Prisons We Choose To Live Inside

Lara Feigel, Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing

Bloomsbury, 336pp, £18.00, ISBN 9781408878538

reviewed by Emily Bueno

‘There were too many weddings that summer,’ writes Lara Feigel at the opening of Free Woman. Forced to endure a succession of bourgeois nuptials – all take-home marmalade and hand-sewn Liberty print bunting – Feigel, a reader in modern literature at King’s College London, becomes increasingly truculent. Why does it bother her so? In large part, it’s the oppressive uniformity: the ‘apparent assumption’ that marriage ‘remained the only way to live’, with the entire room co-opted into this one-size-fits-all vision of happy-ever-after. Feigel finds herself ‘needing urgently to insist on my right to live fully, without quite knowing what I would want that to entail.’ This comes in the midst of a malaise brought on by turning thirty-five (‘thirty-five is the end of youth,’ a friend tells Feigel) and the grief of a miscarriage, Feigel discovering that she ‘had now reached a destination and had to wander around and locate myself in new surroundings.’ 

During one of these interminable weddings, Feigel is halfway through Doris Lessing’s totemic The Golden Notebook, whose protagonist Anna Wulf yearns to be a ‘free woman’ and is of a similar age to Feigel. It is Lessing that Feigel turns to to help her navigate these mid-life waters. The book, she writes, ‘emerged as an attempt to understand freedom as Lessing conceived it and as we might apprehend it now, politically, intellectually, emotionally and sexually.’

What emerges is a comprehensive and engagingly written exploration of what turns out to be an elusive concept. It may be because freedom is not defined that it proves to be elusive; or it may be that freedom, to be enjoyed totally, is a chimera. In examining ‘freedom’ (whatever that means), Feigel conveys the fragmented nature of human existence and our inability to enjoy liberation in the multiple spheres of our lives.

Given Lessing’s feminist credentials, and Feigel’s own concerns about her waning fertility it is unsurprising that the quest for freedom is centred (albeit not exclusively) on the female experience. Menstruation, motherhood, orgasms, sex and menopause are all discussed in unflinching detail, creating an exposé of not just Lessing’s but also Feigel’s life. She writes about her period and

‘the rage I could feel hovering beneath every encounter with my husband, even as I tried to please him – and of the stale smell of darkened blood. I was using sanitary towels instead of tampons. This hadn’t been a deliberate decision, but it seemed that I wanted to remain aware of myself bleeding.’

She reveals the maternal ambivalence she feels towards her three-year-old son – admitting that when he was a couple of days old and in a special care unit, she did not feel love for him and that she would have saved her husband over her son from a burning building. And she discusses how she does not agree with Lessing’s differentiation between clitoral and vaginal orgasms: ‘I think that Lessing was unnecessarily dismissive when it came to clitoral orgasms, which may suggest simply that her own weren’t very good. I find that when I’m sufficiently aroused, I reach an excited state in which the border between pleasure and pain is blurred.’

Feigel’s honesty is not gratuitous; it is vital to the purpose of the work. ‘Breaking down my social self had become a necessary continuation of the process of disintegration that had begun with the miscarriage,’ she says. ‘In order to be truthful and therefore in order to be free, I had to expose, both in person and in print, the side of me that was dislikeable.’ She goes on to quote Chris Kraus, who wrote in a fanatical love letter that her shame was necessarily surmountable because by exposing herself in print this way she was giving herself ‘the freedom of seeing from the inside out. I’m not driven anymore by other people’s voices. From now on it’s the world according to me.’

But it does seem that this honesty is not just purposive: Feigel in her self-described ‘obsession’ with Lessing appears to be taking on the characteristics of Lessing herself, who was also unflinching in her honesty.

The interest of Free Woman does not lie solely in this stark confessionalism. It is the liberation from the constraints of genre that makes the work stand out. Biography, memoir, literary criticism and cultural history are all employed, each strand informing and enhancing the others. Feigel uses her own experiences to try to understand some of Lessing’s more controversial decisions – for example, her abandonment of her two children with her first husband is examined alongside Feigel’s own maternal ambivalence to not entirely sympathetic effect. Feigel, who is also a cultural historian, has a suitably impressive grasp of the cultural and intellectual climate in which Lessing wrote and uses other writers to probe further as to what freedom actually means. Here, the breadth of her research and depth of her analysis is particularly impressive. Looking at the freedom that the menopause brings, Feigel probes the works of Iris Murdoch, Simone de Beavoir, Germaine Greer and Plato’s Republic, and starts to see ‘the change’ as an opportunity to be liberated from, in the words of Greer, the torments of ‘desire, insecurity, jealousy and the rest of the paraphernalia of romance.’ Feigel writes:

‘Reading Greer alongside Lessing, I started to view Lessing’s decision to turn middle age into old age less disapprovingly than I had before. I had always thought that the menopause came cruelly early; that now that we lived longer, it left us with too great a proportion of our lives deprived of oestrogen . . . But if this could open the door to a new form of freedom, then I could see that we needed to be young enough to go through it courageously. And I could see that after all those men, all those pregnancies, all those years of yearning, hoping and exhaustedly reconfiguring herself after her heart had been broken yet again, Lessing might have found it a relief to learn to live in a new way.’

Despite this deft grasp of scholarship, Feigel, in her ‘obsession’ with Lessing, at times descends into a critical messiness. She too easily conflates Lessing and her lovers with the characters in her novels, and in ways that are too striking for them to be dismissed as excusable slips. And there are times when it is unclear whether a description is Lessing’s or Feigel’s; notably, a long description of the sun rising over Ethiopia. Feigel also fails to define what she means by certain words; she writes ‘when I imagined promiscuously opening my marriage, I was not primarily objecting to marriage as a political act, though that was how I had framed it initially’, but fails to explain what she means by ‘political act’ here, or in fact in any of the other places she uses the idea of the ‘political’. This creates an occasional sense of opaqueness in an otherwise impeccably researched and thought-out book.

Given that her quest for freedom was borne of the ‘claustrophobia’ she felt during that summer of weddings, it seems inevitable that Feigel, as she explains in the afterword, would end up getting divorced. But one is left to ask, as Feigel herself does when considering Lessing’s divorce from her first husband: ‘Can freedom come from slamming a door and discarding the parts of your life that constrain you?’ Feigel concluded that Lessing had not found freedom from walking away from her first marriage. Feigel explains that she does ‘feel freer than I did in the period described in this book.’ One hopes this continues.