Written by Christine Audet

 

biography of doris lessing

 

 Doris Lessing is, as the American writer Joyce Carol Oates describes her, a direct, feminine and very charming woman who looks gracious and self-confident. In other words, she is a woman of her time who is able to stand up for herself and the different social causes in which she truly believes.

Born Doris May Taylor in Persia (now Iran) on October 22, 1919, Doris Lessing spent her early childhood in Kermanshah, Persia, where her English-born father was a bank clerk. In the mid-1920s, her father bought a maize farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where she grew up with her brother Harry. Both of her parents were British. Like many other women writers from southern Africa such as Olive Schreiner and Nadine Gordimer, Lessing did not graduate from high school. Her formal education ended at thirteen years old. Not so long after, Lessing became a self-educated intellectual.

After quitting school, Lessing worked as a nursemaid, a telephone operator and a clerk. From the age of eighteen, she worked at the Rhodesian parliament and helped to start a non-racist left-wing party in the country. At nineteen she married Frank Wisdom and had two children. Her first marriage ended in 1943. She then joined the Communist Party and married the German political activist Gottfried Lessing, who later became the German ambassador to Uganda and was killed by accident in the 1979 revolt against Idi Amin. However, Lessing’s second marriage did not succeed and in 1949, she moved to England with her youngest child and the manuscript of her first novel The Grass Is Singing, which was published in 1950. The apparition of this first novel symbolized the beginning of her prolific career as a professional writer.

Much of Lessing’s fiction emerges out of her experiences in Africa. Her writing is deeply autobiographical since she writes drawing upon her childhood memories and her many engagements with politics and social concerns. Lessing has written about different social issues such as the clash of culture, the injustices of racial inequality, and the conflict between the individual conscience and the collective good. For her, writing is a process of “setting at a distance”, taking the “raw, the individual, the uncriticized, the unexamined, into the realm of the general”.

Over the last fifty-five years, Lessing has published poems, plays, short stories, novels, and several science fiction novels. Her most widely read and translated book is The Golden Notebook (1962). It deals with a novelist’s crisis, who keeps four notebooks while working on her fictional novel “Free Women”. The first volume of Lessing’s autobiography Under My Skin was published in 1994, and depicted her childhood in Rhodesia. The second volume, Walking in the Shade (1997), covered the years from 1959 to 1962. Among her many works are included The Grass Is Singing (1950), Martha Quest (1962), Five (1953), The Good Terrorist (1985), The Fifth Child (1988), and “Wine”, a short story written in 1957. She also wrote some books about cats; a love since childhood. Her last works include Time Bites: Selected Essays (2004) and The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2005).

During her career as a professional writer, Lessing received many prizes and awards. Among these distinctions she received in 1954 the Somerset Maugham Award for Five, in 1971 the Booker Prize for Fiction for Briefing into a Descent into Hell, and in 1976 Le Prix de Médicis (France) for The Golden Notebook. In 2001, she was awarded the David Cohen British Literature Prize.

Doris Lessing possesses a unique sensitivity, writing out of her own personal experience, her own subjectivity, but at the same time writing out of the spirit of the times. She succeeds in engaging the reader in a world of realistic despair and bitter happiness, or tender joy and sweet dreams in which the reader has no choice but to admit that she is extremely skilled at making fiction believable.    

Works Cited