Author, born Doris May Tayler in Persia (now Iran) on October 22, 1919 of British parents. She spent most of her childhood on a farm in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now the country of Zimbabwe) with a mother who was determined to do as much as possible to bring up proper British children. This included a system of strict rules of behavior at home and sending her (Protestant) daughter to a Catholic school and later an all-girls' boarding school in the colony's capital; Doris dropped out before finishing high school and never went back to formal education.
A teenage Doris supported herself as a nanny, office worker, and journalist, and had several short stories published before marrying her first husband at the age of 19. She and Frank Wisdom had two children in their four years of marriage. Feeling personally trapped as well as frustrated with the white ruling class in Rhodesia, she left her husband and children, and joined the "Left Book Club," a group mostly made up of Communists (a party banned in Rhodesia) who were concerned with race inequality. There she met Gottfried Lessing, who would become her second husband. This marriage also broke up after a few years, and in 1949, she moved to London, England, with her son from this second marriage.
Her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published less than a year after her move to England. It deals with a white farm woman in Africa, Mary Turner; Mary's husband, who she marries largely out of conformity; and the boredom and loneliness that leads to Mary's relationship with a black servant, Moses, who eventually kills Mary. This novel established Lessing as a writer and she was able to support herself and her son with writing. She was involved with the British Communist Party until she became disillusioned with it and left after the Hungarian crisis in 1956; she also continued to write about and speak out against white domination and oppression of Africans. Most of her 1950s and 1960s work was semi-autobiographical and set in Africa, and she was outspoken enough against white governmental, economic, and cultural domination in Africa to get her declared a prohibited alien in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in the 1950s. She was not able to go back to the area until 1995.
Her 1962 work the Golden Notebook, also made many consider Lessing a feminist icon. This book concerns the many selves of Anna Wulf, who writes about different sections of her personality in different-colored notebooks; the narrative also includes news clippings, bits from films, etc. for a disjointed view of all sides of Anna. When she was criticized for Anna's supposedly "unfeminine" behaviors, Lessing responded, "Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise."
Lessing's work has included poems, plays, science fiction and speculative fiction, as well as explicitly autobiographical work. She's still writing as of 2008 after nearly 75 novels, story collections and collaborations and winning "all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one" as well as an honorary degree from Harvard University. In 1999 she was appointed a Companion of Honour, an exclusive British order for those who have done "conspicuous national service." She revealed she had turned down the offer of becoming a Dame of the British Empire because there is no British Empire. Being a Companion of Honour, she explained, means "you're not called anything - and it's not demanding. I like that". Being a Dame was "a bit pantomimey".
In a Question and Answer session published August 5, 2007 in the Boston Globe
, she said that in the 1960s, "At a big evening party in Sweden
, back when my Swedish publisher was alive, a little gray chap from the Nobel
Committee sat down beside me and said: 'You'll never win the Nobel Prize
. We don't like you.'" Amusingly enough, it was announced just over two months later that she was that year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
-- at almost 88, the oldest choice ever for the prize. The Swedish Academy was not able to reach her before announcing her name as the winner, so Lessing found out about the prize from reporters outside her house as she got home in a taxicab. She wasn't particularly excited about the prize, but did like the idea of attracting more readers through the publicity. Due to bad health, she wasn't able to travel to Sweden to receive the medal for the prize, so her publisher delivered a speech she had written, which talked about the impact of books in underdeveloped countries and urged people in the richer parts of the world not to forget books in this era of the Internet.
Lessing received her medal from the Swedish ambassador to the UK in London on January 30, 2008; at the ceremony she remarked, "There isn't anywhere to go from here, is there?" and later, "I could receive a pat on the head from the pope."