What does it mean to be “free” for a woman? This is the question that begins to obsess Lara Feigel during a summer dominated by friends’ weddings. Feigel, a writer and academic, is rereading The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel about the artistic and sexual life of Anna Wulf, a character whose experiences mirror many of Lessing’s own. For Feigel, the subjects become inseparable. She too is married, with a young son and trying to conceive a second child, but simultaneously experiencing a midlife restlessness and an urge to question the assumptions and expectations surrounding female experience, in the way that Lessing had for her generation.
“It seemed that Lessing was a writer to discover in your 30s,” she writes, “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.”
What begins as curiosity develops into a consuming quest after a miscarriage plunges Feigel into a state of disequilibrium, of feeling that her life and her marriage “had lost that narrative of progress” to which, as an obliging woman, she had submitted since her teens. In the year that follows, she turns to Lessing’s more radical life and work in search of a different model of living.
Ten years ago, Free Woman might have seemed an oddity, a book that was neither a work of literary criticism nor quite a memoir, but a hybrid of both. But in recent years writers such as Olivia Laing, Rebecca Mead, Rachel Cusk and Samantha Ellis have successfully meshed the two genres in books that are simultaneously autobiographical and cultural investigations, mirroring the deeply personal experience of reading that characterises childhood engagement with books, where certain novels resonate on a level beyond intellect because we see ourselves in them.
Feigel begins by tackling Lessing’s books thematically, in chapters titled Communism, Free Love and Madness, but it soon becomes clear that this neat taxonomy is not sufficient for the complete immersion in Lessing’s experience that she desires. “There was a liberation to be found through pursuing Lessing’s ideas about freedom, certainly, but there also seemed now a more urgent and personal liberation to be found in pursuing Lessing herself.”
Her pursuit takes her to Dartmoor and Suffolk; to Los Angeles in search of Lessing’s former lover Clancy Sigal, and to Zimbabwe in search of the vast landscape that formed the young Lessing. All the while, Feigel is painfully conscious that this quest is also a means of escape from her “dissatisfaction with the daily, unchanging parameters of my life”.
It’s no coincidence that her most intense scrutiny is concentrated on Lessing’s personal relationships; her writing leaps to life in the chapters where Feigel is examining Lessing’s attitudes to sex, marriage and motherhood, and how she might redefine her own in their light, as she and her husband discuss the possibility of divorce.
Feigel’s clear-eyed self-examination includes an acknowledgment that she is describing what might fall under the mocking banner of first world problems: “… was I aware that I’d look like someone who already had a relatively free and extremely advantaged life, asking in a spoilt and dissatisfied fashion for more?” But she also points out that her friends would not have asked such a question of a male writer. “So I had come to feel that it was necessary to expose my least likable, weakest self in the service of freedom.”
There are no easy answers, either in life or in the writings of Doris Lessing. Perhaps the most insistent lesson from Free Woman is how little has changed in 50 years, how women are still obliged to negotiate and define our role as lovers, wives, mothers, artists, to keep reclaiming our liberty from definitions that seek to contain us. Free Woman is a valuable and brave contribution to a discussion that shows no sign of resolution – and perhaps this continuous sense of reinvention is part of what freedom means.
• Free Woman by Lara Feigel is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99