The Summer Before the Dark
by Doris Lessing
Knopf, 279 pp., $6.95
The Black Prince
by Iris Murdoch
Viking, 407 pp., $6.95
Last week I was at a meeting of a sensitivity-type group which was asked to go on a fantasy trip up a mountain to consult a “sage”—sex not specified. Six out of eight came back down to report that their sage was a woman. I wasn’t really surprised: so many male sages have been exposed lately as fools or knaves, or both, that it seems only natural to turn to the other sex for wisdom and virtue, especially if you are a woman—and even more if you are a feminist. And both the writers I am about to consider here have had strong claims made for them along these lines.
Of course, Doris Lessing’s relation to the women’s movement, especially in America, has been an awkward one. After reading her novels, many radical feminists wanted to appoint her their wise-woman, but she has resisted this honor. The serious, intense crowds who welcomed Ms. Lessing on her last trip to New York were disappointed and even angry to hear her say that The Golden Notebook was not about or in favor of war between the sexes. In fact, she also explained later in print, “the essence of the book” was “that we must not divide things off, must not compartmentalize.” Moreover, though she supported Women’s Liberation, she didn’t believe it would have much effect—
not because there is anything wrong with its aims, but because it is already clear that the whole world is being shaken into a new pattern by the cataclysms we are living through: probably by the time we are through, if we do get through at all, the aims of Women’s Liberation will look very small and quaint.
Yet while making such discouraging, even patronizing, statements, Doris Lessing goes on writing novels and stories that seem to speak directly to and about women’s liberation, at least in the lower-case sense. There is a scene early in her new book in which the heroine, out shopping for her family, notices that the young women she sees in the streets all move “with a calm, casual, swinging grace, freedom. It was confidence.” Next she looks at her own contemporaries:
Twenty years was the difference, that was all it needed, to set these brave faces into caution, and suspicion. Or, they had a foolish good nature, the victim’s good nature…. They moved as if their limbs had slowed because they were afraid of bring trapped by something, afraid of knocking into something; they moved as if surrounded by invisible enemies.
Kate…spent the morning walking slowly up and down, up and down that long crammed street, taking in this truth, that the faces and movements of most middle-aged women are those of prisoners or slaves.
The intelligent middle-class housewife whose children have grown up and whose husband is tired of her is a staple of recent fiction (and life), but she has never been described better than in The Summer …