Lessing, Doris (1919—)

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Lessing, Doris (1919—)

Prominent English novelist who has combined a concern for such issues as Marxism, colonialism, and feminism with profound investigations of the nature, ailments, and potential of the human personality. Name variations: (pseudonym) Jane Somers. Born Doris May Tayler (sometimes given as Taylor), on October 22, 1919, in Kermanshah, Persia; daughter of Alfred Cook Tayler (a bank clerk) and Emily Maude (McVeagh) Tayler (a former nurse); attended convent school and Girls' High School, both in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, 1926–33; married Frank Charles Wisdom, on April 6, 1939 (divorced 1943); married Gottfried Anton Nicolai Lessing, in 1943 (divorced 1949); children (first marriage) John Wisdom; Jean Wisdom ; (second marriage) Peter Lessing (b. 1946).

Settled with family in Southern Rhodesia (1924); left family farm permanently for employment in Salisbury (1938); attended Communist Party cell in Salisbury (1942–44); left Southern Rhodesia for England (1949); joined British Communist Party (1951); visited Southern Rhodesia and then banned from returning by the white government, left Communist Party over invasion of Hungary (1956); began to study Sufism (1964); movie version of The Grass is Singing appeared (1981); began to publish under pseudonym of Jane Somers (1983); received honorary doctorate from Princeton University (1989).

Selected works:

The Grass is Singing (1950); "Children of Violence" series (1952–65), includes Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1965); (collection) The Habit of Loving (1957); The Golden Notebook (1962); Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971); (as Jane Somers) "Canopus in Argos: Archives" series (1979–83), includes The Diary of a Good Neighbor (1983), and If the Old Could … (1984); The Good Terrorist (1985); The Fifth Child (1988); (as Jane Somers) The Diaries of Jane Somers; (nonfiction) African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (1992); Love, Again (NY: HarperCollins, 1996); Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography to 1949 (NY: HarperCollins, 1994); Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949–1962 (NY: Harper-Collins, 1997).

Starting with the publication of her first book, The Grass is Singing, in 1950, Doris Lessing has been both a critically acclaimed and popular author, one of the most distinguished and prolific English writers of the second half of the 20th century. Her body of writing includes 30 novels along with numerous short stories and several plays. Her style has ranged from realistic portrayals of modern life to science fiction and to experimental explorations of the individual psyche. Lessing's stature as a writer has made her a perennial candidate to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Doris Lessing's work touches on some of the basic dilemmas of modern times, including colonialism in Africa, Marxism, and the status of women in Western society. She has taken up a number of such issues before they reached a wide public awareness, notably in her picture of a modern woman in The Golden Notebook. Lessing's inclination to shift her focus in prophetic fashion to new problems makes it difficult to pin her down to a specific ideological label, such as Marxist or feminist. Lessing herself, and the leading critics of her work, insist that her writing transcends such politically charged categories. Her unique voice and her depiction of unforgettable characters make her achievement essentially one of the exploration of the individual.

Doris Lessing was born in Kermanshah, Persia (called Iran since 1935), on October 22, 1919. Her parents, Alfred Cook Tayler and Maude McVeagh Tayler , had moved to that country following World War I in connection with Alfred's work as a bank clerk. Wounded while serving in the war, Lessing's father had had his mangled leg amputated. His stay in a military hospital brought him into contact with his future wife, who was working as a nurse.

In 1924, Alfred relocated his family to a farm in Southern Rhodesia. Doris spent the remainder of her childhood there except for the seven-year period she attended boarding schools in Salisbury, the country's capital and main city. Life in the isolated African countryside—on a family farm of 3,000 acres with a primitive dwelling—was to become a major source of material for much of Lessing's early writings.

The family's lack of financial luck in farming in Southern Rhodesia as well as the tension between Lessing's mother and father were dominant elements in her early years. Alfred Tayler's farm seldom made a profit, and the personality differences between the elder Lessings—he was content to spend his spare hours sitting outside the farmhouse meditating on the stars, she was frustrated at the lack of company in their isolated existence—made the marriage a fragile one. Critics like Margaret Roan Moore have noted the influence that psychological strains within Lessing's family had. Roan writes that in Lessing's fiction she "presents the father as dreamer, the mother as regulator."

Young Doris received the best education available at the time to a white girl in this part of Africa, attending convent school and high school—both as a boarding student—in Salisbury. She had no taste for formal education, however, and left secondary school when she was only 14. Her real education came through her prodigious reading. At the isolated family farmstead, she spent much of the rest of her teenage years absorbing the great European literature of the past century with emphasis on French authors like Stendhal and Balzac and Russians like Turgenev and Dostoevsky.

An initial period of living in Salisbury from 1934 to 1936 widened her horizons. Back on the family farm, Lessing wrote—and then destroyed—drafts of two early novels around 1937. But the aspiring author also completed and sold several short stories. She then left the family farm for good, moving to Salisbury when she was only 19 and taking a series of uninspiring jobs as a clerk and telephone operator. Lessing married and divorced twice in the decade between 1939 and 1949. Each marriage reflected the vastly different social circumstances in which she found herself. Initially, she plunged into the social life of Southern Rhodesia's white settler population. This led to her first marriage to a civil servant named Frank Wisdom. It lasted from 1939 to 1943 and produced two children, a boy and a girl. Thereafter, her social life centered on members of a Communist Party group that met in Salisbury. There, in 1943, she wed a German-Jewish émigré, Gottfried Lessing. That marriage, which ended in divorce in 1949, was in part an out-growth of her intensifying political involvement. The party group to which they belonged was comprised largely of rank-and-file members of the wartime Royal Air Force who were stationed in this remote colonial backwater as well as recent immigrants to Southern Rhodesia.

She has taken risks, changed and moved on in her life, and this change and growth is reflected in her novels.

—Ruth Whittaker

A key event in Lessing's life and literary development came in 1949, when she left Africa to settle in London. She took along her son Peter, the offspring of her marriage with Lessing, as well as the manuscript of her first novel. Published in London the following year under the title The Grass is Singing, it was a quick success and established her as a rising literary star. John Barkham, reviewing the novel in The New York Times, cited "the depth and maturity of this remarkable psychological study." The book, which was reprinted seven times within five months, tells the story of a white farm woman in Rhodesia who becomes involved with an African worker; in the end, he murders her. Like much of Lessing's work, it can be seen as a statement about a burning social or political issue, but, again like much of her work, it transcends these categories by its exploration of human psychology. Her heroine Mary Turner suffers a mental breakdown in a key development of the plot, and the process by which the mind disintegrates and leads to a greater awareness was to become a thread running through much of Lessing's fiction. Although African themes remained important in her later writing, The Grass is Singing is the only book centered in Africa that she wrote while she still lived there. In 1981, it was made into a popular film, starring Karen Black as the heroine, but its lurid tone departed sharply from Lessing's original book.

Over the three decades following publication of her first novel, Lessing produced two multi-volume works. The first of them, a five-volume series labeled the "Children of Violence," consisted of novels following the life of a fictional character named Martha Quest. Lessing's African background and her personal history provided a rich source of material for this work, since Martha's life and experiences were clearly modeled on those of the author. Beginning with Martha's youth, marriage, and attraction to Communism while living in British Africa, the series then saw the heroine transplanted into an English environment. Martha Quest, published in 1952, dealt with the earlier stages of the heroine's life, and the series ended with The Four-Gated City, which appeared in 1969. The latter work actually drove decades into the future, picturing a Britain devastated by a nuclear calamity at the close of the 20th century.

Lessing's ties to the political left led her to join the British Communist Party in the early 1950s. A record of her political views at this time can be found in her novel Retreat to Innocence, which appeared in 1956. Ruth Whittaker considers this work Lessing's "only piece that can be called propagandistic." In it, a well-connected young English woman, Julia Barr, becomes romantically linked to a Czech Communist refugee, Jan Brod. Their affair ends when, despite her help, he fails to gain British citizenship and is forced to return home. The book was completed before the dramatic events of 1956 such as Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Joseph Stalin and the subsequent repression of Hungarian independence, and it features a long passage in which Jan Brod paints an enthusiastic description of Stalin, even comparing him to the Messiah. Lessing abandoned her ties to the Communist Party following the actions of the Soviet Union in invading Hungary in 1956. Probably embarrassed by the book's message, or at least by its lack of psychological depth, Lessing has never let it be reprinted.

In 1962, in the midst of writing the "Children of Violence" series, Lessing produced what many critics consider her masterpiece, The Golden Notebook. Initially, it received a mixed reception with some reviewers finding it muddled, but the prevailing opinion was that it demonstrated her talents as one of the best English writers to emerge since World War II. The book focuses on what Whittaker calls "Politics, madness and the roles of women … now familiar Lessing themes." For Jean Pickering , it tells "the story of a woman's breakdown, fragmentation, and healing into unity." An exploration of the life of a woman living within the strictures of a male-dominated society, The Golden Notebook has been hailed as a pioneering literary exploration into modern feminism. It anticipates in striking fashion one of the major cultural trends of the ensuing decades. But it also introduced remarkably new techniques into the author's work.

Lessing's heroine, Anna Wulf, has become one of the most celebrated female characters in modern fiction. The author of a successful first novel, she has now become unable to break her writer's block. The novel consists of five notebooks, each one dealing with an aspect of her life and work. Writes Moore: "The obvious fragmentation of form invites separating Lessing from the nineteenth-century masters … away from the traditional realism that she championed in the 1950s." The fragmentation of the book in fact reflects the fragmentation in the personality and experience of the heroine.

A portion of The Golden Notebook is itself a separate novel entitled Free Women. It is the latest work by Anna Wulf. The remainder of The Golden Notebook consists of portions from the four notebooks Lessing's heroine keeps while practicing her craft as novelist. Each notebook views Anna's life from a different perspective, giving the reader what Whittaker describes as "the muddled, sometimes contradictory skein of events and feelings which may never amount to an adequate explanation of her." A powerful section comes from the blue notebook in which Anna records her activities on a single day, September 14, 1954. Here, some of the most no-table passages deal in an unprecedentedly candid way with the everyday details of a woman's life, such as menstruation. Whittaker calls the description of the entire day "one of the most painful and claustrophobic passages in the novel," as it "forces the reader to realise how appalling was a fairly typical day in the life of a woman in the mid-twentieth century."

This book has been described as a watershed in Lessing's body of writing. The techniques that she developed in The Golden Notebook were incorporated into the final volumes of the "Children of Violence." The Four-Gated City placed Martha Quest in the home of a London family as a housekeeper, editor, and mistress for the owner, Mark Coldridge. It presents a picture of London social life in the Cold War years of the 1950s and 1960s, and, like many other novels by Lessing, it features a main character who descends into madness. The book ranges over a period of 50 years, and it leaves the present behind to speculate in gloomy fashion about the future. It ends with an appendix showing Britain in the aftermath of a cataclysmic experience, a nuclear accident or possibly a nuclear war. The heroine dies on an island off the coast of Scotland.

Lessing then launched herself on a second extended series entitled "Canopus in Argos: Archives." This was a set of five books which appeared from 1979 through 1983, and in them Lessing explored a world taken from science fiction. But in the years after she completed the "Children of Violence," she also produced a number of major individual works. These includedBriefing for a Descent into Hell, published in 1971, and The Good Terrorist, which appeared in 1985. As a playful experiment, she offered the public two books, The Diary of a Good Neighbor (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984), under the pseudonym of Jane Somers.

The novels written as Jane Somers raise a number of new issues. Like several of Lessing's works of the 1980s, these books saw her style move back to a greater degree of realism. They may have reflected her response to the criticism she received for the "Canopus in Argos" series by showing that she was capable of continuing to write in a realistic vein. They also represented Lessing's attack on the shallowness and lack of perception of many literary editors and critics. She showed how quick those individuals were to reject meritorious work done by an unknown writer, and then how readily the same work was generally accepted when attached to the name of a famous author. Some critics responded, however, by accusing her of a publicity stunt designed to promote the books once her identity had been revealed.

The most striking element in the first of these two pseudonymous publications was its exploration of old age. Lessing's heroine in The Diaries of Jane Somers is a professionally successful middle-aged widow—an assistant editor of a London magazine—who takes on the task of caring for a 92-year-old woman dying of cancer. The emphasis of the book, notes Whittaker, is "ageing, slow deterioration, and death." As in The Golden Notebook, Lessing stresses the physical functions of the body, this time made even more vivid by their association with fatal illness. In the later portion of the book, the heroine herself is hospitalized and experiences the humiliating routine, to which she had recently been a witness, of being immobilized and nursed. In interviews given at the time, Lessing made it clear she was, once again, tapping her own experiences in dealing with the dying elderly and with the social services available to them.

Equally interesting in reflecting a new direction in Lessing's work was The Good Terrorist, which appeared in 1985. A sharply satiric novel that deals with left-wing radicals in contemporary

London, it seemed to show a very different political viewpoint from the one Lessing had espoused since her days attending a Communist cell in Southern Rhodesia in the 1940s.

A society increasingly sinking into urban violence is also the backdrop for Lessing's The Fifth Child, published in 1988. A male child enters the quiet middle-class existence of a large English family only to show himself to be both mentally and physically abnormal. Violent toward animals and members of his family, "Ben" is confined in a mental institution in northern England but is taken back to his home by his mother, an action that leads to the breakdown of the entire family. The violent son, now a young man, comes to fit well into an English society characterized by gang violence, the collapse of middle-class norms, and the breakdown of urban life.

Lessing's versatility as a writer has been as remarkable as the themes of modern life that she has explored. Her own experience in psychoanalysis as well as her conversion to Sufism, a mystic form of Islam, have been incorporated into her writing. For example, the fourth volume of "Children of Violence," entitled Landlocked and published in 1965, reflects her involvement with Sufism by calling for an understanding of the world that goes beyond ordinary perception into the realm of telepathy and mental visions. The development of Martha Quest in the subsequent volume, The Four-Gated City, reflects what Jean Pickering calls "the Sufi belief in the evolutionary possibility of planned spiritual growth."

Lessing's success as a writer can be seen in her dual achievement of occasionally producing bestselling books while invariably attracting intense and serious attention from leading literary critics. The Golden Notebook, for example, has sold over 900,000 copies in hardbound editions alone. Serious examinations of her work began to appear in the mid-1960s with Dorothy Brewster 's Doris Lessing, and numerous additional book-length studies and journal articles have followed, along with a growing number of doctoral dissertations. The richness of Lessing's work can be seen in approaches students have used in assessing her achievement: her books and short stories have been examined from feminist, psychoanalytical, religious, and political perspectives. Some of the leading writers of the late 20th century have been called upon to review her work, including Gore Vidal, Joan Didion , Kingsley Amis, and Margaret Drabble .

In October 1956, the all-white government of Southern Rhodesia banned Lessing as a political undesirable. But in 1982, she returned to Africa to visit her childhood home in what was now the black majority nation of Zimbabwe. Several additional visits followed into the early part of the next decade. These trips led to her nonfiction book, African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe, which appeared in 1992. She also published Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography to 1949 (1994), followed by Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949–1962 (1997).


Brewster, Dorothy. Doris Lessing. NY: Twayne, 1965.

Draine, Betsy. Substance under Pressure: Artistic Coherence and Evolving Form in the Novels of Doris Lessing. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

Fishburn, Katherine. The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study in Narrative Technique. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Graham, Judith, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1995.

Pickering, Jean. Understanding Doris Lessing. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.

Rowe, Margaret Moan. Doris Lessing. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Sprague, Claire, and Virginia Tiger. Critical Essays on Doris Lessing. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1986.

Whittaker, Ruth. Doris Lessing. Houndsmills, Basin-stoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillan, 1988.

suggested reading:

Ingersoll, Earl G. Doris Lessing: Conversations. Princeton, NJ: Ontario Review Press, 1994.

Kaplan, Carey, and Ellen Cronan Rose. Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1988.

King, Jeannette. Doris Lessing. London: Edward Arnold, 1989.

Lessing, Doris. Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography to 1949. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

——. Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949–1962. NY: HarperCollins, 1997.

related media:

The Grass is Singing (110 min. film), starring Karen Black, John Thaw, and John Kani, filmed by Bille August, Chibote-Swedish Film Institute, 1982.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California