Doris Lessing was born in Persia (present-day Iran) to British parents in 1919.
Her family then moved to Southern Africa, where she spent her childhood on her father’s farm in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). When her second marriage ended in 1949, she moved to London, where her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published in 1950. The book explores the complacency and shallowness of white colonial society in Southern Africa and established Lessing as a talented young novelist.
She is now widely regarded as one of the most important post-war writers in English. Her novels, short stories and essays have focused on a wide range of twentieth-century issues and concerns, from the politics of race – which she confronted in her early novels set in Africa – to the politics of gender, which led to her adoption by the feminist movement, to the role of the family and the individual in society, explored in her space fiction of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The books in the ‘Children of Violence’ series (1952-69) are strongly influenced by Lessing’s rejection of a domestic family role and her involvement with communism. The novels are autobiographical in many respects, telling the story of Martha Quest, a girl growing up in Africa who marries young despite her desperate desire to avoid the life her mother has led. The second book in the series, A Proper Marriage (1954), describes the unhappiness of the marriage and Martha’s eventual rejection of it. The sequel, A Ripple from the Storm (1958), is very much a novel of ideas, exploring Marxism and Martha’s increasing political awareness. By the time that this book was written, however, Lessing had become disillusioned with communism and had left the party.
With the publication of her next novel, The Golden Notebook (1962), Lessing became firmly identified with the feminist movement. The novel concerns Anna Wulf, a writer caught in a personal and artistic crisis, who sees her life compartmentalised into various roles – woman, lover, writer, political activist. Her diaries, written in different coloured notebooks, each correspond to a different part of herself. Anna eventually suffers a mental breakdown and it is only through this disintegration that she is able to discover a new ‘wholeness’ which she writes about in the final notebook.
The pressures of social conformity on the individual and mental breakdown under this pressure was something that Lessing returned to in her next two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and The Summer Before the Dark (1973). Briefing for a Descent into Hell is about a man who is found wandering the streets of London with no memory of a ‘normal’ life, while Kate, the central character of The Summer Before the Dark, achieves a kind of enlightenment through what doctors would describe as a breakdown.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s Doris Lessing turned almost exclusively to writing fantasy and science fiction in the ‘Canopus in Argos’ series, developing ideas which she had touched on towards the end of ‘Children of Violence’ and in Briefing for a Descent into Hell. The first book in the series, Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta, was published in 1979. The fourth, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, was adapted by Philip Glass as an opera, with a libretto by the author.
She made a return to realist fiction with Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could… (1984), sent to her publisher under the pseudonym Jane Somers. They were turned down for publication several times and when published had only small print runs and few reviews. When the truth was uncovered, the books were, of course, reprinted to much greater acclaim.
Lessing’s more recent novels have continued to confront taboos and challenge preconceptions, generating many different and conflicting critical opinions. In The Good Terrorist (1985), Lessing returned to the political arena, through the story of a group of political activists who set up a squat in London. The book was awarded the WH Smith Literary Award. The Fifth Child (1988) is also concerned with alienation and the dangers inherent in a closed social group: in it, a married couple reacts to the hedonism and excesses of the 1960s by setting themselves up in a large house and embarking on an enthusiastic programme of childbearing and domestic bliss. Their fifth child, however, emerges as a malevolent, troll-like and angry figure who quickly disrupts the family idyll.
The acclaimed first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for biography), and was followed by a second volume, Walking in the Shade: Volume II of My Autobiography 1949-1962 (1997).
Lessing’s later fiction includes Ben, in the World (2000), a sequel to the The Fifth Child; The Sweetest Dream (2001), which follows the fortunes of a family through the twentieth century, set in London during the 1960s and contemporary Africa; the grandmothers (2003), a collection of four short novels centred on an unconventional extended family; Time Bites (2004), a selection of essays based on her life experiences; and Alfred and Emily (2008), which explores the lives of her parents. She was made a Companion of Honour by the British Government in 1999, and was President of Booktrust, the educational charity promoting books and reading. In 2001 she received the David Cohen British Literature Prize.
In 2007, Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. On Not Winning the Nobel Prize (2008) is the full text of the lecture she gave to the Swedish Academy when accepting the prize. She died in 2013, aged 94.