The Book of Embarrassing Old Women

December 18, 2010 § Leave a comment


The Diaries of Jane Somers (Lessing, Doris)

To involve oneself with the infinitely deprived means you take on a weight of guilt. They need so much: you can give so little
– Jane Somers, The Diary of a Good Neighbour

Jane Somers is the narrator and protagonist, the character through whose thoughts and words we view the world, in this two-novel collection. That, by itself, is a fairly standard device employed by authors. But Doris Lessing takes things to the next level here. A celebrated author by the time she wrote these novels, she chose to seek to publish them not under her own name but under the pseudonym of her lead character, Jane Somers. She says she did this in order to highlight the problems faced by unknown authors trying to get published for the first time. Was she successful in this attempt? Well, her own UK publisher rejected the manuscript at first, but others did pick it up; some were even able to identify her authorship from the style, and very soon the book was sold out, and the public was clamoring for it, without knowing that it was hers.

My mental picture of Janna Somers

It is all very reassuring, of course, to know that literary merit wins out over fame, that you don’t need to be a celebrity to get noticed, that publishers can (and do) actually spot true talent, and that we, the paying public, are discriminating and intelligent, after all.

You will find this heartwarming anecdote in Lessing’s preface to the edition I read. Do not look elsewhere in the book for reassurance and comfort; you will not find any.

In my opinion,” remarks Jane Somers, at some point in the first novel, “the truth is intolerable, it is more than we can stand, it has to be prettied up.” But then she doesn’t, not to us, her readers and confidants – but we aren’t really her confidants, are we? We are creepy people who have picked up someone’s diary, and are leafing through its rather intimate contents. We are privy to more information that we are accustomed to in polite society. We feel vaguely uneasy, slightly perv-ish; the sense of guilt is a nagging undercurrent.

By writing the novels in the form of a diary, and by then making us believe that the diarist is a real person – the middle-aged, sophisticated romantic novelist and editor of a fashion magazine – Lessing has deliberately made guilt our primary reaction to the book. This is entirely apt; her core themes are women and aging, and in the first novel, economic deprivation as well, and on these subjects, there is much to feel guilty about.

Of the two novels, I thought the first (Diary of a Good Neighbour) was easily the more powerful. Lessing (or Somers) makes us enter and confront the sordid world of solitary old women, and she forces us not to flinch as she shows us the deprivation, the complete abandonment by family, the helplessness, the bitterness, the impotent, unreasonable rages, the silly vanities, the embarrassment, the transparent craftiness, the constant need for someone to complain to, the efficient but impersonal state care, the humiliating lack of control over one’s bowels and bladder, the sheer indignity, the uncleanness, the putrid smells, the inevitable mortality. You ought to feel guilty, Somers (or Lessing) says to the reader; the reason you don’t in real life is because you shut it out of your consciousness, you pretend the problem doesn’t exist or that it is somebody’s else’s; and she will not allow you that luxury in this book.

The second novel (If the Old Could) deals with the problems of romantic relationships, of working women and marriage, and of teenagers – once again from the perspective of the middle-aged woman of class and comfort. I freely admit that some of this didn’t speak to me at all. My sense of detachment from the lead character broadened to incomprehension and then into complete bewilderment when the fifty-something Somers decides that she has fallen in love with a 22-year old boy that she has met for the first time, while simultaneously disliking him intensely. It is possibly a flaw in my character, this incapability to appreciate complex first-sight love-hate angst – but the Jane Somers I knew so well from the first book (my mental picture was of Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect) was now like someone you knew very well from long ago, and had much respect for as a sane and competent person, but who has suddenly changed in indeterminate ways, and is embarrassing herself profoundly, and you wish she would stop, and you wonder if you ever knew her at all.

A man who knows only two things can do no more than compare them with each other. The only other serious writer on women that I have read is de Beauvoir. In the Second Sex, de Beauvoir devotes entire chapters to describe the lot of, in turn, the young girl, the grown woman, the new bride, the mother, the working woman, and the crone. While the descriptions were detailed and on the whole, perceptive, I wondered at the time of reading if it was too archetypal; how could all women follow similar patterns? Lessing (Somers?) brings out many of the same points in the Diaries; but aside from the tortuous -and torturous- descriptions of middle-aged love, I found it easier to believe in and empathize with Lessing’s characters than with de Beauvoir’s. But then, what do I know, I’m just a man.

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