Lara learns lessons from Lessing
With Doris Lessing as her mentor, writer Lara Feigel takes a look at free love
05 April, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman
SHE states her mission in just one sublime single sentence – “I interweave life and literature to think about motherhood, sex, madness and communism, testing the gains and costs of living freely.”
Wow! In a world where there isn’t much free love of any kind at the moment, Lara Feigel certainly set herself a mighty task.
Lara describes herself as a literary critic and cultural historian teaching in the English department of King’s College, London – she has her own mentor in her apparently eternal search for the “free love” that feminism seemingly offers.
For Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing, the title of her new book, is based on her re-reading of her late West Hampstead neighbour’s The Golden Notebook, published in 1962. It was a phenomenal success in exploring mental and society breakdown during Stalin’s Cold War with the West amid a powerful examination of women’s liberation and the desire for sexual freedom in a civilisation bereft of weapons of mass destruction.
Lara found Lessing’s Free Woman spoke directly to her as a woman, a writer and a mother at a time when she faced her own marital and sexual dilemmas and sought her own way of living more freely. And in doing so she pondered the question of whether we will be happier – or perhaps lonelier – if we emulate Lessing’s own brave new world.
It turns out to be an admirably honest and, at times, a surprisingly naïve search that Lara takes in emulating Lessing, to discover how she might have reacted and help solve her own problems.
She returned to Lessing’s homeland of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where Lessing had two broken marriages and two children before escaping to London in 1949. She also dabbled with taking drugs, contemplated psychoanalysis, hit the road on political marches, reading Lessing en route as a model way of life.
Through her own research she discovered too the contradictions, indeed as we all do, when trying to attain the impossible. She quotes Lessing’s revelation that she “found that the better sex became, the less free it made her, because it left her longing more needily for the presence of a particular man in her bed, and it involved her giving up her body into the possession of someone else.”
Lara even recalls in detail her own experiments with masturbation and teenage encounters as lust trapped her emotions and she opened the door to desire.
In her melange of fact, fiction and fantasy, she writes: “Wearing summer clothes, there was often the feeling that a dress or skirt could effortlessly come off; it was easy to imagine a hand or a mouth on my bare shoulder, stroking the collar bone, moving down gently to my breast…
“The men varied from day to day: men encountered in crowded rooms, or talked to in corridors. Half-consciously, I examined their hands, wondering if they were hands I’d like to touch me, but really these were fantasies about me rather than about men.
“Lessing wrote that it was only in middle-age that she realised how much narcissism was involved in sexual attraction.”
En route, Lara uses her vast knowledge of literature to quote the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, D H Lawrence, HG Wells, Havelock Ellis, Sylvia Plath and RD Laing in engaging the impact one amazing author can have on another’s life.
“It seemed that Lessing was a writer to discover in your 30s – 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,” Lara explains.
Finally, she returns to Lessing’s advice: “Looking back in old age on her years as a single women, Lessing told an interviewer that what mattered to her most were ‘real friendships, not just acquaintances. You could have thousands of acquaintances, but I think friendship is hard and takes a long time’.”
Feigel thoughtfully dedicates her provocative and riveting book to her own friends, a wise move as perhaps she considers whether new fangled robots might come to the aid of those obsessed with sex.
• Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing. By Lara Feigel, Bloomsbury, £20