Reading Women Writers #1: Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook

As an inaugural novel for my Reading Women Writers series, The Golden Notebook is both perfect and daunting. Perfect, in that since its first publication in 1962 it has inspired generations of women, has a female author as the protagonist, and addresses themes of writing. Daunting because it is a novel of such richness, depth, and complexity; it is impossible to fully address this work in a single post.

This series will be a challenge for me, since, as I mentioned in the introductory post, I don’t have a background in writing about fiction. As a writer whose domain has almost exclusively been non-fiction, often academic, I suffer from a compulsion to attempt comprehensiveness. In preparing for this post, I have filled my copy of the novel with marginalia, filled sheets of loose-leaf paper and notebook pages with thoughts, quotations, and themes in a futile attempt to capture everything.

Structurally, The Golden Notebook consists of a short novel–Free Women–that is split into five sections and interspersed with the contents of four notebooks, all written by protagonist Anna Wulf, which culminates in a single “golden notebook.”

The four notebooks were identical, about eighteen inches square, with shiny covers, like the texture of a cheap watered silk. But the colours distinguished them–black, red, yellow and blue. When the covers were laid back, exposing the four first pages, it seemed that order had not immediately imposed itself. In each, the first page or two showed broken scribblings and half-sentences. Then a title appeared, as if Anna had, almost automatically, divided herself into four, and then, from the nature of what she had written, named these divisions. (53-4)

The division of the self and need for unification is the central theme of the novel, with the notebooks illustrating Anna’s fragmentation. Each notebook contained a different part of Anna:

  • The black notebook – Anna’s title is “THE DARK.” The pages are subdivided into source and money and pertain to her published novel The Frontiers of War. It becomes the notebook where Anna tells the story of her time in central Africa that inspired her novel.
  • The red notebook – Anna’s title is “The British Communist Party” with the date Jan. 3rd, 1950. It contains clippings, thoughts, and reflections about the Communist Party and her work in it.
  • The yellow notebook – Anna’s title is “The Shadow of the Third.” It is a novelized autobiographical account of Anna’s experiences portrayed by “Ella” with interludes from Anna about the account.
  • The blue notebook – Anna’s title is “Tommy appeared to be accusing his mother.” This is her diary and includes her psychoanalysis sessions and recordings of her dreams.


The novel ends with Anna in an affair with the American writer Saul Green. The four divided notebooks are ended and her whole self goes into the golden notebook. Saul gives her the first line of her new novel, which is the Free Women we have been reading, and Anna gives him the first line to his new novel as well as the golden notebook.

In the inner Golden Notebook, things have come together. The divisions have broken down. There is formlessness with the end of fragmentation. (xii)

Upon publication, Lessing believed that readers overlooked her intended themes, including this central one:

But nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the book was instantly belittled, by friendly reviewers as well as by hostile ones, as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war. (xii)

Lessing aspired to write a novel “which described the intellectual and moral climate” of mid-20th Century Britain (xv). While Lessing exclaims that “this novel was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation,” her assumption “that the filter which is a woman’s way of looking at life has the same validity as the filter which is a man’s way” is inherently feminist and, despite being generally accepted today–though sadly often more in theory than in practice–it was a bold assumption at the time of publication (xiii).

Sixty years later it is clear that Lessing succeeded in her aspiration. The difficulty in writing about The Golden Notebook is that it can be read in so many different ways, through different lenses, from different approaches. Beyond the multiple themes that I will address shortly, the novel can be read as a study in politics, especially the politics of idealistic ideologies. It can be read to get a feel for the “intellectual and moral climate” of the time: the influence that Marxist and Freudian philosophy had during that time is evident, as well as concerns about apartheid and the “colour barrier.” It can be read as a window into the thoughts and feelings of women and of the relationships between women and men.

Returning to Lessing’s intended themes, in her 1971 Introduction she laid out a number of themes she had in mind as she was writing the novel.

Theme of unity

This is Lessing’s central theme:

Yet the essence of the book, the organisation of it, everything in it, says implicitly and explicitly, that we must not divide things off, must not compartmentalise. (xv)

Anna’s four notebooks illustrate the fragmentation of her self. There is Anna the author in the black notebook, Anna the Communist Party member in the red, her experiences in story form in the yellow, and her experiences in diary form in the blue. She feels compelled to keep things pertaining to these divisions in their proper notebooks. At one point Anna catches herself writing in the yellow notebook and notes “this sort of comment belongs to the blue notebook. I must keep them separate” (513). Anna sees herself “seated on the music-stool, writing, writing; making an entry in one book, then ruling it off, or crossing it out; she saw the pages patterned with different kinds of writing; divided, bracketed, broken–she felt a swaying nausea” (373). Throughout the novel she is breaking down, afraid that she is losing her mind, until she finally reaches the point where she can unify herself:

I’ll pack away the blue notebook with the others. I’ll pack away the four notebooks. I’ll start a new notebook, all of myself in one book. (580)

Theme of breakdown

…sometimes when people “crack up” it is a way of self-healing, of the inner self’s dismissing false dichotomies and divisions” (xii)

Throughout the novel Lessing repeatedly uses the terms “breaking down” and “cracking up” to describe mental and emotional crises. Anna’s “cracking up” intensifies up until she discards her divided notebooks and unifies herself. The characters of Tommy and Muriel both have to hit rock bottom in order to reunify themselves. This imagery of “cracking up” and “breaking down” illustrates the disintegration and fragmentation of the self. Once it has broken down to the point of formlessness the self can heal and become unified.

Theme of the artist

This theme also has a number of related sub-themes. Lessing turns the idea of the “artist-as-exemplar” on its head by giving Anna writer’s block and discussing the reasons for it:

These would have to be linked with the disparity between the overwhelming problems of war, famine, poverty, and the tiny individual who was trying to mirror them. But what was intolerable, what really could not be borne any longer, was this monstrously isolated, monstrously narcissistic, pedestalled paragon. (xvii)

Lessing sought to tear down the mythos of ‘The Great Writer’ by presenting the insecurities and challenges of a writer. This is tied to the artist-related sub-theme of subjectivity. In the 1950s and prior, especially in Communist countries and circles, there was pressure for writers to be objective and to avoid the personal. Lessing firstly believes that pure and comprehensive objectivity is not possible. Second, she sees the individual as a microcosm of the general:

Writing about oneself, one is writing about others, since your problems, pains, pleasures, emotions–and your extraordinary and remarkable ideas–can’t be yours alone. (xviii)

This belief reflects a humanist approach as well as a specific interpretation of Marxist thought. Anna attacks the hypocrisy of the objectivity-worship of Communists:

“…After all, you aren’t someone writes little novels about the emotions. You write about what’s real.”

Anna almost laughed again, and then said soberly, “Do you realise how many of the things we say are just echoes? That remark you just made is an echo from communist party criticism–at its worst moments, moreover. God knows what that remark means, I don’t. I never did. If Marxism means anything, it means that a little novel about the emotions should reflect ‘what’s real’ since the emotions are a function and a product of society…” (41)

It is interesting that Anna makes this argument so early in the novel, since throughout she privately battles her own feelings against the argument. She constantly feels guilty about the emotions that led to her novel, especially nostalgia, and sees emotion as the key difference between a novel and reportage. She asks herself: “Why a story at all–not that it was a bad story, or untrue, or that it debased anything. Why not, simply, the truth?” (61).

Another challenge for the writer is the feeling of being “exposed.” Tommy tells Anna: “You’re afraid of writing what you think about life, because you might find yourself in an exposed position, you might expose yourself, you might be alone” (38). Anna admits to herself that she can’t read her own novel “without feeling ashamed, as if I were in a street naked” (61). This fear of being alone in one’s feelings and hence keeping it private, especially among women at the time, was addressed in Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique: “She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women shared it” (Friedan, 19).

To put the short novel Free Women as a summary and condensation of all that mass of material, was to say something about the conventional novel, another way of describing the dissatisfaction of a writer when something is finished: “How little I have managed to say of the truth, how little have I caught of all that complexity; how can this small neat thing be true when what I experienced was so rough and apparently formless and unshaped.” (xix)

This sentiment is a perfect way for me to close out my own piece. I sit looking at my own “mass of material”: the scribblings in the margins of my copy of The Golden Notebook, the pages of handwritten notes, lists of topics I could write about: the dichotomy between physical and emotional; frustrated idealism; the desire for those who are ‘invisible’ to be seen; Sisyphus and boulder-pushers. I can’t help but think “how little have I managed to say” about this novel, and “how little have I caught of all that complexity.”