Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Lessing, Doris
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

1919–2013, British novelist, b. Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran) as Doris May Tayler. Largely self-educated, she was brought up on a farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and in 1949 moved to England, where her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), was published. Widely regarded as one of the major writers of the mid-20th cent. and an influential figure among feminists, Lessing wrote on a wide variety of themes including Rhodesia, women, communism, and global catastrophe. Distinguished for its energy and intelligence, her work is principally concerned with the lives of women—their psychology, sexuality, politics, work, relationship to men and to their children, and their change of vision as they age. In her later books she mainly focused on efforts by individuals to resist society's pressures toward marginalization and acculturation.

Currents of realism and fantasy run through Lessing's works, with one dominant in some novels and both mingled in others. Her fiction includes a series of five novels collectively entitled The Children of Violence, which concern a semiautobiographical character named Martha Quest; the series includes Martha Quest (1952), Ripple from the Storm (1958), and The Four-Gated City (1969). A series of five science-fiction novels is collectively entitled Canopus in Argos: Archives, of which The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) is best known. Her most influential novel, often regarded as her masterpiece, is The Golden Notebook (1962), a loosely autobiographical and psychologically acute study of the struggles of a woman writer; it served as an inspiration to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, and is now considered a classic of feminist fiction.

Among Lessing's other novels are Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971); The Summer before the Dark (1973); The Good Terrorist (1985); The Fifth Child (1988) and its sequel, Ben, in the World (2000); The Sweetest Dream (2001), a semiautobiographical tale of the 1960s; and The Grandmothers (2003). To dramatize the plight of unknown novelists, Lessing wrote two novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could (1984), under the pseudonym of Jane Somers; they were ignored by critics until Lessing revealed their true authorship. She is well known for her short stories and also wrote essays, e.g., Time Bites (2005). Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

  • See her volumes of autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997) and her part-novel, part-memoir Alfred & Emily (2008);.
  • biographies by A. Myles (1990) and C. Klein (2000);.
  • studies by R. Rubinstein (1979), I. Homquist (1980), M. Knapp (1984), C. Sprague and V. Tiger (1986), J. Pickering (1990), and M. Rowe (1994).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles

Full text Article Lessing, Doris
Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

Over the past five decades, Lessing’s consequential and prolific literary life has rendered her one of the most...

Full text Article Lessing, Doris (1919-)
Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English

Zimbabwean/English novelist, short-story writer, memoirist Born in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran), she attended the Dominican Convent School in...

Full text Article Lessing [née Tayler], Doris (May) 1919 -
The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English

British novelist and short-story writer whose work spans the imploded empire of English. She was born in Kermanshah, where her...

See more from Credo