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.
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.
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.