In reading this, I had to weigh-up: on the one hand the author won the Nobel Prize for Literature (no mean feat for a woman!) and on the other I would have preferred to read a book on Africa, politics and feminism written by a woman of colour of that time rather than a white woman.
First published in 1962 as an exploration of ‘Free Women’, the book centres around a group of young, white, idealists and their political debates and hypocrisies particularly around communism, racism, feminism, patriarchy, sexual freedom and the war.
Anna, the main character, has written a novel called ‘Frontiers of War’ based on her youth in Colonial Africa during WWII. It is successful but after moving to London finds she is suffering from writer’s block. Anna wants to be free but believes that she cannot thrive as a writer or a woman if she does not exist independently of her lovers. Yet she cannot be happy without the love of a man and she cannot love fully unless she relinquishes control enough to lose herself in him. She experiences increasing pressure in the tension between her own and society’s expectations for her life. She writes in five coloured notebooks; four to record different aspects of her life eg events in her everyday life, her political views, her writing life, her emotional life and in the fifth to pull them together in exploring ‘Free Women’.
Golden Notebook is very much of its time and illustrates a connection between gender issues and mental health. I did find myself questioning how Anna could be revolutionary enough to join the Communist Party and explore ‘Free Women’ while she had this ‘Mills and Boon’ view of romance. Was Anna’s nervous breakdown fed by the pressure she felt from conflicting expectations or her need to be with a man? Did she make poor choices in men because she felt that was what a free woman would do?
The story does have relevance for today’s reader. Women feeling conflicted between being a mother and a mistress; feeling their emotions are authorized by tradition; feeling their emotions don’t fit their lives; experiencing sexual harassment on the tube.
Structurally, I found this a difficult story to read. Lessing has used a range of techniques; the usual narrative structure; Anna is the main character in both ‘Golden Notebook’ and ‘Frontiers of War’; there is a novel within a novel; diary entries and newspaper adverts.
As a read, I found it complex and often depressing yet spot on about emotions. Passages illustrating Anna’s breakdown were uncomfortable for me to read although I admit I do not know much in this area especially the idea of a breakdown as a way of self -healing. Lessing was adamant that she did not set out to write a ‘feminist’ novel, saying that the novel was ‘meant for women’. Yet, there is a strong focus on sexual politics but not much on other aspects such as racism or class.