Doris Lessing

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Doris Lessing
Doris lessing 20060312 (jha).jpg
Doris Lessing in 2006
Born Doris May Tayler
October 22 1919(1919-10-22)
Kermanshah, Persia
Died November 17 2013 (aged 94)
London, England
Occupation Writer
Nationality British
Literary movement Modernism, Science fiction
Notable award(s) Nobel Prize in Literature
Spouse(s) Frank Charles Wisdom (1939-1943)
Gottfried Anton Nicolai Lessing (1945-1949)
Influences Idries Shah, Olive Schreiner, Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, Brontë sisters, Christina Stead, D. H. Lawrence, Stendhal, Virginia Woolf, Mikhail Bulgakov, Olaf Stapledon
Influenced Alexandra Fuller, Elaine Showalter, Octavia Butler, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Erica Jong, Toni Morrison, Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood
Official website

Doris May Lessing CH, OBE (née Tayler; October 22, 1919 - November 17, 2013) was a British writer, author of novels including The Grass is Singing and The Golden Notebook.

Lessing's fiction is commonly divided into three distinct phases although her influences were too numerous to categorize easily. She began as a Communist (1944–1956), when she was writing on the theme of radical social issues (to which she returned in The Good Terrorist (1985). During the 1960s, she was influenced by the psychology of British radical psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, initiating her psychological phase (1956–1969). Laing considered the symptoms of his patients as an expression of their reality and not as a mental illness per se.

Later, Lessing turned to the study of Sufism. In conjunction with this new Sufi phase, she turned to science fiction writing, setting the Canopus series in space. Sufism offered her the same kind of idealism that Communism and radical psychiatry had–a key to the next stage of human development. Through her writing career, Lessing expressed a sense of outrage over injustice and an attempt to find an alternate way of life and social system that would meet her own and humanity's aspirations.

Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.


Doris was born to Captain Alfred Tayler and Emily Maude Tayler (née McVeagh), who were both of British nationality.[1] Her father, who had lost a leg during his service in World War I, met his future wife, a nurse, at the Royal Free Hospital where he was recovering from his amputation.[2]

Alfred Tayler moved his family to Kermanshah, in Persia (now Iran), in order to take up a job as a clerk for the Imperial Bank of Persia and it was here that Doris was born in 1919.[3][4] Her father purchased around one thousand acres of bush and the family then moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925 to farm maize. Her mother attempted to lead an Edwardian life style in the rough environment, which would have been easy had the family been wealthy; unfortunately, it was not. The farm was not successful and failed to deliver the wealth the Taylers had expected.[5]

Doris was educated at the Dominican Convent High School, a Roman Catholic convent all-girls school in Salisbury (now Harare).[6] She left school aged 14, and thereafter was self-educated. She left home at 15 and worked as a nursemaid.[7] She was an avid reader and began to write her own stories and poems, some of which she sold to local periodicals. In 1937, Lessing moved to Salisbury to work as a telephone operator, and she soon married her first husband, Frank Wisdom, with whom she had two children. The marriage ended in 1943.[8]

Following her divorce, Doris was drawn to the Left Book Club, a communist book club[5], and it was here that she met her second husband, Gottfried Lessing. They were married shortly after she joined the group and had a son, Peter, together, but the marriage also ended in divorce in 1949.

Writing career

Because of her campaign against nuclear arms and South African apartheid, Lessing was banned from that country and from Rhodesia for many years.[9] Lessing moved to London with her youngest son in 1949 and it was at this time her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was published.[5] Her breakthrough work though, was The Golden Notebook, written in 1962.[4]

In 1984, she attempted to publish two novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers, to demonstrate the difficulty new authors faced in trying to break into print. The novels were declined by Lessing's UK publisher, but accepted by another English publisher, Michael Joseph, and in the US by Alfred A. Knopf. The Diary of a Good Neighbour was published in England and the US in 1983, and If the Old Could in both countries in 1984, both as written by "Jane Somers." In 1984, both novels were re-published in both countries (Viking Books publishing in the US), this time under one cover, with the title The Diaries of Jane Somers: The Diary of a Good Neighbor and If the Old Could, listing Doris Lessing as author.[10]

She declined a damehood, but accepted a Companion of Honour at the end of 1999 for "conspicuous national service." She was also made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature.

On October 11, 2007, Lessing was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.[11] She was 87, making her the oldest winner of the literature prize at the time of the award[12] and the third oldest Nobel Laureate in any category. She told reporters outside her home "I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush."[13] In a 2008 interview for the BBC's Front Row, she stated that increased media interest following the award had left her without time for writing.[14] Her final book, Alfred and Emily, appeared in 2008.

Doris Lessing died on November 17, 2013, aged 94, at her home in London.

Literary style

Lessing's fiction is commonly divided into three distinct phases: the Communist phase (1944–1956), when she was writing on the theme of radical social issues (to which she returned in The Good Terrorist (1985), the psychological phase (1956–1969), and after that the Sufi phase, which was explored in a science fiction setting in the Canopus series.

Lessing's switch to science fiction was not popular with many critics. For example, in the New York Times in 1982 John Leonard wrote in reference to The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 that "One of the many sins for which the 20th century will be held accountable is that it has discouraged Mrs. Lessing…. She now propagandizes on behalf of our insignificance in the cosmic razzmatazz."[15] Lessing replied: "What they didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time. I also admire the classic sort of science fiction, like Blood Music by Greg Bear. He's a great writer."[16] Unlike some authors primarily known for their mainstream work, she never hesitated to admit that she wrote science fiction. She was Writer Guest of Honor at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), and made a well-received speech in which she described her science-fictional Memoirs of a Survivor as "an attempt at an autobiography."[17]

Her novel The Golden Notebook is considered a feminist classic by some scholars, but notably not by the author herself, who later wrote that its theme of mental breakdowns as a means of healing and freeing one's self from illusions had been overlooked by critics. She also regretted that critics failed to appreciate the exceptional structure of the novel. As she explains in Walking in the Shade Lessing modeled Molly, to an extent, on her good friend Joan Rodker, the daughter of the author and publisher John Rodker.[18]

Lessing rejected the label of "feminist author":

What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, 'Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.' Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.

Doris Lessing, The New York Times, July 25, 1982.[3]

When asked about which of her books she considered most important, Lessing chose the Canopus in Argos science fiction series (1979–1983). These books show, from many different perspectives, an advanced society's efforts at forced evolution (also see Progressor and Uplift). The Canopus series is based partly on Sufi concepts, to which Lessing was introduced in the mid-1960s by her "good friend and teacher," Idries Shah.[19] Earlier works of "inner space" fiction like Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) also connect to this theme (Lessing's interest turned to Sufism after coming to the realization that Marxism ignored spiritual matters, leaving her disillusioned).


Lessing grappled with many of the pertinent social and political issues of modernity. Her work was that of a seeker, and her readers were akin to followers. Her own searching became the subject of one of her most important novels. "The Golden Notebook (1962), in which a woman writer attempts to come to terms with her life through her art, is one of the most complex and the most widely read of her novels."[20]

Her complexity defies easy classification. Despite the wide range of genres and concerns, her writing is "unified by certain persistent concerns: the analysis of contemporary culture and social process; a sense of twentieth century history as catastrophic and an attempt to link this to personal unhappiness; a mystical and sometimes utopian emphasis on higher states of consciousness; an intense anger at social injustice; an interest in radical revisions of the self and of personal and sexual relationships."[21]

In 2007, Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was described by the Swedish Academy as "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny."[22] Lessing is the eleventh woman to win the prize in its 106-year history.[1][4]


Lessing's largest literary archive is held by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, at the University of Texas at Austin. The 45 archival boxes of Lessing's materials at the Ransom Center represent nearly all of her extant manuscripts and typescripts through 1999. Original material for Lessing's early books is assumed not to exist because Lessing kept none of her early manuscripts.[23] Other institutions, such as McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa hold smaller collections.[24]


  • Somerset Maugham Award (1954)
  • Prix Médicis étranger (1976)
  • Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1981)
  • Shakespeare-Preis der Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F. V. S., Hamburg (1982)
  • W. H. Smith Literary Award (1986)
  • Palermo Prize (1987)
  • Premio Internazionale Mondello (1987)
  • Premio Grinzane Cavour (1989)
  • James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography (1995)
  • Los Angeles Times Book Prize (1995)
  • Premi Internacional Catalunya (1999)
  • Order of the Companions of Honour (1999)
  • Companion of Literature of the Royal Society of Literature (2000)
  • David Cohen British Literary Prize (2001)
  • Premio Príncipe de Asturias (2001)
  • S.T. Dupont Golden PEN Award (2002)
  • Nobel Prize in Literature (2007)


  • The Grass is Singing (1950)
  • The Golden Notebook (1962)
  • Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971)
  • The Summer Before the Dark (1973)
  • Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
  • The Diary of a Good Neighbour (as Jane Somers, 1983)
  • If the Old Could... (as Jane Somers, 1984)
  • The Good Terrorist (1985)
  • The Fifth Child (1988)
  • Playing the Game (graphic novel, illustrated by Charlie Adlard, 1995)
  • Love, Again (1996)
  • Mara and Dann (1999)
  • Ben, in the World (2000) – sequel to The Fifth Child
  • The Sweetest Dream (2001)
  • The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2005) – sequel to Mara and Dann
  • The Cleft (2007)
  • Alfred and Emily (2008)
The Children of Violence series
  • Martha Quest (1952)
  • A Proper Marriage (1954)
  • A Ripple from the Storm (1958)
  • Landlocked (1965)
  • The Four-Gated City (1969)
The Canopus in Argos: Archives series
  • Shikasta (1979)
  • The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980)
  • The Sirian Experiments (1980)
  • The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982)
  • The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983)
  • The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (music by Philip Glass, 1986)
  • The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (music by Philip Glass, 1997)
  • Each His Own Wilderness (three plays, 1959)
  • Play with a Tiger (1962)
  • Fourteen Poems (1959)
  • The Wolf People - INPOPA Anthology 2002 (poems by Lessing, Robert Twigger and T.H. Benson, 2002)

Story collections
  • Five Short Novels (1953)
  • The Habit of Loving (1957)
  • A Man and Two Women (1963)
  • African Stories (1964)
  • Winter in July (1966)
  • The Black Madonna (1966)
  • The Story of a Non-Marrying Man (1972)
  • This Was the Old Chief's Country: Collected African Stories, Vol. 1 (1973)
  • The Sun Between Their Feet: Collected African Stories, Vol. 2 (1973)
  • To Room Nineteen: Collected Stories, Vol. 1 (1978)
  • The Temptation of Jack Orkney: Collected Stories, Vol. 2 (1978)
  • Through the Tunnel (1990)
  • London Observed: Stories and Sketches (1992)
  • The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches (1992)
  • Spies I Have Known (1995)
  • The Pit (1996)
  • The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels (2003)
Cat Tales
  • Particularly Cats (stories and nonfiction, 1967)
  • Particularly Cats and Rufus the Survivor (stories and nonfiction, 1993)
  • The Old Age of El Magnifico (stories and nonfiction, 2000)
  • Going Home (memoir, 1957)
  • In Pursuit of the English (1960)
  • Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (essays, 1987)
  • The Wind Blows Away Our Words (1987)
  • African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (memoir, 1992)
  • A Small Personal Voice (essays, 1994)
  • Conversations (interviews, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, 1994)
  • Putting the Questions Differently (interviews, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, 1996)
  • Time Bites (essays, 2004)
  • Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 (1994)
  • Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949 to 1962 (1997)


  1. 1.0 1.1 Sarah Crown, Doris Lessing wins Nobel prize The Guardian (October 11, 2007). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  2. Helen Whittle, Doris Lessing's legacy DW (October 22, 2019). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Lesley Hazelton, Doris Lessing on Feminism, Communism and 'Space Fiction' The New York Times (July 25, 1982). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Author Lessing wins Nobel honour BBC News (October 23, 2007). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Biography from the pamphlet: A Reader's Guide to The Golden Notebook & Under My Skin (HarperPerennial, 1995). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  6. Carol Simpson Stern, Doris (May) Lessing Biography Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  7. Biography of Doris Lessing Harry Ransom Center. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  8. Doris Lessing (1919-2013) Gale International. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  9. Kevin Billinghurst, British Author Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize for Literature Voices of America (October 27, 2009). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  10. Adam Hanft, When Doris Lessing Became Jane Somers and Tricked the Publishing World (And Possibly Herself In the Process) Huffington Post (Oct 11, 2007). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  11. Motoko Rich and Sarah Lyall, Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize in Literature The New York Times (October 11, 2007). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  12. David Wilkes, British author, 87, wins Nobel while out shopping Daily Mail (October 11, 2007). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  13. Alison Flood, Doris Lessing's Nobel medal goes up for auction The Guardian (December 7, 2017). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  14. Lessing: Nobel win a 'disaster' BBC News (May 11, 2008). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  15. John Leonard, The Spacing Out of Doris Lessing The New York Times (February 7, 1982). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  16. Harvey Blume, Doris Lessing: Hot Dawns Boston Book Review. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  17. Mike Resnick and Joe Siclari (eds.), Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches (Deerfield, IL: ISFIC Press, 2007, ISBN 0975915630).
  18. Lynda Scott, Lessing's Early and Transitional Novels: The Beginnings of a Sense of Selfhood. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  19. Doris Lessing, "On the Death of Idries Shah (excerpt from Shah's obituary in the London Excerpt from the obituary in The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  20. Kathleen Kuiper, Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (Merriam Webster, 1995, ISBN 0877790426), 674.
  21. Marion Wynne-Davies (ed.), The Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature (Macmillan, 1992, ISBN 0136896626), 671.
  22. The Nobel Prize in Literature 2007 The Nobel Prize. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  23. Ransom Center Acquires Doris Lessing Archive Harry Ransom Center (July 2, 1999). Retrieved August 3, 2023.
  24. Doris Lessing manuscripts, 1974-1985. The University of Tulsa Archival Catalog. Retrieved August 3, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Fahim, Shadia S. Doris Lessing: Sufi Equilibrium and the Form of the Novel. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan/St. Martins Press, 1995. ISBN 0312102933
  • Fleischner, Jennifer. A Reader's Guide to The Golden Notebook & Under My Skin. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publ, 1995. ISBN 978-0060993283
  • Galin, Müge. Between East and West: Sufism in the Novels of Doris Lessing. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997. ISBN 0791433838
  • Kuiper, Kathleen. Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Merriam Webster, 1995. ISBN 0877790426
  • Resnick, Mike, and Joe Siclari (eds.). Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches. Deerfield, IL: ISFIC Press, 2007. ISBN 0975915630
  • Wynne-Davies, Marion (ed.). The Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature. Macmillan, 1992. ISBN 0136896626

External links

All links retrieved January 30, 2024.


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