Famous and not so famous Brits – Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prize for Literature 2007
Doris Lessing (1919-2013) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. She was born Doris May Tayler in Persia (now Iran) to British parents; in 1925, the family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), then a British colony, to take up maize farming. The venture was unsuccessful; although Doris’s mother took enthusiastically to the role of a British colonist, her father, haunted by his experiences in World War I, failed to adapt to the new environment.
Doris rebelled against the rigidity of her colonial upbringing, finding solace in exploring nature and in reading. She dropped out of school at thirteen and left home at fifteen, becoming a “self-educated intellectual” through her contacts with the Communist-inspired Left Book Club in Rhodesia’s capital, Salisbury. She married Gottfried Lessing, a member of the group and a Communist, and had a son to him – but grew weary of the racism, provincialism and anti-intellectualism of life in Southern Africa, and moved with her son to London in 1949. She remained there for the rest of her life.
Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1949), made her name, and drew on her African experiences, with its twin themes of a woman central character unhappy with social conventions and the conflict between black Africans and white colonials. While her reputation in Britain grew, the authorities in Rhodesia and South Africa declared her a “prohibited alien” in 1956. She became disillusioned with Communism and left the party in 1954, but continued to question received ideas and conventional wisdom throughout her literary career. Her novel The Golden Notebook (1962) made her a heroine of the feminist movement for its unflinching portrayal of the central character’s struggle to live as a “free woman”, pursuing her political and literary interests while bringing up a child. Characteristically, Lessing later wrote that the book was “claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war”, insisting that the book’s subject matter was much broader than some feminists acknowledged.
Doris Lessing’s restless intellectual curiosity led her to investigate new viewpoints and themes in her later works; her “inner-space fiction” and science fiction novels enabled her to explore the mystical ideas which intrigued her (found in the works of the Sufi writer Idries Shah, whom she admired). She increasingly challenged left-wing and progressive orthodoxies, criticising in particular the “mind-deadening slogans” of Communist thought which, she claimed, had survived the fall of the Iron Curtain and had “deformed” academic writing and literary criticism. However, she was too much of an independent thinker to follow the predictable route of those former left-wing intellectuals who, once the Cold War had ended, became cheerleaders for the right. A cat-lover, she wrote a book entitled Particularly Cats, as well as two volumes of autobiography; her final novel appeared in 2008. Her bibliography can be found here: http://www.dorislessing.org/bibliography.html
NOTE: Colonials are people who live in a colony but who are citizens of the country that rules the colony. Colonists are people who settle in a new.