In Memoriam, Doris Lessing (22 October 1919 – 17 November 2013)—-World Literature Forum, Robert Sheppard, Editor-in-Chief
Doris Lessing (22 October 1919 – 17 November 2013) was a British novelist, poet, playwright, biographer and short story writer. Her novels include The Grass is Singing (1950), the sequence of five novels collectively called Children of Violence (1952–69), The Golden Notebook (1962), The Good Terrorist (1985), and five novels collectively known as Canopus in Argos Archives (1979–1983).
Lessing was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. In awarding the prize, the Academy described her as “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.
Most of us remember Doris Lessing for the Golden Notebook, which appeared in 1962 at the beginning of the turbulent era of the 1960’s which began to call into re-examination the nature of society and the state, capitalism and wars of imperialism and the experience of women in modern society. Although she rejected characterization as a “feminist” author, her Golden Notebook was viewed by many young women of the time as an opening of the discussion in literature of women’s liberty and search for an authentic identity as women in a society in which men have been dominant. Lessing characterized the Notebook rather as the experience of a woman’s breakdown and recovery under the pressure of divided and inauthentic selves, some imposed by a hostile society and others of her own making, which through crisis struggled towards a greater wholeness, integration, perspective, spirituality and vital life. The trajectory of her further work after the Notebooks, including themes from Sufism, Science Fiction, dreamscapes and explorations of alternative worlds and possible existences confirms these concerns, stressing 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.
Doris Lessing was born Doris May Tayler in Persia (now Iran) on October 22, 1919. Both of her parents were British: her father, who had been crippled in World War I, was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia; her mother had been a nurse. In 1925, lured by the promise of getting rich through corn farming, the family moved to the British colony in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Doris’s mother adapted to the rough life in the settlement, energetically trying to reproduce what was, in her view, a civilized, Edwardian life in a backward primitive environment; but her father did not, and the thousand-odd acres of bush he had bought failed to yield the promised wealth.
Lessing has described her childhood as an uneven mix of some pleasure and much pain. The natural world of the Rhodesian countryside was one avenue of retreat from an otherwise miserable existence. Her mother, obsessed with raising a proper daughter, enforced a rigid system of rules and decorum 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.
Like other women writers from southern African who did not graduate from high school such as Olive Schreiner and Nadine Gordimer, and like some other children of the lower ranks of colonial society who could not go on to university such as George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling, Lessing made herself into a self-educated intellectual.
She recently 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. 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.”
In flight from her mother, 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.
She worked as a telephone operator for a year, then at nineteen, she married Frank Wisdom in a lunge for escape into a new life, and had two children. A few years later, feeling trapped in a persona that she feared would destroy her, she left her family, remaining in Salisbury. 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, her second husband, was a central member of the group and a forceful intellectual and socialist; shortly after she joined, they married and had a son.
Lessing’s own life may be seen as in partial contradiction to her professed belief that people ultimately cannot resist the currents of their time, as she struggled against the social and cultural pressures that seemed to ask her to sink without a whisper into marriage and motherhood. “There is a whole generation of women,” she has said, speaking of her mother’s era, “and it was as if their lives came to a stop when they had children. Most of them got pretty neurotic – because, I think, of the contrast between what they were taught at school they were capable of being and what actually happened to them.” Lessing believes that she was freer than most people because she became a writer. For her, writing is a process of “setting at a distance,” taking the “raw, the individual, the uncriticized, the unexamined, into the realm of the general.”
During the postwar years, Lessing, similar to her contemporary George Orwell became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist movement, which she saw as having betrayed the ideals that she continued to cherish, 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.
Much of Lessing’s fiction is deeply autobiographical, much of it emerging out of her experiences in Africa, in the Communist movement and in her life as a middle-aged “free woman” fitting into neither the traditional world of housewives and couples nor the emerging lifestyles of the new class of singles and profession-driven women. Drawing upon her childhood memories and her serious engagement with politics and social concerns, Lessing has written about the clash of cultures, the gross injustices of racial inequality, the struggle among opposing elements within an individuals own personality, and the conflict between the individual conscience and the collective good. Her stories and novellas set in Africa, published during the fifties and early sixties, decry the dispossession of black Africans by white colonials, and expose the sterility of the white culture in southern Africa. The Apartheid government declared her a prohibited alien in both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa.
Over the years, Lessing has attempted to accommodate what she admires in the novels of the nineteenth century —– their “climate of ethical judgement”—- to the demands of twentieth-century ideas about consciousness and time. After writing the Children of Violence series (1951-1959), a formally conventional bildungsroman (novel of education) about the growth in consciousness of her heroine, Martha Quest, Lessing broke new ground with 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.
In the Golden Notebook the narrator-protagonist Anna Wulf adopted a technique pioneered by her contemporary George Orwell in his Diaries, of keeping parallel journals or notebooks for different and often contradictory dimensions of her life. The book intersperses segments of an apparantly realistic narrative of the lives of Molly and Anna, and their children, ex-husbands and lovers—entitled Free Women—with excerpts from Anna’s four notebooks, coloured Black—-Anna’s experience in Africa, before and during WWII, which inspired her own best-selling novel), Red—her experience as a member of the Communist Party and left-wing intellectual circles in Africa and England, Yellow—an ongoing notebook of a fictional “work-in-progress” being written based on the painful ending of Anna’s own love affair, and Blue (Anna’s personal journal where she records her memories, dreams, and emotional life). Each notebook is returned to four times, interspersed with episodes from Free Women, creating non-chronological, overlapping sections that interact with one another. All four notebooks and the frame narrative testify to the themes of Communist idealism and Stalinism, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear conflagration, and women’s struggles with the conflicts of work, sex, love, maternity, and politics.The fifth notebook, or the “Golden Notebook” of the title follows her last love affair and her search for integration and wholeness following the crisis of breakdown and recovery in her life. This post-modern styling, with its space for “play” engaging the characters and readers, is among the most famous features of the book.
Attacked in the early 60’s for being “unfeminine” in her depiction of female anger and aggression in the Notebook, 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).
In 2007 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her voice will be sorely missed, not only in bringing to light the struggles of women with the conflicts of work, sex, love, maternity, and politics, but also in her evocation of the universal struggle towards spirituality in the onward evolutionary process of human consciousness, and the quest for individual liberation through the understanding of the links between each individual’s own fate and the fate of their society and humanity as a whole.
Robert Sheppard, you are an excellent writer (as you well know!) and have paid great tribute to this rich and beautiful woman with this excellent article — thank you!