Doris Lessing: An unusual feminist

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Last week, Doris Lessing voiced the opinion that women are becoming so critical that men are starting to feel cowed in our society. Newspapers, including The Sun and the Mail, who usually have little time for such debates, sprang into action, and so did a raft of female commentators. Joan Smith, Lynne Segal, Catherine Bennett, Helen Wilkinson, even Jeanette Winterson, popped up to argue that Lessing was mistaken. That was fair enough. But some of them also dismissed Lessing out of hand, suggesting she was no feminist.

Lessing's work and life have always shown her to be a feminist, even if she is one of an unusual kind. Her greatest work, The Golden Notebook, shows the power of the female imagination working at full throttle. It doesn't bear a simple political message but it does rip off the masks that women were accustomed to wear, and it shows up the dangers and difficulties that women encounter if they try to live a free life in a man's world.

For many women in the Sixties and way beyond, it did that now unfashionable thing ­ it raised their consciousness, alerting them to the knowledge that they were not alone in their struggles to reach some kind of independence and honesty in their dealings with men. When I interviewed viewed Lessing a couple of years ago, I asked her if she had known what a stir The Golden Notebook would cause when it was published in 1962.

"When I wrote it I was not conscious of writing anything particularly inflammatory. In all the political movements I had been involved in, I had been listening to women talk about women's issues and about men. Suddenly when I wrote down these private conversations people were astounded. It was as though what women said didn't exist until it was written," she replied.

The Golden Notebook is now a landmark novel, a book that both changed and explained a generation. And it still has legs, although it is so much of its time. "I still get women writing to me saying, my grandmother and my mother read The Golden Notebook and I'm the third generation reader," Lessing told me.

Reading The Golden Notebook, one is struck not only by Lessing's characteristically brusque, energetic style ­ a style that has become sidelined in the current vogue for more embroidered, easy-read rhythms ­ but also by her ability to yoke political argument into a narrative about personal life. It is almost unimaginable now to open a moving impassioned novel about love, sex and children, and to find in it a tortured discussion about the fate of the left.

It's not just in her novels that Lessing has explored the intersection between the personal and the political. She has lived out those complications in her own life. She was born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919 and five years later her family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she lived until she was 30.

Later, when Lessing wrote the novel Martha Quest, which is based on her African childhood, she was often asked how a girl isolated in the bush, as she was, managed to discover radical politics. And her answer was that she had soaked herself for years in the best that has been written. She literally read her way out of the mindset around her. This mindset hardly needs to be elaborated: it was one in which the whites dismissed the blacks as kaffirs, and saw them as extraneous to their civilisation. Lessing loathed that white settler culture and exposed its amorality in her first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950), which entered forbidden territory by dealing with the relationship between a white farmer's wife and her black servant.

But Lessing's escape from her family led her into another trap, marriage to a civil servant at the age of 19. She said to me of that marriage: "I don't think marriages are like that now. It's when you walk into a role. 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. I can't tell you. I hated it." When her marriage to Frank Wisdom broke up, she left not just her husband but also her first two children, John and Jean. But her second escape turned out to be a false freedom, too. This time, she ended up married both to Gottfried Lessing, a German refugee, and to Communism.

It's easy to see why Lessing became involved with Communism. In Southern Rhodesia, it was the first time that she had met a group of people "who read everything, and did not think it remarkable to read, and among whom thoughts about the 'Native Problem' I had scarcely dared to say aloud turned out to be mere commonplaces."

But in Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography, she is characteristically honest about the moral failure Communism represented. In considering the horrors of Stalinism, she says: "I have to face the fact that I and my high-minded comrades, both those in that chimerical Communist Party in Southern Rhodesia, and many I have met since ... were of the stuff of those murderers with a clear conscience. We were lucky, that's all."

Lessing's involvement with Communism lasted until 1956, seven years after she arrived in London, and she struggles to explain why she didn't get out earlier. "It was a sort of mass psychosis that took hold of us," she told me. "Partly it was a feeling that it was our job to put things right, that we couldn't just desert the movement, we were responsible for the future. It was an extraordinary hubris. Very extraordinary it all was, looking back."

After the Second World War was over, Lessing knew that she couldn't continue with her life in the provincial, racist society that she loathed. She decided to return to the country of her parents. But when she got off the boat in London in 1949, at the age of 30, she had almost nothing with her but her young son and the manuscript of her first novel.

She arrived in a city that was still struggling to emerge from the exigencies of the war, and during the Fifties, despite the immediate success of The Grass is Singing, she struggled to keep afloat. She rented cheap flats, sold her mother's jewellery and lived hand-to-mouth. She was poor, she was an immigrant, she was a single mother. In the second volume of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade, she gives you a real sense of what it meant to live without any security. Take just one sentence from the book, "I was walking down Church Street, having dropped the child at school, and I was crying because I couldn't buy food."

But it was then that Lessing became a real writer. She brought up her son, but she also wrote the stories, plays, poetry and novels that make up one of the most prodigious and impressive oeuvres of our time. She now says that she thinks it was being a single mother that made her a writer at that point. "It did help me ­ I didn't realise just how much at the time," she said. "But I now see what would have happened if I hadn't had Peter. Soho then was full of the most glamorous clubs and glamorous people, poets and painter. I would have drifted off to Soho and been lost."

That's not to say that Lessing began to live a nun-like existence. Once she got to London she immediately became extremely sociable, part of a relaxed, bohemian crowd, and lived a rollercoaster romantic life. She candidly describes the two great affairs or her life in Walking in the Shade and although they both ended miserably, she looks back without bitterness. "I had a deep fear of being trapped in a relationship," she said. Love, not security, was what she was after.

Perhaps one reason why some women find her an unlikely feminist is the great relish with which Lessing has explored the sensual realities of feminine life, from sex to motherhood, in her work. She truly revelled in her sexuality, and in Under My Skin she said of being an adolescent girl, "I was conscious every minute of my delicious body, that fits me like a new and longed-for dress." Even in one of her most recent novels, Love, Again, she is surprisingly frank about the experiences of an ageing narrator who finds herself falling for a young man. There is something unfashionably Lawrentian about her unashamed delight in sensual experience.

In the Fifties Lessing became an honorary member of that phenomenon beloved by the contemporary media ­ the Angry Young Men. With Kenneth Tynan, John Osborne, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Arnold Wesker, she was seen to be injecting a radical new energy into British culture. And her house gradually became a centre not only for novelists, playwrights and critics, but also for drifters and loners who gravitated to her enormous warmth. When I met her a few years ago she had taken the decision that she was not going to write the last volume of her autobiography, but would leave her memoirs at the end of Walking in the Shade, in 1962. "I can't go on," she told me, definitely. "Too many people would be enormously upset. I was what was called a housemother in the Sixties. I had an enormous house full of adolescents, all of them in trouble in one way or another. I can't write about that."

But she will go on writing. She now lists in the front of her books, almost 50 separate works, all the way from her early achievements, in social realism, such as The Grass is Singing or Martha Quest to science fiction, and taking in stories, poetry, plays and memoirs along the way. Even now her relentless energy shows no sign of abating and some of her recent works ­ including her adventure story set in African dystopia, Mara and Dann, which was published in 1999, or Ben, in the World, published last year ­ have startled critics, with their imaginative energy.

As she told The Independent last year, every time she finishes a book she revels briefly in her leisure, before being pursued by the need to write, again. "I do all the things that I haven't done, and I tidy up, and I go to galleries, and I think, this is living, and then I notice ­ I call it the wolf snapping at my heels, and I say, go away, and then sooner or later it comes back."

Lessing has picked up prizes and awards along the way, but though she is such an incontrovertible colossus of English literature, she has chosen to set herself apart from the gossip and fuss of the London literary scene. She lives her own life, in a warm, shabby house in north London, with her cats and her friends, and when she does appear at literary festivals or on television she can seem a little peremptory ­ irritated, perhaps, at the interruption such events pose to her real life.

Journalists are often surprised by the fact that whereas most of our leading male writers have no greater fans than themselves, Lessing is free of self-love. When I last met her and was foolish enough to express my admiration of her work, Lessing looked at me rather fiercely. "I'm not a writer on the level I really admire. It's not that I don't thoroughly enjoy it, but I don't take it so seriously."

But she is one of the finest writers of the century, and we would be mad not to take her entirely seriously.

Life Story

Born: Khermanshah, Persia, 22 October 1919. Lived in Southern Rhodesia, 1924 to 1949.

Family: father, Captain Alfred Cook Tayler; mother, Emily Maude McVeagh.

Married: to Frank Charles Wisdom in 1939 (divorced in 1943), one son (John), one daughter (Jean); to Gottfried Anton Nicholas Lessing in 1945 (divorced, 1949), one son (Peter).

Education: left Salisbury High School for Girls, in Harare, age 14. Hon. DLitt: Princeton, 1989; Durham, 1990; Warwick, 1994; Bard College, New York State, 1994; Harvard, 1995; London, 1999.

Awards: Austrian State Prize for European Literature, 1981; Shakespeare Prize, Hamburg, 1982; Grinzane Cavour Award, Italy 1989; Premio Internacional, Cataluña, 1999.

Selected books: The Grass is Singing (1950), Martha Quest (1952) The Golden Notebook (1962), The Four-Gated City (1969), Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), The Memoirs of a Survivor (1975), Canopus in Argos: Archives: Re Planet 5, Shikasta (1979), The Good Terrorist (1985), The Fifth Child (1988), Under My Skin (autobiography vol 1, 1994), Walking in the Shade (autobiography vol 2, 1997).

She says: 'Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.'

They say: 'Doris Lessing does not yet know that she is Doris Lessing' ­ Joyce Carol Oates