Doris Lessing was a British-Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) novelist, essayist, and playwright who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, with the Swedish Academy particularly recognizing her epic work in writing about “the female experience” with “skepticism, fire, and visionary power.” Lessing, for her part, when previously under attack as “unfeminine” for having expressed female anger and aggression, responded, “Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, [and] experiencing came as a surprise.” She explored the politics of race as well as gender in her writing and examined the role of the family and the individual in society in new ways.
Doris May Lessing (née Tayler) was born in 1919 in Persia, now known as
Iran, to British parents; her father, who had lost a leg during military service in World War I, had met her mother, a nurse, at the hospital where he recuperated from the amputation. Her family moved to the south of Africa, and Doris grew up on her parents’ farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her mother was very strict and eventually sent her to a convent school, then an all-girl high school, from which Doris, age thirteen, soon dropped out, ending her formal education. But she read, and then read some more: Kipling, Stevenson, Scott, and Dickens; then Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, and D.H. Lawrence. To free herself from her hidebound mother’s sphere of influence, she left home at fifteen, taking a job as a nursemaid and reading further in sociology and politics. She also began to write and sold two stories to South African magazines that year. In 1937, she moved to Salisbury (now Harare), where she worked
as a telephone operator for a year. Then at nineteen, she married and had two children; but feeling trapped, she left her new family in 1943. Doris joined a local leftist reading club, a group of people “who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read.” She was drawn to Gottfried Lessing, one of its central members; they soon married, and in 1946, had one child.
When her second marriage ended in 1949, Lessing was done with colonial Africa. She moved to London with her young son; her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published there in 1950. The novel established Lessing’s reputation: it explores the shallowness, complacency, and contradictions of white colonialist society in Southern Africa. Her Children of Violence novel series (1952–1969) was majorly influenced by her involvement with communism and rejection of the wifely domestic role; like many of her fiction works, the five novels were influenced by her own life experiences to the
point of being semiautobiographical. She was banned from South Africa and Rhodesia in 1956 due to her frank writing about the dispossession of Black Africans by white settlers and her anti-apartheid activist work. She also actively campaigned against nuclear arms.
In 1962, she broke new ground with The Golden Notebook; according to Natasha Walter of The Independent, it “rip[ped] off the masks that women were accustomed to wearing, and…show[ed] up the dangers and difficulties that many women encounter if they try to live a free life in a man’s world.” The protagonist, Anna, eventually goes through a nervous breakdown. Only through disintegrating is she is able to come to a new and more authentic wholeness. Lessing returned to the theme of pressures to socially conform in her next two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), an amnesia story, and The Summer Before the Dark (1973); Kate, its heroine, comes to a degree of enlightenment through another breakdown process. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she further explored the role of the family and the individual in society in her five-volume Canopus in Argos series of “space fiction.” The fourth of these speculative fiction works was adapted as an opera by noted composer Philip Glass, with Lessing writing the libretto. They later collaborated again on a 1997 opera adaptation of the second Canopus in Argos novel.
She returned to realistic fiction with Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could… (1984); but in a twist, submitted them for publication under the name Jane Somers. After numbers of rejections, they were printed, but only in small runs that did not receive much reviewer attention. Naturally, when their true authorship was revealed, the books were reissued and much more warmly received. In 1985’s The Good Terrorist, Lessing returned to politics with the story of a group of political activists who set up a squat in London. 1988’s The Fifth Child carried on her themes of alienation and the dangers of a closed social group.
In 1995, she received an honorary degree from Harvard, and that year, she visited her daughter and grandchildren in South Africa, the first time she had been there in four decades; in an ironic twist, she was acclaimed there as a writer on the very topics for which she had been banished in 1956. She also collaborated with Charlie Allard on an early SF graphic novel, 1995’s Playing the Game. Her autobiography was published in two parts: Under My Skin (1994), followed by Walking in the Shade: Volume II of My Autobiography 1949–1962 (1997). In 2007, Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The entire lecture she gave to the Swedish Academy when accepting the prize was published under the title On Not Winning the Nobel Prize (2008). She also produced a book of essays based on her life experiences and the novel Alfred and Emily (2008), which explored the lives of her parents. She lived to be ninety-four, publishing more than fifty novels in total.
There [was] a whole generation of women, and it was as if their lives came to a stop when they had children. Most of them got pretty neurotic—because, I think, of the contrast between what they were taught at school they were capable of being and what actually happened to them.