- Jonathan Clowes Ltd
Doris Lessing was born in Persia (present-day Iran) to British parents in 1919.
Her family then moved to Southern Africa, where she spent her childhood on her father's farm in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). When her second marriage ended in 1949, she moved to London, where her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published in 1950. The book explores the complacency and shallowness of white colonial society in Southern Africa and established Lessing as a talented young novelist.
She is now widely regarded as one of the most important post-war writers in English. Her novels, short stories and essays have focused on a wide range of twentieth-century issues and concerns, from the politics of race - which she confronted in her early novels set in Africa - to the politics of gender, which led to her adoption by the feminist movement, to the role of the family and the individual in society, explored in her space fiction of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The books in the 'Children of Violence' series (1952-69) are strongly influenced by Lessing's rejection of a domestic family role and her involvement with communism. The novels are autobiographical in many respects, telling the story of Martha Quest, a girl growing up in Africa who marries young despite her desperate desire to avoid the life her mother has led. The second book in the series, A Proper Marriage (1954), describes the unhappiness of the marriage and Martha's eventual rejection of it. The sequel, A Ripple from the Storm (1958), is very much a novel of ideas, exploring Marxism and Martha's increasing political awareness. By the time that this book was written, however, Lessing had become disillusioned with communism and had left the party.
With the publication of her next novel, The Golden Notebook (1962), Lessing became firmly identified with the feminist movement. The novel concerns Anna Wulf, a writer caught in a personal and artistic crisis, who sees her life compartmentalised into various roles - woman, lover, writer, political activist. Her diaries, written in different coloured notebooks, each correspond to a different part of herself. Anna eventually suffers a mental breakdown and it is only through this disintegration that she is able to discover a new 'wholeness' which she writes about in the final notebook.
The pressures of social conformity on the individual and mental breakdown under this pressure was something that Lessing returned to in her next two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and The Summer Before the Dark (1973). Briefing for a Descent into Hell is about a man who is found wandering the streets of London with no memory of a 'normal' life, while Kate, the central character of The Summer Before the Dark, achieves a kind of enlightenment through what doctors would describe as a breakdown.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s Doris Lessing turned almost exclusively to writing fantasy and science fiction in the 'Canopus in Argos' series, developing ideas which she had touched on towards the end of 'Children of Violence' and in Briefing for a Descent into Hell. The first book in the series, Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta, was published in 1979. The fourth, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, was adapted by Philip Glass as an opera, with a libretto by the author.
She made a return to realist fiction with Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could... (1984), sent to her publisher under the pseudonym Jane Somers. They were turned down for publication several times and when published had only small print runs and few reviews. When the truth was uncovered, the books were, of course, reprinted to much greater acclaim.
Lessing's more recent novels have continued to confront taboos and challenge preconceptions, generating many different and conflicting critical opinions. In The Good Terrorist (1985), Lessing returned to the political arena, through the story of a group of political activists who set up a squat in London. The book was awarded the WH Smith Literary Award. The Fifth Child (1988) is also concerned with alienation and the dangers inherent in a closed social group: in it, a married couple reacts to the hedonism and excesses of the 1960s by setting themselves up in a large house and embarking on an enthusiastic programme of childbearing and domestic bliss. Their fifth child, however, emerges as a malevolent, troll-like and angry figure who quickly disrupts the family idyll.
The acclaimed first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for biography), and was followed by a second volume, Walking in the Shade: Volume II of My Autobiography 1949-1962 (1997).
Lessing's later fiction includes Ben, in the World (2000), a sequel to the The Fifth Child; The Sweetest Dream (2001), which follows the fortunes of a family through the twentieth century, set in London during the 1960s and contemporary Africa; the grandmothers (2003), a collection of four short novels centred on an unconventional extended family; Time Bites (2004), a selection of essays based on her life experiences; and Alfred and Emily (2008), which explores the lives of her parents. She was made a Companion of Honour by the British Government in 1999, and is President of Booktrust, the educational charity that promotes books and reading. In 2001 she received the David Cohen British Literature Prize.
In 2007, Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. On Not Winning the Nobel Prize (2008) is the full text of the lecture she gave to the Swedish Academy when accepting the prize. She died in 2013, aged 94.
When Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, it seemed that, at last, the highest literary honour was being placed on a woman who has surveyed and judged mankind in the latter half of the 20th century like no other writer.
She perceives the operations of sex, power and society by way of a mystical vision that makes her the heir to D.H. Lawrence. Her observations are not always comfortable ones, and this may be one reason why she has troubled the literary and political world so much – she is a fierce writer, unafraid to speak unpalatable truths. Although Lessing cannot be easily categorised, her work is united by her being a moralist, an investigator of states of consciousness and forms of fiction, and a portrayer of how individuals function within society. No one other than Lessing is capable of writing about African landscapes, outer space, Sufism, nuclear holocaust, Spanish rural poverty, a Hampstead political family, and cats, all within the same career.
Lessing will always be known as the writer of The Golden Notebook. It is hard now to comprehend just how original it was in 1962; it is a very early work of British postmodernism, characteristically British in that there is a strong realist centre. It reads partly, now, as an evocative social document of the early 1960s; for many, it became a feminist novel, although Lessing was keen to point out later that this was not what she intended. The business of this complex book is surely the inability of traditional forms of fiction to portray the divided modern self, irrespective of gender; it is a story of fragmented post-war life, told in a fragmented form. There is no centre and all is fiction; we cannot trust what we perceive. If this is familiar to us in the writings of John Fowles and A.S. Byatt, of Angela Carter and Graham Swift, this is because of the seeds sown by Lessing.
However Doris Lessing was a novelist long before The Golden Notebook, and there is an argument for her early works being her best. The Grass is Singing (1950), her debut, succeeds as well as it does because it is partly a thriller. Mary Turner, the central character, is dead at the start, and we learn, by way of flashback, the explanation for her death. The evocation of the atrophied African farm, the way that the environment sucks the life out of Mary, is superbly done. It is quasi-naturalism, with an omniscient narrator to direct us to a fact which seems obvious now but was not so then: the inbuilt racism of the colonials in southern Africa. Lessing continued this theme in a series of short stories published in the early 1950s; the short story form is particularly suited to her desire to use a particular incident to demonstrate a general truth, to explain us to ourselves via fable. ‘The Old Chief Mshlanga’, ‘A Sunrise on the Veld’ and ‘Little Tembi’ are standouts. Lessing is a masterful painter of the African landscape through deceptively simple language.
Martha Quest (1952), the first volume of the Children of Violence quintet, continues the African setting and the portrayal of conflicting female desires in The Grass is Singing. If it is a less gripping piece than its predecessors, it is because Lessing is already growing restless with form, and is anxious to show a story about false starts and dead ends. It is capacious, and supposed to frustrate: that is what life is like. The quintet as a whole is as famous and influential, perhaps, as The Golden Notebook; its last volume, The Four-Gated City (1969), heralds Lessing’s most adventurous years in fiction.
The boldest writers of English fiction have challenged realism and delighted in unsettling us, making us work. Lessing, in her novels of the late 1960s and 1970s, takes us into mysterious inner worlds and outer space, for political reasons. Dream can explain reality; alien worlds can explain the way we live now. Science fiction, as written by Lessing, is a return to the worlds of Milton, Dante and Blake, although today, in the words of Margaret Atwood, ‘aliens have taken the place of angels’. In Memoirs of a Survivor (1975), a disintegrating post-apocalyptic world is contrasted with the harmony of visions of the mind; in the ambitious Canopus in Argos series – ‘space fiction’, as Lessing calls it – the author has found a new way of examining the individual’s relationship with collective life. This is far removed from the popular view that science fiction is escapist entertainment, and it is highly appropriate that the third volume, The Sirian Experiments (1981), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Lessing regarded the series as her finest work.
It is a mistake to try to pigeon-hole Lessing, but from the 1980s on she returned to realism, although always embracing fantasy and dystopian fiction along the way. A crafty experiment resulted in Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and its successor If the Old Could (1984), published under the name of Jane Somers. She wanted the fiction to be judged on its own terms; one reviewer said the style reminded them of the young Doris Lessing. Set in the then-present day, the novels are intelligent renderings of contemporary female experience, and particularly that of the elderly woman. Also of interest is The Good Terrorist (1985), a ‘condition of England’ novel in which London is decaying and in the grip of dangerous ideologies. Here, the personal is political, but our personal desires can become swamped by politics; as ever, Lessing shows that love, for women, works against their political and intellectual advancement. The novel reflects her various disenchantments with feminism, communism and Marxism. This suspicion of ideology, which so incensed many radicals, is to the fore in the great, late novel The Sweetest Dream (2001), which replaced Lessing’s third volume of autobiography, and which saw reviewers compare her to Balzac and George Eliot. The book convincingly encompasses the history of political and cultural ideas in Britain from the 1960s to the end of the century; the corruption and poverty within Zimbabwe (renamed Zimlia) is also ruthlessly exposed. She is unashamedly omniscient in her narration. Who else but Lessing would write, 'The beginning of the new feminism in the Sixties resembled nothing so much as a little girl at a party, mad with excitement … dancing about shrieking, “I haven’t got any knickers on, can you see my bum”'? Who else would portray the political movement they once supported drinking with 'tender admiration' to Stalin, 'possibly the cruellest murderer who has ever lived'? Lessing’s work is maddening, depressing, brave, and shakes us by the neck. Her final two novels, The Cleft (2007), and Alfred and Emily (2008), show that she was still capable of surprises every time. The Cleft imagines a prehistoric Earth populated only by females; Alfred and Emily, by placing the true story of the effect of the First World War on Lessing’s parents alongside a novella that gives them a happier life, implicitly debates the ethics and authority of fiction-writing, rather like Ian McEwan does in Atonement.
Dr Nick Turner, 2008.
For an in-depth critical review see Doris Lessing by Elizabeth Maslen (Northcote House, 1997: Writers and their Work Series).
'The writers I know, or whose lives I have read about, have one thing in common: a stressed childhood. I don't mean, necessarily, an unhappy one, but children who have been forced into self-awareness early, have had to learn how to watch the grown-ups, assess them, know what they really mean, as distinct from what they say, children who are continually observing everyone - they have had the best of apprenticeships.'