LESSING IS MORE

Lessons on how to be a truly free woman from the No­bel Prize win­ner.

Sunday Times - - Review - By Ka­rina M Szczurek

Feigel is just as fear­less in try­ing to de­fine what is cru­cial in mak­ing her own ex­is­tence worth­while

Free Woman: Life, Lib­er­a­tion and Doris Lessing ★★★★★ Lara Feigel, Blooms­bury, R540 (hard­cover)

“T

here were too many wed­dings that sum­mer,” writes Lara Feigel in the open­ing line of her bril­liant and dar­ing Free Woman: Life, Lib­er­a­tion and Doris Lessing. At the end of the first para­graph she prom­ises her­self that she “would work out why I minded it all so much”. The re­sult­ing quest is a tour de force of bi­og­ra­phy writ­ing and self­dis­cov­ery. Lit­er­ary schol­ars are of­ten drawn to top­ics that are of in­ter­est and con­se­quence for their own lives. Yet, even if that spark of pri­vate recog­ni­tion is openly ac­knowl­edged, it is sel­dom ex­plored in the of­fi­cial re­search. The in­clu­sion of in­ti­mate, per­sonal re­flec­tions by the au­thor when writ­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of some­one else is usu­ally frowned upon. And it can be risqué. To do so any­way is heroic.

Feigel is a Reader in Modern Lit­er­a­ture and Cul­ture at King’s Col­lege Lon­don. In her most re­cent books, The Love-charm of Bombs and The Bit­ter Taste of Vic­tory, she traced the pub­lic and pri­vate lives of writ­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als dur­ing and af­ter World War 2.

Pub­lished to great crit­i­cal ac­claim, they estab­lished Feigel as a cul­tural his­to­rian and lit­er­ary critic of note. Both books are fo­cused on the in­ter­sec­tion of life and lit­er­a­ture in his­tory. Free Woman fol­lows in their foot­steps, but this time Feigel her­self be­comes one of the book’s sub­jects. While ex­plor­ing Lessing’s work and ded­i­ca­tion to, in the words of one of her fa­mous char­ac­ters, “liv­ing as fully as I can”, Feigel searches for what the “right to live fully” would en­tail in her own life and writ­ing.

“It seemed that Lessing was a writer to dis­cover in your 30s; 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.” We are mys­ter­ies, even to our­selves, and not many have had the abil­ity to pen­e­trate the si­lences shroud­ing our lives. In 1931, Virginia Woolf spoke about not hav­ing solved the prob­lem of ar­tic­u­lat­ing “the truth about my own ex­pe­ri­ence as a body… I doubt that any woman has solved it yet.”

Feigel’s at­tempt to do just that is fas­ci­nat­ing. Fac­ing her own sense of claus­tro­pho­bia, frus­tra­tion and lack of ful­fil­ment as a woman, sex­ual be­ing, wife and mother, Feigel seeks to un­der­stand what it means to be a truly “free woman” — most im­por­tantly, one “who is also happy”.

The jour­ney she em­barks on and the in­ner truths she dis­cov­ers about her­self through the lens of Lessing’s strik­ing, of­ten con­tra­dic­tory, life de­mand a lot of courage. And read­ing Feigel’s ac­count is equally em­pow­er­ing. Out­side of her writ­ing, Lessing is re­mem­bered for two facts: that she aban­doned two of her chil­dren and that she had an awk­ward af­fair with com­mu­nism. Feigel goes into the de­tails of both these re­la­tion­ships.

No mat­ter what else can be said about Lessing, there is lit­tle doubt that she was bold. She was not afraid to reach for what she felt she re­quired to live a mean­ing­ful life as a woman and writer. “It seems true of all en­dur­ing nov­el­ists … that they il­lu­mi­nate our lives, and that we live dif­fer­ently as a re­sult of read­ing them,” Feigel states. Con­fronting her own body — its re­al­i­ties, long­ings and fail­ures — as well as the re­la­tion­ships in her life and the need to be her own per­son, Feigel is just as fear­less in try­ing to de­fine what is cru­cial in mak­ing her own ex­is­tence worth­while.

Free Woman is si­mul­ta­ne­ously an in­ci­sive book of schol­ar­ship and a brave, lib­er­at­ing mem­oir. It will not only bring fur­ther, highly de­served recog­ni­tion for its au­thor, but un­doubt­edly in­spire many read­ers to turn to Lessing’s work, afresh or for the first time.

Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages

Doris Lessing née Tay­lor, born in 1919. Pho­tographed here in 1958.

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