Politics and the Threat of Reading in Doris Lessing’s “The Sweetest Dream”

In Doris Lessing’s The Sweetest Dream, one of her neglected later novels, she reconstructs the political themes of her two great 1960s experimental novels, The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City.  She sketches the hypocrisy of the post-war Communist party in Britain, recalls the very real terror of the atomic bomb, and explores the alternative cultures of hippies and dropouts. 

But The Sweetest Dream is straightforward and realistic—there are no flights into science fiction, and any portraits of mental illness are clinical rather than empathetic.  This solid book is more accessible than her masterpieces, and it is a page-turner.  It might be a good place to start reading Lessing.

Lessing writes a note at the beginning of the book explaining that she never wrote the third volume of her autobiography because she did not want to hurt people.  She offers this novel in its place. And though she claims the characters are not based on any people, her readers will recognize recurring themes and characters from her canon.  

The Sweetest Dream begins in  the 1960s and takes us through the ‘90s.  It is a bookish novel, alluding not only to Lessing’s earlier novels, but to the role of reading in the characters’ lives. It focuses on the Lennoxes, an extended family which expands to include the children of the ex-wives of Comrade Johnny Lennox, whom his mother Julia calls “an imbecile.” 

The Lennoxes live in a large house in London, a house where people don’t particularly like each other. It is managed by Frances, an actress and journalist, the first of Johnny’s ex-wives, and is  owned by Johnny’s mother, Julia, a German aristocrat who came to England after World War I.  Frances and Julia  dislike each other but tolerate each other for the sake of Frances’s two teenage sons, who need a stable home.  Andrew and Colin have been traumatized by the irresponsibility of their father, “Comrade” Johnny, a Communist superstar who left them years ago and has since ruined the lives of other vulnerable women.  

And though the house is not meant to be a rooming house, Frances is too kind to turn people in need away. Partly out of guilt toward her sons, she allows their friends to “crash” on weekends.  Soon some of the “waifs” are living there.

The most problematic of the “waifs” is Rose, a furious girl whom no one likes, who moves into the basement flat and refuses to leave.  Her hatred of the Lennoxes, especially Frances, poisons the atmosphere.  Years later, when Rose joins the Communist party, Rose jeers at the elderly Julia as she struggles through a crowd at an anti-war rally.  When Julia faints on the curb, trying to call a taxi,  Rose yells to the crowd that “Ma Lennox” is drunk, and the crowd laughs.  Rose does get a taxi for the old woman, but continues her campaign to discredit the family.

But what I’m really interested in is the role of books in Rose’s burgeoning hatred and resentment of the Lennoxes.

Since Rose had first come into this house she had been possessed by a quiet fury that these people could call it theirs, as of a right.  The great house, its furnishings, like something out of a film, all that money…but all that was only the foundation for  a deeper anguish, a bitter burning that never left them.  It was their ease with it all, what they took for granted, what they knew.  Never had she mentioned a book—and she had a period of testing them out with books no sane person could have heard of—that they hadn’t read, or hadn’t heard of.  She would stand in that sitting-room, with two walls all books from ceiling to floor, and know that they had read them.  “Frances,” she challenged, being found there, hands on hips, glaring at the books, “have you actually read all these books?”  “Well, yes, I believe I have.”  “When did you? Did you have books in your house when you were growing up?”  “Yes, we had the classics. I think everyone did in those days.”  “Everybody, everybody!  Who’s everybody?”  “The middle classes,” said Frances, determined not to be bullied.  “And a good proportion of the working class as well.”

This goes on for pages.  A young African boy  is also intimidated by the books, but, unlike Rose, he is awed and thrilled to read them. 

Books so often are the center of debate, aren’t they?  Especially in this day and age, when the Left and the Right both “censor” books by discrediting the writers’ politics or personal lives. This is a very strange time, but maybe we’ll forget all about it in ten years.

I wonder what Lessing would have thought.

The Doris Lessing Effect

Doris Lessing

Thinking back over my wide reading in the canon and pop genres, I often muse on how lucky I am to be surrounded by books. After a lifetime of buying books, I have an eclectic library that is better than many bookstores. I’ve grazed happily in ancient and modern literature: Aeschylus to Austen, Catullus to Colette, Tolstoy to Elizabeth Taylor, Dickens to Drabble. But I must admit that Doris Lessing is the writer who has influenced me most.

Her masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, opened up new worlds to women in the mid-twentieth century (and later). Anna, the heroine, is a “free woman,” a single mother, and a blocked writer who despises her own best-selling first novel. She refuses to write another “sentimental” novel and instead she writes for hours every day in four different-colored notebooks. She is brittle and unhappy because her married lover has left her:  she writes a fictional version of this.  There does not seem to be much future in love for her.  When I first read this remarkable novel, I had never visualized a future where a woman’s primary goal wasn’t marriage or motherhood. Life is difficult for Anna, but it shatters the myth that all women attain what is supposed to be the feminine dream.

Lessing was exasperated that The Golden Notebook was considered a feminist classic.  It is primarily an experimental novel about  the breakdown of personality in the fragmented post-war society. It may not be a feminist novel, but it certainly inspired feminists.

Lessing has always been a controversial writer. She was a member of the Communist party, until she (and many others) discovered what was going on in Russia.  According to the Guardian, MI5 spied on her for 20 years, “listening to her phone conversations, opening her mail and closely monitoring her movement…”And the political aspects of her work that appealed to women readers in the ’60s and ’70s seem to be lost on future generations.

And then, after her death in 2013, Lessing was attacked by several journalists and critics on the basis of her personality: in short,  as a woman, not as a writer. They sternly dubbed her “a bad mother” because she “abandoned” her two children to be raised by their father in Africa. That seems a very sexist criticism to me.  And then they turned around and criticized for having a third child who lived with her until his death. The logic of this utterly defeats me.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I never understand the attacks on a writer’s personality anyway. We read their work, but surely do not expect them to be perfect people.   That’s why they’re writers after all: to express ideas that might be extremely unpopular or unappealing if we had to listen to them drone on in person. But nothing they dug up on Lessing seemed terrible to me. They were determined to turn her life into a celebrity gossip column.  After all, she was a former Communist and an outspoken woman.

At Goodreads, the average star rating of The Golden Notebook is 3.8. That’s not terrible, but it’s certainly not what I’d expect. I wonder if she is less read and understood now:   only 30% of the world’s population today was alive in 1962 when The Golden Notebook was published. But then again, this is a complicated experimental novel.  It’s a lot of work to read.

Honestly, if I ever again see a headline like the following, “Doris Lessing: from champion of free love to frump with a bun” (The Spectator), I am writing a letter of protest to the editor.

The Leggings Protest & Doris Lessing’s “The Summer Before the Dark”

What should women wear?  Pant suits? Jeans?

What about leggings?

Last week at Notre Dame University and St. Mary’s College, the student paper published a letter that sparked a protest. The subject:  leggings.  Maryann White, a Catholic mother of four sons, asked women students to renounce the  fashion of tight leggings with short tops .  She was disturbed by the sight of women’s derrières at Mass, and thought leggings too provocative in the presence of men and her sons.  She said it made it more difficult for her to be a good Catholic mother.

The students did not say “YES” TO Maryann White’s letter.  Instead, they protested by wearing leggings for two days.  Well, the energy could have gone into protesting the denial of global warming or the closing of Planned Parenthood clinics, but I don’t care whether or not they wear leggings.

I assumed from the mockery of the press that Maryann White was dotty.  Then I read the letter.  She makes some good points about the fashion industry’s exploitation of women.

She writes,

The emergence of leggings as pants some years ago baffled me. They’re such an unforgiving garment. Last fall, they obtruded painfully on my landscape. I was at Mass at the Basilica with my family. In front of us was a group of young women, all wearing very snug-fitting leggings and all wearing short-waisted tops (so that the lower body was uncovered except for the leggings). Some of them truly looked as though the leggings had been painted on them.

A world in which women continue to be depicted as “babes” by movies, video games, music videos, etc. makes it hard on Catholic mothers to teach their sons that women are someone’s daughters and sisters. That women should be viewed first as people — and all people should be considered with respect.

Again, I don’t care who wears leggings, but it is true that clothes send a message.

For instance, in Doris Lessing’s novel The Summer Before the Dark, the middle-aged Kate has a kind of fashion breakdown. She has a makeover before taking a summer job as an interpreter, and is much admired.  When she returns to London, she rents a room in a young woman’s flat for the rest of the summer.  She doesn’t dye her hair and loses so much weight her clothes no longer fit.  When she finally goes out again in baggy clothes she is invisible to men.

All this changes  when she borrows a fashionable dress from her young roommate.

Mrs. Brown strolled in the park all afternoon. She had not at first realised she was again Mrs. Brown, but then she noted glances, attention: it was because she wore Maureen’s properly fitting shift, in dark glossy green, because she had done her hair with the twist and the lift that went with “piquant” features—because she was, as they say, “on the mend,” and the lines of her body and face had conformed? A man came to sit near her on a bench and invited her to dinner.

A woman walking in a sagging dress, with a heavy walk, and her hair—this above all—not conforming to the prints made by fashion, is not “set” to attract men’s sex. The same woman in a dress cut in this or that way, walking with her inner thermostat set just so—and click, she’s fitting the pattern. Men’s attention is stimulated by signals no more complicated than what leads the gosling; and for all her adult life, her sexual life, let’s say from twelve onwards, she had been conforming, twitching like a puppet to those strings.…

Doris Lessing is brilliant and articulates ideas the rest of us can’t.

I myself ignore fashion so didn’t even realize that leggings were the fashion.

Leggings or not?