Reading Lives, Writing Lives

My tiny captor sleeps beside me. I don’t know how long it will last, but I welcome such moments of respite. Stolen hours to write, periods in which I feel my foggy ...

My tiny captor sleeps beside me. I don’t know how long it will last, but I welcome such moments of respite. Stolen hours to write, periods in which I feel my foggy intellect reawakening, rising up to compete, momentarily, with my maternal instinct in its claim on my being. As someone new to motherhood, relatively new to marriage, and with writerly ambitions, I found Lara Feigel’s recent book—which explores the freedoms women give up or gain in these differing commitments—immediately resonant.

There I go, kicking off a review essay with a personal anecdote. This merging of the critical and confessional irks some people, such as this essayist, who blames David Foster Wallace for the tendency and urges any would-be critic-confessors to show restraint. As he puts it, “I don’t care about your life.” Yet Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing does not ask to be read impersonally, just as Feigel does not read Lessing impersonally. The book is part of the same zeitgeist that the essayist disparages.

Moved to question her own life after rereading The Golden Notebook during a summer of attending “too many” weddings, Feigel embarks on an exploration of Lessing’s works and life that hovers somewhere at the intersection of biography, literary criticism, and memoir. She reads thirstily, hoping to find direction vis-à-vis some of her own predicaments. Feigel clearly identifies with Lessing (and, at least in her online profile pictures, bears a striking resemblance to the young author), but claims her less as a guide than as a challenger, a voice pushing her to think more deeply about her own life, her freedoms and constraints.

Feigel’s perspective on Lessing is illuminating in its own right, but the emotional heart of the book is her own journey. Which raises the question: why does she turn to this admittedly brilliant, in her time revolutionary, but ultimately unhappy and, notably, dead writer? Feigel herself considers this only tangentially, when she observes that there is perhaps “something odd” in “trying to learn about the possibilities for freedom in my own life by reading the writers of the past.” She muses: “For whatever reason, my instinct when dissatisfied with the apparent conservatism of those around me was to look for alternative friends not among the living but among the dead.” But rather than reflecting an odd personal quirk, this instinct is very much of the moment.

In recent years several books have appeared in which women writers look to literary figures of the past to help them think anew about their own lives and inspire them to push against the constraints of contemporary conventions. Jessa Crispin (The Dead Ladies Project, 2015), who explores escape and reinvention, expresses a near identical sentiment to Feigel’s: “I would need guidance, but there wasn’t anyone in my life I felt I could turn to, not about this. Using my married, employed, insured friends’ lives as markers for where my life should be was one of my contributing factors. … It was the dead I wanted to talk to.” Katie Roiphe (Uncommon Arrangements, 2008) examines the relationships of the Bloomsbury set to think about the limits and possibilities of marriage today; Kate Zambreno (Heroines, 2012) explores the lives of modernist wives to make sense of her own frustrations as the wife of a more successful academic; Kate Bolick (Spinster, 2015) introduces her own cast of 20th-century female writers in order to reappropriate the liberatory potential of the “spinster”; and Samantha Ellis (Take Courage, 2017) revisits the forgotten Brontë sister, Anne, for lessons in bravery and feminism.

Why does Feigel turn to this admittedly brilliant, in her time revolutionary, but ultimately unhappy and, notably, dead writer?

These books have a number of characteristics in common. The central subjects are the memoirists themselves, who are nearly all middle-class white women. Most struggle, with varying degrees of intensity, with the bourgeois mores of their moment. They are, moreover, completely earnest—indeed, Elaine Showalter’s biting portrait, in her recent review of Free Woman, of the character of a humorless professor identifying too closely with her novelistic heroines (a staple of academic fiction in the 1970s and 1980s) could equally be evoked in relation to any of the other aforementioned books.

Showalter’s response highlights another common feature, one of reception: there is sometimes an air of literary snootiness in reviews of the works of these critic-confessors. In general—and even in this case, were it not for Showalter’s clear feminist credentials—one might legitimately wonder if this tone has something to do with gender, with the fact that the central question underpinning the genre as a whole is how to be a (free) woman. (The snootiness is almost entirely absent, for example, in the reception of Geoff Dyer’s works of a similar type.) But it is also a response to the practice of reading literary works and biographies in search of wisdom to apply in one’s own life. This is, no doubt, a common enough way of reading, but not one that has historically been privileged by literary critics, at least not over the past century.

But the most striking shared characteristic of these works is a kind of haunting. The voices of literary foremothers ring insistently for these contemporary writers as they attempt to find their own answers to Carolyn Heilbrun’s still-pressing question: how, as women, should we write our own lives (literally and metaphorically)? The motivation for this backward gaze is a pervasive sense that our sisters of yesteryear, simply put, were more radical than we are; that rather than being at the forefront of a feminist history, we are surprisingly conservative. This raises several questions. First, are these authors right? Were previous generations of women writers and intellectuals in fact more radical, braver, or freer? Second, does the prevalence of this longing for the past tell us anything about our contemporary moment? Third, is the practice of reading lives (of dead authors, in these cases) to write lives an effective literary device? Does it elucidate either the lives of the dead or those of the living?


Carolyn Heilbrun Told You So

By Judith Pascoe

It certainly does seem that Lessing was a more radical, braver woman than most of our contemporaries—if not ultimately freer, as Feigel shows in her exploration of the relative trade-offs involved for Lessing in motherhood, love, and political commitment (freedom, it turns out, is an elusive beast). Lessing was, however, a remarkable spirit and intellect, not easily reducible to her moment in time. Feigel’s broader concern that “there was a world that Lessing’s generation and my feminist friends in their sixties and seventies had fought to bring into being that my generation seemed willing to let fall away” is trickier to state definitively. Such sweeping claims are easily met with an army of yes, buts—chief among them the oft-asked, “But isn’t this just nostalgia?”1 Feigel, no doubt wary of the yes, buts, does not linger on this generational comparison. Instead she mostly lets it lie as an underlying impression and repeatedly qualifies her own experiences in terms of age, education, and class background. I admit, though—albeit as an almost exact contemporary of Feigel’s, in all of those qualifying terms—that the comparison between Lessing’s generation and ours rings true to me.

By “our” generation I mean the tail end of Generation X: those born in the late 1970s or early ’80s, now in their mid-to-late 30s, who graduated from university when large sign-on bonuses were being handed out like confetti by banks and consultancy firms and, a decade later, transferred the desire for achievement into the realm of motherhood, allowing, for example, natural childbirth to become a measure of success or failure. Lessing and her characters questioned whether marriage and monogamy were tenable or desirable institutions at all; we ask whether weekends away can help spice up a marriage. Even today’s efforts at free love are depressingly utilitarian compared with those attempted by Lessing and by the literary couples that are the subject of Katie Roiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements, who were driven by genuine questioning of convention and a desire for sexual liberation, albeit with results that exacted a high price in hurt. The recent “poly” conferences popping up across America seem about as sexually charged as a trip to Ikea, and the booming online infidelity matchmakers turn the frisson of the forbidden into a consumer matrix. And in spite of the newly galvanizing momentum of, for example, the women’s movement, I struggle to think of anyone whose politics asks of them anything like the all-encompassing urgency and life-altering commitment that Lessing felt in relation to the Communist Party (at least until her perhaps inevitable disillusionment).

Feigel and her fellow critic-confessors ask that we reopen the question of how to live, even if there are no obvious answers and such attempts are easily mocked.

But (but!) all of this perhaps says more about “our” generation than about those to whom we compare ourselves. It is telling that the books I have listed look to a range of past figures from quite different eras and literary movements (Victorian, modernist, postwar), yet the shared characteristic ascribed to all of their heroines is a kind of existential bravery. What Feigel calls Lessing’s “almost fanatical need to live in good faith” is a need attributed to nearly all of the literary specters marshaled by the recent crop of life writers as unsuspecting, ghostly warrior-queens. In answer to the second question, then, it is not merely the prevalence of a vague backward glance that says something about our contemporary moment; the specific content of that longing is significant.

What Feigel admires most in Lessing is that she took seriously the idea that your lived life should reflect your belief system, as complicated as efforts in this direction understandably were. To Lessing, the collective dream was not one concern among others, but the compass orienting every individual choice. And if the figures of literary-historical inspiration in books of this kind are nearly all portrayed as radical, it is not primarily in their beliefs or intellectual questioning of the systems and cultures that bound them, but in the risks they took with their own lives, the stakes they were willing to place on those beliefs. If the longing evident in this backward gaze tells us anything about our current moment, it is that there is a desire to make the personal political again, to make a sincere effort, as Feigel puts it, to tell “the truth about how the world looks, in its smallest components,” and more importantly still to “live in good faith.”

Of course, the truth about “how the world looks” varies depending on where one is looking from. For example, the fact that Feigel’s description of the wedding “scene” seems on point to me is likely an indication that we move in a similar milieu. That her experiences are not universal does not, however, invalidate her insights into them. One can certainly ask whether what Feigel sees as the hypocrisies and half-hearted commitments embodied in the “smug structures of middle-class life” are a function of the systemic triumph of global capitalism; whether one can really think about existential freedom, or the freedom to live in good faith, independently of the system of which one is a part. If The Golden Notebook’s Anna Wulf is equally despondent about love and communism, it’s partly because for her these two great dreams are inextricably intertwined; and arguably, nowhere is the problematic pairing of love and capitalism today more evident than in the wedding industry with which Free Woman begins. But this line of thinking—“it’s the system, stupid”—all too easily allows one to avoid demanding more of oneself. Feigel mobilizes Lessing, just as Bolick mobilizes what she calls her “awakeners” and Crispin her dead friends, in order to help her ask more of herself; all ask that we reopen the question of how to live, even if there are no obvious answers and such attempts are easily mocked.


Are Sharp Women Enough?

By Catherine Keyser

Which leads to the third and final question: what of this practice of reading past lives to help write future ones? Is it effective? I can only answer: it depends. Although I confess (there I go again) to enjoying this emerging genre in general, if Free Woman stands out, it is precisely due to Feigel’s obvious obsession with Lessing. If Showalter sees this as the book’s weakness, then I contend that it is also its strength. In order for narratives of parallel lives to be compelling, there has to be an authentic (even if elective) affinity. Without this, these framings can feel staged. (The most powerful chapter in Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project, for example, is the one on Margaret Anderson, for the simple reason that Crispin identifies with Anderson to such a great extent that both lives are illuminated by the comparison.)

In Free Woman, it is Feigel’s identification with Lessing’s urgent pursuit of sexual freedom and creative and political engagement, and with her semiautobiographical character Anna Wulf’s “refusal to define herself primarily as a wife, mother or lover,” that allows the reader to really inhabit the conflicting pulls and constraints facing (middle-class) women, both then and now: the shame of maternal ambivalence; desire as both liberatory and strangely imprisoning; the cruel dwindling of romantic interest as one ages, but also the possible emancipation this offers; the purpose and constriction in political belonging; the freedom of writing itself. Free Woman might be TMI for the tastes of some, and it won’t chime with every Lessing enthusiast’s perspective on the author, but this is not confessional writing to no end. In laying herself and Lessing bare, Feigel takes a risk, and it pays off.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. I am reminded of Mark Fisher’s point that “it seems strange to have to argue that comparing the present unfavourably with the past is not automatically nostalgic in any culpable way.” Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Zero, 2014), p. 25.
Featured image: Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Caricature of Two Women Seen From Behind (18th century). Metropolitan Museum of Art