Skip to main content
Select Source:

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing (born 1919) was a South African expatriate writer known for her strong sense of feminism. A short story writer and novelist, as well as essayist and critic, Lessing was deeply concerned with the cultural inequities of her native land.

The heroines who populate the work of Doris Lessing belong to the avant garde of their day. Leftist, fiercely independent, feminist, her characters, like Lessing herself, are social critics rebelling against the cultural restrictions of their societies. And like their creator, Lessing's heroines populate two geographies: Southern Africa and England. Lessing's fiction closely parallels her own life. Her characters have experienced her experiences; they know what she knows.

The daughter of an English banker, Doris May Taylor was born in Kermanshah, Persia, on October 22, 1919. In 1925 the Taylor family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to a farm 100 miles west of Mozambique. Lessing's childhood was spent in the hills near the farm. She attended convent school until an eye problem forced her to drop out at age 14. At that point her self-education began, mostly with the reading of the major nineteenth-century Russian, French, and English novelists.

In 1938 she moved to Salisbury, took an office job, and began writing. A year later, she married Frank Wisdom. The marriage, which produced a son and a daughter, ended in divorce in 1943. In 1945 she married Gottfried Lessing. That marriage also ended in divorce, in 1949, after producing one son.

In 1949 Lessing left Southern Rhodesia for England with her youngest son and the manuscript of her first book, The Grass Is Singing, in hand. The book, a chronicle of life in Africa which took its title from T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," was published the following year (1950) and was immediately well received.

After her arrival in England Lessing wrote a great number of short stories, books, plays, poems, essays, and reviews. Her most significant works include the short story collections This Was The Old Chief's Country (1951), A Man and Two Women (1963), and African Stories (1957) and the novels that make up the "Children of Violence" series—Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1969)—as well as the novels Five (1953), Retreat to Innocence (1956), The Golden Notebook (1962), and Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971).

While Lessing was also prolific in producing non-fiction, it is in her fiction that she made her strongest statements. Her writing borders on the autobiographical. Her fictional accounts of Africa and England bear a strong resemblance to her own life, and the heroines of her novels greatly resemble each other and their creator. Her books all deal with the same themes: the problem of racism in British colonial Africa and the place of women in a male-dominated world and their escape from the social and sexual repression of that world. These are the themes of Lessing's life as well as her work.

While these and a few other subjects appear in almost all her work, they are most deeply explored and most fully realized in Lessing's two watershed works—the "Children of Violence" series and The Golden Notebook. The "Children of Violence" series spans most of her career. The five-novel series takes its heroine, Martha Quest, from a farm in central Africa to the capital of the colony—where she is exposed to city society—and on to London. The series, written from 1952 to 1969, is special as contemporary literature in two aspects: first, for its African setting, and second, for filtering that experience through the eyes of a woman.

Martha Quest, the first of the series, deals with the sexual and intellectual awakening of its protagonist once she leaves the claustrophobic farm setting. A Proper Marriage explores a failing marriage, and by its end Martha has left her husband and daughter for increased left-wing political involvement. The third book, A Ripple from the Storm, shows the failure of that political commitment to satisfy her social and personal needs, and Landlocked, which brings the series into the 1940s, completes Martha's estrangement from collective politics and from Africa. Postwar London is the setting for the final book, The Four-Gated City, in which the mature Martha has abandoned her political activism for introspection. The series ends with an apocalyptic vision of the future.

The Golden Notebook was Lessing's most ambitious and perhaps her most misunderstood book. Taken by critics as a latter-day tract on feminism, the book does have a layer of feminist philosophy. But at its core, The Golden Notebook has more to do with the rights of the individual in a society than with the role of women. The Golden Notebook is a carefully constructed work that builds on a short novel called Free Women. The main character of Free Women, Anna Wulf, a writer keeps a series of notebooks—black, red, yellow, and blue—which punctuate the novel. In effect, the heroine of Free Women steps out of the novel to comment on its action. The whole—Free Women and the notebooks—becomes The Golden Notebook.

The Golden Notebook with its meticulously crafted construction is about patterns—patterns in art and patterns in society. Freedom, the freedom to break these patterns, is Lessing's goal—for her characters, for her work, and for herself. Lessing also experimented with science fiction and fantasy: from 1979 to 1983 she wrote four novels, the "Canopus in Argos: Archives" series, whcih involve a struggle between good and evil set forth amidst galactic empires over thirty thousand years. One of them, The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight (1982), was the basis for a 1988 opera by the composer Philip Glass. In a perhaps whimsical attempt to examine how people would react to her writing if it was not done under the name of a famous author, Lessing wrote The Diary of Good Neighbor and If the Old Could … under the pseudonym "Jane Somers." The books sold poorly and were largely unreviewed until the real identify of the author became known.

Lessing never found any obstacles too daunting for her when it came to writing. In an interview with Dana Micucci of the Chicago Tribute she said, "It all depends on how you look at things. Suppose you don't expect anything to be easy? I never did. I had sticking power … I just got on with the work. And I think there are such things as writing animals. I just have to write."

Lessing also did some nonfiction work: In Pursuit of the English (Simon & Schuster, 1961) about her youth in London, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (Harper and Row, 1987), a collection of lectures, and The Wind Blows Away Our Words (Vintage Books, 1987), which described in detail the sufferings of Afghan refugees from the Soviet invasion of their country. Another example was African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe where she deplored the destruction of wildlife and the environment in that country, and criticized the narrow-mindedness of many of the minority white community there.

Doris Lessing's work is the work of an exile. As a white South African, she was an outsider to European society; as a socialist, she prohibited herself from re-entering Africa; as a woman, she was left out of a male-dominated culture; and as an artist, she was relegated to the outside of the collective of which she and her characters strived so hard to be a part. And her characters were exiles as well. But the Lessing heroines are not simply vehicles for social criticism; they are not just trumpets for certain causes. They are fully realized works of fiction. Lessing's contribution was not to any cause, but to literature.

Further Reading

A Small Personal Voice (1974) contains short pieces of analysis of the author's work by Lessing herself. The book is also useful for the transcripts of interviews with the writer which contain biographical information. Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives edited by Jenny Taylor (1982) is a book of critical analysis dealing specifically with the feminist and political aspects of Lessing's work. For more general analysis, see Contemporary Writers: Doris Lessing, by Lorna Sage (1983); Writers and Their Work, Doris Lessing, by Michael Thorpe (1973), Critical Essays on Doris Lessing, edited by Claire Sprague and Virginia Tiger (G.K. Hale, 1986) and Understanding Doris Lessing by Jean Pickering (University of South Carolina Press, 1990). Her interview with Dana Micucci can be found in the Chicago Tribute (January 3, 1993). One of several biographies, is Doris Lessing by Ruth Whittaker (St. Martin's Press, 1988). Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography details much of the author's life. African Laughter: Four Visits to ZImbabwe (Harper Collins, 1992) discusses the author's trips to Zimbabwe. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Doris Lessing." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Doris Lessing." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 12, 2017).

"Doris Lessing." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Lessing, Doris

Doris Lessing, 1919–2013, British novelist, b. Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran) as Doris May Tayler. Largely self-educated, she was brought up on a farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and in 1949 moved to England, where her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), was published. Widely regarded as one of the major writers of the mid-20th cent. and an influential figure among feminists, Lessing wrote on a wide variety of themes including Rhodesia, women, communism, and global catastrophe. Distinguished for its energy and intelligence, her work is principally concerned with the lives of women—their psychology, sexuality, politics, work, relationship to men and to their children, and their change of vision as they age. In her later books she mainly focused on efforts by individuals to resist society's pressures toward marginalization and acculturation.

Currents of realism and fantasy run through Lessing's works, with one dominant in some novels and both mingled in others. Her fiction includes a series of five novels collectively entitled The Children of Violence, which concern a semiautobiographical character named Martha Quest; the series includes Martha Quest (1952), Ripple from the Storm (1958), and The Four-Gated City (1969). A series of five science-fiction novels is collectively entitled Canopus in Argos: Archives, of which The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) is best known. Her most influential novel, often regarded as her masterpiece, is The Golden Notebook (1962), a loosely autobiographical and psychologically acute study of the struggles of a woman writer; it served as an inspiration to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, and is now considered a classic of feminist fiction.

Among Lessing's other novels are Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971); The Summer before the Dark (1973); The Good Terrorist (1985); The Fifth Child (1988) and its sequel, Ben, in the World (2000); The Sweetest Dream (2001), a semiautobiographical tale of the 1960s; and The Grandmothers (2003). To dramatize the plight of unknown novelists, Lessing wrote two novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could (1984), under the pseudonym of Jane Somers; they were ignored by critics until Lessing revealed their true authorship. She is well known for her short stories and also wrote essays, e.g., Time Bites (2005). Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

See her volumes of autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997) and her part-novel, part-memoir Alfred & Emily (2008); biographies by A. Myles (1990) and C. Klein (2000); studies by R. Rubinstein (1979), I. Homquist (1980), M. Knapp (1984), C. Sprague and V. Tiger (1986), J. Pickering (1990), and M. Rowe (1994).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lessing, Doris." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Lessing, Doris." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 12, 2017).

"Lessing, Doris." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Lessing, Doris (May)

LESSING, Doris (May)

Pseudonym: Jane Somers. Nationality: British. Born: Doris May Tayler in Kermanshah, Persia, 22 October 1919; moved with her family to England, then to Banket, Southern Rhodesia, 1924. Education: Dominican Convent School, Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, 1926-34. Family: Married 1) Frank Charles Wisdom in 1939 (divorced 1943), one son and one daughter; 2) Gottfried Lessing in 1945 (divorced 1949), one son. Career: Au pair, Salisbury, 1934-35; telephone operator and clerk, Salisbury, 1937-39; typist, 1946-48; journalist, Cape Town Guardian, 1949; moved to London, 1950; secretary, 1950; member of the Editorial Board, New Reasoner (later New Left Review ), 1956. Awards: Maugham award, for fiction, 1954; Médicis prize (France), 1976; Austrian State prize, 1981; Shakespeare prize (Hamburg), 1982; W.H. Smith Literary award, 1986; Palermo prize (Italy), 1987; Mondello prize (Italy), 1987; Cavour award (Italy), 1989; Premi Internacional Catalunya, 1999. Honorary doctorate: Princeton University, New Jersey, 1989; Durham, 1990; Warwick, 1994; Bard College, New York, 1994; Harvard, 1995. Named Woman of the Year, Norway, 1995. Associate member, American Academy, 1974; Honorary Fellow, Modern Language Association (U.S.A.), 1974. Agent: Jonathan Clowes Ltd., Iron Bridge House, Bridge Approach, London, NW1 8BD, England.



The Grass Is Singing. London, Joseph, and New York, Crowell, 1950.

Children of Violence:

Martha Quest. London, Joseph, 1952; with A Proper Marriage, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1964.

A Proper Marriage. London, Joseph, 1954; with Martha Quest, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1964.

A Ripple From the Storm. London, Joseph, 1958; with Landlocked, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1966; published under original title, 1995.

Landlocked. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1965; with A Ripple From the Storm. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1966.

The Four-Grated City. London, MacGibbon and Kee, and New York, Knopf, 1969.

Retreat to Innocence. London, Joesph, 1956; New York, Prometheus, 1959.

The Golden Notebook. London, Joseph, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1962.

Briefing for a Decent into Hell. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1971.

The Summer Before the Dark. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1973.

The Memoirs of a Survivor. London, Octagon Press, 1974; New York, Knopf, 1975.

Canopus in Argos: Archives:

Shikasta. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1979.

The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1980.

The Sirian Experiments. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1980.

The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1982.

The Sentimental Agents. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1983.

The Diaries of Jane Somers. New York, Vintage, and London, Joseph, 1984.

The Diary of a Good Neighbour (as Jane Somers). London, Joseph, and New York, Knopf, 1983.

If the Old Could (as Jane Somers). London, Joseph, and New York, Knopf, 1984.

The Good Terrorist. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1985.

The Fifth Child. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1988.

Love, Again: A Novel. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.

Mara and Dann: An Adventure by Doris Lessing. New York, HarperFlamingo, 1999.

Ben, in the World: The Sequel to the Fifth Child. New York, HarperCollins, 2000.

Short Stories

This Was the Old Chief's Country. London, Joseph, 1951; New York, Crowell, 1952.

Five: Short Novels. London, Joseph, 1953.

No Witchcraft for Sale: Stories and Short Novels. Moscow, Foreign Language Publishing House, 1956.

The Habit of Loving. London, MacGibbon and Kee, and New York, Crowell, 1957.

A Man and Two Women. London, MacGibbon and Kee, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1963.

African Stories. London, Joseph, 1964; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1965.

Winter in July. London, Panther, 1966.

The Black Madonna. London, Panther, 1966. Nine African Stories, edited by Michael Marland. London, Longman, 1968.

The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories. London, Cape, 1972; as The Temptation of Jack Orfkney and Other Stories, New York, Knopf, 1972.

Collected African Stories. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981.

This Was the Old Chief's Country. London, Joseph, 1973. The Sun Between Their Feet. London, Joseph, 1973.

(Stories), edited by Alan Cattell. London, Harrap, 1976.

Jack Orkney. London, Cape, 2 vols., 1978; as Stories, New York, Knopf, 1 vol., 1978.

London Observed: Stories and Sketches. London, and New York, HarperCollins, 1992.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Case of the Foolish Minister" (as Doris M. Wisdom), in Rafters (Salisbury, Rhodesia), November 1943.

"A Sense of Humour" (as D.M. Wisdom), in Rafters (Salisbury, Rhodesia), December 1943.

"Esperanto and Others" (as D.M. Wisdom), in Rafters (Salisbury, Rhodesia), April 1944.

"Politics and Alister Warren," in Labour Front (Salisbury, Rhodesia), September 1948.

"The Twitching Dog," in N.B. (Salisbury, Rhodesia), January 1949.

"Fruit from the Ashes," in Trek (Johannesburg), October 1949.

"Pretty Puss," in Trek (Johannesburg), March 1950.

"Womb Ward," in New Yorker, 7 December 1987.

"The Real Thing," in Partisan Review (Boston), Fall 1988.

"Debbie and Julie," in Antaeus (New York), Spring 1989.

"Among the Roses," in Ladies' Home Journal (New York), April 1989.


Before the Deluge (produced London, 1953).

Mr. Dollinger (produced Oxford, 1958).

Each His Own Wilderness (produced London, 1958). Published in New English Dramatists, London, Penguin, 1959.

The Truth about Billy Newton (produced Salisbury, Wiltshire, 1960).

Play with a Tiger (produced Brighton and London, 1962; New York, 1964). London, Joseph, 1962; in Plays by and about Women, edited by Victoria Sullivan and James V. Hatch, New York, Random House, 1973.

The Storm, adaptation of a play by Alexander Ostrovsky (produced London, 1966).

The Singing Door (for children), in Second Playbill 2, edited by Alan Durband. London, Hutchinson, 1973.

The Making of the Representative for Plant 8 (opera libretto), music by Philipo Glass, adaptation of the novel by Lessing (produced London, 1988).

Television Plays:

The Grass Is Singing, from her own novel, 1962; Care and Protection and Do Not Disturb (both in Blackmail series), 1966; Between Men, 1967.


Fourteen Poems. Northwood, Middlesex, Scorpion Press, 1959.


Going Home. London, Joseph, 1957; revised edition, London, Panther, and New York, Ballantine, 1968.

In Pursuit of the English: A Documentary. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1960; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1961.

Particularly Cats. London, Joseph, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1967.

A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interview, edited by Paul Schlueter. New York, Knopf, 1974.

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. Montreal, CBC, 1986; London, Cape, and New York, Harper, 1987.

The Wind Blows Away Our Words, and Other Documents Relating to Afghanistan. London, Pan, and New York, Vintage, 1987.

Particularly Cats and More Cats. London, 1989; as Particularly Cats and Rufus, illustrated by James McMullen, New York, Knopf, 1991.

The Doris Lessing Reader. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1990.

African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe. London, and New York, HarperCollins, 1992.

Under My Skin. London, and New York, HarperCollins, 1994.

Doris Lessing: Conversations, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1994.

Putting the Questions Differently: Interviews with Doris Lessing, 1964-1994, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll. London, Flamingo, 1996.

Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962. New York, HarperCollins, 1997.

On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom, interviews and photography by Cathleen Rountree. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.



Doris Lessing: A Bibliography by Catharina Ipp, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand Department of Bibliography, 1967; Doris Lessing: A Checklist of Primary and Secondary Sources by Selma R. Burkom and Margaret Williams, Troy, New York, Whiston, 1973; Doris Lessing: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticisim by Dee Seligman, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1981; Doris Lessing: A Descriptive Bibliography of Her First Editions by Eric T. Brueck, London, Metropolis, 1984.

Critical Studies (selection):

Doris Lessing by Dorothy Brewster, New York, Twayne, 1965; The Novels of Doris Lessing by Paul Schlueter, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1973; Doris Lessing, London, Longman, 1973, and Doris Lessing: Critical Studies edited by Annis Pratt and L.S. Dembo, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1974; The Tree Outside the Window: Doris Lessing's Children of Violence by Ellen Cronan Rose, Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1976; The City and the Veld: The Fiction of Doris Lessing by Mary Ann Singleton, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1977; The Novelistic Vision of Doris Lessing: Breaking the Forms of Consciousness by Roberta Rubenstein, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1979; Doris Lessing: The Problem of Alienation and the Form of the Novel by Rotraut Spiegel, Frankfurt, Germany, Lang, 1980; From Society to Nature: A Study of Doris Lessing's Children of Violence By Ingrid Holmquist, Gothenburg, Studies in English, and Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, Humanities Press, 1980; Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives: Reading and Re-reading Doris Lessing edited by Jenny Taylor, London and Boston, Routledge, 1982; Substance under Pressure: Artistic Coherence and Evolving Form in the Novels of Doris Lessing by Betsy Draine, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1983; Doris Lessing by Lorna Sage, London, Methuen, 1983; Transforming the World: The Art of Doris Lessing's Science Fiction, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1983; and The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study of Narrative Technique, Greenwood Press, 1985, both by Katherine Fishburn; The Implicit Feminism of Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City by Lisa Maria Hogeland, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1983; Doris Lessing by Mona Knapp, New York, Ungar, 1984; Doris Lessing and Women's Appropriation of Science Fiction by Mariette Clare, Birmingham, University of Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1984; Doris Lessing edited by Eve Bertelsen, Johannesburg, McGraw Hill, 1985; Critical Essays on Doris Lessing edited by Claire Sprague and Virginia Tiger, Boston, Hall, 1986; Rereading Doris Lessing: Narrative Patterns of Doubling and Repetition by Claire Sprague, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1987, and In Pursuit of Doris Lessing: Nine Nations Reading edited by Sprague, London, Macmillan, 1990; The Theme of Enclosure in Selected Works of Doris Lessing by Shirley Budhos, Troy, New York, Whitston, 1987; Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival edited by Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose, Athens, Ohio University Press, 1988; Doris Lessing by Ruth Whittaker, London, Macmillan, 1988; Doris Lessing by Jeannette King, London, Arnold, 1989; Understanding Doris Lessing by Jean Pickering, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1990; Doris Lessing: Sufi Equilibrium and the Form of the Novel by Shadia S. Fahim. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1994; Doris Lessing by Margaret Moan Rowe, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1994; Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change by Gayle Greene, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994; Text/Countertext: Postmodern Paranoia in Samuel Beckett, Doris Lessing, and Philip Roth by Marie A. Danziger, New York, P. Lang, 1996; From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer by Louise Yelin, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1998; Doris LessingIn This World But Not of It by Carole Klein, Boston, Little, Brown, 1999; Spiritual Exploration in the Works of Doris Lessing, edited by Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999.

* * *

Doris Lessing's writings extend the boundaries of fiction, experiment with different genres, explore the worlds of Africa, Britain, and Space, and offer a socio-political and cultural commentary upon the postmodern world. She is a descendant of those nineteenth-century women writers who made poverty, class conflict, women's suffrage, and slavery the subjects of their novels. She is a writer of epic scope and startling surprises. Her novels range from social realism to science fiction, with brief forays into speculative mysticism and fables of horror. After completing five books in her science-fiction sequence, Canopus in Argos, in 1983, Lessing startled her public by turning away from the Antarctic cold of two of her planetary realms and returning to novels of postwar London with its welfare state, terrorists, and aging population. Two of these books, The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could, were originally published under the pseudonym of Jane Somers; the third, The Good Terrorist, offers a detailed psychological and political portrait of a group of radicals-turned-terrorists living in London in a dilapidated council flat. Her novella The Fifth Child, tells the chilling tale of a changeling, a goblin-child, and questions whether this child is actually the incarnation of evil, a bad seed, a genetic freakor is it the mother who is deeply disturbed, projecting her own fears and ambivalence regarding the child onto a child who might, in fact, be nearly normal, or minimally retarded, had he not been so cruelly treated by his family and relatives who thought they had an evil "alien" in their midst?

The Antartic expeditions of Britain's once revered, now tarnished hero, Robert Falcon Scott, profoundly influenced Lessing's The Sirian Experiments and The Making of the Representative for Plant 8, not only by providing her with an understanding of the landscape of paralyzing ice and snow, but by offering her insights into the social processes of Scott's timethe Edwardian era of fierce nationalistic pride and Imperial longingsand of ours. Subsequent books, departing completely from her science-fiction vein, nonetheless continue her preoccupation with human behavior and social processes. Two depict, with graphic psychological realism and rich naturalistic detail, the ordinary day-to-day life of an unmarried, middle-aged career woman living in London and tending society's outcast aged, and belatedly trying to love and givesomething she was always too busy to do. Another recounts the life of a group of squatters whose radical spirits transform them into revolutionaries.

Many greeted The Golden Notebook, written in 1962, as Lessing's feminist manifesto, underestimating its critique of the twin gods, Communism and Freud. Later in life, Lessing was a pioneer in writing novels of aging and dying, confronting the pressing social problems these entail and depicting the grim reality we so often ignore or repress. Her fierce reformist spirit pervades her writing; her anger very much with her, she nonetheless tempers her disillusionment with a wisdom learned through living. Her uncanny gift for knowing characters deeply is very much in evidence.

Lessing's books have always articulated her ideas, whether they be about women's orgasms, Armageddon, or utopia. More often than one would expect from so prolific a writer, she is sufficiently imaginative to integrate smoothly her ideas into her narrative. Even more to her credit is that her writing is continually evolving and is unusual in its breadth. Her plunge into science fiction seemed entirely unexpected. In its incipient stages, in Briefing for a Descent into Hell, it was startling and seemed to mark a change as radical as Picasso's when he moved from the Blue Period to Abstract Cubism. With more reflection, one can discover the thread that connects The Golden Notebook to her science-fiction sequence, Canopus in Argos; but it is hard to think of a writer of her stature in the past half-century who has demonstrated such range.

Her career began with The Grass Is Singing, a gem of a book. Set in Rhodesia, it charts with an economy rare in Lessing's works the dissolution of a couple's relationship. After Lessing left Africa in 1949, she devoted ten years to the Children of Violence series which explored exhaustively the theme of the "free Woman" long before it was fashionable. It also displayed Lessing's preoccupation with politics, which many have criticized as tedious. The Golden Notebook is the best of her works from this period despite its obvious flaws. It is as much a book about writing as it is an exploration of women's relationships with each other and men. In many ways it ought to be compared to Gide's The Counterfeiters the writer's quest to capture the self intended in fiction, not a different, diminished, or enhanced self; the journey through madness that this task requiresthe visions of violence it calls up are integral to both books. Both descend from Joyce; both require a sophisticated audience who enjoys unraveling puzzles; both mirror an age when the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle threatens the reliability of all narrators and estranges the artist from world and self.

In the 1970s came the unexpected turn to science fiction. Lessing's interest in extra-sensory perception first emerged in Land-locked. Madness had been seen as a state offering Anna Wulf a respite from the obsessional insistence upon the self that Saul Green spattered out like machine-gun bullets in The Golden Notebook. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell Lessing took her interest in madness a step further. Calling the book a work of "inner space fiction," she built a story around Charles Watkins, a fifty-year-old classics professor who is found wandering on Waterloo Bridge and is confined for a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Two doctors, of conflicting views, struggle to bring back his memory while he follows a visionary journey in which he enjoys a different, higher identityone conferred upon him by the Crystaland one that ordained that he enter earth, hell, as part of a Descent Team whose mission is to show the mad, ego-obsessed humans that they are part of a larger harmony. Lessing, following R.D. Laing, explores the possibility that only the mad are sane. But much more intriguing than this idea is Lessing's decision to fashion the language and metaphors of madness from the idiom of science fiction and the visions experienced through ESP. The inner journey of this modern Odysseus is traveled on the space-time warp of science fiction. The regions he visits are vividly depicted. The language which attempts to capture the visions Watkins is experiencing is one where words are understood by their sounds, not their connotative meanings. "I" glides into "aye" and "eye" as Watkins's mind seems to float in limbo, carrying his body through an unfamiliar medium, revealing images from the visionary realm. Lessing sustains this style, interrupted by only the curt notations of the two psychiatrists, for over a hundred pages. The effect is startling. At times one almost drowns in verbiage, but the flow of the vision is interrupted with the banal observations of the doctors or the staccato questioning of the patient. Undoubtedly, Lessing's style will cost her some readers, but those who bear with her will find themselves caught up in this bizarre account and caring very much whether this amnesiac will tenaciously hang on to his visionary self or succumb to the pressures of the doctors and society and return to the ordinary realm where he is merely a slightly eccentric don. Watkins's hold on the link between the two ways of seeing is most precarious. The reader must try to decide whether Felicity, Constancia, and Nancy, creatures in his visions, correspond with his wife, Felicity, his mistress, Constance, and the wife of a friend. We are also left puzzling whether Miles and Watkins are at some level identical, and whether it matters at all since others in the Descent Team seem still to be around. Also, of course, there is the possibility that Watkins is nothing more than temporarily schizophrenic, though the weight of the story seems to negate this alternative. This book introduces all the ideas and the paraphernalia of science fiction that dominate the Canopus in Argos sequence. In its ambiguous treatment of Watkins's identity, it anticipates questions raised in The Fifth Child.

Shikasta and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five are the first works in the sequence. In the first a compilation of reports, historical documents, letters, and psychiatric diagnoses is used to unfold the story of Johor's three visits to Shikasta (Earth), the last taking place in the final phase just following the Third World War. Johor is an emissary from the galactic Empire of Canopus, sent to Shikasta to report on the colony. It is Johor's task to educate those who survive the Third World War to their true place in a larger planetary System, where cosmological accidents have heavily contributed to the blighted human condition, and where Shammat, the criminal planet of another galactic empire, has temporarily obstructed the lock that will connect Shikasta to Canopus. A Chronicler from zone Three is the narrator of the second book. He tells one of the myths that accounts for man's fallen state and reveals the will of the Powers that the potentates of three hitherto separate zones are to marry and so hasten the evolutionary design that governs the six zones encircling Earth. The myth he tells is of the marriage of Al-Ith, Queen of Zone Three, to Ben Ata, ruler of Zone Four, and, later, the marriage of Ben Ata to Vahshi, ruler of Zone Five. Two births follow. The marriages alter the Zones, estrange their monarchs from the old dispensation, and bring about alterations which enable all the peoples to move between the Zones to explore again, in new metaphors, the human qualities responsible for the catastrophic happenings in this century, and the nature of the kinds of relationships men and women must make and the kinds of societies that must be constructed to move humans to a higher consciousness. The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four, and Five is far more lyrical than Shikasta. The Chronicler uses songs and pictures to capture the mythic dimension of the story he tells. The Sirian Experiments recounts the colonial experiments practiced upon Shikasta, leading its people into their 20th century of Destruction. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 tells of Johor's journeys to the planet and the ordeal that he and Doeg, the narrator of the novel, along with other representatives, encounter when the planet begins to freeze to death. Doeg comes to understand his part in the Canopean grand design and recognizes finally the mystical transformation which makes him both many and one and enables him to transcend time and space, entering the realm of all possibility under the tutelage of the Canopean Agents. The last book in the series, The Sentimental Agents, is the most disappointing. The history of invasions and conquests of the Volyen Empire enables Lessing to reflect on Klorathy's educational process and his attempts to free the Volyens from the power of words and rhetoric, and teach them the power of thought. The book aspires to place itself in the tradition of Plato, Rousseau, Mill, and Orwell as a novel about an educational project, but it is over-written and the ideas seem tedious. Her old concerns aboundhow a revolutionary is made; why man has created a world he cannot manage; that history is a repetition of invasion and conquest with the oppressors of one age the oppressed of the nextbut the narrative frame is predictable and the ideas simplistic.

Lessing's next four books return to the kind of fiction she was writing before she tackled science fiction. The Summer Before the Dark, The Memoirs of a Survivor, and the ambitious The Golden Notebook are of a piece with her later writing. The Summer Before the Dark is one of Lessing's most perfectly crafted novels. Compact, tightly constructed, it tells the moving story of a woman's coming to terms with aging. Kate Brown, the forty-five-year-old mother of four children, all grown, and the wife of a neurologist of some standing, is a woman who has lived her married years making accommodations, to her husband's choices and to the needs of her children. In the summer of the story, events unexpectedly leave Kate Brown without family responsibilities and alone in London for the first time since her marriage. She holds a job briefly, depending again on the talents that the sympathetic understanding of mothering taught her. Then she has a brief affair with a young man on the continent. Both fall sick; Kate returns to London where she lies ill, preoccupied with the recurring dream of a seal which she must complete. She loses weight; her brightly tinted red hair becomes brassy, then banded in gray. In the last phase of the story, she shares quarters with a young woman who is struggling with her own coming of age. The two women work upon each other; Kate's dream is completed; both separate to enter another stage of their livesthe young woman choosing marriage, children, even responsibility; Kate, returning to her husband, with her hair gray, as a woman who acts for her own reasons, not merely to please others.

The Memoirs of a Survivor is an even more remarkable book, and equally as mature. It is the memoirs of a nameless woman who has survived "it," a nameless war that has left the cities of England empty shells, with conclaves of people living barricaded in their apartments while the gangs of youths roam the streets and the air is so polluted that hand-driven machines are necessary to purify it. The narrator retells how she lived through this period; how she came by a child, Emily, who was entrusted to her care; how she entered a space behind the white walls of her living-room, and inhabited others rooms, from earlier times, and witnessed the traumatic moments of Emily's youth spent with her real parents. She struggles to tell in words how the two worlds, at first so different, began to impinge upon one another. She contrasts what she calls "personal" moments of experience with others that she labels "impersonal." Both reside in the world behind the wall. The story blends the dreamy, prophetic, timeless moments behind the wall where some heightened consciousness, some visionary powers, exist, with a dispassionate, often chilling, realistic account of "ordinary" life in a ravaged London apartment. Always, when the narrator goes behind the wall, she seeks, with a sense of urgency, the inhabitant of the other house, those other gardens. The protagonist's memoirs end with her account of how they somehow came through the darkest times, and realized that the worst was over, that something new would be built. The final paragraphs describe the moment when the walls opened again, and she saw the face she had sought so long, the inhabitant of that hidden world. And that presence takes the hands of Emily, her boyfriend, and the evil child who had terrorized the London streets and leads them into the garden. It is a mystical moment, transfiguring, mysterious, and a consummate end for this exquisitely crafted book.

In The Diary of a Good Neighbour Jane Somers, like Kate Brown, is a middle-aged, seemingly successful woman, but, unlike Kate, she is childless and recently widowed with only a career to give her definition. To compensate for her lack of relationships and to try to come to terms with cancer and dyingshe had faced neither when her husband was terminally illshe befriends an elderly woman, Maudie, whom she has met in a corner store. The book offers an extraordinarily moving, also frightening, story of this stubborn old woman's final years, living in a council flat, tended to by Meals on Wheels, day nursing, a cadre of Home Helpers, and the volunteer Good Neighbours. Lessing diligently details the life of the ninety-year-old woman, alone in London, too ill to care for herself, too proud to let others help her, and too angry to let friendship or death come easily to her. Soiled in her own clothing, almost too weak and brittle to walk to the unheated lavatory in the hall outside her flat, or to light her meager fire, far beyond any ability to clean her rooms or even dress or bathe. Maudie fiercely clings to her independence, refusing to be put in a home or a hospital which she knows will only mark her end. This is a novel about our time, aging, and society's refusal to differentiate between growing old and dying. It calls forth Lessing's giftsa precise eye for detail, an absorption in the quotidian, a psychological understanding of people, and the ability to tell a story. The book is full of storiesMaudie's, the elderly Anne's, another of the women Jane comes to help, and, of course Jane's. The second book in the series is less successful. If the Old Could tells a triter story of Jane's affair with a married man whose unhappy daughter shadows them and whose son baffles her with his unexpected declaration of love. The portions that deal with the elderly, however, are again excellent. Lessing, in both these books, forces the reader to see the elderly. After reading the books, I found myself looking searchingly at the solitary old people sitting on benches, or queuing in the grocery store, or shuffling to a bus, and more important, I looked forward and within.

The Good Terrorist is absorbing, so apt is its portrait of Alice Mellings, a 36-year-old over-aged adolescent, and her "family" of squatters. Alice's instincts are motherly; her zeal to save council flats from being condemned makes her a valuable friend for other, younger, motley members of the Communist Centre Union who join her as a squatter. Her rages are instantaneous and inexplicable to her. Immersed in her day-to-day life, we witness her transformation into a terrorist.

The Fifth Child again demonstrates Lessing's ability to defy labels and forge in new directions. Although its world relates back to a world she revealed in both Briefing for a Descent into Hell and Memoirs of a Survivor, the tale is told in a new and disquieting form. It begins with a too idyllic account of a pair of young Londoners and their old-fashioned dream of a large family, housed in a mammoth Victorian mansion, comfortably away from the strife of the city. After recounting a cycle of yearly house parties and the arrival of four healthy children, it moves to the birth of the fifth child and the disastrous consequences. Folk ingredients, elements of Frankenstein, and images of gnomes and trolls and distant ancestors of the Nebelung haunt the imagination of the mother as her child grows. Mysterious stranglings of animals, and, later, a beating of a classmate, and then thefts and worse crimes occur. All seem the work of the demon child and the idyll of a happy family disintegrates. Throughout the book, we are conscious not only of the desperate plight of the mother of this hapless child, but also of deeper societal unrest. As in many of her other novels, Lessing questions whether there is a higher dimension, or whether mankind has reverted to some darker, primitive age where troll-like creatures dominate the land.

Mara and Dann, Lessing's twenty-first novel, is set during an ice age some 15, 000 years in the future, and takes place on the continent of Ifrik, formerly known as Africa, one of the few habitable regions on Earth. Throughout the book are references to the past, and how the world got to be the way it had becomeprimarily because of an asteroid that hit the Mediterranean. The territory of Love, Again, is much more familiar, and the contrast between the two books mirrors Lessing's wide-ranging talent. This time the protagonist is a sixty-five-year-old widow, Sarah, who takes part in the production of a play based on the life of Julie Vairon. The latter, a feminist writer who committed suicide in 1912, is as much a character as any in the story, and throughout the novel's panorama of failed relationships (between Sarah and a daughter-like niece, and Sarah and a son-like lover), she forms an abiding presence.

It is too early to assess Lessing's place in literary history. Her imagination is too rich. What can be said is that she is deeply concerned with the human condition, and hungry to explore new dimensions, to redefine relationships. Her writings reflect a nearly obsessive effort to find a way through the historical ravages of the twentieth century to a condition beyond the one of personal unhappiness that plagues so many human relationships. Her novels expose a world out of control, and attempt to teach us how better to manage our world.

Carol Simpson Stern

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lessing, Doris (May)." Contemporary Novelists. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Lessing, Doris (May)." Contemporary Novelists. . (December 12, 2017).

"Lessing, Doris (May)." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Lessing, Doris May

Lessing, Doris May (1919– ) British novelist, b. Iran, who was brought up in Rhodesia. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), is a story of racial hatred. Her Children of Violence quintet (1952–69) explores the social position of women; The Golden Notebook (1962) is a key feminist text. Lessing also wrote the science-fiction quintet Canopus in Argos (1979–83), which includes The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982). Other works include The Good Terrorist (1985).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lessing, Doris May." World Encyclopedia. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Lessing, Doris May." World Encyclopedia. . (December 12, 2017).

"Lessing, Doris May." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from