Doris Lessing (1919-2013)

Doris Lessing established herself as a bold innovator for her experimentation with form and genre, exploring mysticism and the boundaries of consciousness. In a career that spanned more than six decades, she produced twenty-seven novels, seventeen volumes of short stories, four memoirs, and several collections and embraced a variety of genres. As a white woman raised in the conflicted world of colonial Africa, Lessing developed a strong sense of social justice that emerged in her fiction and autobiographical writings as a deeply personal examination of a wide range of political issues. Her writing examines not only the far-reaching effects of colonialism and postcolonialism but also the condition of women, the inequalities fostered by capitalism, and the destructive power of war. These works explore her critical views on Marxism and feminism. She won a variety of literary awards, including the 2007 Nobel Prize in literature, with the Nobel committee lauding her as an “epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.”


Doris May Tayler was born on 22 October 1919 in Kermanshah, Persia (modern Iran), where her British parents, Alfred Cook Tayler and Emily McVeagh Tayler, had moved following World War I. In 1925, the family immigrated to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) in Africa, where, from an early age, Tayler was both captivated by the wild beauty of the bush and disturbed by the pervasive racial oppression she witnessed. She grew up with tensions in her home as well, as her father faced financial disappointments and was marked by his physical and psychological wounds from the Great War, which haunted her childhood, and her mother was sternly determined to raise a proper English daughter. Tayler rebelled against her mother’s control, dropping out of high school and leaving home at fifteen to work as a nanny or au pair and then as a secretary in Salisbury. She retained a thirst for learning, reading voraciously and beginning to write her own stories and poems, some of which she sold to local periodicals.

Within a few years, Tayler moved to the capital city of Salisbury (modern Harare), where, in 1938, she married Frank Wisdom, a civil servant ten years her senior, and had two children, John and Jean. Still troubled by the inequities in the society around her and determined to build a career as a writer, she divorced Wisdom in 1943, leaving the children with their father in Rhodesia. She was unable to return for her children, an issue that haunted her work, which depicted the conflict between the roles of mother and artist/writer at the mid-century. Around that time, she became part of a socialist literary group called the Left Book Club and also joined the Communist Party. In 1944, she married fellow activist Gottfried Lessing, with whom she had a son, Peter.

In 1949, Lessing left Gottfried and moved with Peter to London, driven in part by frustrations with the local communist movement and the slow pace of change in colonial Africa as well as her ambition to become a literary success in the mother country. The following year, she published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, which earned her immediate critical recognition. Two years later she published the first book of her renowned five-novel Children of Violence series (1952-69). In 1956, she was declared a prohibited immigrant due to her political views and was banned from returning to white-ruled Africa. She was also refused an American visa after she joined the Communist Party and was not allowed to visit the country until 1969. In 1962, she published one of her best-known novels The Golden Notebook, which women readers embraced for its realistic depiction of women’s experiences. Throughout this period Lessing supported herself writing short fiction, journalism, and reviews in addition to her other work. Almost a decade later, she published Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), which was notable for its male protagonist and for Lessing’s experimentation with the post-psychological novel form. In 1986 and 1997, she collaborated with composer Philip Glass, writing libretti for operas based on two of her science-fiction novels. In 1988 she published the novel The Fifth Child about a family whose life is upended by the birth of their fifth child, Ben. A versatile and prolific writer, Lessing went on to experiment with a variety of genres including science fiction, a three-book series of stories and essays about cats, several plays, and two volumes of poetry, and in 1995, she worked with the illustrator Charlie Adlard on the graphic novel Playing the Game.

Although she resigned her membership in the British Communist Party in protest of Stalinism, Lessing remained a passionate political activist committed to speaking out against injustice and war. Her public position against apartheid resulted in censure, and her books were banned in Rhodesia and South Africa. She did not return to visit Zimbabwe and South Africa until after their racist white regimes had been toppled. From the publication of her first novel, Lessing was recognized as a prominent literary figure, and in 1977 the Doris Lessing Society was formed to promote the study of her work. Following a stroke in the late 1990s, her output began to slow, and she decided against continuing to travel. In 2000, she published the novel Ben, in the World, a sequel to The Fifth Child. Although she rejected several awards, she accepted the Nobel Prize in literature in 2007. She went on to publish several notable works, including the 2008 semi-autobiographical Alfred and Emily and the 2013 novella Adore, before her death on 17 November 2013 at the age of ninety-four.


Major Works

Lessing’s first novel, The Grass Is Singing, is a penetrating examination of racism in Southern Rhodesia that was a popular and critical success. It was followed by the notable autobiographical Children of Violence series, comprising five novels—Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1969). The series follows protagonist Martha Quest from her rebellious coming of age in colonial Africa through a stifling marriage, her entrance into radical politics, and her experience of World War II. The boundary-breaking final novel takes Quest through the counterculture movements of the 1960s into an apocalyptic future where widespread greed and indifference lead to epidemics and a nuclear holocaust.

In addition to her strong anti-colonial political stance, Lessing also expressed her conflicted feminist consciousness, publishing The Golden Notebook, which describes a woman writer’s effort through introspection and experimental writing to separate and reintegrate the often-contradictory parts of her identity. One of Lessing’s earliest explorations of innovative form, the novel is structured as the interweaving of four journals kept by the protagonist, Anna Wulf, another autobiographical character, who uses the notebooks to unravel the tangled skein of her experience. With its focus on female identity and awareness, The Golden Notebook became part of the canon of a growing women’s liberation movement and is considered her most important work; notably, in a later preface to the novel, Lessing argued against a simplistic feminist reading of the work.

By the late 1960s, Lessing had begun to experiment with alternative realities and the possibilities of a collective unconscious in such works as The Four-Gated City, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, and The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). In the late 1970s, she began publication of an ambitious science-fiction series, Canopus in Argos: Archives, which includes five novels: Shikasta (1979), The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980), The Sirian Experiments (1981), The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982), and Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983). Although disparate in tone, style, and subject, the novels are united by Lessing’s detailed vision of the history and civilizations of their extraterrestrial worlds, and they articulate her characteristic themes of gender relations, politics, and the struggle against repression.

Other works by Lessing delve into themes vital to modern society, including The Good Terrorist (1985), which dissects the origins of violent political tactics; Love, Again (1996), which addresses passion in the life of an older woman; and Alfred and Emily, which is part fiction and part autobiography. The first part is a fictional reimagining of how her parents’ lives might have been different if World War I had never happened, while the second part is a factual account of how her parents’ lives unfolded.


Critical Reception


Lessing criticism took off in the 1970s, when academic feminism embraced Lessing and her heroines Martha Quest and Anna Wulf as personal-political exemplars. Since then, scholars have analyzed her work through the changing critical modes of the last fifty years: Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, post-structuralism, colonialism, postcolonialism, New Historicism, gender studies, trauma studies, ecocriticism, and posthumanism. The critics have continued to return to Lessing as social realist and modernist/postmodernist, although they have redefined and interrogated those terms. They have deployed biographical and autobiographical criticism, consistently attended to reader response and pedagogy, and contextualized individual works within the framework of Lessing’s vast and varied body of works.

After Lessing’s death, scholarship on her entered a retrospective mode, which Mark Pedretti and Robin Visel (2016; see Further Reading) explained was “marked by new biographical writing and historical analyses … exploring the continuities between different periods and genres of her long career, theorizing the transitions from one period to the other, and articulating non-linear models for understanding her aesthetic trajectory.” The subjective, single-author approach to Lessing scholarship (as exemplified by much of the criticism in Doris Lessing Studies, a yearly journal published by the Doris Lessing Society, which has tracked her work since the 1970s) has been joined by studies of Lessing’s connections to important groups and movements of her long and active life, such as anti-colonial intellectuals in South Africa of the 1940s, communist writers in the United Kingdom and Europe in the 1950s, creative colleagues, and spiritual explorers in 1960s and 1970s London and beyond. As Kevin Brazil, David Sergeant, and Tom Sperlinger explained in Doris Lessing and the Forming of History (2016; see Further Reading), literary criticism can “rethink the relationship between” an understanding of history as a “teleological and determining process” and the individual as a shaper of history, as the writer gives form to the history which generates her.

The interest in Lessing as a person, a literary celebrity followed by admiring fans, a feminist icon, a guru, and a seer, which drove much early critical interest in North America, has been the ground for deeper study of her social contexts, her place as an actor in the turbulent history of the twentieth century. As Claire Sprague’s volume In Pursuit of Doris Lessing: Nine Nations Reading (1990; see Further Reading) exemplified, reading Lessing is culturally contingent in ways which reveal differences between, for example, British, American, and Canadian reception and illuminate different aspects of the texts themselves. When Lessing readers recount their first readings, they often admit to and defend their misreadings. Commenting on this issue, Paul Schlueter (2002; see Further Reading) described much of the early scholarship on Lessing, including his own, as “relatively simplistic and theme-bound.” Such unabashedly literal readings lead directly to Lara Feigel (2018; see Further Reading), who found herself channeling Anna Wulf and the 1950s dilemma of the “free woman” in resistance to a summer of “too many weddings.”

Sophia Barnes (2016; see Further Reading) theorized that these reflective/self-reflexive readings enrich our critical understanding of Lessing’s work: “The relationship between Lessing’s work and its readership is one premised on multiplicity: the proliferation of interwoven narrative threads” and reflects “the diversity of us as her readers.” And of course, Lessing’s own rejection of academic criticism, which Alice Ridout (2010; see Further Reading) commented on, invites academic critics to read creatively, unconventionally, personally. The interest in Lessing as a person, which has been fueled by Jenny Diski’s searing memoir of Lessing (2016; see Further Reading) as an ambivalent mother-figure; Feigel’s autobiographical-critical hybrid Free Woman; Roberta Rubenstein’s Literary Half-Lives (2014; see Further Reading) on Lessing’s affair with Clancy Sigal and roman à clef; and recently, the biographical material available in the Lessing archive at the University of East Anglia, will take Lessing scholarship further in the direction of her contexts: her relationships with other intellectual figures, her complicated enmeshment in political movements, and her life choices.


Tina Gianoulis. "Doris Lessing." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jennifer Stock, vol. 496, Gale, 2022.


  • Further Reading


    • “Select Bibliography”. Doris Lessing and the Forming of History, edited by Kevin Brazil, David Sergeant, and Tom Sperlinger, Edinburgh UP, 2016, pp. 181-201.

      Lists primary and secondary sources from the most recent book-length study of Lessing.

    • “Resources”. Doris Lessing Society. Accessed 23 Aug. 2021.

      Contains a bibliography of Lessing’s work and of books about Lessing, recent critical articles and book chapters dedicated to her work, and a short biography of the author.

    • Seligman, Dee. Doris Lessing: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. Greenwood Press, 1981.

      Provides a resource for early Lessing criticism.

    • Sizemore, Christine W. “Doris Lessing (1919- )”. Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 282-295.

      Updates earlier bibliographies. Sizemore focuses on Lessing as a postcolonial African writer.




    • Diski, Jenny. In Gratitude. London, Bloomsbury, 2016.

      A memoir of Diski’s fifty-year relationship with Lessing, recounted as Diski was dying from cancer. Diski illuminates the interconnections between Lessing’s life and fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly.

    • Feigel, Lara. Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing. London, Bloomsbury, 2018.

      An unconventional biography/memoir that illustrates Lessing’s continuing influence on feminist literary scholarship.

    • Klein, Carole. Doris Lessing: A Biography. Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2000.

      Provides an outline of Lessing’s life. Lessing’s autobiographies, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997), are more important in terms of illuminating her early work.

    • Rubenstein, Roberta. Literary Half-Lives: Doris Lessing, Clancy Sigal, and Roman à Clef. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

      Traces the influence of Lessing’s relationship with the American writer Clancy Sigal on The Golden Notebook (1962).




    • Barnes, Sophia. “Readers of Fiction and Readers in Fiction: Readership in The Golden Notebook”. Doris Lessing and the Forming of History, edited by Kevin Brazil, David Sergeant, and Tom Sperlinger, Edinburgh UP, 2016, pp. 71-83.

      Analyzes the complex relationship between Lessing’s work and its readership, theorizing that the resulting reflective/self-reflexive readings have enriched our collective critical understanding.

    • Brazil, Kevin, David Sergeant, and Tom Sperlinger. “Introduction”. Doris Lessing and the Forming of History, edited by Brazil, Sergeant, and Sperlinger, Edinburgh UP, 2016, pp. 1-9.

      Discusses the role of literary criticism in the study of Lessing, arguing that it can ‘rethink the relationship between’ an understanding of history as a “teleological and determining process” and the individual as a shaper of history, as the writer gives form to the history which generates her.

    • Chennells, Anthony. “Doris Lessing’s Versions of Zimbabwe from The Golden Notebook to Alfred and Emily”. English Academy Review, vol. 32, no. 2, 2015, pp. 53-69.

      Traces Lessing’s depiction of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe throughout her career, arguing that her Zimbabwe is always provisional and subjective.

    • Collins, Cornelius. “‘A Horizontal, Almost Nationless Organisation’: Doris Lessing’s Prophecies of Globalization”. Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 56, no. 2, 2010, pp. 221-244.

      Reassesses Lessing’s novels of the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, where she imagines a dystopian global future, drawing on “fantastical elements of popular genres in order to exploit fiction’s capacity to offer alternative historicities.”

    • Hanson, Clare. “A Catastrophic Universe: Lessing, Posthumanism and Deep History”. Doris Lessing and the Forming of History, edited by Kevin Brazil, David Sergeant, and Tom Sperlinger, Edinburgh UP, 2016, pp. 164-180.

      Relates Lessing’s speculative fiction to contemporary debates on human evolution and the Anthropocene, demonstrating how she reconfigures the meaning and scale of human history.

    • Krouse, Tonya. “Between Modernism and Postmodernism: Positioning The Golden Notebook in the Twentieth-Century Canon”. Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook after Fifty, edited by Alice Ridout, Roberta Rubenstein, and Sandra Singer, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 115-134.

      Situates The Golden Notebook as a pivotal mid-century text, combining elements of both modernism and postmodernism but defined by neither, thus questioning canonicity and periodization.

    • Louw, Pat. “Domestic Spaces: Huts and Houses in Doris Lessing’s African Stories”. Doris Lessing: Interrogating the Times, edited by Debrah Raschke, Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis, and Sandra Singer, Ohio State UP, 2010, pp. 165-182.

      Employs Lessing’s use of native and colonial African houses to analyze her subject position as an anti-colonial white African writer in colonial Rhodesia.

    • Pedretti, Mark, and Robin Visel. “Letter from the Co-Editors”. Doris Lessing Studies, vol. 34, 2016, pp. 3-4.

      Provides a brief introduction to a special edition of the Doris Lessing Studies that discusses recent trends in Lessing criticism.

    • Ridout, Alice. “‘The View from the Threshold’: Doris Lessing’s Nobel Acceptance Speech”. Doris Lessing Studies, vol. 29, no. 1, 2010, pp. 4-8.

      Critiques Lessing’s speech and reaction to her receipt of the Nobel Prize in the context of her long-held attitudes toward academia and education.

    • Rubenstein, Roberta. “The Golden Notebook, Disguised Autobiography, and Roman à Clef”. Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook after Fifty, edited by Alice Ridout, Rubenstein, and Sandra Singer, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 99-114.

      Shows how Lessing used her short, intense relationship with American writer Clancy Sigal as material for The Golden Notebook, thus adding to the body of knowledge on the autobiographical component of Lessing’s fiction.

    • Schlueter, Paul. “Lessing Critics: The Earlier Generation”. Doris Lessing Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2002, pp. 18-23.

      Discusses early Lessing scholarship, including his own, as “relatively simplistic and theme-bound.”

    • Sprague, Claire, editor. In Pursuit of Doris Lessing: Nine Nations Reading. St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

      Provides an overview of Lessing’s career, focusing on how reading her work is culturally contingent in ways that reveal differences, between, for example, British, American, and Canadian reception and illuminate different aspects of the texts themselves.