20th century, Arts

Golden Notebook, golden ladies? Image and self-image in Doris Lessing’s unwilling ’feminist Bible’.

By Monika Kreile
The Golden Notebook

That heroines of The Golden Notebook (first published in 1962i) are not paradigms of ’liberated’ women is an often-stated fact in criticisms of the novel. However, to ponder whether, and to what extent, the weaknesses of her heroines are intentionally inserted by Lessing or reflect Lessing’s own state of feminist (un)consciousness is unproductive; firstly, because Lessing insists she did not intend write a ’feminist’ novelii, and secondly, because, like any work of fiction, The Golden Notebook deserves to be viewed primarily as a work self-sustaining and independent of its author.

A quite pervasive tendency, however, has been to discuss elements of the novel that are ‘disappointing’ iii from a feminist point of view, due to the fact that the novel’s subject matter and reputation have lead readers to approach it as a kind of ’feminist Bible’iv. Lessing thus came under fire not only from the first wave of male criticismv but from the women who wanted the novel to be what Lessing insisted it was not written as.

As time passes and feminist critique develops, and The Golden Notebook inevitably ages, it becomes compelling to scrutinize issues that lay latent in it and that, decades after its publication, came to the forefront of feminist discussions. One such issue is the use of beauty ideals as a barrier to women’s psychological freedom, as a result of the attachment by society of extreme importance to physical attractiveness in women that is absent in social attitudes to men. What follows is an exploration of this question as reflected in The Golden Notebook, drawing on Naomi Wolf’s hallmark work The Beauty Mythvi, first published in 1990.

Doris Lessing

There is an obvious discrepancy in the way men and women are described when they are first presented to the reader vii. When introducing a woman, whether central to the plot or a minor character, the novel invariably includes a description of her physical features, and almost always an evaluation of her physical attractiveness. These judgments hardly differ from the generic classification and expectations of ’male’ attitudes to female appearance that still permeate the mass media and ’chick lit’ novels.

Maryrose is ‘a tiny slender girl, with waves of honey-coloured hair and great brown eyes’ (p. 108), while June Boothby is ‘a tall, big-bodied girl, with great red clumsy arms and legs’; her mother, Mrs Boothby, is a ‘large, full-bodied woman’ whose ‘buttocks shelv[e] out abruptly’, while Mrs Lattimore has ‘the most exquisite hands’, ‘slender legs’ and ‘a delicate white skin’. Patricia Brent, the ‘editress’, is ‘middle-aged, but smart and well-dressed.’

Maryrose is ‘beautiful’, Mrs Lattimore is ‘the pretty redhead’, June Boothby and her mother are both ‘plain’; Jean Barker, ‘wife of minor Party official’, is ‘rather plain’, while Robert Brun’s fiancée is ‘ugly, yet attractive’. Nelson’s wife is ‘very attractive’, with a ‘rather beautiful curved nose’. Mrs. West is ‘pleasant to look at, but not at all smart’.

Women’s clothes also feature frequently. The reader’s first encounter with Anna and Molly is complete with a description of Molly’s shape-shifting game involving ‘lean trousers and sweaters’ and ‘a dress which made the most of her full breasts’ the next, compared to Anna’s ‘neat, delicate clothes’ and her reliance on her ‘small, pointed white face to make an impression.’ Robert Brun’s fiancée is ‘made up with skill and very well dressed’ (p. 280), and Nelson’s wife wears ‘colorful dashing clothes’.

When a man’s appearance is mentioned however, it expresses an attribute in sync with his character. In fact, physical features mostly serve as a metonymic tool for the description of male personalities: George has ‘a bull-like set to him’, with movements that are ‘stubborn, and abrupt with the subdued controlled irritation of power kept in leash and unwillingly so’ (p. 112). The eyes of Paul Tanner, the counterpart of Anna’s lover Michael in ‘Free Women’, are ‘blue, deep, rather beautiful; eyes both combative and serious, with a gleam in them of uncertainty.’ Monsieur Brun is ‘a large, well-kept, ox-like young man’ who therefore greets Anna ‘with an excess of good manners’. Nelson impresses Anna with his ‘strong voice’ and is ‘a man of about forty, Jewish, American, pleasant-looking, a bit of a paterfamilias.’ Finally, Saul Green’s loose-hanging clothes are an idiosyncrasy complementing his ‘cool grey-green’ eyes that are ‘never off guard. That is the most striking thing about him, he is never for one second off guard.’

Thirty years after the publication of The Golden Notebook, Naomi Wolf has drawn our attention to what she calls the Beauty Myth – the way ‘images of beauty are used against women.’ Although Wolf’s argument is centered around the reinforcement of the Beauty Myth as ‘a violent backlash against feminism’ in the late twentieth century, using beauty as an instrument of suppression by placing unrealistic expectations on women’s physique is an older component of Western society, to which The Golden Notebook somberly testifies.

Crucially, for all their shortcomings, the novel’s protagonists, Anna and Molly, are women ’ahead of their time’, women who, in the decade of idealized domesticity, prefer to remain unmarried rather than to marry ‘for bread and butter reasons’ (p. 269), women who harbour political views that would even now be considered radical. Yet they also harbour obsessions with their appearance of the sort that could be expected from a most readily conformist female mind.

While able to view with a pinch of salt even her reputation as a ‘free woman’ (as has been repeatedly pointed out by critics, the very term is used ironically in the novel), Anna is always acutely aware of, and often seriously upset by, her appearance: ‘Her hair was not right, it never was. … And yet she had everything to make her really attractive … Her features were good … Yet Ella always failed’, she writes in her autobiographical novel. She is capable of making biting, sardonic comments to men whose manner she finds offensive or insincere (Richard, p. 30, Saul Green, p. 481), yet refrains from wearing a certain dress ‘out of all kinds of inhibitions’ (p. 287). As a woman of her generation, Anna lacks a model of feminine resistance to the pressures of patriarchal society, but demonstrates strength and intelligence by resisting them all on her own – in every province except that of looks.

It would be absurd to imply that concerns about physical appearance are a principal cause of the crisis of ’identity fragmentation’ documented in Anna’s notebooks; the heroine and the novel are much more complex than that. But it is useful to ask how much Anna’s insecurities about her looks contribute to the difficulties in her struggle to assemble the different facets of her identity into a coherent hole. She is not yet conscious of the compulsion to choose between beauty and intelligence that, according to Wolf, is a pivotal control mechanism for the female psyche in the Western culture – and a likely contributor to Anna’s frantic sense of the loss of self:’A beautiful heroine is a contradiction in terms, since heroism is about individuality … while ‘beauty’ is generic, boring and inert’ (Wolf p. 59). Anna strives to be a heroine in the moral, ’heroic’ sense, which, in her society, is incompatible with being a romantic heroine whose ‘deep emotions … are to do with my relationship with a man.’

The path from Lessing to Wolf is filled with odd coincidences: Wolf was born in 1962, the year The Golden Notebook was first published, with a last name strikingly similar to that of the novel’s heroine, Anna Wulf. Of course, a young Anna in the late 20th/early 21st century would not be the same Anna that generations of readers have come to relate to so intimately. But it is encouraging to think that a post-Beauty Myth Anna, instead of describing herself as ‘a woman terribly vulnerable, critical, using femaleness as a sort of standard or yardstick to measure and discard men’ (p. 421), would see that it is instead herself she was discarding, using the painfully fragmented femaleness of a ‘free woman’ of the 1950’s.


i All references are to the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition published in 2007.

ii ‘I was surprised at the sourness and bad temper of some of [the reviews], full of epithets like ‘man-hater’, ‘balls breaker’. … Which brings me to something no one believes. When I wrote The Golden Notebook it never occurred to me I was writing ‘a feminist bible’.’ Doris Lessing in ‘Guarded Welcome: Doris Lessing on the history of The Golden Notebook’s troubled reception’, in The Guardian, 27 January 2007.

iii ‘The Golden Notebook presented problems for some women readers as well. From the beginning, its portrayal of women provoked widely varying responses. … One can see in these assessments the concerns of early feminist criticism: the search for strong ‘role models,’ ‘explicit feminism’ … If one reads the novel according to such prescriptions, it is likely to disappoint.’ Gayle Greene, ‘Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook: naming in a different way’, in Changing the Story: feminist fiction and the tradition, by Gayle Greene (Indiana University Press, 1992), p. 108.

iv ‘Women read Lessing with the same intensity and anxiety that accompany their own philosophical and pragmatic struggles to create a new, viable selfhood. … Because The Golden Notebook asks all the questions that obsess women striving for liberation, it seems imperative to find out why Lessing has tried to suggest only some of the answers.’ Marion Vlastos Libby, ‘Sex and The New Woman in ‘The Golden Notebook’’, in The Iowa Review, Vol. 5, No.4 (Fall 1974) (University of Iowa Press), p.107

v ‘This talented writer has attempted an experiment which has failed, essayed a scale which is beyond her. … The characters do not really interest us: when we have dialogue it is strangely unnatural … Mrs. Lessing’s old singleness of vision, her strength as a writer, is not to be found here.’ Anthony Burgess in The Yorkshire Post, 3 May 1962.

vi All references are to the Vintage 1990 edition.

vii Much has been argued about which sections of the novel are the most ‘real’ – i.e., are arguably closer to the voice of Lessing herself (see, for example, Beth A. Boehm, ‘Reeducating Readers in The Golden Notebook’, in Narrative, Vol. 5, No.1 (Jan., 1997) (Ohio State University Press), p.89. However, this seems to be irrelevant to our concerns since the discrepancy in the description of physical appearance is equally present in all sections of the novel – in the notebooks as well as in ‘Free Women’