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«‘All the World’s a Stage’: Theatricality, ˆ Spectacle and the Flaneuse in Doris Lessing’s Vision of London ROSARIO ARIAS ABSTRACT Doris ...»

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‘All the World’s a Stage’: Theatricality,


Spectacle and the Flaneuse in Doris

Lessing’s Vision of London



Doris Lessing has lived in London since she first arrived there in 1949, from Southern

Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Lessing has always expressed her passion for the city of London, which

has been turned into the setting for most of her novels and short stories. In addition, in her fictional

and autobiographical texts the author reveals her love for theatregoing and play-acting, as well as her perception of life as a stage. This article strives to link these two ideas (the city and the theatre) in Lessing’s recent fiction, which shows an increasing interest in the image of London as a theatre, whereby the female protagonist happens to become a spectator of snippets and sketches of real-life scenes, as she strolls around the city. In the act of observing these scenes from everyday life, these ˆ twentieth-century female flaneurs render London as a potential space, a space of creativity, where ˆ mutual bonds are established between the flaneuse/spectator and the performers. In this sense, psychoanalytic criticism – for example, the concept of transitional space as defined by D. W.

Winnicott – will prove to be useful in the analysis of Lessing’s fiction.

KEYWORDS: Contemporary fiction, Doris Lessing, images of London, gender, psychoanalysis, ˆ female flaneur Doris Lessing has lived in London since she first arrived there in 1949, from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). London has been turned into the setting for most of her novels and short stories. Lessing finds her city life very enjoyable, as she points out in the second part of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949 –1962 (1997), when she remembers the delights of walking and strolling around the city, particularly at night (p. 163), and elsewhere.1 As regards her fiction, her female protagonists also stroll around London; one of the first that did this was Martha Quest in The Four-Gated City (1969), the fifth volume of her five-novel sequence Children of Violence. More recent examples are Jane/Janna Somers in The Diaries of Jane Somers (1983 – 84), the unnamed narrator of the short-story collection, London Observed: Stories and Sketches (1992), as well as Sarah Durham in Love, Again: A Novel (1996), among others. In their walks and strolls, these female characters observe and watch the comings and goings of the people in London and, in so doing, they are able to read the city, described as a great theatre, especially in Lessing’s more recent fiction.

Correspondence Address: Rosario Arias, Department of English, French and German, Faculty of Arts, University ´ ´ of Malaga, Teatinos Campus, 29071 Malaga, Spain; Email: rarias@cica.es Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1 March 2005, pp. 3–11 ISSN 0958-9236 Print/ISSN 1465-3869 q 2005 Taylor & Francis Ltd http://www.tandf.co.uk/journal DOI: 10.1080/0958923042000331443 4 Journal of Gender Studies In addition to this, Lessing has expressed her passion for theatregoing and play-acting very clearly, as well as her perception of life as a stage, in both fictional and autobiographical texts. As to her fiction, one of her earliest short stories, ‘The Habit of Loving’, which gave the title to a collection of the same name, The Habit of Loving (1957), describes the ins and outs of the relationship between a theatre manager and producer, George, who has been in the theatre for forty years, and a younger woman, who becomes a success as an actress, thanks to her marriage to George.2 In addition, her latest novel, The Sweetest Dream (2001), portrays an actress, Frances Lennox, as the protagonist of the first half of the novel. It is noteworthy that, although primarily a fiction writer, Lessing once wrote a play that was put on stage: Play with a Tiger (1962a). In the second part of her autobiography Lessing also reveals her passion for the theatre by vividly describing her involvement with actors, directors and managers in London in the 1960s, precisely when her play came to be performed on stage, considered, as she says, ‘a little theatrical golden age’ (1997, p. 203). My argument is, then, that Lessing’s more recent fiction brings to the fore a vision of the city of London as a stage or theatre, whereby the female protagonist happens to become a spectator of snippets and sketches of real-life scenes, as she strolls around London. Moreover, in the act of observing these scenes from everyday life, these ˆ twentieth-century female flaneurs render London as a potential space, a space of creativity. In this sense, special attention will be given to Love, Again, a novel with a rather complicated structure, although, as discussed below, one last scene observed by the female protagonist in a London park gives sense to the novel as a whole. Lastly, D. W.

Winnicott’s concept of the transitional space, in terms of psychoanalytic development, will prove to be useful in the analysis of Lessing’s fiction.

A good starting-point for any study of the image of London in Lessing’s works is Christine Wick Sizemore’s A Female Vision of the City: London in the Novels of Five British Women (1989). In it, Sizemore not only lucidly discusses the vision of the city in Lessing’s fiction, but also opens new possibilities of interpretation. By taking up the image of the city as a palimpsest, that is to say, as a text that is built up layer after layer where the past is preserved underneath the present, she contends that, in Lessing’s fiction, London is portrayed as a multilayered text that can be read and interpreted (p. 28). Furthermore, following feminist psychoanalytic theorists like Nancy J. Chodorow and Jessica Benjamin3 (who draw on D. W. Winnicott’s work), Sizemore argues that only if the protagonist develops the intense powers of observation that the city requires and the capacity of establishing connection with others, will she know how to read the city. To put it simply, because women have a less separate sense of self than men do according to the theories of Chodorow and Benjamin, Sizemore supports the view that either they are more apt or feel more comfortable with seeing the city as mixed, partial and layered, as districts overlapping with one another in space and in time (1989, pp. 30– 31). It is in The FourGated City, she believes, that Lessing portrays most vividly the city as a palimpsest (Sizemore, 1989, p. 30), interpreted by Martha Quest in her wanderings around London.

More importantly to our analysis, though, Sizemore briefly focuses on the image of London as a stage, when Janna, the main character in The Diary of a Good Neighbour (the first of the two novels with the overall title of The Diaries of Jane Somers) describes

London as ‘a great theatre’ (Lessing, 1983 –84/1985, p. 209):

–  –  –

Without invalidating Sizemore’s ideas at all, rather, taking her argument a bit further, I would like to suggest that Janna (and other female strollers in Lessing’s fiction as discussed later), in observing fragments of the city and of other people’s lives, ˆ represents a twentieth-century adapted version of the nineteenth-century French flaneur.

This is a French word for which there is no exact English equivalent (Brand, 1991, pp.

5 –6). As Elizabeth Wilson points out, its earliest occurrence took place in 1806, since an anonymous pamphlet was published in that year that describes a day in the life of ˆ M. Bonhomme, a typical flaneur of the Bonaparte era (1991, p. 94). Later, this term was commonly used in nineteenth-century France, in the writings of Charles Baudelaire (as Walter Benjamin has posited in his well-known essays on the French poet), to refer to members of a class of writers and journalists who, in the serial sections of the Paris newspapers, wrote sketches of urban life from the perspective of a strolling situated ˆ observer (Brand, 1991, p.6). In Benjamin’s words, the flaneur ‘goes botanizing on the asphalt’, and for him ‘[t]he street becomes a dwelling... ; he is as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls’ (1969/1983, pp. 36 – 37).

¸ One critic, Dana Brand, has traced the origins and development of this journalistic and literary figure in England from the sixteenth century onwards. She begins by paying attention to the culture of sixteenth-century London, and finds a culture of spectacle largely due to the commercial theatre that led to the sense that London – then already a city in constant change and flux – was something to be looked at and represented in and of itself (1991, p. 16); later, she establishes connections with other similar figures of strollers and studies how this literary phenomenon was exported from England to America.4 Therefore, to my mind, Brand’s definition of this kind of observer contributes to a better understanding of the urban interpreter in Lessing’s fiction, since ˆ she argues that the flaneur is ‘someone who, without any set purpose, strolls through and observes the life of a city or town’ and ‘“watch[es]” the crowds... as if [he] were watching a performance’ (Brand, 1991, p. 6; emphasis added).

Although Brand also contends that this type was always a male figure, it is possible to ˆ consider Lessing’s protagonists as female counterparts of the traditional flaneur. Brand puts forward several reasons why this type was always a man and she finds it significant that in the period her book covers, up to the middle of the nineteenth century, no female ˆ flaneur can be found whatsoever. Undoubtedly, she says, it must have had to do with ‘the specific social meaning of a solitary woman, walking the streets without any apparent purpose, looking into the faces of passers-by’ (Brand, 1991, pp. 199– 200). In contrast, neither Lessing nor her fictional protagonists feel any fear of walking around London on their own. All in all, precisely by observing and watching people on the streets, in parks ´ and cafes and turning into spectators of real life, Lessing’s female protagonists take over ˆ the role the flaneur seemed to have had in the mid-nineteenth century (the period of great popularity), if slightly altered.

ˆ Indeed, Lessing has bettered this figure of the flaneur in her portrayal of urban dwellers, who are able to read the city and enjoy it as a spectacle. In fact, they seem to respond to Brand’s call for a more adequate urban observer that could combine ‘the flaneur’s tolerance, curiosity, and love of spectacle, while adding a deeper social, 6 Journal of Gender Studies cultural and moral awareness’ (Brand, 1991, p. 197). This is the case with both the unnamed narrator/protagonist of her most recent collection of short stories, London Observed: Stories and Sketches, as well as Sarah Durham in Love, Again. Generally speaking, it could be said that these protagonists share some characteristics: on the one hand, they enjoy their city life and underline the advantages of living in London, portrayed as a pleasant place to live, which is quite extraordinary if we compare these works with Lessing’s previous novels set in London where the city is ‘an inferno’ and ‘a hurtful place’ (Armstrong, 1992, p. 21). On the other hand, in describing the city, they depict London as something to look at and enjoy, as a spectacle or a performance, in accordance with what Peter Ackroyd has stated in his recent biography of London: ‘London is truly the home of the spectacle, whether of the living or of the dead’ (2001, p. 156).

In addition, it is necessary to remember that, on observing London and presenting the city as divisible into legible types (Brand, 1991, p. 17), the traditional figure of the ˆ flaneur offered the attitude of a curious, nevertheless superior, spectator. Conversely, Lessing’s protagonists watch the city and turn it into a text or a series of collectible images, but they do not try to impose their spectator’s gaze or any kind of social control upon the city. Rather, they take pains to negotiate and establish reciprocal bonds with what they observe, as well as with the city itself, in the act of watching. As a ˆ consequence, if the traditional flaneur is conceived as a voyeuristic man who takes visual possession of the city, and thus, ‘has emerged in postmodern feminist discourse as the embodiment of the “male gaze”’ (Wilson, 1991, p. 98), these female counterparts’ vision of the city results in ‘a fluid universe of shifting meanings’ (Wilson, 1991, p. 102), where there is negotiation between the spectator and the thing observed in the potential space provided by the city of London. Lessing’s female protagonists do not take visual possession of the city, but establish a dialogue with it in a two-way process, very similar to that created between the mother and the baby, following the object-relations school of psychoanalysis.

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