Doris Lessing is one of the best known British novelists of her generation. Born Doris May Taylor, her parents were Alfred Cook Taylor, an English bank clerk, and Emily Maude McVeagh, his wartime nurse. The couple emigrated to Persia (later Iran) shortly after World War I, and in 1925 they moved with their daughter and younger son, Harry, to a farm in southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe). The family was always poor. The father, whose leg had been amputated, was a dreamer who became a cynic, and the mother was domineering but ineffective. They were socially and physically isolated, surrounded by the open veld. Lessing attended a Catholic school in Salisbury but left in 1933 because of eye problems; after her formal schooling ended at age fourteen, she continued reading voraciously.
In 1938 Lessing moved to Salisbury to work in various jobs and to begin writing. She married Frank Charles Wisdom in 1939, had a son and a daughter, and was divorced in 1943. Two years later she married Gottfried Lessing; they had a son and were divorced in 1949. Much of her work deals with the Africa of her youth and young adulthood. Lessing moved to London, England, in 1949 and published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, which shows her concern for racial issues and the plight of women. The book was a great success. It was reprinted seven times within five months of its publication, setting the pattern of widespread sales for nearly all of her subsequent works.
Lessing continued to live in London, though she traveled widely, as suggested in both her fiction and nonfiction, and her writing continued steadily. She was briefly a member of the Communist Party but left it officially in 1956. In the late 1950’s she participated in mass demonstrations for nuclear disarmament and was a speaker at the first Aldermaston March in 1958. During the early 1960’s Lessing also worked in the theater, helping to establish Centre 42, a populist arts program, and writing her own plays.
In the late 1960’s Lessing’s thinking was influenced by the mystical teachings of Sufism, which emphasizes conscious evolution of the mind in harmony with self and others. The relationship between the individual and the collective has been a major Lessing theme. Her works present a sense of urgency, of the need for change in both individual consciousness and social harmony. The human race knows better than it acts, Lessing always suggests, and human beings must learn to live together in greater social concord. This central theme appears not only in her realistic works such as the Children of Violence series (which includes Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked, and The Four-Gated City) and The Golden Notebook but also in what she calls “space fiction,” works such as Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Memoirs of a Survivor, and the five-novel Canopus in Argos series.
The Golden Notebook established Lessing’s reputation worldwide. Its form is complex and innovative, as it interweaves the personal story of Anna Wulf, a novelist, with the fragmentation and disharmony of the modern world. In 1986 the Modern Language Association officially recognized the novel as a “masterpiece of world literature.”
After the Argos science-fiction series, Lessing returned to realism in The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could . . . , two novels about old age which she published under the pseudonym Jane Somers. Lessing said she wanted to demonstrate the difficulties beginning writers have, and indeed the manuscripts were rejected by several publishers; Lessing also said she wanted the works to be judged on their own merit, apart from the Lessing canon. In 1984 Lessing acknowledged her authorship, and the works were reprinted in one volume entitled The Diaries of Jane Somers. Lessing’s output slowed down considerably after the 1980’s, but she continued her political activism. In 1992 she released The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches, and she launched a multivolume autobiography with the 1994 publication of Under My Skin, a creative exploration of her experience.
After publishing relatively little in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Lessing picked up her literary pace beginning with Love, Again, an exploration of love and sexuality as experienced by a sixty-five-year-old woman, a meditation on the relationships between love and aging. In Mara and Dann Lessing returns to her science-fiction interests, setting her novel thousands of years in the future during a new Ice Age. The themes and subject matter, however, are very similar to her depiction of the very beginning of the human race in Shikasta. Ben, in the World revives the main character of her 1988 novel The Fifth Child, depicting this “abnormal” child’s encounter with the outside world at the age of eighteen. The Sweetest Dream is a realistic novel tracing the lives of a large group of people initially drawn together in the 1960’s by the charismatic presence of Johnny Lennox, an English Communist activist. It is his former wife Frances, however, who provides the center of gravity in a household composed of intellectuals, students, and visiting Africans.
Lessing repeatedly astounds with the variety of writing forms she explores as well as her sheer productivity. Some critics complain about her style, noting that her rambling, questioning sentences seldom seem finely crafted, but others see this as a further indication of her didactic nature, a sense that she has messages which the world must hear. Lessing has sought out and reached a wide readership. Her works have been translated into many languages and have been reviewed by critics of many nationalities. Dee Seligman notes in Doris Lessing: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism (1981) that Lessing has provided “a distinctly humanistic voice” for the second half of the twentieth century; her topics reflect major current issues such as racism, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, madness, extrasensory perception, and mysticism. She writes not only about the historical past and present but also about the imagined future. Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose in Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival (1988) refer to Lessing as an “alchemical writer,” one who perhaps more than any other major writer of the twentieth century “challenges her readers and changes them; alters their consciousness; radicalizes their sexual, personal, and global politics.” Lessing’s exploration of philosophical questions through the medium of female experience had an enormous impact on other creative writers as well as on readers and critics, and direct references to Lessing appear in many contemporary novels. Composer Philip Glass even produced an opera based on her science fiction in 1988. Lessing’s reputation continues to rise, and her multifarious texts continue to critique society and the self in stunning fashion.