Doris Lessing, 1919–2013

The plainspoken novelist who rejected the feminist label

When Doris Lessing learned she had won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2007 from a gaggle of reporters who congregated at her London home, the author gave a characteristically blunt response. “Oh, Christ,” she said. “I couldn’t care less.” She went on, “I’m 88 years old, and they can’t give the Nobel to someone who’s dead. So I think they were probably thinking they’d better give it to me now before I’ve popped off.”

Doris May Tayler was born in Persia (now Iran) and raised on a farm in the wilds of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), said the Financial Times. Her British parents were a “tragic couple”; her father was a troubled World War I amputee, and her mother found rural life in the African bush “emotionally difficult.” Lessing worked on the farm as a child but soon escaped to the capital, Salisbury (now Harare), where she married at the age of 19. Eventually drawn toward communism, she left her husband and their two young children for a leftist German refugee, Gottfried Lessing. “I couldn’t stand that [domestic] life,” she later said. “It’s this business of giving all the time, day and night, trying to conform to something you hate.”

Before long she also became disillusioned with Lessing, said She took Peter, the son from that marriage, to London in 1949 with nothing to her name but a 20-pound note and the manuscript for her first novel, The Grass Is Singing. The novel was a modest success, but it was The Golden Notebook that made her name, in 1962. The book chronicles a single mother’s political, social, sexual, and emotional awakening in postwar London and was widely hailed as breaking the conventions of the traditional novel. It was soon considered a feminist classic, even though Lessing rejected the characterization. “Oh, it’s just stupid; I’ve seen it so often,” she said. “There’s nothing feminist about The Golden Notebook.” The book, she insisted, was mainly about the collapse of communism.

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Lessing’s work drifted from realism into science fiction in the 1960s and ’70s, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). The Four-Gated City imagines a global plague sparking World War III; The Memoirs of a Survivor features a heroine who can travel through space and time. Lessing dabbled in new beliefs, from the psychoanalytic doctrine of R.D. Laing to Islamic Sufism. She became increasingly cynical about the publishing industry, writing two poorly reviewed novels under a pseudonym to deliberately expose the literary world’s failure to recognize good writing. Both were rejected by her own publisher, a fact that “gave her a great deal of pleasure.”

In later life Lessing “reveled in her status as a contrarian,” said the Los Angeles Times. She visited Pakistan in 1986 to back the cause of the Afghan mujahedeen, but was vocally critical of their treatment of women. Time and again she broke with the feminist movement, criticizing its emphasis on white, middle-class women and sensitivity to what she saw as nonissues like sexual harassment. She was heavily criticized for downplaying the September 11, 2001, attacks as “not that terrible” compared with the Irish Republican Army’s multiyear terror campaign in Ireland and the U.K. “I tend to speak my mind, which is not necessarily a good idea,” she once said. “I do not think I am the soul of tact.”

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