Second Thoughts: Golden snarls: Doris Lessing on The Golden Notebook (Flamingo pounds 6.99)

THE Golden Notebook is being published in this country as a modern classic, but its start 30 years ago here and in the United States was greeted with snarls. The least of the epithets was the now demoded 'ballscutter'. It had not occurred to me I was writing a feminist book. I was only describing how women thought and talked in their kitchens, and this came as a surprise to men, while some women objected to being exposed as they saw it then. Only last week a man from Mexico wrote to say the book was a revelation because he had not known women talked about the world and politics as well as about men and children. Starting with my mother, the women I have known have always talked about everything.

Reviewers can be an emotional lot. Most - some men were the exceptions - were too roiled to notice the book's shape, which to me was the point, saying by implication that to slap labels on to oneself is a mistake. 'Men. Women. Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love.' Everywhere in 1958 and 1959 True Believers were reeling off with broken hearts and minds because of the failure of Communism, and it was already evident that emotional commitment to a cause leads to nothing but trouble.

Later, women's movements claimed the book, and ever since, in country after country, this has happened. Now I get letters from the granddaughters of the book's first readers, who pressed it into their hands as a guide to the situation of women. I have always had letters from people interested only in the politics, and from psychiatrists interested only in the theme of madness. It is salutary to have written a book which has nearly always been received in ways opposite to its intention.

It was written at a time when every part of me was in lively debate with every other, which is perhaps why the thing has a vitality that keeps it popping up in unexpected places. It has just been republished in China, and 80,000 copies sold out in two days. To women. In Brazil two girls from the favelas said the book was relevant to their lives. A black man who read it in prison in Africa said it had changed his attitudes to women.

I wrote my way out of one set of mind - what I call 'the Western intellectual package', obligatory then for any person claiming seriousness - which meant you had to be a materialist, both philosophically and practically: life must ascend for ever for everyone everywhere on a stairway of material prosperity. You had to own allegiance to one of the churches of Marxism and believe that the working classes were the inheritors and transmitters of every possible good. You had to be an atheist. By the end of the book I had arrived in a state of agnosticism about absolutely everything, religion, politics, philosophy. Or (the second sentence), 'Everything is cracking up.'

One thought, when planning the book, was that 19th-century novels I would like to read had never been written. Historical events and processes usually seem afterwards like records of lunacy, but that is because we don't have the key to them - the atmosphere, the zeitgeist - which made it all possible. This is what novels do well - give you the taste and flavour of a time. I had lived through a period, and I knew it, just ending, which would soon seem more than usually a tale told by idiots. I wanted to record it. Whatever else the book has succeeded or failed in, I think people wanting to know what the flavour of political life and debate was like in the Forties, the Fifties, will find it in The Golden Notebook.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'