In memoriam Doris Lessing (1919-2013)

Doris LessingDoris Lessing, Nobel-prize winning author, died on 17 November aged 94. Lessing was born in Kermanshah, Iran, then called Persia, on 22 October 1919. In 1925, the family moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). After a tumultuous time in Zimbabwe and South Africa, she moved to England. She would remain in London until her death.

Her first novel,  The Grass is Singing (1950), takes place in Southern Rhodesia during the 1940s and deals with the racial politics between whites and blacks in that country (which was then a British colony). The novel created a sensation when it was first published and became an instant success in Europe and the United States. Other novels include the sequence of five novels collectively called Children of Violence (1952–69), The Golden Notebook (1962), The Good Terrorist (1985), as well as other writings.

Lessing's fiction is deeply autobiographical, much of it emerging out of her experiences in Africa. Drawing upon her childhood memories and her serious engagement with politics and social concerns, Lessing has written about the clash of cultures, the gross injustices of racial inequality, the struggle among opposing elements within an individual’s own personality, and the conflict between the individual conscience and the collective good. Her stories and novellas set in Africa, published during the fifties and early sixties, decry the dispossession of black Africans by white colonials, and expose the sterility of the white culture in southern Africa. In 1956, in response to Lessing's courageous outspokenness, she was declared a prohibited alien in both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa.

The sequence of novels collectively called Children of Violence can be seen as a mirror of Doris Lessing’s own life. Intelligent, sensitive, and fiercely passionate, Martha Quest is a young woman living on a farm in Africa, feeling her way through the torments of adolescence and early womanhood. She is a romantic idealistic in revolt against the puritan snobbery of her parents, trying to live to the full with every nerve, emotion, and instinct laid bare to experience. Doris Lessing charts Martha Quest's personal and political adventures in race-torn British Africa, following Martha through World War II, a grotesque second marriage, and an excursion into Communism.

Going Home (1957) is Doris Lessing's account of her first journey back to Africa and the land in which she grew up and in which so much of her emotion and her concern were still invested. In March 1956, after an absence of 7 years, she returned to Southern Rhodesia. In a journal without dates she describes a 7-week trip around the Federation (accompanied by members of the C.I.D. of the Federation, Lessing being an avoided communist). The main theme of the book is the racial question. Partnership, to Lessing's mind, is synonymous with apartheid: through the years there had been little change in the social structure of the land and its peoples.

Click here for for all the publications of and about Doris Lessing located at the ASC Library.

Angela Robson