I was going to say that I hadn’t read any of Lessing’s work because I saw her as an outdated writer from the 1960s in a tweed skirt and pudding-basin haircut. I now realize that I had her mixed up with Iris Murdoch, and that she actually lived until 2013, writing until the early 21st century. And consulting my reading journals from before starting this blog, I found that I had read a Lessing before – The Good Terrorist, a book I loathed. So it’s just as well that I was pushed into reading this book by my CAE bookgroup, because I would never have read it by myself (if I could even find it because it’s not widely available any more).
It has an interesting publishing history. It was published as two separate novels ‘The Diary of a Good Neighbour’ (1983) and ‘If the Old Could…’ (1984) under the pseudonym of ‘Jane Somers’. Lessing explains in the preface to this 1984 volume that she sought to publish the books under another name to test out the publishing industry’s willingness to take on an unknown author, and the effect of a known ‘name’ in achieving publication. She was right to be sceptical about the industry: her main publishers of her many previous works both rejected it. When it was picked up by Michael Joseph (later Penguin), they said that The Diary of a Good Neighbour reminded them of Doris Lessing. Her French publisher made a similar observation. Unlike her other books, it was mainly reviewed by women journalists in women’s magazines, highlighting for her the difficulty in bringing books to the attention of readers (I’m not sure that this is such a problem now, is it? Although you only have to look at the piles of remaindered books to realize just how much writing becomes literally junked because it has missed its wave).
Set contemporaneously in the early 1980s (which is when they were published) the books are written in the form of undated diary entries, a format which becomes increasingly implausible with the increasing use of direct speech and which leads to one continuous screed of writing. Jane, or as she calls herself, ‘Janna’ is an editor at Lilith, an upmarket glossy women’s magazine that includes several ‘serious’ sociological pieces on birth control, sex, health, social problems generally, often gleaned and barely disguised from New Scientist and other publications, as well as a heavy photographic emphasis on clothes, food, wine and decor. Janna was smart, fastidious about her own grooming and presentation, with a stylish home but a circumscribed social life beyond work. She had started working at Lilith in 1947, straight from school, and she was still there some 35 years later, although the magazine itself had changed its focus and structure over time. She had married in 1963, but her husband Freddie died with cancer. Several years later her mother died, after living with her briefly when her married sister Georgie said that she could no longer cope with her, as she had four children of her own. By her own admission, and increasingly, Janna realizes that she had been repulsed by, and emotionally absent for, both these deaths.
It is strange, then, that in The Diary of a Good Neighbour this chic and self-contained woman should befriend Maudie Fowler, whom she met in the chemist’s shop and accompanied back to her home. More than ‘befriend’ in a bureaucratic sense: she became a mainstay, a ‘carer’ (before than was a thing) and intimately involved with Maudie’s increasingly frail body in a way that she never could would have done with her husband and mother. This is part of Janna’s own growth as she reaches middle-age and looks back on her earlier life with an appalled guilt and regret that she had not really engaged with mortality, even when it affected those closest to her. Lessing captures well the despair felt at the betrayal by the body in old age, the mutual love/hate relationship between the aging person and their carers, and the bureaucratization of ‘care’ contracted out as part of a financial arrangement. Although set in the 1980s, the old women that Lessing describes live in squalor, with no internal bathrooms and inadequate heating. It’s pretty bleak.
‘If the Old Could’ picks up after Maudie’s death as Janna falls unexpectedly in love with Richard, a married man. It seemed light and airy after the oppressive sadness of the first book, although as time goes on the one-sidedness of the relationship becomes increasingly apparent. It is clear that Richard is not going to leave his wife; neither Richard nor Janna can bring themselves to actually make love with each other; Richard has Janna’s phone number but she has no way of contacting him; they spend a lot of time moving from pub to coffee shop and walking the suburbs of London. Janna’s caring responsibilities have, if anything increased, as her moody and indolent niece Kate moves in with her and Janna becomes a frequent visitor to Annie, an old, complaining woman who stays immured in her stuffy rooms. Kate is clearly mentally ill – her other niece Jill and Janna’s co-workers at Lilith can see it- but Janna is largely passive in the face of Kate’s slovenliness and her half-hearted involvement with a group of squatters who trash Janna’s immaculate apartment and take advantage of her generosity (shades of The Good Terrorist here). Janna herself is likewise passive in the face of the theft and cheating of the carers employed to look after Annie, perhaps through a misplaced sense of solidarity at the poor treatment of women working for the elderly. If Janna didn’t give enough to her mother or her first husband Freddie, she is surely compensating here, from a sense of guilt and lost opportunities. But the last part of her relationship with Richard and his family, particularly his son, is puzzling and strains credulity.
Moreover, I was never really convinced by Lessing’s selection of career for Janna. We are told repeatedly that she is very busy, but I couldn’t really work out what Janna did at Lilith. She seems to spend a lot of time worrying about her former co-worker and friend Joyce, who leaves for America to save her marriage, and she can drop everything for lunches and walks with Richard when he deigns to call. Janna’s focus on clothes and presentation (both for herself and in judging others) is an important part of her personality, but these could be woven into any professional job. I suspect that Lessing knew little about the high-end magazine industry.
Taken together, this is a lengthy two-part book. Particularly at the start, I seemed to read and read without making progress, and I despaired at ever reaching beyond the first quarter of the book. The writing is dense and wordy. The lack of chapters gives the book a feeling of relentlessness, especially in the dark sections with the increasing oppressiveness of Maudie’s frailty.
However, Lessing is very good at depicting the contradictions and compromises of women’s lives. Although written in Janna’s voice, she leaves space for the reader to make their own judgments of Janna’s actions and priorities. Despite my qualms about Lessing’s choice of high-end journalism for Janna’s work, the book itself has an emotional authenticity that is best appreciated, I suspect, by older readers. Readers who have watched their elderly parents die, have made mistakes and feel regrets, and have lived more than one life. In fact, I can’t imagine younger readers persisting with this book at all but, as an older reader myself, I appreciated watching a woman re-evaluating her life, finding her younger self a puzzling creature, and facing her own mortality head on.
My rating: Hard to judge. 8??
Sourced from: CAE Booksgroups (The Ladies Who Say Oooh)