Following the sad news of the recent death of Nobel Laureate writer Doris Lessing, Hannah Butler takes a look at her life and writing…
On November 17 2013, the Nobel Laureate writer Doris Lessing passed away, aged 94. As the final full stop is etched, marking the conclusion of this prolific writer’s remarkable life story, it seems appropriate to flip back through the pages and review almost a century of achievements and difficulties in Lessing’s extensive career.
Lessing was born in 1919 to British parents in Persia, now Iran. However, the prospect of wealth from maize farming resulted in 1925 in the family’s move to Southern Rhodesia. During a childhood described by the writer as an uneven mix of some pleasure with much pain, Lessing endured intimidation in a convent school before dropping out of high school and ending her formal education aged 13. Becoming a self-educated intellectual, Lessing’s early reading included Dickens, Stevenson and Kipling, and later D. H. Lawrence, among others. At age 15, she fled home, working as a nursemaid while writing stories, two of which she sold to magazines in South Africa.
Moving to Salisbury in 1937, Lessing married Frank Wisdom and had two children, but left her family upon feelings of being trapped in a persona that would destroy her. Joining the Left Book Club, a Communist group, she later married Gottfried Lessing, and had her third child. Eventually she became disillusioned and left the movement in 1954, after moving to London with her young son in 1949, where she published The Grass is Singing. This was to be the first of 50 novels published by Lessing in her lifetime, including in 1962 The Golden Notebook. Following the writer Anna Wulf as she struggles to negotiate work, family and emotions in 1950s London, The Golden Notebook was in 2005 voted by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.
Lessing’s response to some critics’ accusations she portrayed female anger and aggression in an “unfeminine” way was to argue that “apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise.” However, she also rejected attempts to classify The Golden Notebook as feminist, regretting critics’ failure to appreciate the novel’s main themes.
Lessing’s other works explored “inner space fiction” and science fiction, demonstrated in her 1971 Briefing for a Descent into Hell, and Canopus in Argos: Archives; a series of novels and novellas. Lessing’s 1985 The Good Terrorist reflected her earlier radical writing on social issues whilst a member of the Communist movement. Lessing also published two novels under the pseudonym Jane Somers, attempting to represent difficulties faced by new author to get works published.
Lessing’s literary successes won her recognition and admiration. In 1995 she received an Honorary Degree from Harvard University, the same year returning to South Africa after being banned for 40 years on account of her political views. Although declining a damehood, describing the title as “a bit pantomimey”, Lessing was named a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature. In 2005 she was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and in 2007 became the oldest winner at the time of the Nobel Prize for Literature, at age 88.
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