The Golden Notebook
Reading Guide by Robin Visel
Robin Visel (Ph.D. English University of British Columbia) is Professor Emeritus, Furman University, and currently Adjunct Professor, University of Findlay. On the Editorial Board of Doris Lessing Studies, she has participated in many Doris Lessing Society panels and co-edited Doris Lessing Studies 30.1, Special Issue on Gender & Sexualities. Her publications include “Liberation and Taboo: Normative Sexuality in Lessing’s Fiction”, Doris Lessing Studies 30.1 (Fall 2011); “House/Mother: Lessing’s Reproduction of Realism in The Sweetest Dream.” In Doris Lessing: Interrogating the Times, ed. Debrah Raschke and Phyllis Perrakis. Ohio State UP, 2010; and “‘Then Spoke the Thunder’: The Grass is Singing as a Zimbabwean Novel.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 43.2 (June 2008).
Historical & Social Context
London, 1950-57: postwar, pre-second-wave feminist, postcolonial . Under the (democratic socialist) Labour Party, the British class system was being dismantled by creation of the welfare state, progressive taxation, and meritocracy in education and jobs. Women’s roles were changing even as the period idealized female domesticity. Emigrants and exiles from the former empire and Eastern Europe faced class and racial discrimination but enriched London’s cultural and economic creativity.
Rhodesia, 1940s: white-settler British colony during WW II, served as a British Air Force training site. The airmen, local radical youth, and incipient African liberation movement challenged the rigid, apartheid-like racial boundaries, which Lessing calls “the Colour bar.”
Doris Lessing was, like Anna Wulf, newly arrived from colonial Southern Africa, a single mother supporting herself as a writer, an ambivalent member of the British Communist Party (until 1957), undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis, and involved with a series of lovers upon which Michael and Saul (American writer Clancy Sigal) etc. are based. Like Anna’s Frontiers of War, her first novel, The Grass is Singing, set in the Rhodesia of her youth, was a literary and commercial success. Unlike Anna, she was not impeded by writer’s block. She published prolifically from 1950 to 2010, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.
The Novel’s Novel Structure
Critics debate whether the GN is modernist (see James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner) or postmodernist (see Lawrence Durrell, Anthony Burgess, Jean Rhys) in its experimental form. Anna Freeman Wulf is realistically autobiographical and socially constructed; she is also an emblematic device for the author’s exploration of psychic division and quest for psychic wholeness.
Free Women: Anna’s realistic novel about her life London with her friend Molly: the work which emerges from the unity of the Golden Notebook, in which Saul Green writes “The two women were alone in the London flat.”
Black Notebook: young adulthood in wartime southern Africa, the raw material (Source) for Anna’s novel, Frontiers of War, of which she is critical, but which generates her income (Money)
Red Notebook: Anna’s increasingly negative experience in the British Communist Party during the mid-1950s as news of Stalin’s purges, the gulag, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary challenge the comrades’ idealist vision of a workers’ revolution
Yellow Notebook: Anna’s notebook of ideas for fiction, chiefly “The Shadow of a Third”: a romance and emotion-focused novel by Anna’s alter ego Ella, in which Molly is Julia, and Michael is Paul
Blue Notebook: Anna’s “truthful” account of her daily life, her diary of dreams and memories
The Golden Notebook: a record of Anna’s and Saul Green’s psychological breakdown and transformation: the notebook in which Anna integrates her separate selves into a creative whole
Suggestions for Reading
Read Lessing’s 1971 Introduction.
If parts of the notebooks bore or confuse you, at least skim through so that you get a sense of the pattern and how the notebooks refract each other and form the material for Free Women.
Keep in mind that many intellectual and creative people like Doris Lessing embraced a Marxist world view from the 1930s into the 1950s as an analytical tool for understanding the cataclysmic events of the 20th century and for envisioning a better world. (Most of them left the Party, as Lessing did, after the revelations of Stalinist atrocities and the Soviet invasion of Hungary).
Although psychoanalysis has been largely discredited and fallen out of favor, in the 1950s many people underwent Freudian analysis or, as Lessing did, Jungian analysis, which was based upon understanding the role of archetypes such as the Animus or the Shadow in the individual psyche and the collective unconscious. (Joseph Campbell popularized Carl Jung in such works as The Hero’s Journey.)
The Golden Notebook was written during the period of “the feminine mystique,” as Betty Freidan named the ideology of sexism and misogyny which dominated gender thinking from the 1940s until the early 1960s. If Lessing seems hostile to feminism, it may be because she, like Anna and Molly, had to try to liberate herself without a Women’s Liberation Movement. She is also hostile to all movements and dogmas (e.g. communism).
The Golden Notebook’s 50th anniversary has occasioned new scholarship. Here are summaries of the Doris Lessing Society papers from the most recent Modern Language Association Convention:
Josna Rege, “Feminism & Its Critique in the GN”: The novel anticipated second-wave 1960s-70s feminism in its assertion that “the personal is political,” and also later developments in feminist thought such as the social construction of gender, men’s liberation, and global perspective.
Roberta Rubenstein, “The GN as Roman a Clef”: Doris Lessing’s emotionally fraught relationship with her lodger-lover American writer Clancy Sigal is closely tracked by the GN (e.g. she read his journal). The notebooks explore whether the very act of writing turns experience into fiction, which Lessing claims is also truer than autobiography.
Alice Ridout, “The GN & Chick Lit”: The GN has some hallmarks of popular Sex-and-the-City type chick lit, but also attempts to erase gender boundaries and transcend the limitations of “women’s writing.”
(See dorislessingsociety.wordpress.com for more resources about Doris Lessing)
If you want to read more Lessing, tackle the wonderful 5-volume Children of Violence series, beginning with Martha Quest.