Obituary: Doris Lessing, CH, novelist, Nobel Prize winner

Doris Lessing. Picture: PA
Doris Lessing. Picture: PA
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Born: 22 October, 1919 in Iran. Died: 17 November, 2013, in London, aged 94

IN 2007, when Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, she spotted hordes of reporters camped outside her house in Hampstead. She presumed some soap was being filmed and could not understand what all the fuss was about. On being told that she had won a Nobel Prize, she blurted out without thinking: “Oh, Christ!” As ever with this most modest and resourceful lady, she was more than a touch embarrassed by all the attention.

But the honour displayed the eminence that Lessing had (at last) achieved. At 87, Lessing was the oldest winner of the literature prize, and only the 11th female winner in its history. The citation described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”.

Lessing was blessed with a bright and agile mind and wrote with a beguiling clarity and bravura. She was also adept in conversation and interviews –always outspoken and brim full of strongly-held opinions. Those opinions ranged from African politics to, Lessing considered, the absurdity of the internet. But throughout, her warmth and dedication to writing remained paramount.

Her jolly appearance and broad smile had given her a friendly, almost homely look, in her later years. Lessing had become everyone’s favourite aunt and was recognised, with reason, as the Grande Dame of contemporary English novelists.

Doris May Tayler’s father had been crippled in the First World War and worked in Persia (now Iran) for the Imperial Bank of Persia. In 1925, the family moved to the British colony in Southern Rhodesia and bought a substantial farm to grow maize.

It was not a commercial success and Lessing’s childhood was not an entirely happy one. She attended first a convent school and then a school in Salisbury. Lessing left there at the age of 13 and that terminated her formal education.

Lessing was, however, desperate to learn, but equally keen to escape the rigid colonial atmosphere of Rhodesia. She read voraciously especially Dickens, Scott, Stevenson, Kipling, DH Lawrence, Stendhal and Tolstoy.

Her desire for escape eventually was realised when, aged 15, she got a job as a nursemaid. She began writing and sold several stories to magazines in South Africa.

In 1937, she moved to Salisbury and married Frank Wisdom, with whom she had two children. Within a few years, she left the family home and the couple were divorced. Despite having two children, Lessing joined a left-wing commune in Salisbury. The leader was Gottfried Lessing and they were married shortly after she joined, and had a son.

Lessing became increasingly disillusioned by the left-wing politics of her husband and she and her son moved to London in 1949. That year she published The Grass is Singing – a novel set in South Africa governed by an apartheid regime. Lessing, with a literary flair she was to demonstrate throughout her career, wrote a riveting chronicle of human disintegration and a finely judged understanding of the social pressures in the country.

She drew on her family’s experiences in this first novel and portrayed the gradual disintegration of a farmer’s wife saddled with an ineffectual husband on a badly managed South African farm. It mirrored all too clearly her own rather sad youth.

The politics of Africa were to be a recurrent theme in Lessing’s books for many years. They all painfully decry the control of the white minority and expose the sterility of white culture on the black population. Not surprisingly in 1956, the South African and Rhodesian authorities declared her a prohibited alien.

That did not deter the redoubtable Lessing, who wrote Children of Violence in the early Fifties and followed it with what is considered her most incisive novel, The Golden Notebook, in 1962. Lessing explored the feminine psyche and portrays it with a vibrant depth and detail. Again, Lessing is concerned with setting herself free from society’s emotional numbness and hypocrisy that afflicted her generation and her sex. Lessing writes with a ruthless and remorseless energy and honesty.

The Golden Notebook was hailed as a “pioneering work” that “belonged to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship”.

Lessing had a way of capturing her beliefs in the most telling phrase. In The Golden Book, she writes with a pithy insight: “What’s terrible is to pretend that second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better.”

Lessing wrote more than 50 novels, plays, memoirs and collections of short stories and continued to publish widely. In 1999, she published Mara and Dann – a futuristic novel filled with shrewd observations about the coming of a new ice age.

She also broke new ground two years earlier when she wrote the libretto for Philip Glass’s opera The Marriage between Zones Three, Four and Five and the second volume of her autobiography, that was to the final volume of her autobiography –Lessing firmly made it known she would not be bringing it up to date.

Lessing received numerous academic honours, most notably an honorary degree from Harvard University in 1995. That year she returned to South Africa for the first time since the Fifties and enjoyed the irony in being acclaimed as the writer of controversial subjects for which she had been expelled 40 years earlier.

In 1999 she was made a Companion of Honour – having (characteristically) turned down becoming a dame as it was, she considered, “a bit pantomimy”.

Lessing had a visionary authority in all her writing. She was a brilliant wordsmith and brought a fresh and enthusiastic imagination to her novels, cunningly interweaving strong social and political themes into the story. Not for nothing is The Golden Notebook hailed as “a feminist bible”.

Lessing never stopped writing – her output was prodigious and even into old age she was publishing books and articles. She admitted she was “a writer who couldn’t not write”. Lessing, a lady of much wit and charm, considered one of her greatest achievement was “to go on writing through thick and thin.”

Doris Lessing is survived by a daughter.