Doris Lessing: Writing the Female Sex
by Victoria Brownworth
19 November 2013
The New York Times wrote a sharp, seething, unpleasant four-page screed of an obituary about her that was both shocking and unsurprising. The piece reminded me of how much Lessing was loathed by many because her ideas were so strong, her vision so demanding, the inability to pigeonhole her maddening and misogyny still so rampant. Those of us who loved her work were often taken to task for it–much as the Nobel Committee itself was for choosing her in 2007. (The gay literary critic, Harold Bloom, said of her winning, “Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable–fourth-rate science fiction.”)
The work of women, and how women live, is still diminished and demeaned, most especially if those women don’t play nice, which Lessing, famously curmudgeonly, did not.
Yet nearly three generations of women and women writers have been taught by Lessing and her brilliant, groundbreaking work since her first novel was published in 1950 and they–we–learned about ourselves and who we could be through her work. Because Lessing lived nearly a century, because her work seems always to have been with us–she’d been writing since before many of us were born or even before our parents were–because she went through a wide range of styles and published more than 50 books of note, it was easy to forget how defining and definitive her work was even now, memorializing her.
Lessing schooled most of the lesbian writers of my age as well as those of the generation before. Lessing taught us to love women’s sexuality in a way no one else has before or since, not even someone like Eve Ensler, who has put our vaginas so vividly on display. Lessing put women’s sexuality and female independence in the forefront of all her work. She wrote about women in ways no one had done prior to novels like her masterpiece, the 1962 novels-within-a- novel, The Golden Notebook.
Virginia Woolf had begun the task of flinging wide the door to a room of one’s own, but it was Lessing who walked through that door and dropped, cross-legged on the floor, pad and pen before her, and then wrote about things women were told never to even talk about, let alone write down. She was sexual, political, emotional, contemplative.
She was strikingly, amazingly new. She was the avante-garde of post-modernist feminism.
Where women writers of a previous era had kept female sexuality under their skirts and at bay, like Austen, the Brontes, the Georges Eliot and Sand, Lessing opened it up for us. She opened our legs and minds to self-examination and female agency
It’s difficult to imagine some writers existing without the path forged by Lessing. Did she not give birth to literary lesbian writers like Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Walters? Can intimations of her style not be read in the novels of Sarah Schulman or Elena Dykewomon? Years ago my late friend Tee Corinne, the writer, artist and photographer, and I talked about Lessing and her impact on Tee’s generation of lesbians. It was Tee’s contention that Lessing had bridged a chasm between the more outré lesbian writers of the Paris literary set in the 1920s and the later, fully fledged lesbian writers of second-wave feminism.
Second-wave feminism and the radical lesbian feminism that went hand-in-glove with it were in full foment when I was in college. So when my Women’s Studies classes presented me with Lessing (who was, I realize now, the same age as my grandmother), writing about sex in a way I had never even heard of, it was stunning.
Lessing, more than any writer I had read to that time, including those lesbian writers of that Paris set, taught me I could be not just a sexual creature, but that I could write about sex, too. Lessing clarified that I could write about femaleness and lesbian sexuality not as something to be hidden or suborned, but as something to revel in, explicate and illumine. Lessing’s Anna Wulf, the hera of The Golden Notebook, was an icon for women, a template for lesbians like myself trying to place our writing in the context of female-centered sexuality.
It seems like nothing now, but The Golden Notebook pre-dated second-wave feminism. As I think about her now, and all she wrote and told us about women and who they were and what they thought, I can’t help wondering: What made Lessing think she could write these things? What made her think she could write this:
“Her source of self respect was that she had not–as she put it–given up and crawled into safety somewhere. Into a safe marriage.”
Because marriage was what women were taught. No matter whatever else they did, marriage was the endgame, the stated goal for women. Which left lesbians out of every equation at that time. A woman who walked away from that–who was she? Were there more like her? Could we be among them?
This is the point then, about writers who break ground and do what hasn’t been done before. The Golden Notebook was written more than 50 years ago, but it’s still in print and has been all along. I took it down from the shelf to flip through it–it’s all marked up from my college years, notes in the margins, exclamation points after an outlined passage.
I want to know what I was thinking when I first read that book, when I first heard this exchange:
“Free women,” said Anna, wryly. She added, with an anger new to Molly, so that she earned another quick scrutinizing glance from her friend: “They still define us in terms of relationships with men, even the best of them.”
Even NYT obituary writers 50 years hence, apparently.
And there was this shocking passage:
“I stood looking down out of the window. The street seemed miles down. Suddenly I felt as if I’d flung myself out of the window. I could see myself lying on the pavement. Then I seemed to be standing by the body on the pavement. I was two people. Blood and brains were scattered everywhere. I knelt down and began licking up the blood and brains”
The NYT obit sniffs a little at Lessing’s writing and quotes NYT reviewers who hated her work. It also dwells on her failings–yet it’s difficult to imagine an obituary of a male writer snarking in similar ways. Where is the commentary about the breadth of her work?
Rather, the comments about Lessing go directly to her femaleness; a half century after The Golden Notebook she is still not free of the restrictions placed on women writers that do not pertain to men. “She left her children!” is the most damning statement about Lessing, as if she dropped them on a street corner in the dead of night in a blizzard and ran away, leaving them to freeze to death in Dickensian fashion, when what Lessing actually did was divorce her first husband and leave their children with him because she had felt her own mother was cold to her and her brother because she resented her children and Lessing didn’t want to do that to hers. She noted that people really should have understood that of course there is pain involved in leaving one’s children.
Nevertheless, while leaving one’s children with one’s spouse is something male writers do all the time, it was the great scandal of Lessing’s life and has been noted in every article ever written about her as somehow more defining than the volume of her work.
But Lessing was a writer of note as well as merit. She catalogued an era–the cusp between World War II and the dawn of second-wave feminism–and defined the place of women in that period of time. She later crafted her own world when she turned to science fiction, which was, when she began her Canopus in Argos novels, becoming a new ground for women writers, in particular feminists and lesbians. But repeatedly and compellingly she came back to women and their lives, women and sex, women and politics, women refusing to be obedient, women breaking silence–as she did.
Lessing won a slew of awards before she was awarded the Nobel and even after. She wrote everything there was to write–poems, essays, short stories, novels, memoirs, even a libretto. She was immensely gifted, notoriously independent and never shied away from the political.
Her first book, The Grass Is Singing, published when she was 32, was a treatise on racism and colonialism, taking place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where Lessing grew up.
In 1985, in The Good Terrorist, Lessing gives us Alice, who is in love with Jasper, who is gay. He leaves her periodically to have sex with men, then returns because he needs her, although he can’t stand to have her touch him. The two are Communists (as was Lessing for many years) and by the end of the novel, have become terrorists–Lessing addressing the issue of terrorism long before it was trendy and explicating why people kill for political ideology.
In one of her last novels, Love, Again, she returns to the subject of female passion (including lesbianism) as an older woman, 65-year-old Sarah Durham, tries to discern what place love, sex and passion have in her life and the lives of the women around her.
Lessing always broke with tradition. She left school at 14 and was self-taught. She left her family of origin as well as the husband she married at 19 and the two children she had with him. She rejected the tradition that said women belong to men and to children and to housekeeping. She lured other women with her declarative and ruminative prose that told women they could choose. Really, they could choose, as her protagonists Anna Wulf and Martha Quest do. Women could walk away from what was expected and do what was unexpected.
That’s what Lessing did. What was unexpected. She showed us how to be feminist even if she wasn’t sure she was feminist. She showed us how to be lesbian, even though she was heterosexual. She showed us how to be one’s self, regardless of what others think.
Read rest of article and others at Lambda Literary.