• Email
  • Print

Wise-Women

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 Before the Dark. The movement of the book takes Kate Brown, age forty-five, from a last moment of domestic security, or blindness—afternoon tea on a suburban lawn—through a series of changes and crises that alter her perception of herself and the world. Her house is rented and her family scattered for the summer; she unwillingly takes a temporary job as a translator with an international organization called Global Food, does well, becomes an administrator, and is offered a permanent appointment, with a large salary and new wardrobe to go with it. For some readers this would be the happy ending; but Kate sees through it, and realizes “this whole damned outfit, with its committees, its conferences,…was a great con trick”; and that she is only doing for it what she has already done for her family: organizing, fussing, sympathizing, suppressing her own thoughts and feelings.

Abandoning Global Food, Kate takes up with a good-looking American named Jeffrey, thirteen years her junior, and leaves with him for Spain. Again, a possible happy ending. But Jeffrey is in the midst of a life-crisis himself, deciding whether to continue drifting around Europe as an aging hippie, or return to America and settle down. Moreover, they have hardly got to Spain when he comes down with a severe case of flu, and Kate finds herself again in the position of unpaid domestic organizer, further complicated by her ignorance of the language and her position as an immoral woman traveling with a younger lover.

At this point, halfway through the book, Doris Lessing has disposed of both professional success and sexual love as solutions to Kate’s dilemma. What remains? Fifteen years ago, her answer might have been radical politics; today it is more likely to be some form of radical therapy. And indeed, just as Jeffrey is recovering, Kate starts to come down with the flu herself. She flies back to London and collapses in a hotel. She is about to undergo a Laingian breakdown, a regression and retreat into the subconscious as a way of self-healing. For over a month she lies in bed, cared for by sympathetic and intelligent hotel maids (a type I never seem to come across), dozing, vomiting, hallucinating, continuing a recurrent vivid dream in which she is carrying a sick seal north toward the ocean.

Finally, recovered but very weak, she gets up and goes out into the street. She has lost fifteen pounds and looks like an eccentric old woman, with matted dyed hair and a sagging monkey face. At the theater, watching a play about romantic love, she cries out “Oh nonsense, nonsense!” causing the rest of the audience to look at her with distaste; and when she goes back to visit her old neighborhood, only the dogs recognize her. However Kate is not depressed by these experiences, but “delighted…quite drunk with relief” at being free of her old self with its vanities and needs and limits.

All of this—like the silent days in the remote Spanish village where Jeffrey lies ill, the weeks of noisy bustle at international conferences, the long destructive years of keeping house for an unfaithful husband, “always being at other people’s beck and call, always having to give attention to detail…obsessed by what was totally unimportant”—is superbly described. The novel might have ended here (as The Four-Gated City might have ended after the impressive Aldermaston March episode) and seemed more of an artistic whole, less likely to cause uneasiness and criticism.

However, Doris Lessing has seldom been satisfied with neat artistic endings. She tends to push her characters on through further, more problematic episodes: sometimes opening up new ranges of possibility, at other times straining her readers’ loyalty and her own imaginative gifts. The final section of The Summer Before the Dark, in which Kate rents a room in the London flat of a young woman named Maureen, is a kind of sad epilogue. Kate’s experience and advice cannot save Maureen, who is drifting in a sexual daze toward marriage with a classic male chauvinist pig; and Kate herself, now restored in health and looks, cannot think of anything to do but return home—like the seal in her dream, whom she has finally restored to the sea. The only apparent result of all Kate has gone through is a resolve not to dye her hair any more.

It is a puzzling, unsatisfactory conclusion to what up to this point has been a brilliantly realistic, wise, and courageous novel. Perhaps I have missed the point; but both this fatalistic ending and the title seem to suggest that for most women there is no escape from the prison constructed for them by society and their own sexual vulnerability. Yet this ending is as incomplete as any of the earlier ones would have been, because Kate is an incomplete character. Authors often try to create heroes or heroines by asking themselves, “What would I be like if I were not a writer?” Unless some other equally absorbing work is substituted, the result is apt to be curiously unreal. A woman like Kate, provided with exceptional intelligence, courage, energy, and charm—not to mention Doris Lessing’s own London flat—would surely have some interest, some ambition in life. Having achieved freedom, she would have something better to do with it than go into “the dark.”

This is important, because The Summer Before the Dark, part of which has already appeared in Ms., is sure to be read by liberated and slave women all over the world. And to judge by the attitudes of my own not very radical rap group, which is already lining up for my copy, they will read it like a prophetic book, to find out, first, How it really is, and second, What to do about it. If Doris Lessing tells them that nothing can be done, the slaves will be sourly satisfied; the rest, bitterly disappointed.

Iris Murdoch’s readers, on the other hand, have seldom considered her a prophetess. She has the divine gift, but her visions are not of the future, but of the past. This is especially true of The Black Prince, which though it also takes place in present-day London might, except for a few details, have happened fifty years ago. Moreover, the form of the book is old-fashioned. It begins with two forewords by fussy literary persons, and ends with six postscripts; and the main body of the book is interspersed with essays, reminiscences, and self-analysis in a convoluted, almost Edwardian style. All this might well put off readers who are unfamiliar with Iris Murdoch’s work and do not know that behind the formal façade there is sure to be enough passion and sex and violence to satisfy anyone.

And in fact, The Black Prince is principally a sort of Lolita-story, the tale of an elderly male novelist named Bradley Pearson who falls desperately in love with the twenty-year-old daughter of his best friend. At the same time, the girl’s mother falls in love with Bradley, his ex-wife returns from America very rich and determined to remarry him, and his neurotic sister runs away from her husband and collapses on Bradley’s doorstep. And of course this, as fans of Ms. Murdoch will realize at once, is only the beginning. There are scenes, confrontations; gentle poetic encounters and crimes of passion; misunderstandings and reconciliations. She is very good, for instance, on the shape and atmosphere of a domestic crisis, with its hysterical verbal cross-purposes and the sudden awful vividness it gives to indoor scenery:

A dressing table can be a terrible thing. The Baffins had placed theirs in the window where it obstructed the light and presented its ugly back to the road. The plate-glass surface was dusty and covered with cosmetic tubes and bottles and balls of hair. The chest of drawers had all its drawers gaping, spewing pink underwear and shoulder straps. The bed was chaotic, violent, the green artificial silk coverlet swooping down on one side and the sheets and blankets creased up into a messy mass, like an old face. There was a warm intimate embarrassing smell of sweat and face powder. The whole room breathed the flat horror of genuine mortality, dull and spiritless and final.

Beyond all this, The Black Prince also contains aesthetic and metaphysical disquisitions, literary references to everybody from Plato to The Jungle Books, and a complex interlocking system of symbols—the Prince of the title, for instance, is both Hamlet and “the black Eros,” as well as Bradley’s inamorata, who once appeared as the melancholy Dane in a school production.

An added dimension is given to the novel by the fact that both principal male characters are novelists. The hero, Bradley, is a perfectionist who has published only three slim volumes in fifty-eight years, while his friend, former protégé, and rival Arnold Baffin has become a prolific popular success. Baffin can be seen as a conscious caricature of Iris Murdoch herself, and not only because of his steady productivity. The titles of his works (The Glass Sword, The Precious Labyrinth) recall hers, and his daughter’s rude summation could easily have come from an unkind review of one of Iris Murdoch’s early novels: “He lives in a sort of rosy haze with Jesus and Mary and Buddha and Shiva and the Fisher King all chasing round and round dressed up as people in Chelsea.”

This suggests, of course, that Iris Murdoch is trying to get out of the elegant and complicated bag she has been knitting herself into for twenty years. Has she managed it? I think not quite. The Black Prince is a very good book; it is, as Bradley says of Arnold Baffin’s, “both serious and funny” and “will delight [her] many admirers.” But it does not seem to be taking place in the modern world. This is partly because all but one of the main characters are well-off professional people in late middle age, with no serious financial problems and no interest in current events. Bradley’s one perfunctory reference to “the starving peasant” whose “lot” is possibly less “genuinely pitiable” than that of the bored millionaire, looks thin and shoddy next to Doris Lessing’s description of a poverty-stricken Spanish village. Much of what Ms. Murdoch has to say about writing, art, sexual love, and human psychology is perceptive and very well expressed. Yet The Black Prince is a romantic melodrama.

It may seem odd that Iris Murdoch, the former Oxford philosophy don, should produce novels which are in important ways less serious than those of Doris Lessing, who left school at fourteen. But education has its limits, and possibly even its disadvantages. It can make a brilliant book top-heavy with literary symbolism and also, perhaps more important, opaque to the less educated reader. Of course education also has its advantages. For one thing, it makes people less vulnerable to false notions: having taken elementary biology and physics, I cannot be made to believe in, or purchase, a goose that lays golden eggs; and possibly a few more years of schooling might have protected Doris Lessing from some obviously barren geese. Education can also make a writer’s work richer and more complex, more interestingly related to the art and history of the world. But it cannot confer wisdom.

  1. *

    Doris Lessing, “On The Golden Notebook,” Partisan Review, Winter 1973, Vol. XL, No. 1.

  • Email
  • Print