‘Free Women’ is a short novel about Anna Wulf, a thirty something single mother living in London and her friend Molly, an actress and fellow single mother. Anna is the author of a bestselling novel but now has writers’ block, and instead writes in her 4 differently coloured notebooks which separate different aspects of her life.
The stages of the notebooks, which start during the second world war and continue to the early sixties, appear in 4 blocks and break up the freestanding interior novel ‘Free Women’ into five sections. Anna’s desire to compartmentalise her life to avoid chaos is realised in the fragmentation of the novel and I think works well to symbolise the turbulent feelings of change that must have been around at this time. The Golden Notebook appears at the end and aims to bring the different strands of her life together.
The Black Notebook records her writing life. Her novel was a fictitious account of her experiences during the second world living in South Africa. She wishes she had just written the truth about her life there with her small group of friends and that is the story that she writes here and it’s thoroughly enjoyable, relaxed and vivid. She plays around with styles too, scolding herself for writing in a particular way and deliberately showing us changes.
The Red Notebook records her political life. In the wake of the Cold War Anna and her friends are communists, enjoying the young ideology and much of their discussion is around what it means to be a communist, a humanist or a socialist. The fallout from the death of Stalin, when rumours begins to circulate about what was really going on means that uncertainty starts to creep in. Questions are asked and new ideologies are considered as they come to terms with their dismay and distress.
The Yellow Notebook is about her emotional life and takes the form of a novel. The names and occupations are changed but the emotional turmoil is true to Anna. I was completely engrossed in this novel!
The Blue Notebook records her everyday events and is where the book is the truest to its time and possibly where it feels the most dated because it’s very outspoken about sex, menstruation, politics etc. but it’s also very middle class, white and heterosexual. Despite her promiscuity, she is very traditional in her role with men and I loved this description of the meal she cooks for her lover Michael; but first she takes her daughter (who is 8) her favourite meal of ‘spinach and eggs and the baked apple with the clot of crumbly cream’ (!)
and then she cooks for Michael:
‘I unroll the veal that I remembered to batter out flat this morning; and I roll the pieces in the yellow egg, and the crumbs. I baked crumbs yesterday, and they still smell fresh and dry, in spite of the dampness in the air. I slice mushrooms into cream. I have a pan full of bone-jelly in the ice-box, which I melt and season. And the extra apples I cooked when doing Janet’s I scoop out of the still warm crackling skin, and sieve the pulp and mix it with thin vanilla’d cream, and beat it until it goes thick; and I pile the mixture back into the apple skins and set them to brown in the oven.’
I think food descriptions are just brilliant bits of social history.
The Golden Notebook is bought for its beauty. The others are kept like diaries and cover years, but in her new notebook she aims to put aside the raw emotion and intellectual chaos and start to find some clarity. I’m afraid I found it screamingly tedious. She’s on her own in her home with a new man who she doesn’t like but has an affair with anyway. I much preferred Anna in context with her friends or her politics or her fictionalised version of herself, Anna on her own really needed to leave the house and get a job.
This was such an innovative book and I thought it worked really well in its exploring the self as compartmentary but still overlapping. I don’t think I would read it again from start to finish but I can imagine dipping in and reading the novel ‘Free Women’ or piecing together one of the coloured notebooks and reading that as a whole.