Lessing, Doris (Doris May Taylor Lessing)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Lessing, Doris (Doris May Taylor Lessing)

Lessing, Doris (Doris May Taylor Lessing) (1919- ) British memoirist, polemist, and novelist

A feminist, autobiographer, and writer of dystopian and speculative fiction, Doris Lessing examines the effects of snobbery and exclusion in multicultural societies. Born Doris May Taylor to British parents in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran), she grew up on a remote grain farm in Mashonaland, Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). In her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), she recalled, “I was part of an extraordinary time, the end of the British Empire in Africa, and the bit I was involved with was the occupation of a country that lasted exactly ninety years” (Lessing 1995, 160). At the Dominican Convent school in Salisbury, she retreated to the library and left at 14 without earning a diploma. In 1933, she took up jobs as a nanny, typist, and telephone operator. After two divorces, in 1949, she settled in London, became a Marxist, and, influenced by the New Woman fiction of the South African novelist OLIVE SCHREINER, began a freelance writing career.

Like other writers born or raised in foreign cultures, such as PEARL BUCK and JOHN HERSEY, Lessing loathed the idea of imperialism. She wrote, “How very careless, how lazy, how indifferent, the British Empire was, how lightly it took on vast countries and millions of people, not even bothering to inform itself about them” (Lessing 1998, 209). Her reunion with her Rhodesian and South African roots in 1956 proved so unpleasant because of police suspicions that she recorded her alienation in Going Home (1957). Her speculation on an easing of ethnic tensions proved wrong: “If you want to see the natives badly treated, then you should see the people just out from Britain: they are worse than anyone, much worse than the old Rhodesians” (Lessing 1996, 88). For her liberal views, Lessing remained persona non grata until the freeing of Southern Rhodesia from imperial control in 1980. As she explains in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (1987), upon returning to Zimbabwe in 1982, she found the struggle for independence had been more lethal than news reports indicated. Starvation in the Sahel region south of the Sahara and murder in Afghanistan under the Soviet puppet government dismayed her, stirring her to write diatribes against such catastrophes resulting from “wild partisan passion,” which she characterizes as “something very powerful and very primitive” (Lessing 1987, 42, 28). Nonetheless, in her second autobiography, Walking in the Shade (1997), she voiced a belief in the humanizing power of art—that “literature—a novel, a story, even a line of poetry—has the power to destroy empires” (Lessing 1998, 77).

In her best-selling debut novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), a post-World War II addition to literature of the women's movement, Lessing examined the life of Mary Turner, a Southern Rhodesian farm wife and mistress of a domestic staff. In the story's action, Mary's life withers in tandem with the decline of humanity and trust among the peoples of British Africa. The author summarizes the social situation along class and color lines: “Afrikaners had their own lives, and the Britishers ignored them. ’Poor whites' were Afrikaners, never British” (Lessing 1973, 11). In the aftermath of the houseboy Moses's murder of Mary, locals take sides, exonerating her husband, Dick Turner, and lambasting her as “something unpleasant and unclean” (12), a hint of violated taboos of sanity, sex, race, and class. The corruption of the servant Moses from dependable domestic to vengeful spirit served as a vehicle for a Swedish film, Killing Heat (1981), starring Karen Black.

In commentary on perceived national superiority, Lessing scoffed at the notion that “God had elected us to rule the world” (Lessing 1995, 190). She blends didacticism with a sardonic tone in her autobiographical novel The Golden Notebook (1962), in which she creates a complex portrait of Anna Wulf, a writer, resident of Central Africa, and member of the British Communist Party. The author makes light of colonial concerns in a racial observation about the security of white sovereignty in Central Africa: “Well of course, the blacks will drive us into the sea in fifty years' time” (Lessing 1999, 42). Her cynicism crops up later with the observation that boom times raise African incomes, “even in an economy designed to see that they had the minimum necessary to keep alive and working” (63). In her repudiation of history, she expounds on the hypocrisy of World War II, when Britain's assumptions about black Africans paralleled Adolf Hitler's outlook on ethnicity and human values.

Although heavy-handed in discussing ethics and morals, Lessing wins readers through her flexible scenarios and intriguing motifs. In a five-part science-fiction series, Canopus in Argos (1979-83), sermonizing threatens to overpower Lessing's plot. She creates an allegory of an advanced civilization to probe the ramifications of royalty, a gendered society, revolt against a ruling minority, and coercion. Canopus, her fictional milieu, mirrors Great Britain in its missionary zeal to colonize less sophisticated nations and to impose on them the institutions of the mother country—law, government, education, religion, and medicine. The Canopian method is familiar—the empire viewing its victims as naughty children in need of discipline and religious conversion. Lessing's concern for the underprivileged and global civil rights issues earned her a Somerset Maugham Award (1954), the W. H. Smith Literary Award (1986), a member of the Order of Companions of Honor (1999), and the 2007 Nobel Prize in literature. Her writing has inspired numerous feminists, notably the ecofeminist Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible (1998).


Klein, Carole. Doris Lessing: a Biography. New York:

Carroll & Graf, 2000.

Lessing, Doris. Canopus in Argos: Archives. New York:

Vintage, 1992.

------- . Going Home. New York: Harper Perennial, 1996. . The Golden Notebook. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

----- . The Grass Is Singing. New York: Heinemann, 1973.

------- . Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. New York:

Harper Perennial, 1987.

----- . Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1959. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995.

----- . Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography—1949-1962. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

Turner, Martha A. Mechanism and the Novel: Science in the Narrative Process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.