I once met Doris Lessing as we waited to be introduced to some members of the Norwegian royal family. She was tiny and either genuinely possessed or politely affected a great interest in cross-country skiing. This was a couple of years before she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her response to this honour was intriguing. The Swedish Academy described Lessing in their statement as ‘that epicist of the female experience’. Lessing asked: ‘Why not human experience? … I’ve never approved of this business of dividing men and women writers … it makes them sound like enemies.’ Lessing’s novels ranged from autobiographical bildungsroman (Martha Quest, 1952) to fractured portraits of the inner lives of men (Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1971) to unbridled sci-fi (the Canopus in Argos series, 1979–83). Throughout, she maintained a fundamental belief that human experience might be freely conveyed by writers who happen to be women as well as by writers who happen to be men.
Lara Feigel is a cultural historian who teaches at King’s College London. Her previous books, The Love-charm of Bombs (2013) and The Bitter Taste of Victory (2016), took war as their themes and imaginatively merged literary criticism, biography and docu-fiction. In Free Woman, Feigel adopts a more confessional