The Golden Notebook: multiple narratives

John Mullan on Doris Lessing’s use of multiple narratives in The Golden Notebook

When The Golden Notebook was first published in 1962, it was its content that aroused controversy. It told of the experiences of its protagonist Anna Wulf, and especially her sexual experiences, with a nerveless candour. Yet Lessing's novel was - and is - extraordinary because of its form rather than its material. It is a novel elaborately divided within, even against, itself. Sections of a narrative called "Free Women", about Anna and her friend Molly, are intercut by four notebooks: black, red, yellow and blue. These notebooks are "written" by Anna. As she herself describes it in her blue notebook, there is "a black notebook, which is to do with Anna Wulf the writer; a red notebook, concerned with politics; a yellow notebook, in which I make stories out of my experience; and a blue notebook which tries to be a diary". They are not consecutive: we are to understand that all lie ready for her at any moment.

She should be writing another novel, because her first novel, Frontiers of War, was commercially successful. In fact, the yellow notebook begins as a novel, whose heroine, Ella, acts out many of Anna's needs and mistakes. Ella, naturally, is herself writing a novel (a novel within a novel within a novel). Anna keeps intruding in this story, grumbling about its failings, trying to make it bear important "themes", and finally breaking it off. The destiny of this narrative is to perform the failure of the Novel as a (traditionally female) kind of self-expression.

Anna claims she has "writer's block", but, as her lover Saul points out in reply, "you are here spinning out all these words". Lessing's novel makes a novel out of its main character's dissatisfaction with what novels might do. (By a nice irony, Anna finds that almost all the leftists she knows are would-be novelists.) The political impediments to fiction that Anna acutely feels now seem to belong - if vividly - to a different time. She cannot write another novel because it will seem trivial compared to the terrible and significant things about which she reads in the newspapers. She hears one of Castro's guerrillas or an Algerian freedom fighter ask "Why aren't you doing something about us, instead of wasting your time scribbling?"

The heading "Free Women" recurs sardonically. "We're so different in every way," says Anna's closest friend Molly, with a complacency that Anna half-hears. Different how? "Not getting married and so on." Yet both women have been married, and at the novel's end Molly is about to get married again. "'Free women,' said Anna, wryly." The tag carries not just Lessing's irony, but also her heroine's.

The multiple narratives reflect her suspect "freedom". The novel's divided- ness enacts the apparent incompatibility of the different needs that she is "free" to recognise. The multiplicity is both liberating and desperate. It gives Anna a kind of versatility, allowing her to be true to her different ideas about herself. It also expresses her frustration and sense of fragmentation: parts of the various notebooks are crossed out, lines of narrative suddenly halted, personal reflections displaced by horrified transcriptions from newspapers.

Material is drawn, conventionally enough, from the author's life. Anna records precise memories of her early adulthood in an unnamed country that is clearly Southern Rhodesia, where Lessing grew up. In Part 2 of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade, Lessing has made sometimes startlingly clear how directly she took characters and episodes from her life. Yet in the novel, these are deliberately wrenched out of recognition, made unauthorial by being turned into the material of Anna's experiments in private writing.

The idea of a novel containing multiple narratives is hardly new. What was - and is - extraordinary about The Golden Notebook is the use of multiple narratives that all in some sense belong to the same character. Even the third-person narrative that we get in the "Free Women" sections is so intimate with Anna's thoughts, so often the transcription of her perceptions, that we might say that it belongs to her. In a self-reflexive turn near the end of the novel, we find that the opening sentence of "Free Women" has been suggested to Anna by Saul as the beginning of her next novel. So perhaps this has been written by her as well as about her.

It is a device, but also structures the plot of the novel, which takes Anna beyond the division of herself into four books, four narratives. She finally writes the golden notebook, where she is reconciled to her different stories of herself. "It's been necessary to split myself up, but from now on I shall be using one only." The notebooks dramatise what is missing from "Free Women", the framing narrative about these modern women as conventionally told. In the novel's final section, "Free Women 5", Lessing gives us its quiet, bathetic conclusion. Anna ends up working as a marriage guidance counsellor. Given the number of married men with whom she has had affairs, you might think the irony almost too much. But the ordinary story has to be tied up, neatly. It has to contain, to hold in, the tumult of those other narratives.

· John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. He and Doris Lessing will be discussing The Golden Notebook on Wednesday January 17 at the Newsroom, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1 at 7pm. Returns only. Tel 020 7886 9281 or email


John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Personality: heteroglossia

John Mullan analyses Personality by Andrew O'Hagan. Week four: heteroglossia.

John Mullan

05, Feb, 2005 @1:38 AM

Article image
The Golden Notebook: readers' responses

John Mullan on readers' responses to The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.

John Mullan

03, Feb, 2007 @11:45 PM

Article image
The Golden Notebook: psychoanalysis

Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook uses psychoanalytic talk because of its interest in sex - or rather, in problems with sex, says John Mullan.

John Mullan

20, Jan, 2007 @1:11 PM

Article image
Oryx and Crake:

Guardian book club: John Mullan on readers' responses to Margaret Atwood 's Oryx and Crake.

John Mullan

28, Apr, 2007 @10:42 PM

Review: Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing

Review: Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing
A beautiful reflection on how we embroider and unpick our parents' lives, says Isobel Montgomery

Isobel Montgomery

21, Mar, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Review: The Cleft by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing's parable of slobbering walrus-women, The Cleft, puzzles Ursula K Le Guin.

Ursula K Le Guin

10, Feb, 2007 @2:02 PM

Article image
Lisa Allardice interviews Doris Lessing

A life in writing: The Golden Notebook made Doris Lessing a reluctant feminist icon in 1962, but her many works since then have often confounded her disciples. Her latest novel is no exception.

Interview by Lisa Allardice

20, Jan, 2007 @10:24 AM

Article image
Jessie Greengrass: 'Frog and Toad Are Friends contains one of the best jokes ever written'
The author on underrated ‘great of feminist literature’ Gaudy Night, looking forward to every Ian Rankin novel, and never finishing Middlemarch

Jessie Greengrass

19, Mar, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Doris Lessing’s library: a life in 4,000 books
When Nick Holdstock was asked to catalogue the books left behind in Doris Lessing’s home, he found annotations, drawings, dedications – and a few surprises

Nick Holdstock

07, Feb, 2017 @1:08 PM

Article image
Review: The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing's latest collection of stories, The Grandmothers, deals in the dangers of self-delusion

Maya Jaggi

22, Nov, 2003 @1:26 AM