Similarities Between Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing

Lynda Scott
University of Otago
Department of English

Deep South v.3 n.2 (Winter 1997)

Copyright (c) 1997 by Lynda Scott, all right reserved.

Many critics such as Roberta Rubenstein, Magali Cornier Michael, and Claire Sprague, point out the numerous similarities which exist between Woolf and Lessing, and of course Lessing does deliberately invoke Woolf in The Golden Notebook by naming her woman artist Anna Wulf. In this paper, however, I will focus on what I consider to be the strongest and most interesting common point of reference between the two. This is their common distrust of, yet fascination with, the workings of memory, as well as the construction of a personal sense of selfhood, one which develops from an amalgam of 'fact' and 'fiction,' 'actuality' and a sense of a personal 'truth.' Both writers, I believe, use their 'self-representational' or 'autobiographical' texts as the therapeutic means of 'Self'-discovery, to exorcise past unpleasantness, to 'fix' the past, and to create a significant personal present and a sense of 'truth.'

I shall discuss first the ways in which both Woolf and Lessing juxtapose 'fact' with 'fiction' in order to create a meaningful sense of 'Self.' Alongside this discussion I shall examine some of the implications of the creation of 'fictive selves' through self-representational writing for Woolf and Lessing. My approach, which concentrates on the unreliability of memory as Woolf and Lessing perceived it, necessarily involves a consideration of historiographic metafiction.

Woolf's approach to autobiography, her concerns with selfhood and writing, and possibly even her own 'madness,' I suggest here, become Lessing's legacy. Certainly, as I have already mentioned, semantic and psychological echoes of Woolf exist in Lessing. By absorbing Woolf into her own work, for example through her fictive 'self' Anna in The Golden Notebook, Lessing is confirming to some extent Woolf's belief that 'we think back through our mothers if we are women.'[1] At times it seems as though Lessing provides us with a paraphrase of Woolf's words or at least her sentiments. For example in her autobiographical 'A Sketch of the Past' Woolf describes her ideal memoirs and says '[w]hat I write today I should not write in a year's time.'[2] In a corresponding manner Lessing writes in Under My Skin, 'I am trying to write this book honestly. But were I to write it aged eighty-five, how different would it be?'[3] It is apparent then, that like Woolf, Lessing believes memory to be 'a careless and lazy organ' (13).

Just as each is acutely aware of changing perspectives and truths which for Lessing is 'like climbing a mountain while the landscape changes with every twist in the path' (UMS, 12), each also feels similar misgivings and apprehensions about the selectivity of memory and the construction of selfhood from memory. They agonise within their texts over the very real possibility of a myriad of equally valid 'truths' or 'Selves.' Of her memories, for example, Woolf comments,

[b]ut of course as an account of my life they are misleading, because the things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important. Why have I forgotten so many things that must have been, one would have thought, more memorable than what I do remember? (Schulkind, 69)

Years later, the same refrain recurs throughout Lessing's Under My Skin:

As you start to write at once the question begins to insist: Why do you remember this and not that? Why do you remember in every detail a whole week, month, more, of a long ago year, but then complete dark, a blank? (12)

Taken out of context, Lessing's sentiments could easily be mistakenly attributed to Woolf, and they closely parallel those of Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook who laments

[b]ut I can't remember, it's all gone. And I get exasperated trying to remember --- it's like wrestling with an obstinate other self who insists on its own kind of privacy. Yet it's all there in my brain if only I could get at it. I am appalled at how much I didn't notice, living inside the subjective highly-coloured mist. How do I know that what I 'remember' was what was important? What I remember was chosen by Anna, of twenty years ago. I don't know what this Anna of now would choose.(139)

Both writers therefore share an obvious distrust of memory. According to Rubenstein, '[m]ore than Woolf, Lessing consciously acknowledges that memory itself is an elusive, fluid, and often undesirable component of consciousness, whose manifestations depend on the relationship between any present moment and an always receding past' (16). For instance, in Under My Skin Lessing says '[a]nd then --- and perhaps this is the worst deceiver of all --- we make up our pasts. You can actually watch your mind doing it, taking a little fragment of fact and then spinning a tale out of it' (13).

Like Lessing's character Janna in The Diaries of Jane Somers, who gives up on her attempts to separate fact from fiction in the tales of an old woman named Maudie, Woolf and Lessing also come to embrace personal memories and to give credence to 'stories' rather than choosing to completely reject them. In Under My Skin, for example, Lessing comes to conclude 'that the commonsense or factual approach leads to nothing but errors' (138). Of her novel Martha Quest she writes, 'I was being a novelist and not a chronicler. But if the novel is not the literal truth, then it is true in atmosphere, in feeling more 'true' than this record, which is trying to be 'factual'' (UMS, 162). Lessing deliberately juxtaposes 'fiction' and 'truth,' her self-representational writings as well as her autobiography proper. They therefore exemplify the definition of historiographic metafiction offered by post modernist theorist Linda Hutcheon. Hutcheon defines historiographic metafiction as a narrative 'offered as another of the discourses by which we construct our versions of reality,' and argues that 'both the construction and the need for it are what are foregrounded in the post-modern novel.'[4] In the light of her definitions, Under My Skin looks very much like a post-modern text and an example of historiographic metafiction, since it '[c]asts doubt on the very possibility of any guaranteed meaning, however studied in discourse' as Hutcheon says (56). In Under My Skin Lessing insists that

[c]learly I had to fight to establish a reality of my own, against an insistence from the adults that I should accept theirs .... I am deducing this. Why else my preoccupation that went on for years: this is the truth, this is what happened, hold on to it, don't let them talk you out of it. (13-14)

When recalling their trip to England via Moscow, for instance, Lessing juxtaposes what her mother reconstructs for her, and her own 'reality': 'The story says we were read to, we played with plasticine, we drew pictures with chalks ... but what is in my mind is the train rattling into yet another station ... the ragged children' (42).

While Lessing's autobiographical style allows her to fragment significant events, memories, and sensations, a textual disruption occurs between the two dissimilar narratives --- her mother's and her own. I suggest her awareness of the slipperiness of memory upon which to ground her sense of 'Self' leads to a sense of authorial alienation. Lessing's 'self-representational' or 'autobiographical' works are therefore nostalgic, as they are also to Woolf, since both writers seek to capture that which can never be regained. To a considerable extent, African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (1993) is a lament both for the past and for the distortion of that past by the ravages of time. When close to Banket, the place of her childhood life, she both does and does not want to return there. Lessing and her brother, not having seen each other for several years, now try to reach each other and communicate on a deeper level than superficialities and commonplaces, through traversing the myth-country that her childhood farm and life has become. Unfortunately they find this to be impossible, since it is disturbingly different for each of them, even though as children they were close. Lessing and Harry pepper their conversations with childhood remembrances and each tries to force the other to remember what they can. Too often, however, the cry 'Do you remember?' has as its echo, 'No, I don't I'm afraid.' [5]

It is possible therefore, to view Lessing's self-representational texts, whether 'fictional' or 'non-fictional,' as textual tools which she creates and manipulates so that she can re-enter the realm of the past. In African Laughter, however, Lessing painfully comments of nostalgia,

When we see remembered scenes from the outside, as an observer, a golden haze seduces us into sentimentality. And what we choose most often to remember is the external aspect of events: sparks flying up into bushes lit by monlight or starlight, their undersides ruddy with flamelight; a face leaning forward into firelight not knowing it is observed and will be remembered. But what was I really feeling then? (72).

I suggest that African Laughter, like all of Lessing's self-representational works both 'fictional' and 'autobiographical,' is at least partly her attempt to come to know past selves, because from them she creates characters which she, as author, can manipulate and analyse. Lessing's self-representational texts are, I suggest, an attempt to 'fix' the past, so that she is able to present the 'truth' as she perceives it. But the 'truth' for Lessing, as for everyone, keeps changing, so that her novels and depictions of past events forever evolve as she attempts to catch hold of this elusive and non-existent 'truth.' Schulkind argues in a similar fashion of Woolf that her memory acts 'as the means by which the individual builds up patterns of personal significance to which to bind his or her life and secure it' (21). Woolf herself comments that 'I find that scene making is my natural way of marking the past. Always a scene has arranged itself: representative; enduring' (16).

Woolf draws upon memory and past 'stories' to explicate the present as well as to create it. In The Waves (1931), for instance, a character asks '[b]ut what are stories? Toys I twist, bubbles I blow, one ring passes through another, sometimes I begin to doubt if there are stories.'[6] Like Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook the character has 'made up thousands of stories' (17). Furthermore, she realises that she has 'filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the one story to which all those phases refer. But I have not yet found the story and I begin to ask, 'Are there stories?'' (17). One detects here, I believe, a longing for a sense of 'self' and a form of psychological unity.

I suggest therefore that while both Lessing and Woolf are cognisant of the fallibility, frailty, and unreliability of memory, each manipulates it within their self-representational texts in order to achieve a feeling of psychological wholeness. Certainly Woolf's characters in The Waves use their writing in order to achieve such completeness. Bernard, for example, when contemplating his poetry says '[w]hat did I write last night if it was not good poetry? Am I too fast, too facile? I do not know myself sometimes, or how to measure and name and count out the grains that make me what I am.'[7] Each writer, aware of the many untold stories particular to their own lives, to women, and to people in general, has thus developed her own way of 'embroidery' to make alive her own past and so also her present. Elizabeth Abel for example of Woolf's novels that they

are thick with a variety of pasts .... By rendering the past primarily through memory, Woolf diversifies it .... Evading the grip of a unitary fiction, analogous in her eyes to the ego's tyranny, Woolf generates heterogeneity not only by shifting the narrative perspective but also by pluralising history.[8]

Many of Woolf's and Lessing's characters are, I believe, authorial 'fictive selves,' in texts rich with layered pasts so that each contains a valid personal 'truth' applicable to a given moment in time. Schulkind believes Woolf to be 'filtering the past through a succession of present selves' (13), and in a similar vein, Herta Newman regards The Waves to be a "novel of psychology" that will be subdued and the image of the self, radically reordered (55). She notes that various critics have come to view the six figures of The Waves as 'prototypes, patterns of consciousness, aspects of a single, symbolic psyche' (55). The critic Alex Zwerdling who refers to Woolf as a 'proteus,' would agree with such a view of Woolf.[9] Margaret Homans also provides an analysis of the six characters, or fictive 'selves' of Woolf which are found in The Waves and she believes that '[o]nly Bernard accomplishes the inner harmony that all the characters are struggling to achieve' (60).

It is perhaps significant that Bernard, with his unified self, writes poetry just as Anna Wulf is a writer who achieves psychic integration and the unity of her fictive selves such as Molly, Saul, Ella, and Michael. Claire Sprague points to the multi-personal examples of Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook and Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs Dalloway to argue that 'like Woolf, Lessing has developed a unique multi-personal mode, a new time strata, a new way of disrupting narrative viewpoint and the continuity of exterior events.'[10]

To conclude then, Lessing and Woolf both write multipersonal and dialogical 'self-representational' or 'autobiographical' texts so that they may avoid the presentation of a single or unified 'truth,' which they believe would be subjective, nostalgic, and distorted due to memory. As Woolf wrote, and as Lessing continues to write, the past and therefore the present which rests on that past, is pluralised and enriched. Finally, for each woman , it becomes her own personal 'truth' and 'story'.


[1]Roberta Rubenstein, "Fixing the Past: Yearning and Nostalgia in Woolf and Lessing," Woolf and Lessing: Breaking the Mold, eds. Ruth Saxton and JeanTobin (New York: St Martin's Press, 1994) 16.

[2]Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind, (London: The Hogarth Press, 2nd edn., 1985) 12.

[3]Doris Lessing, Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949, (Hammersmith, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1994) 17.

[4]Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism History, Theory Fiction (New York, London: Routledge, 1988) 40.

[5]Doris Lessing, African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe, 42.

[6]Herta Newman, Virginia Woolf and Mrs Brown: Toward a Realism of Uncertainty (New York, London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996) 17.

[7]Virginia Woolf, The Waves (Hammersmith, London: Triad GraftonBooks, 1977 First published by The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1931) 66.

[8]Elizabeth Abel, Virginia Woolf and The Fictions of Psychoanalysis (Chicago, London: U of Chicago P., 1989) 1.

[9]Margaret Homans, ed. Virginia Woolf A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, New York: A Simon and Schuster Prentice-Hall Inc. Company, 1993) 4.

[10]Claire Sprague, 'Multipersonal and Dialogic Modes in Mrs Dalloway and The Golden Notebook,' eds. Saxton and Tobin 8.


Abel, Elizabeth. Virginia Woolf and The Fictions of Psychoanalysis. Chicago, London: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Homans, Margaret. ed. Virginia Woolf A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New York: A Simon and Schuster Prentice-Hall Inc. Compan,. 1993.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory Fiction. London: Routledge, 1988.

Lessing, Doris. African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe. Hammersmith, London: Flamingo, 1993.

______________. Under My Skin,Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949,. Hammersmith, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1994.

______________. The Golden Notebook. London: Michael Joseph Ltd, 1969.

Michael Cornier, Magali. "Woolf's Between the Acts and Lessing's The Golden Notebook: From Modern to Postmodern Subjectivity," Woolf and Lessing Breaking the Mold. Eds. Saxton, Ruth and Tobin, Jean. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc. 1994, 39-56.

Newman, Herta. Virginia Woolf and Mrs Brown: Toward a Realism of Uncertainty. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc, 1996.

Rubenstein, Roberta. "Fixing the Past: Yearning and Nostalgia in Woolf and Lessing," Woolf and Lessing Breaking the Mold. Eds. Saxton, Ruth and Tobin, Jean. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc. 1994. 15-38.

Schulkind, Jeanne. Virginia Woolf Moments of Being. London. The Hogarth Press. 2nd. edn., 1985.

Sprague, Claire. "Multipersonal and Dialogic Modes in Mrs Dalloway and The Golden Notebook," Woolf and Lessing Breaking the Mold. Eds. Saxton, Ruth and Tobin, Jean. New York: St. Martin's Press. Inc. 1994. 3-14.

Woolf, Virginia. [1931]The Waves. Hammersmith, London: Triad GraftonBooks. 1977. First published by the Hogarth Press Ltd.

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