From the freedom to write to her flamboyant sexual freedom, Lessing provided academic and writer Lara Feigel with a roadmap for her own explorationby Ruth Scurr / March 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
After Doris Lessing’s death in 2013, Lara Feigel reread The Golden Notebook (1962). Her older friends had begun to reminisce about how it had changed their lives. When Feigel first read it as a student, it had left little impression, but in her mid-thirties it proved revolutionary. Free Woman tells Feigel’s story, blending literary criticism, biography and memoir: “this book emerged as an attempt to understand freedom as Lessing conceived it and as we might apprehend it now—politically, intellectually, emotionally and sexually.”
This unconventional book celebrates a kind of ingenuous engagement with literature that academics like Feigel usually scorn. She reads Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007, in a highly personal manner, comparing herself directly to the older woman, writing about her characters as though they were extensions of the author—all things literary critics are trained not to do.
In disregarding her training, Feigel asserts her intellectual freedom. She refuses the straitjacket of her professional life and returns to the kind of free reading we associate with childhood. Unencumbered by the need to explain the novels as artefacts in a specific cultural context, she searches the texts for ideas and insights that speak to her personally.
Feigel, she tells us, married early: “by the age of 31 I had a child, husband, house, job and book; by the age of 35 I had another book and another child to come.” But then she had a miscarriage. The struggle to conceive a second child, while simultaneously pursuing her own freedom and measuring it against Lessing’s, is one of the narrative frameworks of Free Woman.
Of all Lessing’s freedoms, the sexual is the most flamboyant. The Golden Notebook includes a ground-breaking description of the difference between the clitoral and vaginal orgasm, which is still quoted in medical books about sex: “The vaginal orgasm is a dissolving in a vague, dark generalised sensation like being swirled in a warm whirlpool. There are several different sorts of clitoral orgasms, and they are more powerful (that is a male word) than the vaginal orgasm. There can be a thousand thrills, sensations, etc., but there is only one real female orgasm and that is when a man, from the whole of his need and desire, takes a woman and wants all her response. Everything else is a substitute and a fake, and the most inexperienced woman feels this instinctively.”
Feigel admits that she finds it hard to differentiate between these two different kinds of orgasm: “I think that Lessing was unnecessarily dismissive when it came to clitoral orgasms. I find that when I’m sufficiently aroused, I reach an excited state in which the border between pleasure and pain is blurred.”
She points out that while scientists now seem to accept that both kinds of orgasm are possible, “self-styled” experts across the centuries have contradicted each other and still do so. Freud argued that women who did not “graduate” from clitoral to vaginal orgasms were immature and masculine.
Feigel notes that DH Lawrence shared this view. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), Constance “is happy because the clitoral orgasms that she had to accomplish for herself with her previous lover have been replaced by the delight of vaginal orgasms, experienced simultaneously with Mellors [the gamekeeper].”
For Feigel, this makes for uncomfortable reading: why shouldn’t women have orgasms if they don’t manage to coincide with their lovers? Further, might orgasm be both the goal and hazard of the free woman?
“I shared Lessing’s anxiety,” Feigel writes, “that the orgasm is a moment of freedom that’s also a moment of entrapment because it’s when we’re filled with hormones that bind us to a lover from whom we may wish to remain independent.”
Feigel’s desire for emotional freedom is explored through an epistolary friendship with an older male academic. After meeting at a party and exchanging increasingly long emails about one another’s books, as well as thoughts and feelings, they go on long coastal walks in Norfolk and Suffolk. The friendship comes to an abrupt end when he is diagnosed with incurable cancer and ceases to communicate with her.
Grieving for the lost emotional intimacy, she tells her husband what has happened: “He tried to sympathise, but it was hard for him to see how a man double my age whom I had met at a party only a few months earlier could have become someone who mattered enough to make me feel that I was falling again, just when I had thought I had reached the ground.” In the aftermath of her miscarriage and the silence of her “dying correspondent,” Feigel is drawn even more strongly towards Lessing.
Seeking illumination, if not answers, about her own life, Feigel tracks down Lessing’s lovers. She notes that “Lessing wrote that it was only in middle age that she realised how much narcissism was involved in sexual attraction.” Lessing’s relationship with the American novelist and political radical Clancy Sigal—on whom the character Saul Green in The Golden Notebook is based—is of particular interest to the author because it was her “only serious love affair with a writer.” After reading their letters in Sigal’s Texan archive, Feigel arranges to visit him in Los Angeles: “I hoped that he would help me piece together their relationship, and also clarify how the freedoms of madness, fantasy and sex related for him.”
Sigal’s initial response is discouraging. The 88-year-old tells Feigel he will “neither impede nor help me.” When she explains that she is writing about looking for Doris Lessing he is incredulous, but somehow she wins him over. “She was a very self-protective dame,” he pronounces before making the surprising confession that he has never read her novels, and would be more interested in Feigel’s work.
Feigel is interested in psychoanalysis and writes perceptively about the influence of RD Laing’s The Divided Self (1960) on Lessing and Sigal, who both knew Laing personally. Whereas Sigal and Laing took LSD together, Lessing focused on her writing, following The Golden Notebook with two novels about madness: The Four-Gated City (1969) and Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971).
Feigel flirts with the idea of undergoing psychoanalysis herself. She goes to see an attractive analyst she has met at a party: “I had chosen this analyst partly because I was curious about my frequent attraction to older men and thought that he, as an older man of the kind I might be attracted to, would help me to explore this.” The analyst reminds her: “I am not going to write you long letters every night.” And after a couple of sessions she stops going. The analyst leaves her with a haunting question: “Why do you want to explode the whole notion of privacy?”
Feigel’s answer emerges in Free Woman. Lessing wrote about herself with startling honesty, in works of fiction and autobiography. Feigel learns from Lessing how to do this and succeeds impressively. It is easy to imagine that her analyst (if she goes back to him) will have myriad further questions about the motives behind her drive towards self-revelation. But no one could doubt Feigel’s honesty or bravery.
Before her research trip to LA, Feigel and her husband began discussing divorce. After she returned, they continued trying to conceive a second child, and succeeded using IVF. This did not save their marriage, but like Lessing, Feigel had long since ceased to believe that marriage is necessarily something worth saving. Having opened herself up to questions about the nature of freedom, love, pleasure and honesty, having followed Lessing down paths of radical experiment and enquiry, Feigel could not tidy her life back into a conventional shape.
The only freedom that does not resonate between Lessing and Feigel is political. Early in Free Woman, Feigel expresses regret about this. She feels shocked but also envious by Lessing’s “love affair” with the far left: “Communism may not have fulfilled its promise of liberation but she seemed to have found a form of freedom through the act of political commitment.”
What she envies in Lessing’s communism is “her understanding of the pull and the repulsion, the joy and the hatred of collectivity.” Feigel has previously written about British socialists in the 1930s, and has an unpublished novel about West German communists in the 1980s, but her understanding of politics is largely historical, not personal.
After the vote to leave the European Union, she hoped this would change: “Here at last, in the political greed and rising nationalism that had given rise to this vote, we might have the opponent awful enough to bring about a new era of passionate politics.” But all too soon it becomes apparent that “the suspended uncertainty was likely to go on for years. It was demoralising to feel part of so riven a nation.”
Feeling that the values she has inherited from Lessing and her generation are under threat, Feigel worries that her life with Lessing has been too inward-looking. Despite these concerns, she remains reconciled to “a muted, personal kind of political freedom,” one which simply involves expressing uncomfortable opinions at home or in her social circle.
Free Woman fits into what is now a well-established hybrid genre: the biographical memoir. Peter Stothard’s Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra (2013), Samantha Ellis’s How to be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much (2014) and Rebecca Mead’s The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot (2014), are all forerunners in blending literary criticism, biography and memoir. Stuart Kelly’s recent The Minister and the Murderer is another example.
In these books, the obligations of the biographer and critic are balanced against the author’s self-awareness. There is no attempt to write a definitive or comprehensive Life. It is enough to approach a biographical subject through the author’s own experience. The result here is an oblique and partial biographical portrait that more than makes up in vividness what it loses in objectivity.
Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel is published by Bloomsbury, £20