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Why do we embrace monogamy over sexual
experimentation? Artists and writers who tried
more radical arrangements have a lot to teach
us, writes Lara Feigel
Fri 30 Nov 2018

Lara Feigel

A detail from Tamara de Lempicka’s Les Deux Amies (1923), one of the
artworks in the Modern Couples exhibition. The Polish artist had
relationships with both men and women.

In 1919 the German Dada artist Raoul Hausmann dismissed

marriage as “the projection of rape into law”. It’s a statement
that relishes its own violence: he is limbering up to fight marriage
to the death. A strange mixture of dandy, wild man, provocateur
and social engineer, Hausmann believed that the socialist
revolution the Dadaists sought couldn’t be attained without a
corresponding sexual revolution. And he lived as he preached.
He was married, but was also in a four-year relationship with
fellow artist Hannah Höch.
Hausmann and Höch form one of the couples in the
Barbican’s Modern Couples exhibition, which shows the
freewheeling experimentation of interwar art to be inseparable
from even more extravagant experiments in sexuality and
coupledom. The exhibition includes several of the partly
whimsical, partly grim collages Höch made at this time. Bobbing
her hair and smoking in public, Höch was a self-styled “new
woman” who shared Hausmann’s carnivalesque contempt for
bourgeois morality. Her Bourgeois Wedding Couple (Quarrel)
photomontage from 1919 satirises the married pair as ungainly
children. The bride teeters on the boots of a grown-up woman,
but she has the body of a mannequin and the face of an
overgrown baby whose tantrum is observed by her childlike
However, the alternative to bourgeois marriage wasn’t
obviously promiscuity for Höch in the way it was for Hausmann.
Years later, she described being “disappointed, crushed,
destroyed” by the double standards of the Dadaist men, who
wanted to free women while remaining obdurately patriarchal. At
the time, she wrote a short story about an artist called Gotthold
Heavenlykingdom who undergoes a spiritual crisis when his wife
asks him to do the dishes. She also made The Father, depicting
Hausmann as a male mother (Hausmann’s own face looms over
female legs) holding a small baby who’s about to be hit in the
eye by a boxer. The portrait is partly a comment on Hausmann’s
double standards. Though he urged Höch to have his child, it was
clear he wouldn’t be holding the baby or protecting his new
progeny from harm.
The surrealists lived out their commitment to the
primacy of desire by taking new partners in a
kind of sexual musical chairs

Höch went on to have a relationship with a woman, the

Dutch writer Til Brugman. She wanted to provide “a model of
how two women can form a single rich and balanced life”. Their
nine years together were a lot more peaceful than the years with
Hausmann. Was her new relationship happier because of the
gender equality? Or because she was no longer experimenting
with free love? Is it possible to live out Hausmann’s vision of
sexual freedom and be happy?
Questions of this kind are invited by the Barbican exhibition,
which gives visual form to a kind of sexual musical chairs. The
surrealists lived out their commitment to the primacy of desire
by taking new sexual partners with ease. We find Max Ernst
coupled with Dorothy Tanning and Leonora Carrington here,
Valentine Penrose with Roland Penrose and Alice Rahon, Lee
Miller with Man Ray and Roland Penrose. Meanwhile the Russian
constructivists put forward a vision of revolution very like
Hausmann’s in which women as well as the proletariat were to
be freed of their chains and marriage was to be consigned to the
scrapheap of history. The exhibition includes a room on Lilya and
Osip Brik, who lived in a 15-year ménage à trois with the poet
Vladimir Mayakovsky, until he killed himself in 1930.
Hannah Höch’s Der Vater (1920).

The wall and catalogue texts remain studiedly neutral about

this death and the many other suicides they report. Were these
the costs of experiment? The Barbican show doesn’t quite decide
how we should situate ourselves: are we voyeurs from a
nostalgic but disapproving future, or participants in a continual
present? Have we moved on from this era or failed to live up to
it? And does a vision fail just because it ends?
I have wondered throughout my 30s if my generation has
sold out, counting myself among its ranks. Around me, everyone
has seemed to be getting married with the expectation of
monogamy; we’ve developed the notion of “cheating” in place of
the notion of freedom; even the gay couples I know seem to
aspire to something very like a traditional marriage. The women
I grew up admiring – Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris
Lessing – chose not to live in this way. They expected love to be
something more radical.
Maggie Nelson writes about the tapering off of risk in The
Argonauts, her brilliant, passionate yet coldly analytical account
of the process that led to mothering a child with the transgender
artist Harry Dodge. She describes the nostalgia for an earlier era
of homosexual life that leads some gay men to seek erotic
adventures in countries where homosexuality is banned. They’re
looking for the thrill of danger. When something is risked, even
when it’s just misery or disapproval, the pleasure of what’s
gained increases. But there’s something else, too, that we might
be looking for in seeking sex beyond the domestic. I find that
looking back on the riskier gay world of the 1980s, or on the
1960s commune, or on the incestuous constellations of the
interwar avant garde, it’s the communal aspect that most
appeals to me and that I worry is harder to find now.
Man Ray’s Man Ray endormi, (c1930).

The surrealists, the constructivists, even the homelier set

at “Bloomsbury in Sussex”, were creating worlds where people
emerged from the closed doors of their separate families and
allowed themselves to love, depend on – and be disturbed by –
a larger circle of people. They were enabled to do this by utopian
political visions that included sexuality. For the surrealists, desire
itself was to be allowed to dictate everything from sex to politics.
The constructivists, who shared the larger Soviet aim to
collectivise life, wanted to discard ownership of bodies as they
discarded ownership of homes.
In Russia, these ideals were enshrined in law in 1918 when
the new Soviet government ratified its Code on Marriage, the
Family and Guardianship that abolished the inferior legal status
of women, eliminated religious marriage, gave children born
outside marriage equal rights to those born within it and made
divorce an easy formality. The author of the Code, Alexander
Goikhbarg, looked forward to the time when “the fetters of
husband and wife” were obsolete and love could be enjoyed
freely. The founder of the Soviet “Women’s Department”,
Alexandra Kollontai published a book in 1932 insisting that as
there was “neither morality nor immorality” in nature, the sexual
act should be recognised as “neither shameful nor sinful … as
much a manifestation of a healthy organism as the quenching of
hunger or thirst”.
Kollontai’s views were not quite this clear-cut. She was the
daughter of divorced liberal intellectuals, which gave her a head
start in rethinking marriage, but her own experience of marriage
and separation were pretty difficult. Nonetheless, she still
thought the ideal was worthwhile. Other Soviet officials were
more critical. Lenin disliked the concept of free love because of
its association with bourgeois promiscuity and because while it
took “two people to make love”, a third person was likely to come
into being as a result. By 1936, the family had been reinstated
as the dominant unit in Soviet Russia and the divorce and
abortion reforms had been rescinded.
As the children of the 1960s generation grew up,
it became clear that the communes too had come
at a cost

Nonetheless, for artists such as the Briks and their circle,

belief in communism continued to entail belief in free love. These
ideas were crucial sources of inspiration for the 1960s hippy
communes, which redefined society, the family and the couple
according to principles that Goikhbarg might have approved of,
even if he might not have liked the results. There were similar
ideas at play in the gay bathhouses in 1970s America that proved
crucial in providing gay men not just with the opportunities for
sex but with an alternative vision of community. This was given
a political impetus in the run-up to the 1980 US election, when
the New St Mark’s Baths in New York City conducted a voter
registration drive on its premises.
These experiments lost some of their credence in the Aids
crisis. And as the children of the 1960s generation grew up, it
became clear that the communes too had come at a cost. In her
2017 book, Future Sex, Emily Witt observed that her generation
grew up viewing the experiments of the past as more a warning
than an inspiration: “Obedient children of the 1980s and 90s saw
the failures of the counterculture, took them as implicit lessons
from our parents, and held ourselves in thrall to grade point
averages, drug laws, health insurance, student loan payments …
condoms, skin protection factors.”
Visions of communal living now don’t often include sexual
freedom, and sexual freedom doesn’t often come with utopian
communal politics. In Witt’s tour of sexual freedom she found
that today’s self-styled polyamorists were more often located
within capitalism than fighting against it. Free love is less the
territory of the avant garde than of Silicon Valley, its practitioners
more likely to be found designing a new app than a
photomontage. The rules of the polyamorists Witt met are
carefully negotiated and lodged as shared Google documents.
There’s much to be said for this. Certainly it seems preferable for
any children created along the way. But it’s not a utopian vision.

Kollontai, founder of the new Soviet government’s Women’s Department,

wrote that sex was ‘neither shameful nor sinful … as much a manifestation
of a healthy organism as the quenching of hunger or thirst’.
In The Argonauts Nelson opens up the question of how the
more experimental aspects of modern sexuality relate to the
radical sexuality of the past. It is a book that seems to question
everything we once took for granted, from narrative structure to
gender, right from the first sentence where we find Harry
“fuck[ing] me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement
floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad”. But at the same
time, it can feel like a fairy story with a happy ever after ending.
Even Harry’s son is co-opted into this new family that looks very
traditional, with a mother and a father and their two children,
the narrator overwhelmed by the quiet peace of domestic life,
experiencing happiness with “a more palpable and undeniable
and unmitigated quality than any I’ve ever known”.
The strength of the book lies in its ambivalence. “There is
much to be learned from wanting something both ways,” Nelson
writes, talking about queer theorist Eve Sedgwick. Nelson tells
us about the gay men who seek danger abroad partly because
she knows about her own double standards. She’s interested
both in testing the limits of coupledom and in reminding us how
stubbornly powerful a force coupledom can be. Coupledom
asserts itself just when she’s discovered that she’s happy to be
alone, just when she’s committed to theorists who celebrate the
provisional, appearing in the guise of two changing bodies, “two
human animals, one of whom is blessedly neither male nor
female, the other of whom is female (more or less)”.
There’s no getting away from the power of coupledom as an
arrangement. We’ve all experienced it: couples and quasi-
couples form in the most unlikely places, meaning that there’s a
loss after any holiday or large project undertaken with a friend
or a colleague when you discover that the new couple has to be
divided so that old couples can be returned to or new couples
forged. The narrative of the Modern Couples exhibition is
precisely this: free love not as the jettisoning of the couple but
as a kind of speeded up square dance in which couples come
together only to break apart and re-form, occasionally coupling
up with other couples. Theories of free love like Kollontai’s have
their limitations because however free we may learn to be
sexually, we find it hard to resist coupledom and couples bring
their own demands.

A detail from Leonora Carrington’s Bird Superior: Portrait of Max Ernst

I often think that the theory of free love that works best
alongside the couple is De Beauvoir’s in The Second Sex. What
makes this so powerful is twofold: De Beauvoir makes a
compelling case for why sex matters, describing a more
transformative act than the quenching of thirst; and she analyses
not just sex but the structure of coupledom and the otherness
that sexual coupledom first brings raging to the surface and then
provides a way of surviving.
Here’s her description of the ideal sexual act: “The words
‘receive’ and ‘give’ exchange meanings, joy is gratitude, pleasure
is tenderness. In a concrete and sexual form the reciprocal
recognition of the self and the other is accomplished in the
keenest consciousness of the other and the self … the dimension
of the other remains; but the fact is that alterity no longer has a
hostile character; this consciousness of the union of the bodies
in their separation is what makes the sexual act moving.”
The alarming yet tender confrontation with the other takes
us back to Höch’s collages of half male, half female figures.
Perhaps these were not just acts of protest, but acts of
registering both the oddness and the generativeness of
So how can we accept the grip of coupledom but stop it
taking over our lives, if that’s what we want, retaining a vision
of the communal? De Beauvoir believed that this kind of sexual
intimacy charged by otherness could neither be sustained nor
contained by marriage. Instead she advocated “a pact of freedom
and sincerity” in which a couple granted each other openness
and freedom.
This was the kind of pact she had with Sartre, and it had its
moments of crisis. In 1947 she fell seriously in love with Nelson
Algren, an American writer whose Chicago gangster persona was
part of his allure, fascinating and confusing the poised French
intellectual he’d seduced. She experienced the kind of sexual
passion she went on to describe in The Second Sex, but she
wouldn’t give up Sartre and the relationship foundered. She
depicted it in her 1954 autobiographical novel The Mandarins,
which makes troubling reading in portraying a heroine left
depressed by the onset of middle age, contemplating suicide
because she’s unsure whether she can be fully embodied again.
Yet this isn’t the whole story. Though she paid the price of
loneliness, De Beauvoir retained her role as the high priestess in
the communal world that she and Sartre had created, taking their
place at the barricades in 1968 as the guardians of the new
counterculture. If she has something to say to us now, if any of
the couples on the walls of the Barbican have anything to say,
then it’s not because they got it right or wrong but because they
showed how high the stakes were in trying to move beyond the
family structure at all – how much there was to be gained as well
as how much to be lost in seeking a mode of living that
incorporated the couple within the communal. Looking back on
these experiments, many of them seem wildly flawed. But let’s
revisit them not just with curious nostalgia but with urgent
questions about how to live.

• Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman: Life, Liberation and

Doris Lessing (Bloomsbury). Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and
the Avant-garde is at the Barbican, London EC2, until 27 January,

Doris Lessing
Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara
Feigel – review
What it means to be an intelligent, political woman two
generations after Lessing
Patrick French
Sat 3 Mar 2018 09.00 GMTLast modified on Tue 6 Mar 2018
11.29 GMT



Revolutionary … Doris Lessing circa 1950.

Doris Lessing’s work united mind, body and feeling. The Children
of Violence series featuring Martha Quest, and above all the novel
The Golden Notebook, had a revolutionary impact on a
generation of women. Lessing asserted that it was possible to
live an intellectual life while attached to a human body: she wrote
of emotion, how hormonal changes around mood, pregnancy or
menstruation might affect the life of the mind without necessarily
diminishing it. Instead of needing to be separated, each aspect
of existence became part of a complete whole. In a liberating
form of autobiographical fiction, Lessing discounted the
prevailing idea of the 1950s that an intelligent, political woman
must be unwomanly, un homme manqué. She wrote with great
perception on the complications of sex, and how it will tie you
more closely to a particular person, which in turn risks altering
your personal freedom.
As with many writers, the books she produced can be seen in
hindsight as an almost inevitable product of circumstance. Before
she had reached the age of 30, she had married, had two
children, divorced, married again, had another child, divorced
again, and sailed to London with one child. She was escaping the
constriction of poor, rural white Rhodesian life, her creative
revolt against which had led to her being spied on as a
communist by the colonial police. Her education was almost
entirely self-generated, done from reading and conversation.
When she reached London she had not yet published a book;
ahead of her lay achievement and fame: more than 60 books,
and the Nobel prize for literature.
For Lara Feigel, at a time of her own frustration with social and
biological expectation, Lessing offered a model of feminism “in
which it was more important to live fully than to live
contentedly”. She writes movingly of her maternal ambivalence,
loving her son even while not wanting him to distract her from
her necessary thinking and writing, and yearning for another
child even while her marriage is falling apart. A reader in modern
literature and culture at King’s College London, Feigel has
something of Lessing’s diligent energy on the page, and in Free
Woman she succeeds in making an extraordinary meditation on
what it means to be a clever, engaged woman two generations
after Lessing.
The ostensible starting point for her book is a sense of
resentment against being coopted into the conventions
surrounding a series of friends’ weddings. Wondering about the
choices made by herself and her contemporaries, she tunes in to
the powerful voice of Lessing. “I could hear her sentences in my
ears as I sat below a hundred metres of tasteful Liberty print
bunting that the bride, her sister and their mother (three
intelligent and expensively educated women) had sewn by
hand.” Like Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook, she wants to be
free and to exist independently of others in a way that now seems
to be falling out of fashion, as the sacrifices of an earlier
generation are taken for granted. “It seemed to me that Anna’s
refusal to define herself primarily as a wife, mother or lover was
a significant part of the audacity of The Golden Notebook.”

Feigel’s account of her sexual awakening is

endearingly bookish, with crushes on Mr
Rochester and Ralph Fiennes

Feigel acknowledges that the freedom she desires and expects is

less about freedom from servitude or want than about freedom
to do as you please and exist outside categories of attachment,
and hence is predicated on advantages of class, race and money.
The reason this privilege does not sink the book is because she
approaches her reordering of life around the precepts of Lessing
and her protagonists with such focused earnestness, and with a
classical, precise use of language. An account of her teenage
sexual awakening is endearingly bookish, with crushes on Mr
Rochester and “the Ralph Fiennes of The English Patient”.
Free Woman is structured on themes found in Lessing’s writing,
and involves close reading of her books as well as a measure of
biography, combined with journeys to places and people of
importance in her life. Although this is always interesting and
mainly accurate (she mistakes the composer Philip Glass for the
object of desire in Lessing’s 1996 novel Love, Again), it is
perhaps the autobiographical representation that is in the end
most compelling. Her technique is scrupulous, sparing neither
herself nor others in a chronicle that is physically and
intellectually intimate, in the manner of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
in The Confessions, who had “resolved upon an enterprise which
has no precedent … My purpose is to display to my fellow mortals
a portrait in every way true to nature.”
In contemporary terms, her model may be Rachel Cusk, who
displays a similar lack of interest in the feelings of people around
her in favour of fidelity to her art. Feigel journeys to Zimbabwe
to examine the sunset at the farm where the child Lessing lived,
and goes to Los Angeles to meet her lover and chronicler, Clancy
Sigal. Smaller than she had anticipated, “He was wearing a
baseball cap labelled ‘Secret Agent’ and a T-shirt and shorts that
were not the costume of an ageing Lothario.”

Doris Lessing in 2007

It is in the analysis of Sigal and his relationship with Lessing that
I felt most strongly the difference in the way men and women
may react to the same story. Feigel is outraged on Lessing’s
behalf that he claims not to have been attracted to her, and was
“dismissing her aged 37 as a kind of ageing witch”. But Sigal,
seven years her junior, was mentally ill, a wandering, faithless
wannabe novelist who had been raised in a Chicago slum by a
single mother. Living with Lessing in London, he felt hard done
by, complaining bitterly that she was a “Stakhanovite” with “a
furious and almost cosmic creative energy”. She treated him
maternally in return, cooking him fine meals and continuing as
she always did with her work. As a successful writer, Lessing
used her pain from the relationship as a learning experience,
examining the ways in which men and women react to situations
of extreme emotional stress. In a reversal of the usual literary
man-woman relationship, Sigal was crushed by the industry and
stability of the established novelist, and in years to come would
seek to create many Lessing-like characters and caricatures in
his books, while always asserting his indifference to her work. He
does not come out well.
Feigel has thought seriously about the meaning of freedom at
different points in history, and about possible social mechanisms
to escape “the limits of admissible thought”. Her quest in Free
Woman to do things differently is too sincere to be self-indulgent.
Unlike Lessing and Sigal in postwar London, she is part of a
contemporary world that maintains rules that are nominally
liberal but utterly constricting in their peer-pressured mental
boundaries. “Now that we had fewer restrictions than their
generation had done, there was less possibility to enjoy the
feeling of moving beyond constraint, which itself constituted an
experience of freedom,” she concludes.
• Patrick French is writing the authorised biography of Doris
Lessing. Free Woman by Lara Feigel is published by Bloomsbury,
(RRP £20). To order a copy for £17, go to
or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only.
Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


May 10, 2018

By Lara Feigel
There were too many weddings that summer. White weddings,
gold weddings; weddings in village churches, on beaches, at
woolen mills. Collectively, they seemed to go on for too long and
to involve too much effort, whether it was the effort of the
congregation to reach these much-loved remote places or the
effort of the bride and groom to coordinate flowers, music,
seating plans, personalized vows, homemade confetti and take-
home marmalade. At all of them I chastised myself for my own
mean-spiritedness and hypocrisy (I too am married, and once
devoted a summer to it) but determined that at some point when
not at a wedding I would work out why I minded it all so much.
I came closer to understanding my own truculence when I
attended the wedding of a school friend while halfway through
reading The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing’s 1962 exploration
of the artistic and sexual life of a “free woman.” Lessing’s voice
is powerful and it had taken hold of me, 50 years later, to the
extent that it seemed to muffle the voices around me. I could
hear her sentences in my ears as I sat below a hundred meters
of tasteful Liberty print bunting that the bride, her sister and their
mother (three intelligent and expensively educated women) had
sewn by hand.
Troubled by the mental picture of a needle threaded, pulled
through and along the fabric, back through, in again, back
through, ad infinitum, I heard Lessing’s central character Anna
Wulf’s pronouncement: “I am interested only in stretching
myself, in living as fully as I can.” For Anna, living fully means
living freely. She has been married, and is prepared to marry
again, but she’s aware of the fragility of any relationship because
love experienced authentically is dangerous. And she remains
uncertain whether she’s willing to allow a sexual relationship to
define her place in the world.
Thinking about her, I realized that my main objection to
these weddings wasn’t a feminist one. I was certainly troubled
by the ease with which we perpetuated the symbolism of the
pallidly virginal bride being handed from one man to another,
and perturbed in this case that it was the women who had done
all that sewing. But it wouldn’t have been much better if the
groom had taken up needlework as well. What I minded more
strongly was the apparent assumption that this remained the
only way to live. Weddings celebrated on this scale seemed to
take for granted a happy-ever-after of decade after decade of
safely monogamous marriage, with appropriate numbers of
children born at appropriate intervals along the way. They
ushered in a world where work was a means to the ultimate end
of enjoyable family life; where love was the “love you” at the end
of a phone call. I felt uncomfortable partly because it seemed to
co-opt everyone in the room into this vision and this made me
claustrophobic, needing urgently to insist on my right to live
fully, without quite knowing what I would want that to entail.
Sitting under that tasteful bunting, I was talking to two
school friends at a table that had been emptied as people headed
towards the dance floor. I asked them what they felt about this
industrious celebration of love and was relieved to find that they
were skeptical too, though one of them was preparing to get
married a few months later and was even (occasioning more
irritation on my part) planning to change her name. We were all
aware that this was not what we’d had in mind when we read
Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence in adolescence, aware that we
had once thought of love as something freer and more radical.
We remembered an evening during the summer of our A
levels when the three of us had lain talking and drinking on the
grass of one of their gardens and, as the sky darkened, each had
confessed, to the surprise of the others, that we were still virgins.
We had all had boyfriends, but we’d assumed an old-fashioned
coyness in delaying the moment of deflowerment, partly out of
fear and partly out of a reluctance to relinquish the independence
of self-sufficiency, though I’m not sure we could have defined it
so coolly at the time. Reared at a school where we’d been taught
that girls could do everything and had no need of boys, we felt
that there would be an element of self-betrayal involved in
entering a state where we became dependent on the desire,
approval and companionship of men.
As the band began to play in the adjoining room, I told them
about The Golden Notebook; about Anna Wulf, who like us was
in her mid-thirties, and her struggle to live as honestly as
possible. I described what I saw as Lessing’s central dilemma,
and how it had helped me to see in retrospect what it was that
we had feared would be lost once we had succumbed to a life of
sex with men.

“It seemed that Lessing was a writer to discover

in your thirties; a writer who wrote about the
lives of grown-up women with an honesty and
fullness I had not found in any novelist before or

Anna wants to be free, believes that she cannot thrive as a

writer or a woman if she does not exist independently of her
lovers. But she cannot be happy without the love of a man and
she cannot love fully unless she relinquishes control enough to
lose herself in him. Sexually, she wants to be created by his
desire; to have the pleasurably overwhelming feeling of
experiencing his body as hers. Emotionally, she wants both to
depend on him and to be needed by him so that together they
can feel the vulnerability required to be transfigured by love. She
is aware that the price for this transfiguration could be a loss of
freedom. Indeed, she’s prepared to accept that it might lead her
to marry for a second time. Now, thinking about Anna as we rose
to join the dancing, I thought that there might not be anything
wrong with her acceptance of this, but that it was possible still
tore member that it was a high price to pay, even while paying
it, and that this required an ambivalence that seemed
incompatible with all those meters of bunting.
This was the second time I had read The Golden Notebook.
I read it for the first time as an undergraduate at Oxford in the
late 1990s, when it did not make much impression on me. As a
cheerfully capable 19-year-old student, I found Lessing’s heroine
unnecessarily lugubrious and found the failure in connection that
characterized her relationships alienating. This meant that I had
been curious rather than excited when I started it again. After
Lessing’s death, friends in their sixties and seventies had
reminisced to me about what Lessing had meant to them in their
twenties and thirties. The women had read about their most
intimate experiences in print for the first time; the men had
discovered how women talked about men when they were alone
together. This had intrigued me enough to send me back to the
novel but I was surprised when I found it immediately enticing.
Anna Wulf ’s world had become easily accessible, despite the
great differences separating her time from mine.
The failures, the longueurs, even the moments of stylistic
ugliness, all now seemed bravely realistic. Arguably, you cannot
describe the daily life of an intelligent heroine without describing
moments of boredom, irritation and alienation. The politics no
longer seemed as distancing as they had done either. Lessing
was describing Anna’s commitment to communism as a personal
leap of faith made by a woman desperate to believe that she can
have some impact on her world. Anna, like her creator, was an
idealist in an age when it appeared more possible to be idealistic
than it ever had to me, one of “Thatcher’s children,” growing up
in an era of PR-driven pragmatic politics.
It seemed that Lessing was a writer to discover in your
thirties; a writer who wrote about the lives of grown-up women
with an honesty and fullness I had not found in any novelist
before or since. The questions troubling Anna were questions
that troubled me: how as a writer to write stories you believe in
while constructing books with a beginning, middle and end that
people would actually want to read; how as a woman to reconcile
your need to be desired by men with your wish for sexual
equality; how to have the freedom of independence while also
allowing yourself the freedom to go outside yourself through
love; or how, in Lessing’s terms, to be a “free woman” who is
also happy.
Lessing’s notion of the “free woman” is at once alluring and
frightening, because her free women seem doomed to
disappointment. Anna observes that “every woman believes in
her heart that if a man does not satisfy her she has a right to go
to another. That is her first and strongest thought, regardless of
how she might soften it later out of pity or expediency.” This is
freedom as sexual liberation; the kind of statement that the next
generation of feminists took to be a sign of Lessing’s commitment
to Women’s Lib. But ifAnna is making the case for sexual
promiscuity then she is making it inconsistently, because she is
uneasily aware that in order to be satisfied she needs to be both
desired and loved by a particular man.
She is convinced (and the sexual explicitness is astonishing,
given that the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been lifted
only two years earlier) that women can only have vaginal
orgasms with what she terms “real men,” and only when those
men are allowing the possibility of mutual love. This may sound
unappealing, but although in Lessing’s formulation, real men are
indubitably heterosexual, they are not quite as visibly macho as
they might sound. They need not beat their chests or proclaim
their sexual potency to the world; instead they need to be
courageous in confronting the sexuality of women and loving and
desiring them without fear. For Anna, such a man “from the
whole of his need and desire takes a woman and wants all her
response.” If The Golden Notebook became a bible for strident
feminists haranguing increasingly frightened men, then it was a
bible that castigated men for not desiring women enough. In a
way, Lessing was asking for more physical objectification rather
than less of it, although the bodily adoration had tobe entwined
with an appreciation of the woman’s mind.

“Lessing placed sexual fulfillment at the center of

women’s lives, while at the same time insisting
on the urgency of their need to distance
themselves from the expectations created by
their sexual roles.”

What was compelling here was that Lessing placed sexual

fulfillment at the center of women’s lives, while at the same time
insisting on the urgency of their need to distance themselves
from the expectations created by their sexual roles. Anna in bed
is a traditional creature who needs to lose herself on the tide of
male desire. Anna out of bed is passionately determined that she
cannot be defined in relation to her lover. A similar paradox is
present in relation to Anna’s motherhood. There are moments
when her daughter Janet is the center of her physical and
emotional world, when her whole body responds to the girl’s
smell and touch. But there are other times when she has to
repudiate these feelings because she has to have a mental and
bodily existence that is wholly independent of her child.
A significant element of my irritation that summer was
frustration that the women I encountered at weddings seemed
to define themselves foremost in relation to others. They began
by identifying as part of a couple and then once a child arrived
they identified themselves primarily as mothers. I often had a
sense that their whole notion of life was now family life; that once
the marriage had evolved to be more about triangular family love
than sexual intimacy, all their need for intensity was fulfilled by
their relationships with their children. And I half knew that I
minded this so strongly because I was essentially one of them.
Certainly I would look no different to the outside eye.
Of course, it was not this simple. Many of us were probably
secretly imagining sex with men other than our husbands, or
thinking about writing or painting something that could matter
to us more than our children, or wondering how we might go
about changing the world. But the point for me was that mothers
with young children would rarely express this, or would only
reveal it with guilt, where in The Golden Notebook Anna is
completely open about the separation between her lives as a
mother, lover and writer. This is in part the result of a
compartmentalization that both Anna and her creator see asa
fundamental problem of their society, but I think it’s more that
she takes it for granted that in any moment she may be
overwhelmed by feelings for the man she is in bed with or the
book she is writing, to the extent that her love for her daughter
recedes into the background. Similarly, however intense the love
or the heartbreak she is experiencing in relation to a man may
be, she is able to become an observer both of him and of herself
when she sits down to write, moving fundamentally apart from
It seemed to me that Anna’s refusal to define herself
primarily as a wife, mother or lover was a significant part of the
audacity of The Golden Notebook. I was starting to feel that there
was a world that Lessing’s generation and my feminist friends in
their sixties and seventies had fought to bring into being that my
generation seemed willing to let fall away. Crucially, this was a
world in which it was more important to live fully than to live
This doesn’t mean that I was reading The Golden Notebook
without uncertainty. But it was uncertainty that Anna herself
shared in the novel. It may make us uncomfortable to watch her
spending a whole evening cooking a breaded veal escalope for a
man whom she knows is about to leave her; who turns out not
even to be intending to come to dinner. But it makes Anna
uncomfortable too. She is worried both that in seeking happiness
in this way she is making herself less free, and that if she does
not allow herself to love like this she will not be able to enjoy the
sex she has freed herself for in the first place.
It was because of her inconsistencies, rather than in spite
of them, that reading about Anna had enabled me to see my own
world more clearly. She had allowed me to see my own sense of
the inextricable nature of body and mind, of the personal and the
political, as the basis for thinking about life. She was helping me
to understand the questions I needed to ask, even if I was no
closer to knowing the answers. And so, as the weddings
continued into the autumn, I continued to read Lessing.
My reading had become more systematic now, and I wanted
to write about her. But I couldn’t yet imagine integrating my
reading of Lessing into my life as an academic. This was the kind
of urgent reading that was more characteristic of my book-fueled
adolescence than of my professional life and the feelings it was
stirring up in me felt too illicit to be categorized as work. My
identification with her had a naivety of a kind that I would
discourage in my students.
I was convinced that the ingenuous hunger that she was
inducing in me as a reader was a sign of her power. It didn’t
matter that her prose was uneven and that I was only
occasionally seduced by her sentences. Many of them were
rough-edged, workaday constructions, perhaps because Lessing
like Anna Wulf distrusted surface beauty. If anything, though,
the patchiness of the prose drew me in further, because it meant
that I had to respond personally as well as aesthetically. It seems
true of all the most enduring novelists, from Tolstoy to George
Eliot to Lessing, that they illuminate our lives, and that we live
differently as a result of reading them. It had been several years
since I had encountered a novelist with this influence, or perhaps
since I’d allowed myself to be shaped by fiction in this way.
From Free Woman: Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing. Used with
permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2018 by Lara Feigel.

Lara Feigel
Dr Lara Feigel is a Senior Lecturer in English at King's College
London, where her research is centered on the 1930s and the
Second World War. She is the author of Literature, Cinema and
Politics, 1930-1945 and the editor (with Alexandra Harris) of
Modernism on Sea: Art and Culture at the British Seaside and
(with John Sutherland) of the New Selected Journals of Stephen
Spender. Her most recent book is Free Woman: Life, Liberation
and Doris Lessing. She has also written journalistic pieces for
various publications, including the Guardian, Prospect and
History Today. Lara lives in West Hampstead, London.