Lessing was born in Kermanshah, Iran, where her father worked as a clerk for the Imperial Bank of Persia. When Lessing was six, she moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925 where her father established a large maize farm.
Lessing was educated at the Dominican Convent High School, a Roman Catholic convent all-girls school in Salisbury (now Harare). Lessing left school aged 14, and thereafter was self-educated. She left home at 15 and worked as a nursemaid, and it was around this time that Lessing started reading material on politics and sociology that her employer gave her to read.
Politics and Marriage
In 1937, Lessing moved to Salisbury to work as a telephone operator, and she soon married her first husband, Frank Wisdom, with whom she had two children, before the marriage ended in 1943. Following her divorce, Lessing was drawn to the Left Book Club, a communist book club, and it was here that she met her second husband, Gottfried Lessing. They were married shortly after she joined the group abud divorced soon after in 1949. Gottfried Lessing later became the East German ambassador to Uganda, and was murdered in the 1979 rebellion against Idi Amin Dada.
She and Gottfried had a son, Peter. After the divorce, she took Peter and moved to London, quickly establishing herself as a writer. Between 1952 and 1956 she was a member of the British Communist Party and was active in the campaign against nuclear weapons.
Lessing's fiction is commonly divided into three distinct phases: the Communist theme (1944–1956), when she was writing radically on social issues (to which she returned in The Good Terrorist (1985)), the psychological theme (1956–1969), and after that the Sufi theme, which was explored in a science fiction setting in the Canopus series. Lessing's fiction is deeply autobiographical, much of it emerging out of her experiences in Africa. Drawing upon her childhood memories and her serious engagement with politics and social concerns, Lessing has written about the clash of cultures, the gross injustices of racial inequality, the struggle among opposing elements within an individuals own personality, and the conflict between the individual conscience and the collective good. Her stories and novellas set in Africa, published during the fifties and early sixties, decry the dispossession of black Africans by white colonials, and expose the sterility of the white culture in southern Africa. In 1956, in response to Lessing's courageous outspokenness, she was declared a prohibited alien in both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa.
The Golden Notebook (1962) was Doris Lessing’s real breakthrough. 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. It used a more complex narrative technique to reveal how political and emotion conflicts are intertwined. The style levels of differing documents and experiences mix: newspaper cuttings, news items, films, dreams and diaries. Anna Wulf, the main character, has five notebooks for her thoughts about Africa, politics and the communist party, her relationship to men and sex, Jungian analysis and dream interpretation. The disjointed form reflects that of the main character's mind. Although it is considered a feminist classic by some scholars, Lessing herself does not like to be pigeon holed as a feminist author.
Prizes and Distinctions
Somerset Maugham Award (1954); Prix Médicis étranger (1976); Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1981); Shakespeare-Preis der Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F. V. S., Hamburg (1982); W. H. Smith Literary Award (1986); Palermo Prize (1987); Premio Internazionale Mondello (1987); Premio Grinzane Cavour (1989); James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography (1995); Los Angeles Times Book Prize (1995); Premi Internacional Catalunya (1999); Order of the Companions of Honour (1999); Companion of Literature of the Royal Society of Literature (2000); David Cohen British Literary Prize (2001); Premio Príncipe de Asturias (2001); S.T. Dupont Golden PEN Award (2002); Nobel Prize in Literature (2007).
- Female Nobel Prize Laureates