October 22, 1919, saw the birth of
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).
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.
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
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