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Doris Lessing - A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Doris May Tayler was born in Persia (now Iran) on October 22, 1919. Both of her parents were British: her father, Alfred (Michael) Tayler, who had been crippled in World War I, was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia; her mother, Emily McVeagh, had been a nurse. In 1925, lured by the promise of getting rich through maize farming, the family moved to the British colony in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She wrote marvellously about their mud house, which was meant to serve for five years and lasted 20, about her father's dreams, her mother's deluded expectations of elegant living. Doris's mother adapted to the rough life in the settlement, energetically trying to reproduce what was, in her view, a civilized, Edwardian life among savages; but her father did not, and the thousand-odd acres of bush he had bought failed to yield the promised wealth.

The wedding, in January 1919, was small and informal. Both bride and groom were too emotionally burdened to pretend to the naive joy of a traditional ceremony.

The natural world, which she explored with her brother, Harry, was one retreat from an otherwise miserable existence. Her mother, obsessed with raising a proper daughter, enforced a rigid system of rules and hygiene at home, then installed Doris in a convent school, where nuns terrified their charges with stories of hell and damnation. Lessing was later sent to an all-girls high school in the capital of Salisbury, from which she soon dropped out. She was thirteen; and it was the end of her formal education.

On their wedding night or soon after, despite their plans to postpone parenthood, a child was conceived — Doris.

 I was brought up surrounded by racists that nowadays no one would believe were possible. But I don't think it's a question of race. I think it is like the Romans in Britain. The Romans found us barbarians and left us barbarians, but roll on a few centuries and here we are civilised. My brother was quite extraordinarily racist. Thought he was superior to black people.
Lessing made herself into a self-educated intellectual. She once commented that unhappy childhoods seem to produce fiction writers. "Yes, I think that is true. Though it wasn't apparent to me then. Of course, I wasn't thinking in terms of being a writer then - I was just thinking about how to escape, all the time." The parcels of books ordered from London fed her imagination, laying out other worlds to escape into. Lessing's early reading included Dickens, Scott, Stevenson, Kipling; later she discovered D.H. Lawrence, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Bedtime stories also nurtured her youth: her mother told them to the children and Doris herself kept her younger brother awake, spinning out tales. Doris's early years were also spent absorbing her fathers bitter memories of World War I, taking them in as a kind of "poison." "We are all of us made by war," Lessing has written, "twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it."
Lessing left home when she was fifteen and took a job as a nursemaid. Her employer gave her books on politics and sociology to read, while his brother-in-law crept into her bed at night and gave her inept kisses. During that time she was, Lessing has written, "in a fever of erotic longing." Frustrated by her backward suitor, she indulged in elaborate romantic fantasies. She was also writing stories, and sold two to magazines in South Africa.
In 1937 she moved to Salisbury, where she worked as a telephone operator for a year. At nineteen, she entered an empty marriage with Frank Wisdom, a colonial civil servant 10 years her senior. She had been pregnant with John at the time. When Jean came along in 1943, she was so desperate to get out of the marriage she moved into a rented room, took a job as a typist and began to move in more radical circles. Lessing and her first husband, Frank Wisdom, were divorced in 1943.

Her actions broke the accepted norms of the age, especially in a small colonial city. Her ex-husband initially refused to allow her access to her children, who were placed in the care of her sister-in-law. In March 1945, she wrote to a friend: “Since I was forbidden to see them for a year, it is difficult to see what else I could do but neglect them.”

Two years later, she told the same correspondent that she didn’t feel “any connection with [John] at all. For that matter, I never had. We treat each other with respect and circle around each other warily.” About Jean, she was warmer. “[She] is affectionate and sensitive. In fact I wish I could have her, but I can’t, so that’s that.”

Friends confirm that Lessing was also always in touch with her two older children – even though she was banned by the Rhodesian authorities from visiting her former homeland from 1957 until after the white-minority regime ended in 1980. And again, the circumstances of how she came to leave them are not as clear-cut a choice as her legend suggests.

Soon she was drawn to the like-minded members of the Left Book Club, a group of Communists "who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read." Gottfried Lessing a German-Jewish refugee, was a central member of the group; shortly after she joined, in 1945, they married and had a son. In 1949 they too divorced, and she left for London with their son, Peter.
She is routinely referred to as someone who “left behind” her two small children when she moved from what was then colonial Rhodesia to London in 1949 with the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, in her suitcase.

It is sometimes said that she chose her career over her children. “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman,” she is quoted as saying, breaking every taboo in the book, “than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.” In her autobiography, Under My Skin, where she writes, briefly, of “committing the unforgivable” and leaving her 10-year-old son, John, and six-year-old daughter, Jean, to grow up on another continent.

After that She was less than enthusiastic about marriage, once remarking: “I do not think marriage is one of my talents. I’ve been much happier unmarried than married.”
Her outspoken views on apartheid led to her being declared a banned person from South Africa and Rhodesia. The ban was lifted 30 years later and she was able to return “home”.
Her two sons predeceased her, and she is survived by Jean and two granddaughters.
John died in 1992 from a heart attack. He had run a coffee farm in Zimbabwe. “Poor old John,” she lamented. “I got on with him, though I disagreed with his politics.” Jean lives in South Africa and shuns the limelight, preferring to work with under privileged children. “She’s a remarkable woman,” said her mother proudly in a rare public reference to her. “I very much admire her.”
During the postwar years, Lessing became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist movement, which she left altogether in 1954. By 1949, Lessing had moved to London with her young son. That year, she also published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, and began her career as a professional writer.

In June 1995 she received an Honorary Degree from Harvard University. Also in 1995, she visited South Africa to see her daughter and grandchildren, and to promote her autobiography. It was her first visit since being forcibly removed in 1956 for her political views. Ironically, she is welcomed now as a writer acclaimed for the very topics for which she was banished 40 years ago.
December 31 1999: In the U.K.'s last Honours List before the new Millennium, Doris Lessing was appointed a Companion of Honour, an exclusive order for those who have done "conspicuous national service." She revealed she had turned down the offer of becoming a Dame of the British Empire because there is no British Empire. Being a Companion of Honour, she explained, means "you're not called anything - and it's not demanding. I like that". Being a Dame was "a bit pantomimey". The list was selected by the Labor Party government to honor people in all walks of life for their contributions to their professions and to charity. It was officially bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II.
In January, 2000 the National Portrait Gallery in London unveiled Leonard McComb's portrait of Doris Lessing.
In 2001 she was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize in Literature for her brilliant literary works in defense of freedom and Third World causes. She also received the David Cohen British Literature Prize.
She was on the shortlist for the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005.

In 2007 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Nobel Prize motivation: "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny".

Lessing was the eleventh woman and the oldest person ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature

There is the clip of Lessing, clambering out of a black cab at her northwest London home in 2007, to be told by waiting reporters that she has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, to which she replies, “Oh Christ.” Getting out behind her, his arm in a sling, carrying onions and an artichoke, is her third child, Peter, who lived with Lessing for much of his life. He even greets the throng. By one of those curious twists of fate, Peter Lessing died, at the age of 66, just weeks before his mother.

Peter had suffered prolonged ill-health, notably severe diabetes. Through it all, his mother cared for him diligently. In fact, they were returning by cab from a hospital appointment when they were ambushed by camera crews.

She died on November 17, 2013, at the age of 94.

She was a prolific writer, producing approximately a book a year for nearly 60 years. They included plays, poems and short stories but her novels, in particular The Golden Notebook, remained her best known, best loved and most controversial work.

The Grass is Singing, was published in 1950. The book explores the complacency and shallowness of white colonial society in Southern Africa and established Lessing as a talented young novelist.

Her novels, short stories and essays have focused on a wide range of twentieth-century issues and concerns, from the politics of race that she confronted in her early novels set in Africa, to the politics of gender which lead to her adoption by the feminist movement, to the role of the family and the individual in society, explored in her space fiction of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As well as being a formidable novelist, Lessing was also a talented short story writer, publishing collections alongside her other works. The success of her novels tended to overshadow her other achievements but she remained stubbornly loyal to the short story genre. “Some writers I know have stopped writing short stories,” she once said, “because, as they say, 'there is no market for them’. Others like myself, the addicts, go on, and I suspect would go on even if there really wasn’t any home for them but a private drawer.”

The best among her short story collections, for example, The Habit of Loving (1957) and To Room Nineteen (1978), are tantalising glimpses into the hearts and lives of many different kinds of people, described with a vision accentuated by the demands of brevity.
The Golden Notebook (1962), a daring narrative experiment, in which the multiple selves of a contemporary woman are rendered in astonishing depth and detail. Anna Wulf, like Lessing herself, strives for ruthless honesty as she aims to free herself from the chaos, emotional numbness, and hypocrisy afflicting her generation.
Attacked for being "unfeminine" in her depiction of female anger and aggression, Lessing responded, "Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise." As at least one early critic noticed, Anna Wulf "tries to live with the freedom of a man" - a point Lessing seems to confirm: "These attitudes in male writers were taken for granted, accepted as sound philosophical bases, as quite normal, certainly not as woman-hating, aggressive, or neurotic."
In the 1970s and 1980s, Lessing began to explore more fully the quasi-mystical insight Anna Wulf seems to reach by the end of The Golden Notebook. Her "inner-space fiction" deals with cosmic fantasies (Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1971), dreamscapes and other dimensions (Memoirs of a Survivor, 1974), and science fiction probings of higher planes of existence (Canopus in Argos: Archives, 1979-1983). These reflect Lessing's interest, since the 1960s, in Idries Shah, whose writings on Sufi mysticism stress the evolution of consciousness and the belief that individual liberation can come about only if people understand the link between their own fates and the fate of society.
In the mid-1980s she perpetrated a hoax on her publishers Jonathan Cape, submitting a manuscript under the name Jane Somers, which they promptly rejected (The Diary of a Good Neighbour by Jane Somers was eventually published by Michael Joseph, Lessing's first publisher). This, she argued, showed what's in a name. Unknowns could not get a fair share of attention.
She published two novels under the pseudonym Jane Somers (The Diary of a Good Neighbour, 1983 and If the Old Could..., 1984). In addition, she has written several nonfiction works, including books about cats, a love since childhood. Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 appeared in 1995 and received the James Tait Black Prize for best biography.


“I hated writing it,” said Doris Lessing. “It was sweating blood. I was very glad when it was done. It was an upsetting thing to write - obviously, it goes very deep into me somewhere.”

Mrs. Lessing was talking about her latest novel - her 35th book - ''The Fifth Child,'' a work that critics are already referring to as ''a minor classic.'' The novel is set in the English suburbs from the 1960's to the 80's, where a happily married couple are bringing up their four children. There is an unexpected fifth pregnancy, a very difficult and painful one, and when the fifth child, Ben, is born, he turns out to be a monster in almost-human form.

''It's a horror story,'' Mrs. Lessing said, sitting in the offices of her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. ''It seems to me it's a classic horror story.''

''What happened,'' she said, ''is that I wrote it twice. The first time I wrote it I thought it was dishonest and too soft - this is not what would happen if such an alien creature was born into our society. Something much worse would happen. So I threw away the first draft, and while it's certainly more unpleasant now, I think it's more truthful, especially in the reactions of the other children. I was too soft on them.''

Ms Lessing in New York in 1988 at the offices of Alfred A Knopf

The story takes place from 1965/1966 – 1986/1987. The period covered by the book is from the meeting between David and Harriet, until Ben is 12 years old.

The main characters are:
- Harriet, the mother of the five children, is the main character. She tries to educate her children as well as possible, but after the fifth child is born their aren’t five child any more, but one;
- David, the father of the five children;
- Ben, the fifth child, born in 1974 and a mistake. He’s a monster and is therefore done in an institut, but Harriet takes him back and he slowly burns into a criminal;
- John, a young man who helps in the garden, Ben likes him very much and they do a lot with each other;

- Derek, a friend of Ben on his second school.

The story reaches a climax when Harriet has taken Ben home from the institution. Nobody wants Ben coming home and the atmosphere of warmth and happiness is immediately gone.

Questions to discuss:

  1. How did you explain what Ben is, or what, if anything, is ‘wrong’ with him?
  2. Did this novel remind you of anything else you have read and if so why?
  3. Although it starts off as quite a realistic novel, it seems to make more use of ideas from horror, gothic, and fairy-tale as it goes on. What did you make of that?
  4. David and Harriet seem to stand for traditional family values at the beginning. Do you think the novel supports or challenges such values?
  5. Why do you think Harriet rescues Ben from the institution, even though this will damage the rest of the family?
  6. Are there any episodes of the novel that particularly stand out for you and if so, why?
  7. The novel was published in 1988. Is there any way that you think it might connect with things that were happening in the UK in the 1980s?