Two Memoirs of Women’s Freedom: Lara Feigel and Rebecca Loncraine

I have read some truly phenomenal memoirs this year, most of them by women. These two have rather different starting points – frustration with the constraints of marriage and motherhood, and breast cancer treatment – but I’ve paired them because both are journeys of self-discovery in which the author commits to determining how to live a free and true life.


Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel

It started with a spate of weddings one summer. Lara Feigel, a literature lecturer at King’s College London, found herself strangely irked at all this capitulation to marital convention, even though she herself had married in her twenties and had a young son. What did her mild outrage signify? At the same time, she was rereading the works of Doris Lessing, whom she found simultaneously admirable and vexing: Lessing lived by her ideals of free love and Communism, but it came at the price of abandoning her children. Feigel could identify with Lessing in some ways but not in others, and as she entered a rocky time in her mid-thirties – a miscarriage followed by IVF, which was a strain on her marriage; the death of a close friend; and ongoing worry over how motherhood might affect her academic career – she set out to find what Lessing could teach her about how to be free.

Throughout, Feigel holds up her own experiences of marriage and motherhood in parallel to Lessing’s. She maintains a delicate balance between biographical and autobiographical information and brings in references to other writers – everyone from Rachel Cusk to D.H. Lawrence – to explore various opinions on maternal ambivalence and sexual fulfillment. I could relate to the bookworm’s impulse to turn to literature for comfort and direction – “the most enduring novelists … illuminate our lives,” and “we live differently as a result of reading them,” Feigel insists. Lessing seemed to her the perfect “writer to discover in your thirties; a writer who wrote about the lives of grown-up women with an honesty and fullness I had not found in any novelist before or since.”

And yet a familiarity with or fondness of the works of Doris Lessing is not a prerequisite to enjoying this book. I’ve only ever read The Golden Notebook (1962) and Alfred and Emily (2008), a fictionalized biography of Lessing’s parents, both during my mid-twenties. The former I almost certainly read before I could fully appreciate it. It’s about the ways in which women compartmentalize their lives and the struggle to bring various strands into harmony; that’s what Free Woman is all about as well. Feigel often looks for clues in Lessing’s heavily autobiographical Martha Quest novels, which I’d like to read, and also travels to California to meet one of Lessing’s lovers and to Zimbabwe to see the farm where Lessing grew up.

Like Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, this is a richly satisfying hybrid of biography, literary criticism and memoir. I would also recommend it to readers of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Feigel’s is a particularly brave and forthright book. I feel proud of her in an oddly personal way: during my years as a library assistant at King’s, I saw her chair countless literature and life writing events. She seemed impossibly young for a professor type, and wore her navy blue shift dress and string of pearls like it was her grown-up’s uniform. I can tell that the years since, including the difficult experiences she recounts here, have both softened and toughened her, sandpapering away what she calls her “diffident angularity” and replacing it with womanly wisdom.

My rating:

Free Woman was published by Bloomsbury UK on March 8th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.


Skybound: A Journey in Flight by Rebecca Loncraine

In 2016 it was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi; in 2017 it was The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs. And now Skybound. Each year seems to bring one exquisite posthumous memoir about facing a death from cancer with dignity. For Rebecca Loncraine, after treatment for breast cancer in her early thirties, taking flying lessons in an unpowered glider was her way of rediscovering joy and experiencing freedom by facing her fears in the sky.

She was a freelance writer based on her parents’ farm in the Black Mountains of Wales, an area that’s familiar to me from trips to Hay-on-Wye and from my reading of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill. The history and geography of the region, as revealed from the air, weave through the book, as do childhood memories and recollections of chemotherapy. Loncraine discovered a particular love for flying alongside birds: the red kites in Wales, and later vultures in Nepal. The most remarkable passages of the book are the exhilarating descriptions of being thousands of feet up in the air and the reflections on why humans are drawn to flight and what it does for our bodies and spirits. She learned from a British Airways pilot that 500,000 people are airborne at any one moment! We take for granted what should still be acknowledged as a miraculous feat.

“There’s no road in the sky. Each individual glider pilot finds a new pathless way through the air, a unique scribble. We locate a bit of ridge lift, here; fly out to a thermal, there; we wind and manoeuvre over the curving land. We never take the same route twice, so flight offers me a new perspective each time I fly.”

“Influenced by the ancient seam of human thought that associates the sky with the imagination, weaving and circling in the sky begins to feel like sailing through the realm of the subconscious itself.”

This hobby-turned-obsession was not without its inconveniences and dangers. Even when it’s warm at ground level it’s frigid at 13,000 feet, so you have to bundle up. Meanwhile, the strength of the sun means you keep guzzling water and have to wear either a urine-collecting device or adult diapers. The earliest attempts at unpowered flight were generally fatal, and when Loncraine went to New Zealand for a bonus season of flying to replace the Welsh winter, one of her fellow flyers died in a crash. Her instructor told her she’d become fearless, even reckless. But when she met one of the pioneers of gliding, then in his nineties, in New Zealand he spoke an aphorism that perfectly captures the role flying played for Loncraine: “The antidote to fear is fascination.”

There’s a brief afterword by Loncraine’s mother, Trisha. Her daughter had virtually finished this manuscript when the cancer returned, and underwent another 14 grueling months of treatment before her death in September 2016. This is a simply wonderful book; what a shame that we won’t get another.

My rating:

Skybound was published by Picador on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for a proof copy for review.

19 responses

  1. These both sound fantastic. I read The Golden Notebook when I was 19 and, like you, I think I certainly need to return to it, although I generally struggle with Lessing and more broadly with books that deal with psychoanalysis. Kalanithi’s memoir makes me cry every time; I’m not sure I can deal with another one (although I did get a lot out of Kate Gross’s posthumous memoir Late Fragments).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved Late Fragments too. Loncraine’s memoir is not nearly as sad as When Breath Becomes Air because for pretty much the whole time she was writing she didn’t know she was going to get sick again. The memory of the treatment and the scar are always there in the background for her, but she’s just rushing at life through the flying lessons.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That sounds really lovely – will add to my TBR.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Carolyn Anthony | Reply

    Wow. It’s high Praise when you give something 5 stars!

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, wow – I really want to read Free Woman now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I recommended it to Naomi F. as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. buriedinprint | Reply

    I think a lot of women struggle with different aspects of Lessing’s work and writing: she is certainly a character of interest at least, no uniform nods of flat-out acceptance or brusque head-shakings of dismissal. Such a variety of responses to her! I’ve read some of her stuff – and I’ve really enjoyed the Mead and Ellis – but I’m not sure I’m enough of a Lessing-lover to feel quite so drawn into this one?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I’ve only ever read two books by Lessing and wasn’t that taken by them, yet found Free Woman fascinating. I enjoyed learning more about Lessing because she was a contradictory and prickly character, but what I loved most was how Feigel used books to shed light on her own life — because that’s what we bookworms do, n’est-ce pas? 🙂


      1. buriedinprint

        Aha! You’ve got me. *scribbles onto list*

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I think Skybound would tear me apart – there’s something about young women dying of cancer that guts me more than other sad things (except for maybe sad animal stories). Especially if the women have young children that they don’t get to see grow up. *suppressed sob*
    But Free Woman sounds fascinating, and like something I might really relate to. I have followed a very traditional lifestyle, but there’s something about the whole thing that makes me feel disappointed (?) that I do? (Even though I also happy with it at the same time!) And what will my children make of it? I often feel like I have to make up for it by having (probably too many) discussions with them about all the different lifestyles and families there are in the world and they’re all lovely and wonderful, etc, etc. I’m sure they are sick of hearing it, but I worry that the example I’m showing them by living a “traditional” life speaks more strongly than anything I might say.
    Anyway… too much information? Do you think the book is for me? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t find Skybound particularly sad because the author was simply living the whole time. She never realized (or accepted?) that she was dying. Another year or more passed between her completing the manuscript and her death. She didn’t have a partner or children, as far as I can tell. During much of her illness she lived with her parents, who were probably the hardest hit.

      I’m fascinated by women’s life stories in general, whether they’re similar to mine or extremely different. Reading such memoirs can be a way of exploring other ways of life without actually living them! Lessing is definitely hard to like in some ways, what with abandoning her children and pursuing various lovers in Africa and London. So Feigel has to ask herself what lessons she can take from Lessing and what was a mistake. And it’s not so much turning against the conventional life you’ve led as asking yourself if there are things that are holding you back, and what you can do about that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yup, that sounds perfect!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Free Woman by Lara Feigel: Doris Lessing lived by ideals of free love and Communism, but it came at the price of abandoning her children. Lara Feigel could identify with Lessing in some ways, and as she entered a rocky time in her mid-thirties – a miscarriage followed by IVF, which was a strain on her marriage; the death of a close friend; ongoing worry over how motherhood might affect her academic career – she set out to find what Lessing could teach her about how to be free. A familiarity with the works of Doris Lessing is not a prerequisite to enjoying this richly satisfying hybrid of biography, literary criticism and memoir. The Golden Notebook is about the ways in which women compartmentalize their lives and the struggle to bring various strands into harmony; that’s what Free Woman is all about as well. […]


  7. […] absorbed notions of free love and women’s rights – just as Frieda did. I was also reminded of Free Woman, Lara Feigel’s book on Doris Lessing, who gave up her children to pursue her writing. In […]


  8. […] Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: Breast cancer; flying lessons […]


  9. […] would have been Doris Lessing’s 100th birthday; she in fact died in 2013. Reading Lara Feigel’s Free Woman last year encouraged me to try more from Lessing, and I’m glad that I did so this month. I […]


  10. […] The other book I’ve read by Lara Feigel is Free Woman, her bibliomemoir about marriage, motherhood and the works of Doris Lessing. My favorite of the six […]


  11. […] Feigel’s memoir Free Woman was one of my favourite books of 2018. In it she interrogates conventions of marriage and […]


  12. […] though, looking back, I can’t decipher a coherent plot to the events – that reminded me most of Free Woman by Lara Feigel and I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie […]


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