Doris Lessing Lessing, Doris (Vol. 22)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Doris Lessing 1919–

British novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, and poet.

Lessing was born in Persia and raised in Rhodesia. Her work is informed by an overriding concern for racial justice and autonomy for women in a society dominated by white males. Lessing began her career as a realist, and her early novels exhibit a fervent belief in communism, which she later renounced. Primarily a novelist, she has also written some well-received short stories, many of which revolve around her African experiences. Her Canopus in Argos: Archives sequence, a space fiction narrative, demonstrates her versatility.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Pamela Hansford Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I was worried about Doris Lessing's Martha Quest series, partly because the heroine was treated with so conscientious a harshness, so honorable a lack of self-indulgence that she gave the impression of being a repellent person; and partly because the discipline of an overtly political framework destroyed a great deal of the writer's intuitive flexibility. With these short stories, under the title The Habit of Loving, I am no longer in any doubt whatsoever that Mrs Lessing is one of the best writers in England, male or female.

There are seventeen stories in the books, two pretty long and the rest fairly short. The title story is about an ageing theatrical rake who marries a young actress. His heart is broken when, after an affair with a partner younger than herself (Mrs Lessing, mistress of the intuitive art of knowing-and-not-knowing, merely lets us sense what the trouble is), she decides to grow old ungracefully and with brutality. The gulf between the generations today has never been more remorselessly explored; it is not simply observed, it is felt in the bone. In The Day Stalin Died, Mrs Lessing startles by being funny. It is, at bottom, a sad, even an elegiac story, and nobody ought to laugh at the misery of poor Comrade Jean; but how grimly funny—it's no good, one must laugh—it all is!

Mrs Lessing, who appears to be abandoning the littérature engagée for the littérature engagée dans la vie, has never written better nor shown so fully the range of her literary capacities. She is not one of those political writers who has reneged on her fundamental beliefs. Such modifications as they have undergone have strengthened, not weakened, her humanist outlook, with the result that she no longer has to strain herself to put these beliefs over. They have become part of her nature rather than merely a part of her social conscience; and she is at liberty how to demonstrate that whatever is true whether it is about love or pain or pleasure, is part of the whole truth, and not merely some trivial personal indulgence lying outside it.

Pamela Hansford Johnson, "New Short Stories: 'The Habit of Loving'," in New Statesman (© 1957 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIV, No. 1393, November 23, 1957, p. 700.

Keith Waterhouse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Pursuit of the English is a completely misleading title, suggesting as it does an updated England, Their England (a job that, incidentally, badly needs doing.) Mrs Lessing does bring up to date one or two characters from Ze Mad English rep. company—the comic landlady and the comic colonel—but she is in fact concerned with some rather untypical people in a rather untypical house. Even on these terms, the book is vaguely unsatisfactory. There is nothing wrong with any of the characters as such. They're all colourful. They're all credible, except when they come together in a Mr Muddlecombe court scene. It's just that the house where Mrs Lessing lived seems to have been some sort of depot where characters awaited their turn to be dispersed into contemporary novels. Flo in one novel and Rose in another, and Mr MacNamara alias Ponsonby (a marvellous and original rogue) in a third would be fine. But they stampede one's credibility rather when they all come together in the same crooked house.

There is also something wrong with the tone of the...

(The entire section is 11,556 words.)