Lessing's radical exploration of communism, female liberation, motherhood and mental breakdown was hailed as the 'feminist bible' and reviled as 'castrating'. Four generations of writers reflect on what it means to them
Her other important theme, the situation of women, would have appealed to me much more if it had not been for the elaborate structure in which she had chosen to wrap it, her tendency to overstate, and her style. This seemed to me often to become stiff, particularly in the heavy-handed passages of dialogue between Anna and Molly. The switches of mood that occurred so often in these were unconvincing and so obviously engineered to exemplify the points Lessing wanted to make. I loved her earlier writing about her life in Africa, which was relaxed and vivid, and which I recognised again when The Golden Notebook's story took it to Africa, but when it moved to London the style became clumsier. It tended to be assertive, and I agree with Montaigne that assertiveness provokes resistance. Although Lessing writes with feeling about the uncertainties and frailties of her women characters, there is a slightly pompous solemnity – almost didacticism – in the atmosphere that prevails in The Golden Notebook, as though its author were not searching out the truth, but stating that she knows it – always a dangerous thing for anyone to do.
Or so it seemed to me when I first read it. Going back to it, I find it easier to forgive the clumsiness of its structure, and that stiffness – to admire the boldness of its ambition and be moved by its passion. It is certainly impressive, looming so large in the landscape of 20th-century literature. But I cannot say that it was a landmark book for me.
Read what Margaret Drabble, Rachel Cusk, and Natalie Hanman have to say.