Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Final thoughts

It’s been a few weeks now since I put down The Golden Notebook, and so I thought I’d use this space to share some thoughts and ideas I’ve been mulling over since our project came to an end.

It’s really been a fascinating process for me. Reading a book and discussing it with a group during the reading is an experience I haven’t had since English A-level at 18 years old. The excitement of posting a comment and waiting to see what response it got was immense. Making reading truly social - unlike book clubs, where one’s often half-forgotten the book by the time the club night comes round - was wonderful. I want to do it again, with other books.

The project has also caused me to reflect on my own feminism. Of course, that’s the nature of the novel, and in that sense the edges of The Golden Notebook are still razor-sharp. Why are women’s lives different to men’s lives? What is a true or authentic female sexuality? Is there hope for heterosexual relationships? These are still questions which get under the skin.

But for me, the project has made me wonder if I’m right to call myself a feminist. I use the word to mean “someone who cares about women’s rights, who is interested in creating a more equal society, who demands to be treated as the intellectual, political, social equal of any man”. But I feel I can see in this book, and in some of the discussions we’ve had around it, the way that the word has come to mean something else, something more like “a person who thinks women are better than men, who thinks men are responsible for many of the evils of society, who suspects that heterosexual relationships will always be detrimental to women.” In that sense I’m not a feminist at all.

The struggle of the suffragettes has always had resonance with me. In the Orthodox Jewish world I come from, women still don’t have ‘the vote’. That is, women cannot become Rabbis, in many cases cannot study the detail of the law in the form of the Talmud, and therefore cannot have a role in creating the laws which control their lives. The struggle for women’s suffrage in Orthodoxy is beginning, but it has not yet been won. On a practical level, too, I support affirmative action which would bring more women into the forefront of our political and commercial life like Norway’s policy that 40% of company board members must be women. ( So perhaps I could call myself a suffragette.

Or perhaps something like “gender equalitarian” would be more appropriate. My annoyance with The Golden Notebook often came from Lessing’s portrayal of men. She shows them as babies, as insecure, as sexually dysfunctional, as casual abusers of women’s kindness, as hostile and maddening and congenitally unfaithful. This has not been my experience of men of my generation. But, from some of the comments particularly from the older members of our reading group, I suspect that this portrayal was more accurate of previous generations of men.

I think I have been the beneficiary of the work of feminists of the 1970s who, in the way that life is unfair, may not have benefited themselves. The sons of those 1970s pioneers are better men than their grandfathers were, I think. Not everything has changed, there is still a great deal of work to be done. But I feel some confidence in speaking about the social milieu Anna might find herself in today, since I also am a  Jewish female writer in her 30s living in London off the proceeds of my first book while finishing my second. I’m not a Communist of course, so our social circles are different there, but I really do not think that Anna would encounter such a procession of useless men today. There are, I think, very few men in my social group who do not understand that they ought to know how to cook for themselves, that it is not OK to leave me to clean up after them, that they too would be responsible for raising any child they should happen to father. This book, and the work that came after it, have changed the world it describes.

For myself, I feel that a great deal of the work of what I might call ‘feminism’ or might call ‘gender equalitarianism’ lies now in improving the lot of men. The sword of arbitrary gender distinctions cuts both ways. For the same offences, men are far more likely to end up in prison than women are. Under-age male prostitutes are more likely to be sent to borstal, under-age female prostitutes to rehabilitation programmes. Custody of children, which was once used as a weapon to keep women in bad marriages because it was always given to the father is now mostly given to the mother. Men’s paternity leave is pitiful compared to maternity leave. These are real problems, leading to continuing arbitrary divisions between the sexes which harm both.

Even supposed “women’s issues” have negative effects for both sexes. Women are still paid less than men, which not only deprives women of financial autonomy but also means that men who might want to divide child-rearing more equally are deprived of that choice for reasons of family economy.

The Golden Notebook is tremendously pessimistic about the possibility of fulfilling, uplifting, empowering heterosexual relationships. I found the same pessimism in some of the comments of our reading group. It’s not a pessimism I share. And I think it’s not a pessimism which the ‘Women’s Movement’ can afford to embrace if it is to continue to influence the lives of men and women in the 21st century. To put it bluntly, systems of thought which discourage heterosexual sex tend to die out; rather like the Shakers. (I hope no one will misunderstand this; I of course don’t mean that heterosexual sex ought to be privileged above gay sex or masturbation.)

What I mean is that I think a lot of young women (and young men) would like to hear ideas about how to create joyful, uplifting and equal partnerships, and I didn’t see a lot of that coming from our discussion. I think this kind of guidance is needed more than ever now, and feminism (or whatever we call it) dooms itself if it simply says “all heterosexual relationships are abusive”.

So this project has inspired me to think through my personal gender manifesto.
1) Active pushing for women’s participation in our financial, corporate and political institutions.
2) Addressing areas where men’s rights and outcomes are worse than women’s.
3) Providing ideas about how loving, equal relationships between men and women can be created and sustained.
I’m grateful for that. It’s a lot more clarity than I had before.

And it’s also encouraged me to feel gratitude. I’ve been reading the work of a rather less spikey but equally inspiring writer this week: Grace Paley. I found this in the dedication of her book of essays “As I thought”:

“I want to thank the women who preceded me in this last-half-of-the-century women’s movement. They were early in understanding and action, so that it was easier for me and others to cross the slippery streets of indifference, exclusion and condescension.”

That is just how I feel too. I am grateful for all the work and struggle that made it possible for me to read The Golden Notebook and say “well, this part certainly doesn’t address issues in *my* life!” Things used to be very different; I’m grateful for the change. I hope my generation can make enough of a difference so that our daughters and granddaughters will be grateful too.

Author avatar

Naomi Alderman
on January 27th, 2009 at 1:11 pm


  1. Nona Willis Aronowitz February 9th, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    “But I feel I can see in this book, and in some of the discussions we’ve had around it, the way that the word has come to mean something else, something more like “a person who thinks women are better than men, who thinks men are responsible for many of the evils of society, who suspects that heterosexual relationships will always be detrimental to women.” In that sense I’m not a feminist at all.”

    Naomi, I have to disagree with you there. I don’t think that feminism has “come to mean” this. I think quite the opposite–that although the denunciation of men used to be a prominent strain of the Women’s Movement, modern feminism shies away from this boys-versus-girls mentality. Young feminist leaders acknowledge that heterosexual relationships are changing, while still admitting these deep-seated obstacles. Your personal gender manifesto is certainly resonant of a lot of feminist work done today.

    The reason I think this wasn’t brought forth in the TGN conversations as much as it should is because the feminism present in the book is a dated one, and in my opinion a destructive one. As I posted earlier, I don’t relate to it or find it useful. I also don’t hear many feminists nowadays saying women are better than men, or that men are responsible for many of the evils of society. Actually, those stereotypes are most perpetuated by the conservative media, so I’m surprised that you feel that this is the dominant definition!

    One thing though–I don’t think that my comments (or others’ that addressed this issue, like Laura’s) meant to say that heterosexual relationships will always be detrimental to women. More that this is an area in women’s lives that remains fraught with enduring yet nebulous assumptions about gender roles, without common-sense statistics or data to cite, and an extra layer of psychology to cut through. It can be hard (maddening!) to grapple with, but this doesn’t mean that modern feminists conclude the situation is hopeless! Or that it’s all the guys’ fault. At least, I don’t!

  2. Philippa Levine February 10th, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Trying to wrap up what the experience of sharing The Golden Notebook in an online conversation has meant has proven harder, in many ways, than reading and commenting on the book. Did it change the way I read? Not really. Did it make me want to join a book group? No, not at all. Did I enjoy the experience. Yes. Did I learn anything from it. Absolutely yes. As someone else said in a recent post, this may well have been more fun for the formal readers than for those dipping in and out of our conversations. But I for one loved hearing what others had to say, loved being forced to reconsider my own reactions as a result of thinking through what others had to say. I liked the mix of readers, folks from differing backgrounds, generations, experiences, even if we are all women. We didn’t bring a common set of other readings or narratives to the exercise, and that meant we often really did read passages strikingly differently.It was those lengthy, sometimes tangled conversations in the margins which were the most exciting feature of the project. I learned, I sometimes changed my mind, and perhaps most especially figured out that there really are myriad ways to read a book! Hardly a major revelation but knowing in principle and in practice can be remarkably different.
    Like Nona, I ended up disliking Anna quite a lot, something I don’t recall feeling when I read the book in the 1980s. And like Naomi, I came away with a deep sense of the pessimism that pervades the book – but it didn’t seem hugely relevant to the concerns of contemporary feminism. I read the bleakness that to me typified the book (not just in sexual relations but in political ones too) as a product of the nuclear age, of the viciousness of the early Cold War, of the 1950s backlash against the gains women had made in earlier years and during the war. That’s the historian in me, of course, and maybe that training makes me read fiction as historically-bound text rather than as a form which speaks to some more universalisable rendering of human relations. I didn’t read the book that way twenty years ago: then it did seem more a manifesto. What that tells me, I suppose, is that reading is a dynamic business, which is also a way of saying that a forum such as this has to be a good thing — it opens up our forms of reading (online, in book form, whatever) and the kinds of interactions that reading might catalyse. I’d do it again, and I hope others would too.