Nobel Prize-winning Author Doris Lessing Dies, Aged 94
Nobel prize-winning author Doris Lessing, author of over 50 books, has died, aged 94. Best known for her controversial bestseller The Golden Notebook, which made her a reluctant feminist icon, Lessing was a lifelong activist who lived an unconventional life.
Born in Persia (now Iran), she was raised in what is now Zimbabwe and moved on her own to Southern Rhodesia aged 15. There, she married twice; through her second husband, Gottfried Lessing, she became involved in the Left Book Club, a group of literary communists. In 1949, aged 30, she left both her marriage and the communist movement, and moved to London with her youngest son, leaving her two children from her first marriage behind.
She also took the manuscript of what would become her first novel, The Grass is Singing. It told the story of a relationship between a married white woman and her black houseboy. ‘Her razor-sharp dissection of the fear and power that she saw as underlying the white colonial experience made the book an instant success,’ wrote the Guardian. Her work earned her ‘prohibited alien’ status in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa in 1956. Later governments overturned that order.
Lessing continued the themes of racial injustice and women’s right (and desire) to live their own lives outside the domestic sphere in her semi-autobiographical Children of Violence series, best known as the Martha Quest books. The series spans the twentieth century, ending with an imagined third world war.
The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, told the story of Anna Wulf, a writer and mother who longed to live freely and achieve more than a husband and children. She uses four notebooks to bring together the separate parts of her disintegrating life.
‘I had been listening to women talk about women’s issues and about men,‘ she said. 'Suddenly when I wrote down these private conversations, people were astounded. It was as though what women said didn’t exist until it was written.’
In a 1993 reissue of the book, she wrote that it was ‘not a trumpet for women’s liberation’, which she was often critical of as a movement.
The Swedish academy said of The Golden Notebook, when awarding the Nobel Prize: ‘The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work, and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship.”
Lessing’s immediate response to winning the Nobel Prize was, ‘Oh, Christ.’ Badgered by the reporters who delivered the news in her font yard, as she disembarked from a taxi with groceries, she continued. ‘Look, I’ve won all the prizes in Europe. Every bloody one. So I’m delighted to win them all, it’s the whole lot, okay. It’s a royal flush.’
Her editor at the time, Nick Pearson of Fourth Estate, said her reaction was ‘vintage Doris’. He recalled being terrified by her ‘formidable reputation’ when he took over her books, but found her completely charming in person, always interested in talking about ‘what the young writers were working on – and reading’.
Lessing’s last novel was Albert and Emily, her 2008 fictionalised biography of her mother and father.
The titular short novel in her collection of four, The Grandmothers (2003), will be released in Australian cinemas this week as Adoration, starring Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as best friends and neighbours who start affairs with each other’s teenage sons.