Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing (October 22, 1919 – November 17, 2013) was a British novelist, playwright, poet, short story writer, and biographer. One of the most revered voices in modern literature, she has written intelligently and passionately about politics, parenting, aging, love relationships, and feminism. 

She was born Doris May Tayler in what was then Persia (present-day Iran) to British parents. When she was five, her parents moved with her to Rhodesia (what is now Zimbabwe). Observing the strife caused by the British in their colonial rule of the African nation, she developed a strong moral and political compass.

Dropping out of school age 14, she received no further formal education, though she self-educated from then on. While still in her teens, she held a number of jobs to piece together a living. She worked at various times as a telephone operator, office worker, and journalist. When at age fifteen she got one of her first jobs as a governess, her employer gave her books on politics and sociology to read. Started writing stories, and not long after, successfully sold two to magazines in South Africa.

 

Early marriage and the start of a writing career

Married at age 19, she soon had a son and daughter. She felt trapped, and left the marriage after four years. She had a third child with her second husband; that marriage ended as well. In 1949, she moved to London with her youngest child, leaving her older two children in South Africa with their father. 

Lessing’s earliest works were African Stories (1948) and Going Home (1949). These semi-autobiographical stories were set in the Africa of her youth, a continent with which she had a love-hate relationship.

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Doris Lessing by Roger Mayne

You might also enjoy: Brilliant Quotes by Doris Lessing

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The Grass is Singing and The Golden Notebook

With the publication of her first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950), she cemented her foothold as a writer Semi-autobiographical and somewhat philosophical, the book was an immediate success. Set in Rhodesia, it’s the first of her five-novel series referred to as Children of Violence.

It was The Golden Notebook (1962) that was her breakthrough novel and earned much attention among feminists. She later became something of an icon and the book is considered a “feminist bible.”

Through the eyes of the protagonist, Anna Wulf, The Golden Notebook looks at feminist politics, the writer’s life, and what it means to be female. Anna’s struggles in a patriarchal world struck a chord at a time when second-wave feminism was barley nascent.

 

A noted science fiction writer

Lessing’s foray into science fiction seemed quite a departure from the political and feminist themes of her other novels, but it was all of a piece. She wove the subjects that she was passionate about into her speculative works as well,  notably, the five-book “Canopus in Argos” series.

In Charlie Jane Anders’ 2013 obituary of Doris Lessing in Gizmodo, she wrote:

“Seriously, if you want to write science fiction or fantasy, and you’re interested in learning how to capture the difficult niggly bits of people’s inner lives and their interactions with other people — then you absolutely must read Lessing, both her science fiction and her other stuff. We talk a lot about the importance of world-building in making readers believe in the setting of your story — and Lessing was a master of drawing you into a world and making it feel urgent and real.”

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The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Lessing is perhaps still best known for The Golden Notebook

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Nobel Prize for Literature

When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 the jury described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.”

Lessing was the was the eleventh women and oldest person to receive the award at age eighty-eight. In 2008 The Times put her at number five in the list of “The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945.”

Doris Lessing long used her platform as an outspoken opponent of apartheid in South Africa, and spoke regularly about the subject. She practiced Sufism, a branch of Islam.

Doris Lessing died on November 17, 2013, at the age of 94.

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The summer before the dark by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing page on Amazon


More about Doris Lessing on this site

Major Works
Doris Lessing was incredibly prolific; the list of her work below represents but a fraction of her output, as she wrote a great deal of nonfiction as well.

Biographies and Autobiographies

  • Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949
  • Walking In the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography – 1949-1962
  • Doris Lessing: Conversations
  • Alfred and Emily (a memoir of her parents)

More Information

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