Doris Lessing 1919–
(Born Doris May Tayler; has also written under the pseudonym Jane Somers) Persian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, poet, nonfiction writer, journalist, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides an overview of Lessing's career from 1988 through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, 22, and 40.
Considered among the most significant writers of the postwar generation, Lessing has explored many of the most important ideas, ideologies, and social issues of the twentieth century. Her works display a broad range of interests and concerns, including racism, communism, feminism, psychology, and mysticism. The major unifying theme of her work is the need for individuals to confront their 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 still very young. She was educated in a convent school and then a government-run school for girls before her formal education ended at the age of thirteen. Always a precocious reader, Lessing had excelled at 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—which centers 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 that she neglected and left in the care of relatives. 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. The marriage was short-lived, however: Gottfried went to East Germany and Lessing and Peter moved to England. She has lived in London since 1949.
Lessing's first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was one of the first books to confront the issue of apartheid. In this story of an impoverished white couple's farm life, the wife vents her hatred of her social and political situation on a black man, whom she eventually provokes into killing her. The novel established two of Lessing's early major concerns: racism, or "the colour bar," and the way that historical and political circumstances can determine the course of a person's life. Lessing also established a strong reputation as a short story writer early in her career. Among her most acclaimed volumes of short fiction are Five: Short Novels (1953), The Habit of Loving (1957), and African Stories (1964), all of which deal with racial concerns in African settings and with the emancipation of modern women. Her growing reputation was secured with the highly acclaimed "Children of Violence" series, in which she traces the intellectual development of Martha Quest, a fictional heroine who resembles Lessing in several ways. Martha, like Lessing, is a "child of violence" born at the end of World War I, raised in the bleak postwar era of social struggle, and faced with the tragedies of World War II. In the course of the series, as Martha progresses from personal, self-centered concerns to a larger awareness of others and the world around her, she pursues various beliefs to gain 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 oriented men and her involvement in left-wing, anti-apartheid, and communist activities. Landlocked (1966), a novel considered by many to be an abrupt departure from the realistic concerns of the 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. In this novel, which focuses on Martha's mother, May, Martha travels to England and experiences an apocalyptic vision. Britain, and then the 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 intuition. Although faulted for its radical ideas, this novel was praised for its skillful evocation of apocalyptic and psychic elements. The Golden Notebook (1962) is widely considered Lessing's masterpiece. This complex novel centers on Anna Freeman Wulf, various aspects of whose life are collected in four notebooks, each of a symbolic color, and are viewed from numerous perspectives. Parts of a novel Wulf is writing are juxtaposed with sections from the four notebooks; the sections can be read in many ways to assume different levels of significance. The "golden notebook" of the title is Anna's desperate attempt through art to integrate her fragmented experiences and to become whole in the process. The Summer before the Dark (1973), one of Lessing's most popular novels, centers on a middle-aged woman who has a brief affair with a younger man as a means of rediscovering her identity. During the 1970s, Lessing began writing what she called "inner space fiction." These works reveal the influence of Carl Jung and particularly R. D. Laing, a well-known radical psychologist who proposed that insanity is merely a convenient label imposed by society on those who do not conform to its standards of behavior. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), two psychiatrists attempt to restore a delirious Cambridge professor to their idea of sanity. The professor undergoes an odyssey through the space/time warp of his own psyche, envisioning the oneness of creation and a future apocalypse. This novel hinges on the question of whether his vision is valid or the product of hallucination. The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) expands upon a similar idea. In this novel, Lessing suggests that humanity, given a choice between extinction or a radical change of values and behavior, must reject rationalism and develop a more intuitive approach to existence and survival. In the late 1970s, Lessing dismissed her acclaimed realist work as trivial and began a "space fiction" series, "Canopus in Argos: Archives." In these volumes, three competing galactic empires—the benign Canopeans, self-centered Sirians, and evil Shammat—are revealed to have manipulated earth history to retain a gene pool for their own immortality. These forces continue to influence events on earth through the intervention of immortal beings. Shikasta (1979), the first volume of the series, is a collection of records accumulated by Johor, a Canopean agent whose mission is to divert humanity from the destructive course set by the Shammat. The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980) is an allegory that centers on an enforced marriage between rulers of two seemingly antithetical regions in the hope of adapting a peaceful coexistence. The Sirian Experiments (1981) consists of a series of documents in the manner of Shikasta narrated by a female member of an insensitive colonial administration. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) evidences Lessing's interest in dystopian themes in its story of a slowly freezing planet whose inhabitants expire while awaiting a promised transport to a warmer environment. Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983) is a satire on language in which rhetoric is used as a tool for social enslavement. Writing under the pseudonym of Jane Somers, Lessing published two novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbor (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984), to dramatize the problems faced by unknown writers and to receive unbiased critical appraisal. Ten publishers rejected the first novel, and when it appeared in a limited, hardcover edition, many literary magazines ignored it altogether. The major concerns of the Somers books are similar to those of Lessing's feminist works: love, loneliness, and the problems of women. Both novels feature the diaries of Janna, whom critics presume represents Somers/Lessing. Following Lessing's exposure of the pseudonym, both works were collected under Lessing's name and published as The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984). In the novel The Good Terrorist (1985), a middle-class woman's extreme liberal idealism leads her to organize a group of would-be counterculture revolutionaries who commit an act of terrorism. Here Lessing examines the role of such rhetorical devices as political slogans in contemporary life. Somewhat similarly, The Fifth Child (1988) concerns a violent, antisocial child who wreaks havoc on his family and society. The first volume of Lessing's autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), covers the first thirty years of her life in Persia and Rhodesia, up to her departure for London in 1949. The first half of the book examines her unhappy childhood on a Rhodesian farm with her parents and younger brother. In the second half of the book, Lessing focuses on her early writing and her two failed marriages.
Lessing is generally recognized as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. Using detailed, realistic descriptions, symbolism, and imagery to evoke a wide range of environments and moods, Lessing achieves what Edward J. Fitzgerald termed "tension and immediacy" in her work. Critics argue that her enlightened portrayal of marriage and motherhood, her anti-apartheid stance, and her experimentation with genre and form have made her an exciting—and often controversial—literary figure. Although many critics have not thought highly of her science fiction and mystical works, contending that her abandonment of realism entailed neglecting the social analysis that made her earlier works so valuable, Jeannette King argues 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…. For if Lessing's work has a single 'message,' it is probably this: only by distancing ourselves from our own most deeply held assumptions and beliefs can we ensure individual or social growth."