Short biography of Doris Lessing

The actual time of writing, then, and not only the experiences that had gone into the writing, was really traumatic: it changed me.  (Lessing, A Small Personal Voice 27)

Doris Lessing: A Way of Looking At Things

A biographical essay by Linda E. Chown


Winner of many international literary awards, often compared to the likes of George Eliot and Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, an imposing yet reflective woman who changes, sets examples and breaks them, had a full, emotional, complex life. She also had, to the dismay of her readers, the courage to change her thinking, and do so radically: “I hold some very old-fashioned views, very different from what I thought any age up to forty. I think that we are here for a purpose–to learn and that there is a God: I don’t think we are purposeless. Forgive me for that old-fashioned and ridiculous view” (Tiger, “Candid Shot” 6).

1919-1949: Years of Rebellion

Doris Lessing (neé Doris May Tayler) was born October 22, 1919 in Kermanshah, Persia, in a house with “great stone-floored high-ceilinged rooms whose windows showed ranges of snow-streaked mountains” (Lessing, Small 89). When she was two, her family moved to Tehran, where her social mother was briefly happy, while her “dream-logged” (“All Seething” 132) father fretted over ambiguous corruptions of bureaucratic life at the Imperial Bank of Persia where he worked (Small 90). On leave in England in the summer of 1925, Alfred (Michael) Tayler was attracted by the Southern Rhodesian stand at the Empire Exhibition which alluded to potential fortunes to be had raising corn there. After a ten-month stay in London, whose cold and rain Lessing remembers despising (Braudeau 98), the itinerant family made their way south again to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Lessing’s home until the age of thirty.

As a white settler, Michael Tayler could inexpensively mortgage some 3,000 acres near Banket in the Lomagundi region northwest of Salisbury, an area no white persons had farmed before. He would hire fifty to one hundred black workers in a farming venture which proved a constant disappointment. As in Persia, Lessing lived surrounded by light and space, “on top of a kopje that overlooked in all directions a great system of mountains, rivers, valleys, while overhead the sky arched from horizon to empty horizon” (Small 90). Lessing and her brother Harry grew up in a painstakingly constructed house made of mud and thatch, with furniture fashioned from “old petrol boxes” and clothes from “Gloria flour bags” (Seligman, “The Four-Faced Novelist” 7). Often, at night, to the accompaniment of the “persistent thudding of the tom-tom from the native village down the hill,” (Going 77) Maude Tayler played classical music on the piano they brought from London. The only people whom Lessing considered neighbors at the time lived four to seven miles away, separated from the Tayler’s by wild bush, poor roads and evening fatigue. Lessing recalls, “I spent most of my childhood alone in a landscape with very few human beings to dot it. At the time it was hellishly lonely, but now I realize how extraordinary it was, and how very lucky I was” (Small 46). And years later, unreservedly, she celebrates the life of that time, saying, “C’était merveilleux” (Braudeau 98). Lessing feels that this persistent solitude encouraged her to develop mental and physical independence. So much the better, for her life was, from an early age, unusual—geographically, psychically, socially.

The isolation and splendor were complemented by difficult relations with psychically ubiquitous parents. Lessing unusually gently describes what is actually jagged intimacy, “We use our parents like recurring dreams, to be entered into when needed . . . ” (Small 83). Reflecting aspects of herself, both the admired and the despised, they permeate her writing and her life. After he lost both his vitality and a leg to World War I, Alfred Tayler was cared for by and married tenacious Emily Maude McVeagh, a nurse in spite of her own father’s outrage and four-year-long silent ostracism (Braudeau 99). “Fate ruled,” a man of “dark regions,” Alfred combined conservative conformity in the public realm with a quixotic readiness to bypass barriers in his own. Emily, while sustaining a delicate balance in the Rhodesian household she considered her bailiwick and also in her increasingly unsatisfied psyche, kept up appearances, fought with Doris and waited in vain for the good life, her “birthright,” to begin. As social and determined as her husband was cryptic and brooding, Maude McVeagh lived, like her husband, a life of limitations, illness, silence and uncertainty. In her fiction, Lessing is still assessing for herself the political differences with her father, the “fight to the death” with her mother over conduct and being a woman. Her initial response to them was dual, complex, uneasy. Her father was, it seemed, both the man whose healthy cynical laughter she would travel miles to hear, a believer in metaphysical possibilities, but also a self-pitying, irascible, despairing invalid. Her mother was simultaneously the cool, efficient, animated person who preserved and got things done, and also the duplicitous upholder of proprieties, the turner of screws, witch not to be pitied. Yet and still, Lessing watched them desperately failing, in slow and bitter retreat, infinite promise mixed with never-ending limitation, both fixed in her mind with the clarity of Rhodesian sunlight.

When her uneasy parents first suffered economic and personal setbacks, Lessing and her brother wandered about the veld more or less at will. Soon, Maude insisted upon schooling, especially for Doris who was expected to become a success, preferably as a pianist. So, Tigger, a nickname based on Lessing’s adolescent giggles and bouncing, ebullient ways (Seligman, “Four” 7) went at seven to a Dominican convent for five years until twelve when she was removed from school (explanations for this vary, Seligman, “Four” 7), At fourteen she went to Girl’s High School which she left after only a year. Although intense battles with Maude may have played a part in her departure (Driver 19), Lessing now confesses, “Je préférais tomber malade plutôt que d’aller à l’école” (Braudeau 99; Knapp, Doris Lessing 5). No matter what the exact physical circumstances were, Lessing never returned. Recently, she admitted feeling slightly behind, and particularly regretted not having learned languages and mathematics, subjects for which a teacher is needed, she thinks (Stamberg 4; Braudeau 99). She deems her leaving school both “very neurotic behavior,” yet “an act of self-preservation” (Stamberg 4). In a telling recognition, she says, “It’s a pity you can’t have it both ways. I’m always having to rush off to get some book out, to find out something everyone else knew at fifteen” (Driver 19; see Hazleton about “terrible gaps” 26). Most bluntly, Lessing remembers that she “went underground to save my soul” (Langley). Whatever her second thoughts now, by that major, emotionally-founded decision, Lessing first took charge, thereby establishing to herself the possibility of an autonomous life.

To develop such autonomy in the midst of the underlying emotional chaos of the Tayler household, she explains:

I had to develop an extremely clear and critical mind. It was simply survival. . . . My position in the family was such that I was very critical, and fairly early on. I had to be, because my mother and father were both in complicated emotional states. (Bikman 25, 26)

After experience at fourteen as an au-pair girl in Salisbury, at sixteen she went back to the farm where she taught herself to type, a skill which supported her later. While there, she was temporarily and unhappily engaged to an unsportsmanlike sportsman, a ninny she reviled in the superbly ironic sketch, “Myself as Sportsman,” in which Lessing also mocked what she revealingly calls her “masculine protest (against practically everything)” (78). Once freed from that engagement, she eventually got a job with the telephone company with Maude’s help (Maude boasts about how much Doris has read). At eighteen, Lessing left Banket for good and went to live a distant 112 miles away in Salisbury.

She worked for a year in a legal office until her war-precipitated marriage to Frank Charles Wisdom in 1939, who Lessing styles, “très travailleux, ambitieux, étroit” (Braudeau 99). Their marriage survived until 1943, when Lessing left him and their two children Jean and John, assuming incorrectly that the children would be granted to her (Seligman, “Four” 13). In Salisbury, the tension between her conventional married life and tense social division activated Lessing’s radical nature; she responded gradually but completely to non-personal social conflicts. Now, if at any time, her personal communism emotionally flourished:

We created a highly romantic, idealistic, rather marvellous thing which had no connection at all with anything around us; it had no connection with the Africans, very little with the white people who regarded us as completely crazy, because everything about us was alien, chiefly because we were interested in ideas. (Ziegler 197)

Temporarily freed from personal war with family, she joined with what she later calls “displaced” people who formed a kind of “refuge” (Ziegler 197), to attend discussions and meetings and carry out limited but unheard of political actions in war-altered Salisbury.

As against her family, Lessing, described by a former “friend” as “emotionally volatile,” (Seligman, “Four” 10) reacted passionately, extremely. Quietly, however, she was already committed to writing (by 18 she had destroyed six novels and was regularly writing poetry). A family friend who entered her house in Salisbury reported her to say, “I am leaving Frank; I must write . . . ” (Seligman, “Four” 16). Two years later in 1945, she unexpectedly married Gottfried Anton Lessing, a German refugee. This marriage, like her first, lasted four years, after which in 1949, she went to England with Peter her son and the completed manuscript of her soon-to-be very successful first novel, The Grass is Singing, in her suitcase. Although Lessing bluntly faults herself for the marital failures, saying, marriage is not “one of my talents” (Hazleton 26; see Newquist 46), undoubtedly, Lessing refers to the state, not to any personal limitation. First, her ex-husbands–one- dimensional spirits totally unlike Lessing–remained thoroughly immersed in a social, political, public life. Also, in the “failure” of these marriages coupled with the patent limitations of family life in general, Lessing must have recognized that emotional rebellion against people’s fixed mentalities was a dead end for her.

1949-1962 Political Years: Belonging

Most likely Lessing went to London to escape being asphyxiated in the personal and a one-dimensional “masculine protest.” Though she currently shuns political involvement, then she set out for London with hopes of experiencing on a large scale the vitality and intense purity of ideas already experienced in Salisbury. After personal rebellion there, Lessing sought a larger public affirmation, including both herself and others, her writing and her politics.

In addition to the lasting shock of nasty English weather, the immersion in heavy gray air and the post war line-up of broken-down buildings, Lessing arrived in England at a particularly difficult time politically. By 1951, the Conservatives took over power for the next thirteen years, and the public at large was, in England as elsewhere, seduced by the dream of material plenty after World War II. Additionally, Lessing met radical intellectuals whose responses seemed passive, predictable, if not downright pusillanimous. In 1949 Sartre’s What is Literature? appeared. A book analyzing commitment theoretically, it was an unsettling omen given Lessing’s already tested, if a bit romanticized, practical commitment back home. Through the 50’s, she concerned herself with a wide range of social, collective matters. According to Jenny Taylor, “She appears to have been associated with almost every aspect of that complex cultural and political configuration, though always ambiguously” (“Introduction” 26). This “ambiguity” derives from the fact that Lessing exemplified then as now what Elizabeth Wilson calls the “Janus-face of feminism–which faces both towards the personal and towards the political” (“Re-Reading” 73). Such an inclusive approach was premature–or society and even for Lessing herself. In this most prolific period of writing, she was to receive quite an education into human inadequacies, including her own.

With the unusual success of her first novel as an impetus (it was reprinted seven times in five months), Lessing began to write regularly enough so that by 1954 she abandoned typing to write. Within rapid fire succession during the next ten years, she published the first three novels of the “Children of Violence” series, the self-designated failure Retreat to Innocence (1957), plays, a volume of poems, and two autobiographical works. The variety attests to an explosion of energy; it suggests also the desire to examine the past from multiple perspectives. Lessing is evaluating all frameworks, both political and personal, a practice becoming particularly and ironically self-directed in her revealing autobiographical books. So keen is the irony about herself in them that it was and still is frequently overlooked; in them one can, however, discover a buried yet complete core of self-criticism, resonant flipside of an apparently one-dimensional, objective surface. These early books with their subtle interplay of narrating voices prefigure later literary persona and narrative experiments. An increasingly visible split between description and ironic narration may parallel a growing division in Lessing’s life of that time between politics and writing, action and reflection.

In the ’50s, rather than encounter intellectual or emotional plenitude, she actually lost the fullness of the Rhodesian landscape and faced instead a rather shapeless cultural world. From 1953-1956, she was a member of the Communist Party she did not belong to emotionally. Even though she “lived in a house with a proper Communist,” at the most she only went to one meeting (Driver 20). Although she joined in an “act of solidarity,” Lessing now considers doing so a “fairly pathological action” because she thought the Party awful (Ziegler 196). An inherited respect for quirky individuality made her shun acts of public conformity, “the quintessential eccentricity of the human race was borne in upon me from the beginning” (Lessing, In Pursuit 7). Instead, she placed faith in the “trouble makers, the public nuisances, the fighters of small, apparently unimportant battles. . . . the Don Quixotes” who lived independent, non-conforming lives (Going 316). Still, in spite of the brave talk, Lessing was unclear about how to handle the conflict between independent action and socially proscribed behavior.

In 1956, she formally left the Party because, in spite of the desire to belong in the fullest sense of the term, she could not stand to be a token member, a conformist without the benefit of belief. She freely admits:

Well you see I wasn’t emotionally committed to it in the way some of the people I knew were; it was their family, their God, their life. I was never that much a part of it, so what I missed, at the particular time when I left, was being out of the company of people who knew what was going on and talked about it because a barrier came down. You instantly became a baddy, well not so severely then because things had softened considerably. I wasn’t a traitor so much as a lost sheep. I did miss that but the thing was that everybody, in quotes, then left the Communist Party. (Ziegler 197)

She wryly notes that by this time radical ideas were becoming stylish. That recognition motivates her sardonic critique, “Smart-Set Socialists,” which exposed the emotional vacuity of the fashionable liberal left. Lessing was no longer so much at war with external authorities, as with what she calls the inner “censors” or authorities (Webb 14).

Probably her intense experience of herself during the trip recorded in Going Home furnished a second catalyst toward leading a life consonant with feelings rather than conforming to any pre-authorized framework. Ever learning from what she sees, from images and the physical, Lessing ebulliently rediscovered in Rhodesia nature and the sun, “Here the sun is a creature of the same stuff as oneself; powerful and angry, but at least responsive, and no mere dispenser of pale candlepower” (Going 9). Her early days in London had been filled with just such meagre light, coupled with financial want. Arriving alone with fifty pounds and a young son, she had to do typing and sell her mother’s jewels to support herself. Fortunately, writing fed a center of energy in her which increasingly generated more writing; “quite simply, I could not not-write.” [“Simplement, je ne pouvais pas ne pas écrire . . . “] (Braudeau 99). And as it did, her thinking about writing shifted. Lessing came to believe that the way a writer experiences is as important as what she experiences. Because her writing life was unmistakably a part of her living, she wanted to keep both of them honest. And politics as she had been formally and partially practicing it seemed hollow and untrue. Finally, it became counterproductive literarily, something else to fight against, like family, and not something nourished by belief or furnishing sustenance. Lessing plaintively appealed to writers and intellectuals to think independently or just to think, “our job as intellectuals is to think . . . ” (qtd. in Taylor, “Introduction” 26). This insistence on independent understanding increasingly underlies everything Lessing writes.

By now she has identified three central interweaving concerns: in her needs for personal authority, belief and trueness. At the time, her break with the Communist Party was no repudiation of any specific ideology as much as the conviction that her relation to it was inadequate, incomplete. The 50’s were for Lessing a time to test out her capacity to belong to groups and to see what, if anything, belongs to one personally and collectively. 1956 was, then, a critical year for her. Not only did she leave the Party, but in the African trip she re-encountered a missing physical vitality and an immediate, palpable connection to her surroundings: “But on that first night there was no barrier, nothing; and I was effortlessly and at once in immediate intimacy with the soil and its creatures” (Going 38). No romantic bent upon dissolving into nature, Lessing, the clear-eyed, also valued the independent isolation and separation Africa set free in her: “A man can breathe here, he can be himself . . . The world is only tolerable because of the empty places. . . . Man needs an empty space somewhere for his spirit to rest in” (Going 11-12). The title of this 1956 book is, however, ironic, for, once “home,” Lessing recognized that she had no physical base there anymore. After living in sixty places in twenty years, she admitted that she inhabited no place as fully as that vanished, handmade house on the kopje (Going 37). Subsequent memory-work to repossess that house mentally greatly boosted her confidence in her writing powers.

In 1956, though, Lessing sensed that she was at a dead end personally, “bored with my own contradictions,” disapproving “entirely of my state of mind,” anxious to “switch on a new light so that I could see me before I saw myself . . . ” (Going 162, 235). She was ready to start all over, about right and wrong, mind, collective work versus the need to operate on her own. She faced also the unsatisfied need for the mental and physical solitude she had previously known because, “In London one can never be alone, not even with the doors locked . . . ” (Going 182). Positively, however, the trip revealed again the ordinary person and the vitality of “atmospheres and attitudes” (Going 310) in a way which a doggedly political approach had obscured.

1962-1974: The Ways It Was Shaped

In 1960, two years before The Golden Notebook and eleven after the arrival in London, in the autobiographical “report-novel,” In Pursuit of the English, Lessing examined her younger self, scoffed at the “colonial attitude” to class, its “impracticality, slowness, naiveté,” while praising people like her father, who was “majestically splenetic” in “contemplation of his part of the universe” (In Pursuit 75, 87, 13, 17, 7). Less about the English than her misguided expectations of them, the book documents Lessing’s increasing focus on what goes on erratically and invisibly in the moral world–inside houses, minds in general, in cities, in herself. Similarly, her interest switched from experienced facts to the acts of experiencing them. In the early English years (1949-1962), Lessing struggled to not superficially belong and to assume, as she could, `what Harriet Martineau calls, “moral charge of myself” (Autobiography 28). Dorothy Brewster wisely observes that in London Lessing “has learned to look” (29). And Lessing herself describes the change in visual terms, “I feel I’ve been through a hall of mirrors and come out the other side–that’s how I regard my political days” (Driver 20). The ways people see and the mental attitudes that warp or limit vision matter more and more to an increasingly unorthodox Doris Lessing. In her development, nurtured by Sufism’s insistence that event and interpretation be married, Lessing, ever in the vanguard, enacts both in her life and writing the need for and reality of change. Such change can be terrifying.

Publication of the massive, much discussed The Golden Notebook (1962) gave evidence of such a major change in Lessing’s understanding. She says of it, “But my major aim was to shape a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped” (Small 32-33). Lessing’s analysis of the novel was ignored in the uproar its content provoked. Literary critics focused upon details of the so-called sex war. Women readers enthusiastically heralded its honest presentation of women’s experience. In a massive compositional change, Lessing, author, moved from an art taking place out there, a kind of manipulation of words to a more intimate, potentially dangerous involvement. Just as Anna and Ella, characters in The Golden Notebook, had to live directly through the problems of conceiving of experience truthfully and of letting it become genuinely their own, so did Lessing.

In a letter of June 12, 1981 to Mona Knapp, she calls The Golden Notebook, “my most ‘Sufi’ book” and says, “I became interested in the Sufi way of thought because I was already thinking like that . . . ” (Knapp, Doris Lessing 13). Prior to writing it, Lessing had discovered a sickening division in herself:

The reason I became interested in this [Sufism] was because I had to recognize that what I had experienced and what I was thinking and feeling had got nothing whatsoever to do with my philosophy. This happened when I was writing The Golden Notebook. Writing that book in the form I did forced me to examine myself in all kinds of ways. . . . I had to recognize that the way I thought then, my philosophy, was absolutely inadequate. . . . when I got to that point and I examined how I was thinking, the whole progressive package (which is shorthand for all the ideas the young people have now as if they are programmed, which they are. They are all materialists, and socialists and semi-Marxists or something of the kind and there is a whole set of ideas that go together.) I decided I could no longer live with it. So I started looking around . . . I simply read extensively in areas which were regarded then as quite kooky. . . . (Ziegler 200-201)

Lest one suspect that Lessing has totally rejected the left wing ideas of her youth, she openly tells Lee Langley that the only “rational society” is a socialist one but stresses that she despises the “frivolous talk” about socialism, especially in the context of the abjectly conforming society she believes we inhabit here, now. Fortunately for Lessing, in spite of this suspect “kookiness,” she continued to “look around.” Also, she refused to let the gap between experience and ideas about it stand unexamined. In so doing, she demonstrated an unwillingness to be victim of her own limitations. The experience ultimately led to new understanding of language, freedom and the women’s movement. In short, writing The Golden Notebook led the former materialist, with “standard ‘progressive’ ideas about the future of this race,” to become “completely transformed” (Braudeau 103). What happened to her in this difficult, sprawling novel?

Lessing confronted the pervasive influence of what she calls the “contemporary ‘package'” or “packet” and looked at what that focus leaves out of living (Robert Wilson 32). She discovered that her genuine interests lay in those neglected areas: coincidences, images, mental processes, dreams, stories about stories, inner changes. In writing this novel, Lessing got bored with the old materialist problem of reality, fidelity to it and the corresponding need for abstract ethical systems. Growing engagement with Sufi practices and mentality marked the beginnings of a way out of what she considers mentally derived prisons and dependence on Western psychology:

In Sufism, one learns by learning, from life itself. One learns to see oneself from without, such as the fact one’s been conditioned by one’s time, one’s society. . . . The first thing is to learn to get out of that prison so as to act as if that conditioning wasn’t there. It takes time, of course, and it’s pretty painful getting rid of all our cherished little ideas about ourselves.

[Dans le cas du soufisme, on ‘apprend à apprendre,’ à partir de la vie. On apprend à se voir soi-même de l’extérieur, tel qu’on a été conditionné par l’époque, la société. . . . La première chose est d’apprendre à sortir de cette prison pour agir comme si ce conditionnement n’existait pas. C’est long, bien sûr, et assez douloureux de quitter toutes nos chéres petites idées sur nous-mêmes.] (Braudeau 102)

In assessing her thinking about thinking, she came also to revise her theory of how we learn individually and as a group. For Lessing, this turnabout was no departure from the physical world, but rather an even fuller occupation of it.

At this time of radical mental change, Lessing was also personally unhappy:

 . . . in my late thirties and early forties, my love life was in a state of chaos and disarray and generally no good to me or to anybody else and I was, in fact, and I knew it, in a pretty bad way. Unconsciously I used a certain therapeutic technique which just emerged from my unconscious. What I did was I had a kind of imaginary landscape, which is not identical to the one described. . . . I made the man a man who was very strong as a man, responsible for what he had to do and autonomous in himself and I made the woman the same because I was very broken down in various ways at that time, and this went on for some years in fact. And then I read about it; it is a Jungian technique. . . . So this book [Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five] has come out of years of the closest possible work of the imagination. (Ziegler, 203-204)

Although there had been isolated moments earlier in which characters had engaged in similar imagination exercises (Martha Quest in particular), neither they nor Lessing had trusted the work nor connected it to other parts of their lives. The moments remained just that, moments. In contrast, Lessing now explicitly argues that this independently generated work was healing and made her strong. Actually, the imagination work carried out in the late ’50s and early ’60s contributes decisively to Lessing’s current ideas about language, narration, and independence.

As if to prove her right about the sway of contemporary materialism, with the exception of Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five, from The Golden Notebook on, her novels never again prove as acceptable to the literary establishment as her realist fiction, rooted in material circumstances. In the ’60s, her time of reflection, she published two other novels, completing The Children of Violence series with the celebrated, yet controversial The Four-Gated City, two volumes of short stories, television plays, original dramas and the unusual Particularly Cats (1967) which examines mentality in the coming together of cats and people.

After reading Idries Shah’s The Sufis (1964), Lessing noted, “it answered many questions that I had learned–I feel too belatedly–to ask of life” (Rubenstein, The Novelistic Vision 121). Increasingly out of phase both with the style and substance of university-inspired critical discourse, Lessing views herself as a guinea pig in her life and especially in her writing (Driver 23). She explains, “It’s [writing] a question of setting the stage or something. You have to learn to set up the conditions that are right for you personally” (Bikman 27). Lessing laments people’s fear to talk or write about what they know most intimately, or to look at what they do know more thoroughly. She stresses the importance of knowing and learning concretely and trusting the particular instance, instead of relying on safe abstractions. Again a loner, in a time which prizes theory above all, Lessing, resting on what others might perceive to be the edge of outside, but this time accepting of that place herself, says, with great dignity of accomplishment, that she is experiencing, “the beginnings of a way of looking at things which unfolds as you go on, and if that is an annoying phrase I can’t help it. You discover all the time. It is very difficult, the thing is it is very hard, it is not easy, it is not an easy thing” (Ziegler 202).

In 1971, she published a novel with a male hero, Briefing For a Descent Into Hell followed by The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories. Almost ten years after The Golden Notebook, which despaired of the thinness of words, Briefing reveals a sustained interest in thickening them. Briefing, the post-psychological novel, is her experiment in almost every way: it tries humor, wantonly indulges in word play, downplays questions of ethics, violates realistic proprieties, mixes drama, poetic prose, and factual report, de-emphasizes cause and effect, and so on. More importantly, it narratively explores the implications of the phrase, “there is never any where to go but in,” through the joint eyes of a male protagonist and of Doris Lessing. The issue of being inside or outside–politically, socially, personally–has been key in her active, adventurous life. Divesting herself for the moment of an exclusive dependency on personal relations (hence the male hero?), she explored for herself and in her characters what this process means and can lead to. Briefing, prefiguring the “Canopus in Argos” series, was important not in terms of its relative artistic merit or success but for what Lessing did with it and it to her.

If anything, its disputed limitations (and those of its main character Charles Watkins) display uncertainty about what happens once one gets inside. In subsequent novels, Lessing would stay “there” longer and “see.” While also taking time for the curious case of Jane Somers and the ironic Good Terrorist, Lessing dedicated herself to the vast Canopus series, for which she has been rather maliciously criticized. And she has travelled back full circle on trips to Africa in 1982, 1988, 1989, and 1992. Unwilling to proceed predictably, linearly, either in writing or thinking, Lessing escapes easy categorization. In between Briefing and the notorious galactic experiments, Lessing composed two novels, The Summer Before the Dark (1973) and The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) which radically de-materialize her prose and reconstruct the narrating I/eye.

By all accounts, in spite of all the change and her growing fame, Lessing from this period onward continued to live a simple life: gardening, reading, thinking, and writing upstairs in the highest place in her London house filled with Persian posters and rugs. Lessing was ever true to Samuel Johnson’s intention “to survey mankind with extensive view” to which she added the very twentieth century imperative to be faithful to her life. When asked by Christopher Bigsby, “That is the function of art then, is it, to change reality or to change the way people perceive reality?” Lessing replied, “I think the function of real art, which I don’t aspire to, is to change how people see themselves. I wonder if we do. If we do it is very temporary” (Ziegler 193). Accepting of that temporariness, freed from having to influence other people’s behavior, she can focus more immediately on the problem of human learning which is, in her judgment, the central question. And by the 1970s, the time of writing The Summer Before the Dark and The Memoirs of a Survivor, she discovered that in writing she could learn in a way neither family, politics, sex, feminism nor friends ever furnished.

updated in 2016 from:

Chown, Linda E. Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in the Novels of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martin Gaite. New York: Garland, 1990. Garland Studies in Comparative Literature.

Works Cited

Braudeau, Michel. “Doris Lessing: du Marxisme au Soufisme: Un Entretien avec Michel Braudeau.” L’Express Vol. 39 [Edition Internationale] 5 May 1981: 96-103.

Bikman, Minda. “A Talk with Doris Lessing.” The New York Times Book Review 30 Mar. 1980: 1, 24-27.

Brewster, Dorothy. Doris Lessing. Twayne’s English Authors Series 21. New York: Twayne, 1965.

Dietz, Bernd and Fernando Galván. “Entrevista: A Conversation with Doris Lessing.” Doris Lessing Newsletter 9.1 (Spring 1985): 5-6, 13.

Driver, C.J. “Profile 8: Doris Lessing.” The New Review 1.8 (Nov 1984): 17-23.

Hazleton, Lesley. “Doris Lessing on Feminism, Communism and ‘Space Fiction.'” New York Times Magazine 25 July 1982, Sec. 6, 20-21, 26-29.

Knapp, Mona. Doris Lessing. New York: Ungar, 1984.

Langley, Lee. “Scenarios of Hell.” Guardian Weekly 24 Apr. 1971: 14.

Lessing, Doris. “All Seething Underneath.” Vogue 15 Feb., 1964: 80-81, 132-133.

——. Going Home. 1957. Rev. ed. New York: Ballantine, 1968.

——. “Impertinent Daughters.” Granta 14 (Winter 1984): 51-68.

——. In Pursuit of the English: A Documentary. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1960; New York: Simon, 1961.

——. Introduction. Learning How to Learn: Psychology and Spirituality in the Sufi Way. By Idries Shah. San Francisco: Harper, 1981. 8-13.

——. “Myself as Sportsman.” New Yorker 21 Jan. 1956: 78-82.

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