Doris Lessing was, somewhat reluctantly, one of the 20th century’s great feminist heroines. Her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook was lauded as a key feminist text, although it was as much about femininity as feminism, with its celebration of sexuality and the sensuality of pregnancy and motherhood.
Lessing’s own life, especially her “hellishly lonely” childhood and two marriages and divorces before she was 30, provided the template for her early novels and stories.
In the first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), she recommended that readers wishing to understand her life would be best advised to read her novels. Some of those novels tested the faith of her devoted readers, since she refused to be categorised, moving away from “realistic” fiction to write science fiction, horror and adventure.
She was born Doris May Taylor in 1919 in Khermanshah, Persia, the first child of an ex-nurse, Emily McVeagh, and her husband Alfred Taylor, who was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia. Alfred Taylor, who had been crippled in the Great War, had left England in search of a freer life. In 1924 he moved his family to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), hoping to make his fortune as a maize farmer. Uprooted from the lively social life of Tehran and set down on a farmstead, Doris’s mother was dispirited and disillusioned. She coped by insisting on Edwardian standards of rectitude despite the uncivilised surroundings. She wanted to raise a proper daughter. The consequence was strict discipline and rigid rules for Doris at home, while she longed for love from her mother.
Her father found it difficult to adjust, especially as the expected riches did not materialise. Obsessed with his wartime experiences, he told his daughter stories that she regarded as “poison” being poured into her ears. She described her childhood as “a mixture of some pleasure and much pain”. Her pleasure came from the natural world, which she explored with her beloved younger brother Harry.
She began writing very early – a poem about sunset appeared in the Rhodesia Herald before she started school at the age of seven. She read avidly. Parcels of books sent over from London provided an escape. When she was older she discovered Lawrence, Stendhal, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky but her early reading included Dickens, Scott, Kipling and Stevenson. Those 19th-century writers she admired cast a long shadow – later she talked of how she attempted to bring the 19th-century novel’s “climate of ethical judgement” into her own writing.
Her loneliness transposed into a pleasure in solitude. “I could just open the door and walk out into the bush,” she recalled. “This ability to wander about by myself was probably the most valuable thing that ever happened to me ... If I spend too long with people, I can get quite hysterical for lack of solitude.”
She was always in rebellion against authority, something she traced back to her father. “It came from that whole generation of men who had lived through the slaughter in the trenches and had a profound contempt for the incompetence of the government.” Her mother sent her to a convent boarding school in Salisbury. There, the strict nuns told stories of hellfire and damnation. Doris refused to stay. She was moved to the Salisbury High School for girls. However, she disliked that almost as intensely and dropped out at 14.
A year later she left home and took a job as a nursemaid. Her employer gave her books on politics and sociology. In her bedroom at night, his brother-in-law made amorous advances. She later wrote that during that time she was “in a fever of erotic longing”, a longing her inept suitor did nothing to satisfy.
She was writing stories by now and sold two to South African magazines. In 1937 she took a job as a telephone operator, then as an office clerk in Salisbury. In 1939, aged 19, she married. Her husband was a civil servant, Frank Wisdom, 10 years her senior. They had two children, John and Jean, but she felt trapped. “I was an infant psychologically – absolutely uncooked ... It was an empty marriage.”
She was not maternal during her first marriage. “I think I switched all that off,” she explained. “The maternal person arrived later, with my third child. [In] my first marriage the life was all laid down, what you ate, everything you did, and I went through it all as if it were a role in a play, really, and I hated it bitterly.”
She hated it so much that she left behind her young children when she left her husband. She remained in Salisbury and joined the Communists involved with the Left Book Club. In 1945 she married a central member of the group, the German refugee and political activist Gottfried Lessing.
With him she had a third child, Peter, but that too foundered. Later she remarked: “That was a political marriage and didn’t count. We were so unsuited that, in fact, we behaved very well towards each other. It is easier if you have absolutely nothing in common because you know there is no point in discussing things.”
She had become increasingly disillusioned with Communism and broke with the party in 1954. With hindsight, she couldn’t understand how she had ever become involved.
“The day I made myself stop and ask, ‘What did we actually believe?’ was painful, because most of it was rubbish, and yet there we were, rushing about, working ourselves to a frazzle – for what? Some kind of mass illusion.”
In 1949, aged 30, with a few pounds in her pocket, Lessing left with her son, Peter, for England. “I was already formed by the time I arrived in London in 1949,” she recalled. “I was formed by three main things: Central Africa, the legacy of World War I, and by literature, especially Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.”
She had with her the manuscript of The Grass is Singing, which explored the relationship between a white farmer’s wife and her black servant. It was published in 1950 to immediate acclaim. A volume of short stories, This Was the Old Chief’s Country, followed a year later and in 1952 Martha Quest, about a young liberal woman trapped in a sterile marriage within an unjust society. This was the first of the autobiographical “Children of Violence” series that occupied Lessing throughout the 1950s and ’60s. (The last, The Four-Gated City, cam in 1969.) The series – the other novels are A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), and Landlocked (1965) – covered the growth in consciousness of Martha Quest and was rooted in Lessing’s political and social concerns during her experiences in Africa.
Although she faced some hardship when she first arrived in England, the success of her early books allowed her to write full-time. In 1956 she made her last visit to Southern Rhodesia for several decades. On her return to England the governments there and in South Africa declared her a prohibited alien because of her criticism of apartheid.
In the late 1950s Lessing embarked on a much less conventional novel, The Golden Notebook. She was living with the journalist and novelist Clancy Sigal – he features in the novel as Saul Green. The Golden Notebook (1962), was an ambitious narrative experiment in which the many different selves of a contemporary woman were presented in some depth. Anna Wulf, the central character, attempts to cut through hypocrisy and her own emotional numbness.
Lessing was called “unfeminine” for describing female anger and aggression. As she wryly noted: “Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing, came as a great surprise.” The novel quickly became a key feminist text – indeed a feminist breakthrough – although Lessing had not intended it as such.
Further books and stories followed over the next decade, including two entertaining non-fiction works, Going Home (1957) and In Pursuit of the English (1960). In the 1960s she was, she said opaquely, housemother to a number of disturbed teenagers. “I saw a lot of suicides and a lot of people who ended up in loony bins. There were a great many casualties.”
By then she had begun a study of Sufism that continued for the rest of her life, giving her, according to friends, contentment and serenity. “It’s the most important thing in my life,” she observed in interview at the end of the 1990s. She became interested in Sufism through the writings of Idries Shah. Shah focused on the evolution of consciousness and the belief that individual liberation can come about only if people understand the link between their own fates and the fate of society.
These were themes Lessing began to develop. Her next two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) were described as “inner-space fiction”, picking up from the apparently mystical insight Anna has at the end of The Golden Notebook.
In 1979, she moved into science fiction with Shikasta, the first of five novels with the overall title “Canopus in Argos: Archives”, published at yearly intervals up to 1983. The third, The Sirian Experiment, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981. She collaborated with Philip Glass on an opera based on the fourth, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, and in 1997 the two repeated their collaboration for an opera based on the second, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980).
Lessing wrote her next novel, The Diary of a Good Neighbour, under the pseudonym Jane Somers and submitted it anonymously to her publisher. They rejected it. When her identity was revealed it was published in 1983 and she published another novel, If the Old Could, as Jane Somers.
Admirers of “Children of Violence” and The Golden Notebook found Lessing’s move into science fiction puzzling. They turned with relief to The Good Terrorist (1985), her Booker-shortlisted novel. She had never had all the critics on her side. One wrote: “her purpose is usually to deliver a message rather than to produce a work of art”. More were unkind about her science fiction forays.
The New York Times’s critic wrote about The Making of the Representative for Planet 8: “One of the many sins for which the 20th century will be held accountable is that it has discouraged Mrs Lessing. She now propagandises on behalf of our insignificance in the cosmic razzmatazz.” Another called her move into science fiction a “plain evasion of her duty”. She replied: “There is no such thing as duty. You write something and people either like it or they don’t.” She saw no difference between what others called her “realistic” novels and her “space fiction”.
By the time she came to write the first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin, published in 1995 when she was 76, she had written 19 novels, three plays, 10 volumes of stories and eight non-fiction books (including books about cats, a passion since childhood). There were several other novels she had destroyed. “If they don’t work, I tear them up.”
Under My Skin received the James Tait Black Prize for best biography. By that stage Lessing was weighed down with prizes and awards. She went back to South Africa to promote it and to see her daughter Jean in Cape Town. She had seen her brother Harry in the 1980s for the first time in 30 years. Her eldest son, John, a coffee farmer in Zimbabwe, died in the early ’90s. She had been reconciled in later years with the children she had left. “We became friends later on in life,” she said, adding of John: “We were very good friends ... we got on, we really got on.”
In 1996 she was on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. In that year she published Love Again, her first novel for seven years, and collaborated with the illustrator Charlie Adlard on an unusual graphic novel, Playing the Game.
Her second volume of autobiography, Walking In The Shade, came out in 1997. It took her story up to 1962. She had begun her autobiography initially because she had heard there were people working on her biography and she wanted to be sure the facts were right. She decided against writing a third volume because it would have meant writing about the 1960s and she was protective of the “troubled teenagers” whose “house mother” she had been.
She had kept diaries for most of her life but did not intend to publish them. She regarded herself as being “naked” enough in her books. And there were more novels to come. Mara and Dann was published in the spring of 1999. Later that year she was made a Companion of Honour. She had turned down appointment as DBE because, she said, there was no British Empire and being a Dame was “a bit pantomimey”.
Mara and Dann was an adventure story set thousands of years in the future with the eponymous young children as the two main characters. The models were herself and her brother Harry when they were children in Africa exploring the bush together. A mini-stroke at the end of the 1990s focused her attention on death. “It wasn’t terrible, but it was enough to scare me. Now I think about death all the time.”
In 2000 Ben in the World, her sequel to The Fifth Child, was published alongside a memoir about one of her cats, The Old Age of El Magnifico. In 2001 she published The Sweetest Dream in which she returned to London in the 1960s and South Africa in the present. Grandmothers (2003) was a collection of four short stories and in 2004 her essays and articles were collected in Time Bites. In The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow-Dog (2005), a sequel to Mara and Dann, Dann is grown up and has become a general.
That she continued to write was no surprise – writing had been central to her life for almost eight decades. She said she was an over-emotional person, “born with skins too few”. For her writing was a process of “setting at a distance”, of taking the “raw, the individual, the uncriticised, the unexamined, into the realm of the general”. And that was something she could never stop doing.
Doris May Taylor, writer: born Khermanshah, Persia 22 October 1919; CH 2000; 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature; married 1939 Frank Wisdom (divorced 1943; one son, one daughter), 1945 Gottfried Lessing (divorced 1949; one son); died 17 November 2013.