When I first read this novel forty years ago, I found the structure fascinating but the story itself disappointing. I had understood the book, first published in 1962, to be a story of free women, the title of the frame story that begins each section and ends the book. I eagerly looked forward to reading about the lives created by women who had freed themselves of society's constraints on women's roles. However, as Lessing herself points out in her 1971 introduction, this book is not about women's changing roles; it is the story of an artist whose creativity is blocked and who eventually cracks up.
Anna Wulf and her older friend Molly are free in the sense that they are not married anymore and have careers, Molly as an actress and Anna with a communist press. They each have a child: Molly's son Tommy is a difficult twenty-year-old and Anna's daughter Janet a young schoolgirl. While the two women have much in common, their friendship is complex, full of shifting alliances and attacks, envy and admiration. The emotional honesty of Anna's story eventually won me over.
And I was fascinated by the structure of the book: each section also contains portions of Anna's four notebooks in which she writes about different facets of her life: a black notebook about her life as a writer, a red notebook about politics, a yellow notebook where she writes stories based on her experiences, and a blue notebook which is more of a diary. Thus we see events and entanglements through a variety of lenses, their meaning shifting. Eventually Anna abandons these notebooks for a single golden notebook.
What made this novel valuable to the Women's Movement of the 1970s is that the artist in question is a woman, so the ways in which she is blocked and fragmented are those of a woman. What disappointed me then and startles me today is that she is a woman steeped in the culture of the times, the late 1950s and early 1960s, when women were supposed to be happy homemakers, vacuuming in their pearls and high heels and ever-ready to serve their men.
At the same time, whipped up by books written by men, women as mothers and lovers were blamed for all of men's problems. In fact, later that year I actually tore up a Philip Roth book—the only book I have ever destroyed—in my fury at his insistence that women were only put on earth to serve the male protagonist's needs and that he was entitled to destroy any woman who dared to ask for something from him. As Anna says, “‘None of you ask for anything—except everything, but just for so long as you need it.'”
Anna's reactions to the men with whom she becomes entangled reflect her times and her struggle to change, thus contributing to the perception that the book is about, as Lessing says, the war between men and women. To me, it is more the war within a woman, and in that first reading despaired at what seemed to me Anna's weakness.
On this reading, however, I have a better appreciation for the difficulty of change and treasure Anna's small victories. It is not easy to create for yourself a new kind of life, one for which there are no role models. I value the honesty of this book, where Anna truly weighs and expresses her commitment to one social structure after another. For example, she is forthright about her shifting attitude toward communism: the danger of conformism—when two people meet they speak honestly about politics, but add a third and they revert to the party line—and the way one's will is sapped by the belief that someday the world will be a worker's paradise. Yet she values “the company of people who have spent their lives in a certain kind of atmosphere, where it is taken for granted that their lives must be related to a central philosophy.” It is only through this honesty that Anna is able to win through to a new understanding.
So I was surprised by this novel a second time and impressed by how well it holds together despite its fragmented structure and deeply troubled protagonist. In some ways it is an artifact of its time, but its refreshing truthfulness and candor make it a book for all time.
Have you reread a book years later and changed your opinion of it?