Pushing Against the Apocalypse

Isolde Ohlbaum
Doris Lessing at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 1981; photograph by Isolde Ohlbaum from her book Lesen & Schreiben, published by Ars Vivendi last year

What did Doris Lessing mean when she called Anna and Molly in The Golden Notebook “free women”? Certainly not that they were happy. The two friends, living in late-1950s and early-1960s London without men, supporting themselves through their art, devoting themselves to politics, still wish to be married. Regarded by generations as a bible of women’s liberation, The Golden Notebook was Lessing’s breakout work, a complex and shifting account of a woman making a life for herself among the competing ideologies of the 1960s. When it opens, Anna Wulf has written a novel that pays her bills, has had affairs and adventures, has fought racism in Africa, has a child. She knows that her independence comes at the price of her happiness, and that happiness, which for her means love, would cost her her mind. Lessing later said that “Free Women”—how she named the five chapters about Anna and Molly’s lives, which are interspersed with excerpts from Anna’s notebooks—was “an ironical title.”

“Men. Women. Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love…” The themes of The Golden Notebook are introduced baldly, “with drums and fanfares,” yet the conclusions Lessing draws from them are tangled, even fifty years after the novel’s publication. Anna is self-sufficient but emotionally dependent. Sex is a bind. She hates the sense of reliance it creates but cannot avoid it. And what of the men she falls in love with? Even the intensity of her attraction to Saul Green, the American radical based on the writer Clancy Sigal, can’t obscure his awfulness: “He talked—I…realised I was listening for the word I in what he said. I, I, I, I, I—I began to feel as if the word I was being shot at me like bullets from a machine gun.” (Raging male insecurity was a specialty of Lessing’s.)

Molly and Anna have agreed to this life. They frequently confirm this to each other. “We’ve chosen to be free women, and this is the price we pay, that’s all,” says Ella to Julia in a novelization of their relationship that Anna writes in one of her notebooks. But political emancipation does not ensure joy:

Both of us are dedicated to the proposition that we’re tough…. A marriage breaks up, well, we say, our marriage was a failure, too bad. A man ditches us—too bad we say, it’s not important. We bring up kids without men—nothing to it, we say, we can cope. We spend years in the communist party and then we say, Well, well, we made a mistake, too bad.

Unlike The Feminine Mystique, published the next year, The Golden Notebook did not promise happiness for women in work or collective action. Molly and Anna get out…

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