Doris Lessing 1919-
(Born Doris May Taylor; has also written under the pseudonym Jane Somers) Persian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, poet, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and travel writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Lessing's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, 22, 40, and 94.
Considered among the most significant writers of the post-World War II generation, Lessing has explored many of the most important ideals, ideologies, and social issues of the twentieth century in her prolific body of work. Her oeuvre displays a broad spectrum of interests and concerns, ranging from racism, communism, and feminism to psychology and mysticism. Lessing began her career in the 1950s, writing fiction in the realist mode that focused on the theme of racial injustice. As her writing developed, Lessing began focusing on strong-willed, independent heroines who suffer emotional crises in male-dominated societies, anticipating many of the major feminist concerns of the late 1960s and 1970s. The major unifying theme of her work explores the need for the individual to confront his or her most fundamental assumptions about life as a way of avoiding preconceived belief systems and achieving psychic and emotional wholeness.
Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) to English parents who moved their family to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when she was very young. She was educated in a convent school and later a government-run school for girls before her formal education ended at the age of thirteen. A voracious reader, Lessing had excelled in school and continued her education on her own through the wealth of books her mother ordered from London. By age eighteen, Lessing had written two drafts for novels and was selling stories to South African magazines, although she would not publish her first novel, the autobiographical The Grass Is Singing—centering on an unhappy woman living on an impoverished, isolated farm in Rhodesia—until 1950. In 1939 she married Frank Wisdom, a much older man, with whom she had two children. The marriage, which lasted only four years, inspired A Proper Marriage (1954), considered one of her most autobiographical novels. Lessing joined the Communist Party in the early 1940s—she severed her ties to the party during the early 1950s—and subsequently met and married Gottfried Lessing, a Jewish German with whom she had a son, Peter. In 1949 the couple separated when Gottfried moved to East Germany and Lessing and Peter moved to England.
The Grass Is Singing introduces two of Lessing's major recurring themes: the causes and effects of racism (“the colour bar”) and the myriad ways that history and politics can determine the course of a person's life. The novel focuses on a white couple's impoverished life on a Rhodesian farm. The wife vents her hatred of her social and political situation on an African man, whom she eventually provokes into killing her. Lessing's highly acclaimed “Children of Violence” series traces the intellectual development of Martha Quest, a fictional heroine who resembles Lessing in several ways. Like Lessing, Martha is a “child of violence” born at the end of World War I and raised in a bleak post-war era of social struggle, later facing the tragedies of World War II. Over the course of the series, Martha progresses from personal, self-centered concerns to a larger awareness of others and the world around her as she explores various beliefs in pursuit of psychic wholeness. Martha Quest (1952) is a bildungsroman in which Martha attempts to escape her restricted upbringing and her domineering mother. A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm (1958) recount Martha's two unsuccessful marriages to politically ambitious men and her involvement in left-wing, anti-apartheid, communist activities. Landlocked (1966)—a novel considered by many to be an abrupt departure from the realistic concerns of the “Children of Violence” series—reflects Lessing's emerging interest in telepathy, extrasensory perception, and Sufism, an offshoot of Islam that proposes that mystical intuition should replace rationalism as a means of alleviating world problems. The novel follows Martha as she travels to England where she experiences an apocalyptic vision. Britain—and later the entire world—are destroyed in The Four-Gated City (1969), a novel in which Martha comes to realize the limitations of rational thought and seeks to embrace and understand the higher truth of her own intuition.
The Golden Notebook (1962) centers on novelist Anna Freeman Wulf, whose life is variously represented by four “notebooks.” Designated a symbolic color and narrated from different perspectives, each notebook incorporates parts of Wulf's latest novel in narratives that assume multiple levels of significance. The title of the novel refers to Anna's desperate attempt through art to integrate her fragmented experiences in order to achieve wholeness. Similarly, The Summer before the Dark (1973) focuses on a middle-aged woman who has a brief affair with a younger man as means to rediscover a sense of identity. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) two psychiatrists attempt to restore a delirious Cambridge professor to their ideal of sanity. As the professor wanders through a space/time warp of his own psyche, he experiences the unity of creation and envisions a future apocalypse. He is ultimately left to ponder whether his vision is valid or the product of hallucination. The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) proposes that faced with the choice between a radical change of values and behavior or the extinction of the human race, mankind must reject rationalism and develop a more intuitive approach to existence and survival. Lessing's “space fiction” series—“Canopus in Argos: Archives”—concerns three competing galactic empires: the benign Canopeans, the self-centered Sirians, and the evil Shammat. Manipulating events on Earth to retain a gene pool for their own immortality, these empires continue to affect human history through the intervention of immortal beings. The first volume of the series, Shikasta (1979), documents the journals accumulated by Johor, a Canopean agent planning to divert humanity from the destructive course set by the Shammat. The second volume of the series, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980), is a utopian allegory centering on the enforced marriages between rulers of opposing kingdoms as a means of securing peaceful coexistence. Next in the series and written in a style reminiscent of Shikasta, The Sirian Experiments (1981) is narrated by a female member of an insensitive colonial administration. In The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) dystopian themes surface in a story of a slowly freezing planet whose inhabitants die awaiting a promised transport to warmer environs. The last volume in the “Canopus” series, Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983), satirizes rhetorical language as a tool for social enslavement.
Lessing's series of novels written under the pseudonym “Jane Somers”—The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984)—feature the diaries of a woman named Janna, who some critics have speculated acts as an alter-ego for Lessing. In The Good Terrorist (1985) a middle-class woman's extreme liberal idealism leads her to organize a group of would-be revolutionaries who commit an act of terrorism. The rhetoric of contemporary political slogans also plays a key role in the novel. The Fifth Child (1988) concerns a violent, antisocial child named Ben who wreaks havoc on his family and society. Its sequel, Ben, in the World (2000), follows Ben, now eighteen years old, as he enters adulthood. In 2002 Lessing published The Sweetest Dream, a novel that revolves around Frances Lennox, a self-described “earth mother” living in the 1960s who takes care of a group of post-war children in her London home.
Lessing has been generally recognized as one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century. Critics have been attracted to the tension and immediacy in her work, generated by her realistic descriptions, symbolism, and detailed imagery that evoke a wide range of environments and moods. Many commentators have argued that her enlightened portrayal of marriage and motherhood, her anti-apartheid stance, and her experimentation with genre and form make Lessing an exciting—and often controversial—literary figure. Although many critics have contended that her science fiction and mystical works abandon the realism and neglect the social analysis that made her earlier works so valuable, others have countered that even in her most experimental fantasies, Lessing has consistently explored the relationship between the individual psyche and the political, sexual, and religious ideologies that structure it. Anthony Sampson has commented that Lessing's body of work offers “an insight about human relationships and an ability to describe them with a directness and certainty that made other English writers seem effete and self-conscious.”