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Lessing [née Tayler], Doris Mayfree

(1919–2013)
  • Elizabeth Maslen

Doris May Lessing (1919–2013)

by Roger Mayne, 1959

Lessing [née Tayler], Doris May (1919–2013), writer, was born on 22 October 1919 in Kermanshah, Persia, the elder child of Captain Alfred Cook Tayler (1886–1947), bank clerk, and his wife, Emily Maude, née McVeagh (1884–1958).

Childhood, early life, and marriages

Doris's father lost a leg in the trenches of the First World War; her mother had been one of those nursing him and, having lost her first love in the war, married her former patient. They left England for Persia soon after their marriage, as Alfred Tayler had been appointed to the Imperial Bank of Persia. Doris's birth in Kermanshah followed in 1919, her brother Harry arriving in 1921, after the family had moved to Tehran. Doris, reminiscing later, would paint her earliest childhood memories of this time in vivid colours. Her mother found the Edwardian style of expatriate society much to her taste, as it recalled her social life as a successful nurse before the war; but Doris's father, deeply scarred by his experience in the trenches, opted to return to England. So Doris, aged five, embarked on her first adventure, as her mother took the children by train to England via Moscow (to avoid crossing the Germany she had come to hate); Doris would recall glimpses of the ragged hungry children of the Russian civil war. Her first experience of England did not impress her: she found it cold and grey after the brightness of Persia. Her father had, as a young man, dreamed of farming, so in 1925 he took up a government offer of land in Southern Rhodesia, hoping to make his fortune with maize. But his dreams remained dreams. He was not cut out for the practical demands that faced him as a farmer on the edge of virgin bush, and his wife never adapted to the poverty of their life.

Doris herself was in continual rebellion against an upbringing that tried to instil in her the standards of Edwardian England; she and her brother were at their closest and happiest exploring the bush. While her brother was eventually sent to boarding school, all attempts at formal education for Doris failed; she would become, like Olive Schreiner and Nadine Gordimer, a self-educated intellectual, reading voraciously any books available to her. She saw how marriage undertaken for marriage's sake and the subsequent arrival of children had destroyed her mother as an independent-minded woman, and she tried to distance herself from a way of life trapped by the past (although her parents' entrapment would always haunt her). She was already writing, and had stories accepted by local journals even before she left home in 1937 to work as a telephone operator in Salisbury.

For a time Doris was caught up in the intoxicating social whirl of the young colonial set of the city, and in 1939, already pregnant, was swept into marriage with Frank Charles Wisdom (1910–1981), a civil servant. The birth of her son John (1940–1992) the following year seemed to have brought her into line with the conventional life of white Southern Rhodesian society. However, the settled colonial ways were now being put to the test by the arrival of RAF personnel and refugees from the war raging in Europe; left-wing political ideas from the North chimed in with Doris's growing unease at the treatment of the black African population. By the time her daughter, Jean, was born in 1943, she and Wisdom were drifting apart; she was increasingly drawn to a group dedicated to communist ideas, and later that year she and Wisdom divorced, although Wisdom did eventually allow her access to their children. Two years later she married the leader of the communist group, a German Jewish refugee, Gottfried Anton Nicholas Lessing (1914–1979); their son, Peter (1946–2013), was born the following year. This marriage was largely one of convenience, helping Gottfried to achieve British nationality, and it ended in divorce in 1949, but it gave Doris Lessing the name by which she would become famous.

Success as an author

Lessing was now publishing poems and stories in local and South African journals, and was trying her hand at novels; that same year she decided to leave Southern Rhodesia with Peter, moving first to South Africa, and then to England, taking the much revised manuscript of a novel with her. This novel, The Grass is Singing (1950), was an immediate success. It exposed the pressures to conform in white southern African society: a woman feels compelled to marry, with tragic results; a young man is browbeaten into acceptance of the racial and social divides that demeaned black Africans and any who consorted with them. Lessing captured the manipulative uses of language that aimed to enforce capitulation to the dominant culture.

Lessing quickly made her mark in England, despite being a single mother with little money; she worked exceptionally hard. The short story would be a favourite vehicle throughout her writing career, her first collection, This Was the Old Chief's Country (1951) challenging the too frequent critical dismissal of her style as clumsy. Martha Quest (1952) was the first of five Children of Violence novels reflecting aspects of Lessing's youth as seen through the eyes of her older creative self. The next volume, A Proper Marriage, came out in 1954, and she was awarded the first of many prizes: the Somerset Maugham award of the Society of Authors, for a collection of novellas, Five (1953). In 1956 she went on a short visit to South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, but her outspoken criticism of the racial policies in both countries resulted in a permanent ban on re-entry. In Going Home (1957) she reflected on her experiences, and also on her final break with communism after the invasion of Hungary. But there were causes she could commit to: she attended the meeting called by Bertrand Russell and Canon John Collins that brought into being the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and she joined the first Aldermaston march the following year. In 1958 the third volume of the Children of Violence series came out: A Ripple from the Storm. All three of these realist novels engaged with issues that would feed into possibly her best-known work, The Golden Notebook (1962): issues such as Martha's frustrated surrender to the pressures imposed not only by colonial society but also by the communist group and by her own personal, physical, and emotional needs.

1958 saw the production of two of Lessing's plays: Mr Dollinger at the Oxford Playhouse, and Each His Own Wilderness at the Royal Court. In 1960 In Pursuit of the English showed Lessing drawing on her experiences as an outsider to deconstruct any notion of a shared English way of life, revealing how complex were the views on Englishness in the colonies and ‘dominions’, while also mischievously defamiliarizing the behaviour of the English as ‘Doris’ misinterprets situations and opinions, to the exasperation of the locals. In 1962 Play with a Tiger was performed at the Royal Theatre in Brighton, then at the Comedy Theatre in London, while The Grass is Singing was adapted as a play for television.

The publication of The Golden Notebook in 1962 established Lessing as a major writer of her time. In it Lessing experimented with structure, her writer protagonist Anna keeping four notebooks, trying to separate out the chaos of events in both public and private contemporary life. Nothing, Anna comes to realize, is solely personal; at any given time all are affected by the world in which they live while also, collectively, influencing the world. Yet, despite the many issues woven through the book, its exploration of women's concerns made it a flagship for the new wave feminism of the late 1960s and 1970s, something that would always exasperate its author; she never espoused the idea of gender exclusivity.

Altogether the 1960s were a busy decade for Lessing; stories, essays, and plays were in demand as she completed the last two of the Children of Violence works: Landlocked (1965) and The Four-Gated City (1969). She also played house-mother to a group of needy young people, among them Jenny Diski, who came to live with her in 1963, and who would say later how much she learned as a writer from her mentor's work ethic. Lessing was always alive to ideas and movements of her time, always prepared to speak out on political, cultural, or social issues; in 1967 she was, for instance, one of 160 writers from many countries contributing to the book Authors Take Sides on Vietnam, voicing her unequivocal opposition to that war.

Mature work

Lessing said that the writing of The Golden Notebook changed her; even before her final disenchantment with communism, she had been looking at other perspectives on life that might fulfil her vision of what humanity was capable of—the vision in Martha Quest of a city where all lived in harmony, a world that the black African, like his namesake the biblical Moses, was never to enter in The Grass is Singing. The theories of the psychiatrist R. D. Laing appealed to her, but it was her meeting with the Afghan Sufi master Idries Shah that would have the deepest impact, for Shah argued for a consciousness that was always evolving, and for the link between the individual's fate and the fate of society, ideas at the heart of Lessing's own evolution as a person and as a writer. Such ideas percolated through the last two novels of the Children of Violence series, and inspired Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), where the insights of the protagonist's ‘breakdown’ encourage the reader to query his psychiatrists' attempts to return him to ‘normality’. From now on Lessing alternated between experimental and realist fictions. In 1973 Michael Joseph published her collected African stories in two volumes, This Was the Old Chief's Country and The Sun between Their Feet. Also in 1973 The Summer before the Dark explored in realist mode a woman's mid-life crisis; in 1974 Memoirs of a Survivor delved into both the mysteries of inner space and the disintegration of what had been the norm in public life: it was a vividly apocalyptic experiment in autobiography.

Lessing's reputation both at home and abroad was steadily growing: in 1976 she was awarded a French literary award, the Prix Médicis étranger. But in 1979 she confronted her readers with a major challenge, producing Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta, the first volume of the Canopus in Argos: Archives series, a venture into science, or rather space, fiction. Many of her critics were dismayed, seeing this as a betrayal of her iconic status as a woman's writer; but Lessing vigorously defended science/space fiction as a valuable medium for exploring current issues and their implications for the future from a fictional outsider's perspective. The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980) followed, and was different again: on one level, a deftly choreographed love story, on another, a fable of two aspects of the ‘female’, one with a refined sensitivity threatened with sterility because of its self-absorbed fastidiousness, the other a splendid animal and initially nothing more. Both must confront and be confronted by the ‘male’ domain of heroics and war. In 1981 the third volume of the series, The Sirian Experiments, was shortlisted for the Booker prize, while Memoirs of a Survivor was released as a film starring Julie Christie. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) followed; that year also saw the release of the film Killing Heat (based on The Grass is Singing), and Lessing was awarded the Shakespeare prize of the West German Hamburger Stiftung as well as the Austrian state prize for European literature.

While Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire appeared in 1983, Lessing sprang another surprise, deceiving both her publishers and readers by producing The Diary of a Good Neighbour, a realist work, under the name of Jane Somers. She was not the first to investigate how books under an unknown name would be received—Storm Jameson, for instance, had done the same in 1937—but critics were at first outraged. If the Old Could … followed in 1984, but by then Lessing's cover was blown and both came out the same year as The Diaries of Jane Somers under her own name (the first volume would be adapted for the film Rue de Retrait in 2001).

The Good Terrorist (1985), a realist fable with a disturbing take on how terrorists are made, was shortlisted for the Booker prize; in 1986 Lessing received the W. H. Smith literary award, and the Italian Mondello prize for the same work. The Wind Blows Away Our Words (1987) was based on Lessing's visit to Pakistan during the Soviet–Afghan war to explore the world of warlords and refugees and was dismayingly prescient; she received the Palmero prize the same year. The haunting novel The Fifth Child appeared in 1988, while Lessing collaborated with the composer Philip Glass, writing the libretto for his opera based on The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. In 1989 Lessing received the Grinzane Cavour prize for The Fifth Child, and also an honorary degree from Princeton University, followed in 1990 by an honorary DLitt from Durham University.

Talks, reviews, interviews, and stories continued to proliferate; then the first volume of Lessing's autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), appeared to great acclaim, while she was also awarded honorary degrees at Warwick University and Bard College, New York. In 1995 she and Charlie Adlard produced a graphic novel, Playing the Game; she received an honorary degree from Harvard, along with the James Tait prize and the Los Angeles Times book prize for her autobiography. That year also saw her first visit to South Africa since she was made persona non grata; she was now being fêted for the very opinions for which she had been banned in 1956. The realist novel Love, Again came out in 1996; in 1997 she collaborated on a second opera with Philip Glass, based on The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five, while the second (and last) volume of autobiography, Walking in the Shade, appeared. But she still delighted in experiment: Mara and Dann (1999) was set far in the future, a rewriting of folktale that drew upon her life with her brother many years before, while envisaging life in a world of devastating environmental change. That same year she was made a Companion of Honour, a prestigious and exclusive award for 'conspicuous public service'. This award she was happy to accept; she had earlier declined a DBE because of its imperial connotations. She also received an honorary degree from London University, and the XI Annual Catlunya prize.

Final years, and assessment

Lessing had suffered a stroke in the late 1990s, and as a result gave up travel abroad. In 2000, at the request of her German publishers, she produced a tragic sequel to The Fifth Child, Ben in the World; and the National Portrait Gallery unveiled Leonard McComb's portrait of her. In 2001 there was a further realist novel, The Sweetest Dream, while Lessing received the Prince of Asturias prize in literature, one of Spain's most important awards, citing her brilliant literary work for the defence of freedom and Third World causes. That year she also received the David Cohen British literary prize, and was made a companion of literature by the Royal Society of Literature. In 2002 came the S. T. Dupont Golden PEN award.

Lessing's output was gradually diminishing, but she could still shock: The Grandmothers (2003), a collection of novellas, included a deftly handled tale of incest which would be adapted for an Australian–French film, Two Mothers, premièred at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. This was followed in 2005 by a sequel to Mara and Dann, with a catch-all title, The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog. Then in 2007 Lessing offended some of her feminist followers yet again with The Cleft: she had picked up on a recent scientific article suggesting that the primal human stock was probably female, and that males appeared later; the idea amused her, and she played with it mischievously. That same year she was finally awarded the Nobel prize for literature; told the news by a waiting crowd of reporters after returning home from a visit to hospital with her son Peter, her initial reaction was 'Oh Christ!', though she quickly added that she was 'delighted' to have won (Reuters, 11 Oct 2007). The citation referred to her as 'that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power, has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny'. The year 2008 saw her last book, Alfred and Emily, the first half of which meditates on what life would have been like for her parents, so damaged by the First World War, if that war had never taken place.

Doris Lessing's life, like her writing, defies pigeonholing; she was always questioning the conventions and conformities of her time, always concerned for where humanity might be heading. In 2009, in conversation with Lessing, Hermione Lee's description of her was very apt, presenting her as

a bold, edgy, fierce, unpredictable writer, who never ceases to shock and surprise her readers and refuses to be fitted into any categories … Perhaps what all of her work has in common is an undaunted, independent voice, which speaks to us from many kinds of fiction–fable, prophesy, satire, realism – about how we live now and why we behave and think as we do. Beyond all that, she is one of the world's great storytellers.

Lee, 19

Four years later, on 17 November 2013, Lessing died at her home, 24 Gondar Gardens in West Hampstead, London, of kidney failure, sepsis, and chest infection. She was survived by her daughter, Jean (Lessing very much admired her for her work with underprivileged children in South Africa). Peter did not survive her: he died a month before her, on 13 October. She was not told.

In the end, any attempt to summarize what made her life and work so important could do worse than refer to the epigraph from Idries Shah's Caravan of Dreams that she repeated in each volume of her autobiography:

The individual, and groupings of people, have to learn that they cannot reform society in reality, nor deal with others as reasonable people, unless the individual has learned to locate and allow for the various patterns of coercive institutions, formal and informal, which rule him. No matter what his reason says, he will relapse into obedience to the coercive agency while its pattern is within him.

Such awareness lies at the heart of all that she stood for, throughout her long life.

Sources

  • D. Lessing, Going home (1957)
  • D. Brewster, Doris Lessing (1965)
  • P. Schlueter, The novels of Doris Lessing (1973)
  • A. Pratt and L. S. Dembo, eds., Doris Lessing: critical studies (1974)
  • M. Thorpe, Doris Lessing's Africa (1978)
  • R. Rubenstein, The novelistic vision of Doris Lessing: breaking the forms of consciousness (1979)
  • I. Holmquist, From society to nature: a study of Doris Lessing's children of violence (1980)
  • J. Taylor, ed., Notebooks/ memoirs/ archives: reading and rereading Doris Lessing (1982)
  • E. Bertelsen, ed., Doris Lessing (1985)
  • K. Fishburn, The unexpected universe of Doris Lessing: a study in narrative technique (1985)
  • H. Bloom, ed., Doris Lessing (1986)
  • C. Kaplan and E. C. Rose, eds., Doris Lessing: the alchemy of survival (1988)
  • G. Greene, Doris Lessing: the poetics of change (1994)
  • M. M. Rowe, Doris Lessing (1994)
  • D. Lessing, Under my skin: volume one of my autobiography, to 1949 (1994)
  • E. G. Ingersoll, ed., Putting the questions differently: interviews with Doris Lessing, 1964–1994 (1996)
  • M. Galin, Between east and west: Sufism in the novels of Doris Lessing (1997)
  • D. Lessing, Walking in the shade: volume two of my autobiography, 1949–1962 (1997)
  • C. Klein, Doris Lessing: a biography (2000)
  • E. G. Ingersoll, ed., Doris Lessing: conversations (2000)
  • H. Lee, ‘A conversation with Doris Lessing’, Wasafiri, 24/3 (2009), 18–25
  • S. Watkins, Doris Lessing (2010)
  • New York Times (17 Nov 2013)

Archives

  • McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • Ransom HRC
  • U. Sussex
  • University of East Anglia

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, documentary footage
  • BFI NFTVA, interview footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, documentary recording
  • BL NSA, interview recording

Likenesses

  • I. Kar, bromide print, 1950, NPG
  • M. Gerson, bromide print, 1956, NPG
  • R. Mayne, bromide print, 1959, NPG [see illus.]
  • Lord Snowdon, bromide print, 1992, NPG
  • L. W. McComb, oils, 1999, NPG
  • B. Murphy, C-type colour print, 1999, NPG
  • J. Morgan, photograph, 2004, Alamy
  • L. Monier, photograph, Bridgeman Images
  • obituary photographs

Podcast

Doris Lessing, writer and Nobel laureate

(1849–)