One of the most laudatory reviews of The Golden Notebook when it first appeared in 1963 was by this magazine’s founding editor, Irving Howe. Writing in the New Republic, Howe praised Lessing’s abilities as a novelist: “Precise and nuanced dialogue . . . a novel that never stoops to verbal display and is always directed toward establishing a visible world.” He was delighted to discover a made-up universe-in this case, a universe dominated by women-that was such a realistic reflection of a certain part of the Old Left: the communist intelligentsia and their fellow travelers circa 1956, the politically charged year in which the novel is set. Howe, though a vehement anticommunist, was drawn to Anna Wulf (a lightly veiled rendering of Lessing) and her friend Molly as “voices of a baffled generation, those people who gave their youth to radicalism and ended not knowing how to live.”
Anna says it best: “There is no group of people or type of intellectual I have met outside the Party who aren’t ill-informed, frivolous, parochial, compared with certain types of intellectuals inside the Party. And the tragedy is that this intellectual responsibility, this high seriousness, is in a vacuum: it relates, not to Britain; not to communist countries as they are now; but to a spirit which existed in international communism years ago, before it was killed by the desperate, crazed spirit of struggle for survival to which we now give the name Stalinism.”
This novel is revolutionary-both politically and aesthetically. Lessing was bold in her response to a movement that scorned modernism and cutting edge aesthetics. The British Communist Party, on whose fringes she existed, looked with scorn on artists and personal politics. A novel about family life, like Lessing’s, was anathema to them; it didn’t fit their notion of what really mattered. Nor was it an accident that her two main characters are both artists-a novelist and an actor. The novel’s content was an attack on Party orthodoxy. And its structure, too, was revolutionary. Like those hollow wooden dolls that stack one inside the other, the notebooks around which the overall novel is constructed live within each other in a sprawling chaos that stretched the very notion of the contemporary novel. The book is mammoth in scope, as all encompassing of daily life as a nineteenth-century novel, but clearly inventive in tone and design.
Lessing writes about the mid-1950s and a London still recovering from the dislocation of the Second World War and firmly ensconced in the cold war. But a more general modernity is encapsulated in the very title of the novel-Free Women-that lives within the massive tome of The Golden Notebook. For Lessing and her women, this is a freedom to live as one wishes-taking lovers, leaving husbands, having careers. But it is also the freedom that comes to those who break from the orthodoxy of communism, which her characters struggle to move past as the work progresses.
The dilemmas faced by Lessing’s women are not only modern but contemporary; they still resonate today even though Lessing was writing in 1963, as the feminist movement was just gathering steam. Although communism has disappeared and New Labour has replaced Old Left solidarity in England, the personal issues of work, family, love, and lust that Molly and Anna grapple with are as unsettled as ever. We have come so far and yet not far enough.
The Golden Notebook is actually five notebooks threaded together. The five are emblematic of the chaos in Anna’s life; she can’t contain all its aspects in one book, but rather must color-code her life in books of red, black, blue, and yellow. A black notebook records her childhood and political coming of age in Africa when, she argues, the communists were the only ones around who wanted to end race discrimination (an account that reflects Lessing’s own early attraction to communism when she lived in Rhodesia). A novel about this period brought Anna a sort of fame, off of which she lives currently. Forbidden Love, an appropriately colored red notebook, records her attachment and disaffection from communism and the Soviet Union. A blue book is her personal diary. A yellow notebook contains Anna’s novel within a novel about Ella and Julia, two free women modeled on Lessing’s free women, Anna and her best friend Molly Jacobs, an actress on London’s West End.
The golden notebook is a slim novella near the end of the novel, where Lessing brings together many of the personal and political themes that swirl through the rest of the notebooks. This is also the portion of the novel where Lessing offers a fictional accounting of Anna/Lessing’s love affair with an American leftist (modeled on the American novelist and socialist activist Clancy Sigal, who was once Lessing’s real-life lover), a writer in his twenties when Anna was an older thirty-something woman.
In a 1971 introduction to the book, Lessing explains that Anna has multiple notebooks because she “has to separate things off from each other, out of fear of chaos, of formlessness-of breakdown.” The theme of breakdown is a central one for Lessing; she returns to it often in her later writing and in this one, psychoanalysis plays a significant role in the person of Mrs. Marks, Molly’s fictional analyst based on Lessing’s actual therapist of the time. But external circumstances also lend themselves to a chaotic atmosphere. Women bringing up children on their own, taking lovers, having careers in the arts and professions were not the norm in London eleven years after the Second World War-except on the margins, in bohemian and lefty circles. “I decided that to give the ideological ‘feel’ of our mid-century, it would have to be set among socialists and Marxists, because it has been inside the various chapters of socialism that the great debates of our time have gone on,” Lessing explains in a 1971 preface to the novel, even while conceding that “Something so thoroughly absorbed is finished as a force.”
The British Communist Party was always a somewhat contradictory place, both doctrinaire in its support for Stalinism and simultaneously the home of many creative thinkers, nurturing writers and artists in spite of Party doctrine. As its importance as a political movement diminished, its incubator role for North London intellectuals and thinkers grew. Even through the era of the New Left, idiosyncratic intellectuals and writers lingered around the Party. The Party journal, Marxism Today, was one of the first magazines on the left in any country to sport a hip look and feel; its last editor, Martin Jacques, became an architect of Tony Blair’s New Labour after the magazine folded in the early 1990s. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the most doctrinaire modernizers in New Labour were once young British communists. Today, the reorganized, sanitized, and Blairized Labour Party is the longest serving left-wing government in Europe. But the movement that Anna Wulf knew and the conviction that led its activists to spend all their waking hours working for the cause are no more.
Even as it was a see-and-be-seen scene for the shining lights of British cultural life, the Communist Party, especially in the 1950s when Lessing was close to it, was normatively Old Left in its consensus that the personal was not the political. “When I began writing there was pressure on writers not to be ‘subjective,'” Lessing recalls-which meant not to suggest that the personal concerns of women regarding their children, their lovers, their careers, were as important as “world historic” events. It probably could never have dawned on the 1950s characters in Lessing’s novel, but it must have crossed her mind as she wrote in the early 1960s, that even as Soviet-style communism failed as a vehicle for massive social transformation in Britain and elsewhere, mass movements for women’s rights and civil rights would turn society upside down precisely by wedding the personal to the political. Could it be entirely coincidental that Anna and Molly’s feelings of dissatisfaction, loneliness, and incompleteness were reflected in another book published in 1963-Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique?
Lessing’s massive novel captures the painful withering away of the belief in communism. Anna and Molly’s conversation is sprinkled with references to the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the electrocution of the Rosenbergs in the United States, and Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party. To contemporary younger readers, these allusions may seem arcane-if they recognize them at all. Some will probably skip over the historical references to stick with the storyline. Yet, it’s interesting to note the way in which Lessing’s characters also turn away from their own history and ideology, in a manner that anticipates our own non-ideological time. In a conversation between Molly and Anna, Molly says she’s “sick of it [communism] all” and doesn’t “want to bother with it again.” Anna responds: “We were communists or near-communists or whatever you like for years and years. We can’t suddenly say, Oh well, I’m bored.” But she can’t convince Molly, who tells her, “The funny thing is I’m bored . . . .Two or three years ago I felt guilty if I didn’t spend all my free time organizing something or other. Now I don’t feel at all guilty if I simply do my job and laze around for the rest. I don’t care any more, Anna. I simply don’t.” Anyone who lived through the 1950s on the left, or was part of the socialist and communist movements in the decades following, knows that the movement was all encompassing; when people slipped away they did it with great difficulty. But the boredom and lack of conviction in practically anything except small personal deeds and minor political victories that Lessing describes rings true in our contemporary world.
A bit later in the book, Anna writes in her diary that although she joined the Party to satisfy a “need for wholeness, for an end to the split, divided, unsatisfactory way we all live,” joining the CP “intensified the split.” The reader is led to believe that the split Anna feels is this personal-political divide for which communism offered no answers. As she wades into a debate about a North London by-election-whether to support the Labour candidate to defeat the Tories or to support the CP candidate to build the Party-her interest in the Party continues to unravel. Out canvassing for the CP candidate, she meets several women in their homes, all of whom are polite to her when she says she is there representing the Communist Party, but who are uninterested in politics and anxious to engage Anna, a complete stranger, in discussions about their life’s disappointments. Anna returns to Party headquarters to remark that “whenever I go canvassing, I get the heeby-jeebies. This country’s full of women going mad all by themselves . . . . Well, I used to be the same until I joined the Party and got myself a purpose in life.” But as she says this, she knows it’s not true and tells herself, “The truth is, these women interest me much more than the election campaign.” Forty-one years after its publication, it’s clearer than ever that a transformative politics of the left must address personal/social dilemmas as much as strictly economic ones.
Lessing always resisted calling The Golden Notebook a feminist novel, but it is difficult to find a more feminist novel among its contemporaries, or anything as rich and comprehensive dealing with women’s lives that has been written in the years since. Even today, although the politics have become passé, the personal dilemmas faced by Lessing’s heroines are amazingly contemporary. Lessing’s chronicle of the communist-inspired intelligentsia is true to its time, but her feminist “argument” is almost as fresh today-perhaps more so-than it was when the book first appeared. And the reason that the book has lasted and thrived in countless languages is certainly because of the story it tells of the dilemma of the modern woman.
Irving Howe’s 1963 comments on the book place it within a context that resonates for new generations of women:
Anna Wulf and her old friend Molly understand perfectly well that modern women . . . face crippling difficulties when they choose one or another role of freedom. But they do not fall back upon their charm, wit, or headaches; they take their beatings, they ask no quarter, they spin and bear it. They are tough-minded, generous and battered-descriptives one is temped to apply to the author herself, formerly close to the English Communist movement, a woman whose youth in southern Africa had shaken her into a sense of how brutal human beings can become . . . one feels about Miss Lessing that she works from so complex and copious a fund of experience that among women writers her English predecessors seem pale and her American contemporaries parochial.
At the end of Free Women, Anna’s daughter, Janet, rebels against her mother’s world. She wants to attend a “conventional boarding school.” Anna writes that her daughter “had taken a look at the world of disorder, experiment, where people lived from day to day, like balls perpetually jigging on the top of jets of prancing water, keeping themselves open for any new feeling or adventure, and had decided it was not for her.” This feminist novel has already traveled into the era of post-feminism.
At the same time, Anna, too, decides to turn her back on the amorphous chaos of her life. She is alone in the apartment, free to write, but that is too frightening for her-so much so that she decides to forgo writing. Instead, she takes a job as a marriage and welfare counselor during the day, joins the Labour Party, and plans to teach delinquent kids at night.
Molly rings her up to announce that she’s getting married and moving to Hampstead. Molly’s husband-to-be is a “poor Jewish boy from the East End who got rich and salved his conscience by giving money to the Communist Party. Now they just give money to progressive causes.” Molly and Anna have both fully entered the post-ideological era of Britain’s New Labour, though Blair himself was only three years old in 1956. Luckily, for all those women who still feel the chaos churning inside them, there is The Golden Notebook, a monumental book that chronicles the seemingly timeless struggle to make it through the dailiness of one’s life. In hindsight it looks as if the women’s revolution begun in 1963, focused on that dailiness, was the one with staying power. And that is what continues to give The Golden Notebook an important place in our reading canon, though it wasn’t, perhaps, the revolution foremost in Lessing’s mind when she wrote it.
Jo-Ann Mort is co-author of Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel?.