Doris Lessing, who has died aged 94, was one of the finest as well as most successful English-language writers of the 20th century. Her career embraced novels, short stories, memoirs, science fiction, essays, drama and poetry. Her personal loyalties ranged over the years from Marxism to Sufism. She will be remembered, above all, for her fiction and for her autobiography.
She arrived in London from southern Africa, nudging 30, in 1949 and brought with her the manuscript of her first mature novel, The Grass is Singing. Lessing was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature and published her final work – Alfred & Emily, a re-imagining of her parents’ lives in novella form followed by a more biographical account – the following year.
Born Doris May Tayler in Persia (now Iran) on October 22 1919, she was taken by her British parents to a remote part of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as a young child. Her African upbringing was fundamental to her future achievement.
Her parents, as painted by their daughter, were a tragic couple: the father never really recovered from his experiences as a shell-shocked amputee in the first world war; her mother found the transition to poverty in the African bush emotionally difficult.
In Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography, she wrote of herself on the farm at the age of 11 or 12: “I knew how to set a hen, look after chickens and rabbits, worm cats and dogs, pan for gold, take samples from reefs, cook, sew, use the milk separator and churn butter, go down a mine shaft in a bucket, make cream cheese and ginger beer, paint stencilled patterns on materials, make papier mâché, walk on stilts made from poles cut in the bush, drive the car, shoot pigeons and guinea fowl for the pot, preserve eggs and a lot else. Doing these things I was truly happy …”
Yet she rebelled against this domestic Eden and went to the capital Salisbury (now Harare), where she connected with Rhodesia's small cohort of white communists. She married twice in those years, the second time to a German refugee (a communist who would eventually rise to high East German office), Gottfried Lessing, whose name she took.
During this period of intense political activity, plus an open marriage and motherhood – she had three children in all – the young woman taught herself to write. She did not lose her communist beliefs, she said later, until about 1954. Her relationship with the feminist movement as it subsequently gained ground was even more ambivalent, though many women related to her independent-minded female characters in a way achieved by few other authors of the time.
Arriving in Britain in 1949, she had to struggle for a decade before her writing was profitable as well as popular. The Grass is Singing was an immediate critical triumph. The Golden Notebook was a seminal text for the young generation of the 1960s. There were many volumes of short stories, often with an African setting, while the ”Martha Quest” sequence of novels – also entitled Children of Violence – recorded the experience of a politically active generation.
By this time Lessing had successfully tried her hand at non-fiction with her reminiscences of a colonial visitor, In Pursuit of the English. Thereafter, almost all her novels achieved international acclaim; The Good Terrorist won various prizes in 1985. An exception was her foray into science fiction with the five-strong “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series, starting in 1979. The literary world was uneasy but polite. The critics were less polite when in 1995 she published a graphics-based novel called Playing the Game. Still, all this testified to a prolific stamina and the unflagging energy of her imagination.
Under My Skin allowed her to recall the colonial society that had inspired her to write. A second volume dealt with her time in London (though only till 1962). Entitled Walking in the Shade, it reflected more broadly on the extent to which people are a product of their history: “Some tiny passing shade of feeling, a mere cloud shadow, may 10 years later become a storm of revelation: about yourself, about others, about a time. Or may have dissolved and gone.”
JDF Jones died in 2009. Additional reporting by Gordon Cramb