Lessing, Doris (May) 1919-(Jane Somers, a pseudonym)

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LESSING, Doris (May) 1919-(Jane Somers, a pseudonym)

PERSONAL: Born October 22, 1919, in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran); daughter of Alfred Cook Taylor (a farmer) and Emily Maude McVeagh; married Frank Charles Wisdom, 1939 (marriage dissolved, 1943); married Gottfried Anton Nicholas Lessing, 1945 (marriage dissolved, 1949); children: (first marriage) John (deceased), Jean; (second marriage) Peter. Politics: "Left-wing."

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Jonathan Clowes Ltd., 10 Iron Bridge House, Bridge Approach, London NW1 8BD, England.

CAREER: Writer. Worked as a nursemaid, a lawyer's secretary, a Hansard typist, and a Parliamentary Commissioner's typist while living in Southern Rhodesia, 1924-49.

MEMBER: National Institute of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Modern Language Association (honorary fellow), Institute of Cultural Research.

AWARDS, HONORS: Somerset Maugham Award, Society of Authors, 1954, for Five: Short Novels; short-listed for the Booker McConnell Prize, 1971, for Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1981, for The Sirian Experiments: The Report of Ambien II, of the Five, and 1981, for The Good Terrorist; Prix Medici Award for work translated into French, 1976, for The Golden Notebook; Austrian State Prize for European Literature, 1981; German Federal Republic Shakespeare Prize, 1982; Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award (Ditmars) nomination, 1982, for The Sirian Experiments; W. H. Smith Literary Award, 1986, Palermo Prize, 1987, and Premio Internazionale Mondello, 1987, all for The Good Terrorist; Grinzane Cavour award (Italy), 1989, for The Fifth Child; honorary degree, Princeton University, 1989, and Harvard University, 1995; distinguished fellow, University of East Anglia, 1991; James Tait Black Memorial Book Prize, University of Edinburgh, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize, both 1995, both for Under My Skin; David Cohen British Literary Prize, 2001, for her life's work; Asturias Prize for literature, Prince of Asturias Foundation, 2001.



The Grass Is Singing, Crowell (New York, NY), 1950, reprinted, Perennial Classics (New York, NY), 2000.

This Was the Old Chief's Country (stories), M. Joseph (London, England), 1952.

Five: Short Novels, M. Joseph (London, England), 1955.

Retreat to Innocence, M. Joseph (London, England), 1956.

Habit of Loving (stories), Crowell (New York, NY), 1958.

The Golden Notebook, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1962, with an introduction by the author, Harper Perennial (New York, NY), 1994.

A Man and Two Women (stories), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1963.

African Stories, M. Joseph (London, England), 1964, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1965.

Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Knopf (New York, NY), 1971.

The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1972, published as The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories, J. Cape (London, England), 1972.

The Summer before the Dark, Knopf (New York, NY), 1973.

The Memoirs of a Survivor, Random House (New York, NY), 1975.

Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1978, published in two volumes as Collected Stories I: To Room Nineteen and Collected Stories II: The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories, J. Cape (London, England), 1978.

(Under pseudonym Jane Somers) The Diary of a Good Neighbor (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.

(Under pseudonym Jane Somers) If the Old Could . . . (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.

The Diaries of Jane Somers (contains The Diary of a Good Neighbor and If the Old Could . . .), Random House (New York, NY), 1984.

The Good Terrorist, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.

The Fifth Child, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.

The Doris Lessing Reader, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.

The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches, HarperCollins (New York City), 1992, published as London Observed: Stories and Sketches, HarperCollins (London, England), 1992.

Love, Again, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.

Mara and Dann: An Adventure, HarperFlamingo (New York, NY), 1999.

Ben, in the World (sequel to The Fifth Child), Harper-Collins (New York, NY), 2000.

The Sweetest Dream, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.


Martha Quest, M. Joseph (London, England), 1952.

A Proper Marriage, M. Joseph (London, England), 1954.

A Ripple from the Storm, M. Joseph (London, England), 1958.

Landlocked, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1966.

The Four-Gated City, Knopf (New York, NY), 1969.


Re: Colonized Planet Five, Shikasta, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.

The Marriage between Zones Three, Four, and Five, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.

The Sirian Experiments: The Report of Ambien II, of the Five, Knopf (New York, NY), 1981.

The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.

Documents relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire, Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.

Canopus in Argos: Archives (contains Re: Colonized Planet Five, Shikasta; The Marriage between Zones Three, Four, and Five; The Sirian Experiments: The Report of Ambien II, of the Five; The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight; and Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire), Vintage (New York, NY), 1992.


Going Home, drawings by Paul Hogarth, M. Joseph (London, England), 1957, with a new afterword, HarperPerrennial (New York, NY), 1996.

In Pursuit of the English: A Documentary, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1961, reprinted, 1996.

Particularly Cats, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1967, revised edition published as Particularly Cats—And Rufus, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.

A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews, Random House (New York, NY), 1975.

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, Harper (New York, NY), 1987.

The Wind Blows away Our Words, Random House (New York, NY), 1987.

African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe, Harper-Collins (New York, NY), 1992.

Under My Skin (autobiography), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.

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


Mr. Dollinger, produced in Oxford, England, 1958.

Each in His Own Wilderness, produced in London, England, 1958.

The Truth about Billy Newton, produced in Salisbury, England, 1961.

Play with a Tiger (produced in London, England, 1962; produced in New York, NY, 1964), M. Joseph (London, England), 1962.

Also author of a libretto based on The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, for an opera by Philip Glass.


Fourteen Poems, Scorpion Press, 1959.

The Old Age of El Magnifico, Flamingo (London, England), 2000.

ADAPTATIONS: The Memoirs of a Survivor was adapted into a film and released in 1983; The Grass Is Singing was adapted into a film by Michael Raeburn and released as Killing Heat in 1984.

SIDELIGHTS: Doris Lessing, whose long career as a novelist, short story writer, and essayist began in the mid-twentieth century, is considered among the most important writers of the modern postwar era. Since her birth in 1919 in Britain's sphere of influence in Persia (now Iran), Lessing has traveled widely, in geographical, social, political, psychological, and literary terms. These travels, as expressed in her writing, offer readers insights into life at distant outposts of the British Empire and at its core. Through her books—including novels and short-story collections—one can encounter people buffeted by personal, historical, and political forces, and can explore the major issues of the age: racism, communism, feminism, terrorism, and the destruction of the environment. "Lessing has written prolifically on everything from British colonialism . . . to the failure of ideology," commented Gail Caldwell in the Boston Globe, adding that during her long career the versatile author has "taken on the apocalyptic potential of a futuristic, Blade Runner London, the perils of the color bar in Africa, [and] the life of a young girl growing up on the veld."

Lessing's wide-ranging literary appetite is one of the defining characteristics of her work; another is her style. "The Lessing sentence is blunt," explained Philip Hensher in the Spectator, "quickly veering from concrete facts to abstract nouns, tempted briefly by the possibilities of rhapsody, but always turning back to the urgency of the urban demotic....Its cadences are punchy....she loves the grand, dramatic force of words like wisdom, and the vivid simplicity of the names of colours." "Critics have found it extremely hard to categorize Lessing," observed Fiona R. Barnes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "for she has at various stages of her life espoused different causes and been labeled over again."

In 1924 Lessing's father took the family to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), hoping to make a fortune growing corn and tobacco and panning for gold. The family found little fortune on its new farm, located in a remote corner of the Rhodesian bush not far from the border with Mozambique. However, in her years growing up in the African wild, her stays in convent and government schools, and her brief career as a secretary and homemaker, Lessing found a wealth of literary inspiration. As Mark Mathabane noted in the Washington Post Book World, "The formidable problems of racial, social and economic injustice besieging the region of her formative years, its wondrous beauty and unfulfilled promise, left a permanent imprint on her. They molded her artistic temperament, politics and loyalties and made of her a highly original and activist writer." In 1949 Lessing left Africa behind for London, the heart of the British empire. She also left behind most of her family: her brother, her two failed marriages, and her two children from her first marriage. With her son from her second marriage, she embarked on a new life in London as a writer. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was published the following year.

Like many of the novels and short stories that would follow its debut, The Grass Is Singing deals with settings, characters, and issues very close to its author's experience of Rhodesian society and its government's apartheid policies. The central character of the novel is Mary Turner, the wife of a farmer in the African bush, whose affair with an African servant ends in her murder. "Mary Turner is a strange, sad woman, suffering under the burden of obligations imposed upon her as a white woman by the sad, strange conventions of a colonial settler society," explained K. Anthony Appiah in the New Republic, the critic going on to add that "the novel is intensely humane in its attentiveness to the minutest details of the mental life of this central character." In the opinion of New York Review of Books contributor J. M. Coetzee, this book represents "an astonishingly accomplished debut, though perhaps too wedded to romantic stereotypes of the African for present-day tastes." At the time of Lessing's debut in 1950, however, Appiah observed, "reviewers pronounced her the finest new novelist" since World War II.

Lessing's major and most controversial novel is The Golden Notebook, first published in 1962, wherein she brilliantly explores, as a New Statesman reviewer noted, what it is like to be "free and responsible, a woman in relation to men and other women, and to struggle to come to terms with one's self about these things and about writing and politics." Lessing once explained that the work is "a novel about certain political and sexual attitudes that have force now; it is an attempt to explain them, to objectivize them, to set them in relation with each other. So in a way it is a social novel, written by someone whose training—or at least whose habit of mind—is to see these things socially, not personally." In its structure, the novel is really two novels, divided in four sections and "The Golden Notebook." Lessing split it into four parts in order to "express a split person. I felt that if the artist's sensibility is to be equated with the sensibility of the educated person, then it is logical to use different styles to express different kinds of people." She felt that the "personality is very much what is remembered; [the form] enabled me to say to the reader: Look, these apparently so different people have got so-and-so in common, or these things have got this in common. If I had used a conventional style, the old-fashioned novel, . . . I would not have been able to do this kind of playing with time, memory and the balancing of people. . . . I like The Golden Notebook even though I believe it to be a failure, because it at least hints at complexity."

After her initial flourishing as a writer, during which time she explored the Africa of her youth from her new home in London, Lessing turned away from the land of her past and toward new settings: inner space and outer space. Briefing for a Descent into Hell is a novel of ideas based on her interest in the views of British psychiatrist R. D. Laing. In subsequent novels, Lessing has continued to produce work critiquing modern society. In contrast to the realism that marked her earlier novels, Lessing's work of the late twentieth century—particularly her science-fiction series "Canopus in Argos: Archives"—would take startling new forms. In the five "Canopus" books she explores the destruction of life brought about by catastrophe and tyranny. Paul Schlueter in the Dictionary of Literary Biography noted that in this series Lessing's "high seriousness in describing earth's own decline and ultimate demise is as profoundly apocalyptic as ever."

Following her foray into science fiction, Lessing again surprised readers and critics by publishing two novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers. The Diary of a Good Neighbor and If the Old Could . . . contain typical Lessing themes: relations between women, the question of identity, and psychological conflict. Though Lessing was able to get the "Somers" books published in both England and the United States, they were generally ignored by critics and did not sell well. Lessing finally admitted that the works were her creation, saying that she had used the pseudonym to prove a point about the difficulties facing young writers. Without adequate marketing and publicity, noted Lessing, books by unknown writers are generally doomed to oblivion.

More recent fiction by Lessing includes The Good Terrorist, a satirical novel about romantic politics; The Fifth Child, a 1998 novel about a violent, antisocial child who wreaks havoc on his family and society; and Love Again, a reflection on the agonies and insufficiency of romantic love. Commenting on Love Again in the New Yorker, Brooks Appelbaum maintained that the book is "really about the sawdust sensation of knowing that one's darkest despair and brightest ecstasy have been felt and expressed before, and better; and that ultimately, their expression doesn't help." The book's protagonist, an older woman, dissects "her love and grief with the ruthless precision of a forensic pathologist" in passages that "radiate the analytical purity that has always been Lessing's greatest strength."

A sequel to The Fifth Child published over ten years later, Ben, in the World continues the story of middle-class Britisher Ben Lovatt, who has been treated as an outsider since birth due to his primitive, savage physique. Now eighteen, the muscular but apelike Ben looks much older than his age; with little education and fearful of society, he nonetheless flees his uncaring family for Brazil, where he attempts to come to terms with his savage spirit in a harsh world. Noting that the novel's plot borders on "bathetic melodrama," a Publishers Weekly contributor nonetheless commended Lessing for her efforts to show "how intellectuals acting in the name of art or science cruelly exploit simple people who can't defend themselves." Viewing the novel more positively in her Christian Century review, Trudy Bush called Lessing's approach a "fresh twist" on a traditional theme, and added that readers of Ben, in the World will never again "see those who are radically different from themselves in quite the same way."

Considered a semi-autobiographical novel, Lessing's The Sweetest Dream takes place during the 1960s and focuses on Julia, a widow living in a house in Hampstead who takes in her daughter-in-law and young grandsons after her son abandons his family in favor of the communist party. Due to the young mother's generosity, Julia's house is soon second home to a host of interesting characters, some of whom take advantage of the situation. In another part of the novel, a fictional African nation called Zimlia suffers through decolonization, and another political fiction is discredited as the new leaders show themselves to be as ruthless as their colonial predecessors were. In its examination of political systems gone awry and what Booklist contributor Donna Seaman dubbed the "sweet utopian dream of communism that went so nightmarishly wrong," Lessing's novel maintains what New Criterion contributor Paul Hollander called "a compelling focus on the timeless tension between idealistic social-political aspiration and the dark side of human failure....As Lessing shows, 'the sweetest dream' . . . will likely continue to haunt and elude us." Calling Lessing "one of the great imaginative fantasists of our time," Spectator reviewer Hensher praised The Sweetest Dream as "loose, absorbing, urgent" in its focus on "the future of society and personal responsibility." Seaman praised the the work as "a realistic tour de force," adding that "the force of Lessing's vast knowledge and wisdom and the vigor and vision of her imagination and conviction are felt on every page."

Lessing has also produced nonfiction tomes, including The Wind Blows away Our Words, about war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. A nonfiction work and two volumes of autobiography marked her eventual return to her African homeland and to the preoccupations of her youth. After leaving Southern Rhodesia in 1949, Lessing had returned only once, in 1956, an experience she recounts in Going Home. After this first homecoming, the white minority government blocked any future returns because of Lessing's criticism of apartheid. It was not until the 1980s, after years of civil war and thousands of deaths brought the black majority to power in the newly christened Zimbabwe, that Lessing could return. In African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe she chronicles her trips to southern Africa in 1982, 1988, 1989, and 1992. On one level, this book offers the keen observations of a new nation's growing pains through the eyes of someone not an insider but not an outsider. She sees first a country trying to come to terms with the outcome of a long and bloody civil war based on race. In subsequent trips, she finds exuberance, corruption, and finally decline. "One is oneself fixed in the beam of Lessing's penetrating gaze from the first moments of the book," wrote Appiah.

In African Laughter, according to Mathabane, "Lessing gives us one of the most penetrating and evenhanded critiques of Zimbabwe as a new nation." Her "portrait is without stereotype or sentimentality," the critic added, "and free of the overbearing shadow of South Africa and its larger-than-life problems of apartheid." For Appiah, however, Lessing's insights into the changes taking place in Zimbabwe are not complete because, as a white woman, she is unable to get inside the hearts and minds of blacks. "Lessing shows us only the exterior of the black Zimbabweans," he pointed out, "but still we are in her debt for what that view teaches us about what is happening in Zimbabwe." In Appiah's final analysis, "What we learn from this book, then, is not so much the political history of Zimbabwe in its first dozen years, but the psychic history of Southern Rhodesia, the inner history of the white settlers and what has become of them: the best of this book is the white man's story."

Under My Skin, the first volume of Lessing's autobiography, follows the writer from her birth in 1919 to 1949, the year she left Southern Rhodesia for London and her life as a single mother and aspiring writer. She recounts her very early years in Persia, the railway journey across a chaotic Soviet Russia, the promising voyage to Africa, and the years in the bush and in convent school. She also describes the lives of the Taylor family, their fellow whites, and the African majority around them. Under My Skin "is not so much a recollection of her early life in Southern Rhodesia as a dissection of it," commented Martha Duffy in Time; "The chapters on childhood are marvelously, sometimes frighteningly, detailed." Roberta Rubenstein commented in Chicago's Tribune Books that "Under My Skin makes for compelling reading because of Lessing's vivid reconstructions of decisive experiences and significant people of her childhood. Throughout, she juxtaposes descriptions of events that occurred in her youth—before she was capable of fathoming them—with her current unsentimental judgments of them." Although this is autobiography, it is Lessing, true to her strengths as an observer and writer. Duffy concluded: "Set down in blunt, fluent prose, it is the same mix of the practical and the speculative that marks all her writing. And, alas, the same lack of humor. But if that is a flaw, it also ensures the author's total engagement with any subject she tackles. That is what one reads Doris Lessing for: unsparing clarity and frankness."

Walking in the Shade, the second Lessing autobiography, covers life in London from her arrival in 1949 to the publication in 1962 of The Golden Notebook, which secured her reputation as a major postwar English writer. Much of the book deals with Lessing's love/hate relationship with the Communist Party, which she joined in 1952—"the most neurotic act of my life," she once wrote—and stuck with it for nearly twenty years despite deep misgivings. "Her . . . description of the Cold War years, the potent mixture of arrogance, emotionalism and naivety that kept her and others tied to the Party line, long after they knew it was nonsense, will not be bettered," wrote Anne Chisholm in the Times Literary Supplement. The book also recounts Lessing's disastrous love affairs, her struggles as a single mother with little money in grim, tattered postwar London, her writing habits, her relatively rapid entry into the city's intellectual circles, and her perceptions of the famous—and eccentric—who moved in those circles. Chisholm found the book to be "not Lessing's best-written or best-constructed book; it is repetitive, and the more gossipy sections have a perfunctory air, as if added under pressure from her publishers. But even its flaws testify to her seriousness of purpose." Walking in the Shade is "stingingly self-mocking," according to Claudia Roth Pierpont in the New Yorker; it "is about the admission of colossal, sickening error and defeat." But "it is surely Lessing's ability to hold fast to her goal even as she records every stumble and collapse along the way which has made her work of near-inspirational value to so many."

According to Mathabane, "whatever her subject, Lessing is a surefooted and convincing storyteller. Her work possesses a universality, range and depth matched by that of few other writers in our time." As Schlueter remarked of her career, Lessing's "work has changed radically in format and genre over the years, . . . and she has been more and more willing to take chances fictionally by tackling unusual or taboo subjects....And while it is commonplace to note that Lessing is not a stylist, that she is repetitive, and that her fiction too easily reflects her own enthusiasms at particular moments, . . . the fact remains that she is among the most powerful and compelling novelists of our century."



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Cederstrom, Lorelei, Fine-tuning the Feminine Psyche: Jungian Patterns in the Novels of Doris Lessing, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1990.

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Galin, Muge, Between East and West: Sufism in the Novels of Doris Lessing, State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1997.

Greene, Gayle, Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1994.

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Robinson, Sally, Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women's Fiction, State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1991.

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