Spectator on Doris Lessing

A Peanuts cartoon that’s stuck with me over the years has Lucy leaning against the precocious Schroeder’s toy piano. Lucy, worn out with unrequited love for her vituoso, bursts out: ‘Love me or leave me.’ As Schroeder picks up his piano and walks away, a crest-fallen Lucy calls out: ‘Let me re-phrase that!’

This exchange came back to me when I heard on the car radio that Doris Lessing had won the Nobel Prize. I remember saying ‘I will never marry a man who hasn’t read The Golden Notebook.’ The novel was the lodestar of my twenties. As soon as I got back home, I went to the shelf where my copy sits. Beside it are 11 other books by Miss Lessing, including a first edition of In Pursuit of the English. None is so worn as the The Golden Notebook.

The Swedish Academy said: ‘The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work, and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship.’ When I first read it, I didn’t realise it was pioneering: it just felt true. It also fell into the category of aspirational literature: I longed to be in a world where people talked like Anna Wulf and Molly. ‘Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love…’ says Anna, in a section of the book called ‘Free Women’. I wanted to know people who discussed moral, political and intellectual things.

Something else about the book was magical: London. Although I’d never been, I fell in love with it. Even now, I can turn instantly to the passage where Anna is in Molly’s flat ‘on the first floor, overlooking a narrow side street, whose windows had flower boxes and painted shutters, and whose pavements were decorated with three basking cats, a pekinese and the milk-cart, late because it was Sunday’. The milkman’s son has just got a scholarship and Molly warns him: ‘Mr Gates, your son’s up into the middle-class now, with us lot, and you won’t be speaking the same language.’ But Mr Gates isn’t worried: ‘It’s the way of the world,’ he tells her, and Molly complains: ‘He’s one of those bloody working class tories.’

It all seems long ago: Women’s Liberation, milk-carts, cats basking in the sun on London streets. Ten years after the book appeared, Miss Lessing wrote that she didn’t think that Women’s Liberation would change much not because the aims were wrong, but because ‘it is already clear that the whole world is being shaken into a new pattern by the cataclysms we are living through’. She believed that if we did get through it all, the aims of Women’s Liberation ‘will look very small and quaint’. That was nearly 40 years ago.

Doris Lessing opened my mind in a way that writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer did not. She gave me literature and London. When I finally met her a couple of years ago at the Aldeburgh Literary Festival, she was in a grumpy mood. Traffic on the A12 had prevented her from having lunch before her reading. After I found her a sandwich and a glass of wine, she began to relax. As she signed books, she complained that they never sell these days, that her publishers make no effort, that the idiots who ask questions at readings haven’t read the books. She will like the financial side of the Nobel Prize, and be happier still if it leads readers to her books.

As it happened, I married a man who hasn’t read The Golden Notebook. Along life’s highway, I fell under the influence of my other literary heroine. I learned to say ‘Let me re-phrase that’.