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Under Spell of Witch, Writer: Doris Lessing


Ugly misogynist comments and actions during a recent U.S. presidential campaign prompted me to question present attitudes toward women and men.

So, I reread Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbor, mainly, because the major protagonists are women. Though published in 1983, the novel is timeless.

Jane Somers, a women’s magazine editor in London, had not allowed the unpleasantness of life to touch her. Her husband and mother had died in a hospital. An efficient and successful woman, Jane had worked long hours and did not make time to see them, unlike her sister who visited their mother every day.

After their deaths, Jane felt that she had let both of them down “and that was what I was like. If something else should turn up, something I had to cope with, like illness or death, if I had to say to myself, Now, you will behave like a human being and not a little girl—then I couldn’t do it. It is not a question of will, but of what you are.

“That is why I decided to learn something else.”

Soon, at a visit to a pharmacy, the elegant and flawlessly dressed Jane “saw an old witch…A tiny bent-over woman, with a nose nearly meeting her chin, in black heavy dusty clothes, and something not far off a bonnet.”

The self-made career woman and the fiercely proud Mrs. Maudie Fowler grow close. Jane helps her gather kindling for her coal fires, shops for her at the corner store, and sips countless cups of tea with her. She washes her, cleans her home and listens to Maudie’s stories. The two women need each other badly. Jane connects emotionally to life and Maudie validates her own life.

Mrs. Fowler’s husband had left her years ago. Their son had disappeared with him. So, Maudie was living on her own in a building that social workers designated as unsafe for her. It had been her home for so long that she could not live elsewhere.

Shortly after the friendship began, Joyce, Jane’s close colleague at the magazine, attempts to keep her marriage and family together. Her husband gives her an ultimatum: either immigrate with me to my new position in Boston or I will marry my girlfriend and take her. She immigrates, leaving her career. In Boston, her husband finds another girlfriend.

Also, Jill, the daughter of Jane’s sister, moves in with her aunt. She works at the magazine and reminds Jane of her younger self. Jane learns that she has been a common point of criticism in her sister’s house, while she, herself, has not contemplated her sister’s life.

I would love not to have read The Diary of a Good Neighbour so that I could read it again for the first time. The characters are so well drawn that I missed them when I finished reading it. Lessing captures so well the nuances of society and how women view their roles in it. Her writing is so true that I lived the lives of both these women while under the spell of the book.

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