The Golden Notebook is one of the great novels of the 20th century. It portrays the complexity of one female writer's experience of life in the 1950s, as well as the bigger picture of a society on the brink of massive social change.
Anna is a writer, divorced and bringing up her daughter in London in the mid 1950s. She spends a great deal of time with her close friend Molly, also divorced, also raising her son. The two women are negotiating the difficult territory of Britain in the post war years, when many women were beginning to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of marriage and domestic bliss.
The introduction to each episode described the novel as ‘iconic’ and ‘shocking’. It’s many, many years since I read The Golden Notebook. I failed then and still do fail to see just what is so wonderful about it. More shocking than A Taste of Honey (1958) or The L-Shaped Room (1960)? More accurate in its portrayal of women’s problems than The Weather in the Streets (1936)? The divorced heroine is always hanging on the phone waiting for a call from her married lover. (I would like to line up all the real and fictional women in this situation in front of an enormous billboard and force them to read: He Will Never Leave His Wife, You Fool.) After the failure of that relationship (he doesn’t leave his wife) Anna starts to crack up but is rescued in the end; by a man, of course. As I see it, there is nothing remotely feminist about the novel, which is why I’d be very interested to know what young women think of it nowadays.
Of course, the structure of the novel, in the form of the different notebooks, is what makes it ‘literary’ and gives rise to the critical acclaim. The radio adaptation did the book no favours as it couldn’t use the same format and went for straight narration. Listening to it, I was strongly reminded of hearing Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence in the same slot earlier this year. Which says it all, really.