originally said to be the editor of a woman’s magazine and the author of popular historical romances. The central issue of her novels was the proper relation of a successful, educated, middle-class person to the chaos and suffering that surround her. In the first, The Diary of a Good Neighbour, Jane Somers has emotionally failed both her dying husband and her dying mother. She becomes involved with a feisty, suspicious, dirty old cockney woman who lives in a squalid basement flat near her elegant London apartment. Through her attachment to Maudie Fowler, Jane is gradually redeemed; she also ends up furious at Maudie’s family, which “had simply written Maudie off years ago…used her and dismissed her,” and, by extension, furious with the world. “I’m so angry I could die of it,” she concludes. In this novel the only solutions Lessing offers us are private charity, and a burning rage against public and private indifference.

If the Old Could…is a more conventional story. Here Jane Somers falls in love with a married man; he returns her feelings but is too moral either to sleep with her or to leave his wife and retarded son and marry her. She is also involved in the care of another, less attractive old cockney woman, Annie, and with her own deeply neurotic, lumpish niece Kate. Kate comes to stay in Jane’s flat, steals, lies, refuses to go to school or get a job, throws up in Jane’s bed, and invites her creepy friends in to wreck the place when its owner is away. Life in London today, this book suggests, is pretty hopeless, and most people, most of the time, are selfish and miserable; but true love exists, even…

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