Doris Lessing: Books & Biography

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Award-winning author Doris Lessing (1919-2013) left a legacy of personal and descriptive fiction which will continue to be read by generations of readers. This lesson provides an overview of her life and work.

Doris Lessing's Early Life

The baby born in Persia (now Iran) as Doris May Tayler eventually became the well-known British author Doris Lessing.

Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing portrait

Doris was born in 1919 to British parents. In 1925, the family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her father hoped to make money farming maize. Doris was sent to a convent girls' school in Salisbury, then the capital. The farm was not profitable, and Doris' mother was unsatisfied with life in Africa.

Doris left school at the age of 13, and began educating herself through reading. At 15, she left home to work as a nursemaid, and began writing during this time. Soon after, while working as a telephone operator in Salisbury, Doris met and married her first husband, Frank Wisdom, with whom she had two children.

After a divorce, Lessing became active in a left-wing book club, her first influence in adopting Communist ideals. Here she met her second husband Gottfried Lessing. They had a son in 1946 and then divorced in 1949. Lessing never married again.

Early Writing Career

In 1949, she moved to London to pursue her writing career; her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published in 1950. The novel shares many elements of life in Southern Rhodesia as Doris knew it growing up and explores the relationship between the wife of a white farmer and her black servant.

The decision to leave two of her children behind with their father caused Lessing to honestly evaluate herself and her ambitions. She said of this difficult decision: ''For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn't the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother.''

This dichotomy between maternal instinct and professional ambition came forward in Lessing's 1962 novel The Golden Notebook. This novel and the Children of Violence series reflected the author's psychological phase from 1956 to 1969. The theme of these books focused on the inner workings of the mind as it affected the actions of the protagonists.

Books and Awards

Doris Lessing's writing career produced more than 50 books, some first published under the literary pseudonym Jane Somers. Many of these were in the genre of science fiction, or 'inner space fiction,' including the Canopus in Argos series, which explored the concepts of Sufi mysticism. These books were not well-received by the mainstream literary community, but were quite popular within the world of sci-fi literature.

At the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention, Lessing was the Writer Guest of Honor. In 1992, Lessing declined the offered Damehood of the British Empire, as she believed that empire no longer existed. She did accept a 'Companion of Honour' title at the end of 1999, and a 'Companion of Literature' designation from the Royal Society of Literature.

She was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard in 1995, and in 2007, at the age of 88, Doris Lessing received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her last book, published in 2008, was Alfred and Emily.

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