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 on Doris Lessing
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.