Overcome by midlife ennui, a Reader in Modern Literature and Culture at King's College London begins a rigorous study of Doris Lessing's oeuvre and life, on which she decides to model and document her own experiments in "free" living.
A reader in modern literature and culture at King’s College London, Feigel has something of Lessing’s diligent energy on the page, and in Free Woman she succeeds in making an extraordinary meditation on what it means to be a clever, engaged woman two generations after Lessing ... Feigel acknowledges that the freedom she desires and expects is less about freedom from servitude or want than about freedom to do as you please and exist outside categories of attachment, and hence is predicated on advantages of class, race and money. The reason this privilege does not sink the book is because she approaches her reordering of life around the precepts of Lessing and her protagonists with such focused earnestness, and with a classical, precise use of language ... Her technique is scrupulous, sparing neither herself nor others in a chronicle that is physically and intellectually intimate, in the manner of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Confessions ... Feigel has thought seriously about the meaning of freedom ... Her quest in Free Woman to do things differently is too sincere to be self-indulgent.
Hers is a quest narrative, exploring ideas about freedom that she finds in Lessing’s biography and work—how, and at what cost, it might be found, sexually, politically, socially, intellectually, in passionate love, or alone in nature—and weaving them into an account of her doubts and concerns about the course of her own life and marriage ... Feigel is an attentive reader, but the slightly riskier part of her venture is its demand that attention be paid to the inner workings of her life, a life that is extraordinary only in its advantages. In the course of writing the book, she becomes aware that the sense of unfreedom she chafes at may have more to do with her own oppressive 'eagerness to please' ... Feigel’s goal is to describe her feelings and discoveries in as much detail as possible.
Like recent literary memoirs such as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and Bee Rowlatt’s In Search of Mary: The Mother of All Journeys, Feigel examines Lessing primarily through her own experiences, an approach that introduces Lessing to a new audience and dulls her edge. The genre of the 'bibliomemoir' has grown in recent years, in part because its combination of close readings and contemporary inquiry often leads to new and lively interpretations of classic works. (Though just as often, this gives the impression that books only have literary value when the situations they describe closely match those of the memoirist’s own life.) Feigel reads thoroughly and carefully ... More than Lessing’s adventures, what comes across most strongly in the book is Feigel’s sensitivity and thoughtfulness. She seems disappointed that she could not live the life that Lessing led and that she does not even want it.