Character and Shadow: Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing

Jane Somers:LessingThe Diaries of Jane Somers, Doris Lessing (fiction, but initially published as the autobiography of Jane Somers; Lessing’s hilarious account of going undercover as Jane — a ‘new’ author, because Jane’s historical romances didn’t count — is the preface)

The first part is a summing up of about four years. I was not keeping a diary. I wish I had. All I know is that I see everything differently now from how I did while I was living through it. 

My life until Freddie started to die was one thing, afterwards another. Until then I thought of myself as a nice person. Like everyone, just about, that I know. The people I work with, mainly. I know now that I did not ask myself what I was really like, but thought only about how other people judged me.

When Freddie began to be so ill my first idea was: this is unfair. Unfair to me, I thought secretly. I partly knew he was dying, but went on as if he wasn’t. That was not kind. He must have been lonely. I was proud of myself because I went on working through it all, “kept the money coming in”–well, I had to do that, with him not working. But I was thankful I was working because I had an excuse not to be with him in that awfulness.

Lessing shooting from the hip. She presents Jane as someone who lived an unexamined life until her husband died of cancer, when she realized that she had abandoned him emotionally. As the editor of a high-end fashion magazine called Lilith (the one bit of Lessing-type irony in the book), Jane’s life has been based on her image — how she presents herself — and her work at a magazine that also presents images of women. Part of what makes the diary compelling is Jane’s analysis of these images — where they come from, what they mean, how they “work”, and what images of women get left out.

Her insider view of how the magazine and the people in it function is insightful and funny, but the impetus of the book is Jane’s desire to understand what she truly values and act on it — to learn compassion. She begins by spending time with Maudie Fowler, an impoverished, “cantankerous”, ninety-something woman Jane meets in a local drugstore. The first diary is the story of their friendship, its ups and downs of anger and liking, Jane’s difficulties in helping Maudie without being condescending, and Maudie’s life in stories she tells to Jane. Their friendship throws light into the dark places Jane has begun to examine in herself, but this is also a meditation on a culture, and how its unspoken values affect the thoughts of the individual who lives in it. Jane notes that the instinctive reaction of the young electrician she hires to fix the crumbling wiring in Maudie’s kitchen is to wonder: “What is the good of people that old?” and Jane herself asks: “What is the use of Maudie Fowler?” Lessing doesn’t attempt to answer these questions; but because she asks them so baldly the reader is able, through Jane’s diaries, to examine his or her own shadowy, unconscious values.

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