The Golden Notebook and Austen’s Emma

In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, one of the finest novels written in English since the war, Ella is shown in a mood not wholly unlike Jane Austen’s Emma:

“Now she cannot sleep, she masturbates, to accompaniment of fantasies of hatred about men. Paul has vanished completely: she has lost the warm strong man of her experience, and can only remember a cynical betrayer. She suffers sex desire in a vacuum. She is acutely humiliated, thinking that this means she is dependent on men for ‘having sex’, for ‘being serviced’, for ‘being satisfied’. She uses this kind of savage phrase to humiliate herself.”

The delicate comedy of the passage, a comedy distinctly akin to Emma, lies precisely in the fact that these phrases are not ‘savage’, that they echo a lost gentility, or rather a phase of mere ‘adult frankness’ before total explicitness.


From On Difficulty (1975) by George Steiner


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