But nobody so much as noticed this central theme [madness and breakdown], 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.
I don’t see this. If there was a sex war in London in the late 1950s, Anna Wulf and her friends were mostly losing it. Perhaps if I had read The Golden Notebook when it was first published I would have experienced it differently. After all, my own consciousness was different then. Now, I see the very title of the novella, Free Women, as ironic. They are not free, but constantly seeking sex or love — I’m not sure which and neither are they — and seeing themselves through the eyes of men.
I think what struck the reviewers in 1962 was that Lessing recognized the conflict (war?) inherent in the social relations between men and women. She picks up very acutely on tensions and how they are negotiated:
She spoke with confidence; but now that the men did not reply–and she felt their tolerance of her, she grew uneasy and appealed: ‘I’m not saying it right, but you see what I mean…’ Because she had appealed, the men were restored, and Willi said benevolently: ‘Of course you say it right. Anyone as beautiful as you can’t say it wrong.
There, there, little girl. You did your best! Anna continues to be perplexed how to handle her relationship with men:
What is terrible is that when every one of the phases of my life is finished, I am left with no more than some banal commonplace that everyone knows: in this case, that women’s emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists. My deep emotions, my real ones, are to do with my relationship with a man. One man…. I am always coming to the conclusion that my real emotions are foolish, I am always having, as it were, to cancel myself out.
The theme of the reality of emotions is certainly as important in The Golden Notebook as that of madness and breakdown. Again and again, Anna tries to define herself as a “real woman” and to appraise each lover as a “real man.” It gets tiresome.
In the final sections of the book, as Anna and her American lover descend together into madness, Lessing seems to be seeking a unity that lies outside of the gender conflicts. Anna feels she can be one with Saul and think his thoughts. At the same time, she debases herself, seeking his approval and trying to earn his occasional warmth. It is not entirely believable.
So is a “free woman” necessarily so conflicted, condemning her own emotions and edging toward madness? Not in my experience, thank God, but it is Anna Wulf’s experience as she struggles to become free.