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Doris Lessing

October 22, 1919, saw the birth of British novelist Doris Lessing.  Born in Kermanshah, Persia, in present-day Iran, she was raised in southern Africa and later wrote numerous novels and short stories about the effects of British colonial rule on the native populace.  The central themes in Lessing's works are feminism, the battle of the sexes, and individuals in search of wholeness.  She is best known for her popular The Golden Notebook (1962), a novel that delves into the complicated psychological makeup of an English woman in the 1960s. 

When she was a child, Lessing's parents moved her to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  They took a covered wagon far out into the country and built a house with a thatched roof.  They founded a farm, but their life there was filled with hardship and disease.  Growing up, Lessing observed that the British settlers often treated the native people who worked for them as laborers and servants.  They looked upon them harshly, and the memories of those observations became material for her books.

Lessing had little formal education.  She learned to read by looking at cigarette packets and the Army and Navy Catalogue.  When she was fifteen, she left home to work as a nursemaid for another family.  She said she found the work so boring that she thought, "Well, let's try and write a novel."  She began to write, but it took many years before her first book was published.

From the age of 18, Lessing worked at the Rhodesian parliament, where she helped to found a non-racist wing of the party.  At nineteen, she married a man named Frank Wisdom, with whom she lived in the African city of Salisbury, where they bore two children.  But she grew increasingly unhappy, divorced her husband, and left her family.  For a time, she considered herself a communist and even joined the Communist Party, although she rejected most of its political philosophy.  She married the German political activist Gottfried Lessing, but that marriage failed, too.  Gottfried was eventually killed accidentally during the 1979 revolt against Idi Amin.  Of marriage, Lessing said later, "Let's put it this way: I do not think that marriage is one of my talents."

In 1949, Lessing moved to England with her young son from her second marriage.  The same year, she published her first novel, The Grass is Singing, that reflected her African childhood.  At a time when feelings for and against apartheid ran high on both sides, British authorities were less than enamored with the criticism she leveled at colonial society, and they banned her from returning to Southern Rhodesia and South Africa.

Lessing went on to write books about colonialism, life in England, science fiction, and cats.  She published several novels in the Children of Violence series in the 1950s, followed by The Golden Notebook, which later became an important part of the feminist movement.  In the late 1970s, she wrote a series of five books called Canopus in Argos: Archives.  She published her autobiography in two volumes, beginning with Under My Skin (1994). 

In 1981, David Gladwell adapted Lessing's The Memoirs of a Survivor to film.  It starred Julie Christie.  Lessing has also collaborated with composer Philip Glass on an opera based on the novel, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8.  The fourth volume of her science fiction series tells the story of a remote planet of the Canopean empire, a beautiful tropical paradise, which becomes a world of ice. 

Among Lessing's several literary prizes are the Somerset Maugham Award (1956) and the W.H. Smith Award (1986).  The first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin, was published in 1994 and depicted her childhood in Zimbabwe.  Walking in the Shade (1997) covered the years of her life from 1959 to 1962.

Lessing continues to write today.  Her favorite short-story subject is cats, which is understandable, since they are her favorite animals.  Her most recent work is The Story of General Dann, (2005), a cautionary fable of life in the future, published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.  Of life in general, Lessing once said, "What's terrible is to pretend that second-rate is first-rate, that you don't need love when you do or that you like your work when you know quite well you're capable of better."

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