Beyond ‘The Golden Notebook’: Re-reading Doris Lessing


Tom Sperlinger, Director of Lifelong Learning for English, University of Bristol

Tuesday, 15 June 2010


Short introduction by the Convenor

Doris Lessing was born in Kermanshah, Persia (Iran) on 22 October 1919, the daughter of Captain Alfred Tayler and Emily Maude Tayler, née McVeagh, both British citizens. Alfred fought in the Great War, and lost a leg to shrapnel wounds, thereafter wearing a wooden replacement. Born and raised in Essex, he longed to be a farmer, but was continuously frustrated in his ambition. Doris’ mother Emily, a formidably energetic and well-organised woman, nursed the war wounded at the Royal Free Hospital in the East End of London for four years.  Alfred Tayler moved to Kermanshah in 1919, to work for the Imperial Bank of Persia, but the family moved to what is now Zimbabwe in 1925, intending to farm maize. Unfortunately, this venture proved relatively unsuccessful. This whole period was overshadowed for the Tayler family by the Great War and its complex aftermath. The parents never really recovered from the experience of the war. Doris attended the Dominican Convent High School in Salisbury (now Harare), leaving this Roman Catholic convent school at the age of fourteen. Thereafter, she was self-educated.

Her first marriage, to Frank Wisdom, lasted from 1937 to 1943. There were two children from this union. Her second marriage was to Gottfried Lessing, and this one was even shorter, lasting from 1945 to 1949. The couple had one son. Doris had become involved with the Left Book Club in 1943-4, but, deeply frustrated by her role as a young mother, she left South Africa for London in 1949, in pursuit of her communist ideals, and to develop her career as a writer. She took her son by her second marriage with her. Doris campaigned against apartheid, and against nuclear arms, and was banned from South Africa and Rhodesia for many years. Her earlier years were described in four volumes of memoirs, an early one, Going Home (1957) and three later ones, African Laughter (1992), Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997). This last volume takes her life-story to 1962, the year in which The Golden Notebook, still her best known and most admired work, was published.

Lessing’s Children of Violence series of novels was begun with Martha Quest in 1952 and A Proper Marriage in 1954, continuing with A Ripple from the Storm (1958) and Landlocked (1965) and ending with the much-praised A Four-Gated City (1969). This sequence is effectively a five volume Bildungsroman, which is of course an account (not necessarily purely autobiographical) in which the hero or heroine develops mentally and spiritually through a number of false starts and errors of judgment, achieving in the end the chance to follow the right way forward towards his or her proper destiny. The story of ‘Martha Quest’, clearly based largely on her own life, moves from an African childhood through the post war era in Britain, and ends in the (then) far-distant future in the year 2000. Many would rate the ‘Martha Quest’ series of realist novels high among Lessing’s finest achievements.

To the surprise of many, Doris Lessing turned to science fiction, which gained her a different readership. Two of the works which make up the Canopus in Argos sequence (the Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980) and The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) were turned into operatic libretti for the New York-based composer Philip Glass, in reverse order, 1997 and 1986 respectively. Lessing called these works ‘space fiction’, and notably explored Sufism in the Canopus in Argos series, having been introduced to it by Idries Shah, described by her as ‘a good friend and teacher’.

Doris Lessing has written poetry, two plays, volumes of essays and interviews, stories and non-fiction on the theme of cats, and, above all, has proved to be one of the great short story writers of the twentieth century. Her Collected Stories were published in two volumes in 1973 and 1978, with further collections coming later. For those readers coming fresh to her work, Lessing’s powerful early volume, The Habit of Loving (1957) may be strongly recommended. In 2008, she published Alfred and Emily, designating it as her final novel.  It is, once again, a version of her parents’ lives, ‘a tale of two halves, of fiction and memory’. In this very late work, Lessing gives her parents the lives they might have had, if the Great War had not undermined everything for them. In her Foreword to this book, Doris Lessing observes that the Great War ‘squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I still am, trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.’ She says that ‘If I could meet Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh now, as I have written them, as they might have been if the Great War had not happened, I hope they would approve the lives I have given them.’ Doris Lessing became A Companion of Honour in 1999, won the David Cohen Lifetime Achievement Prize in 2001, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, at the age of 87.

Robert Blackburn

Summary of talk, by Tom Sperlinger

When Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in 2007, it seemed in part an acknowledgement of the range and variety of work she had produced over the last half-century and more. Her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published in 1950 and her most recent Alfred and Emily (which she has claimed will be her last) in 2008. Lessing has been extraordinarily prolific and she is a writer who has moved across genres and ideas, remaining very difficult to categorise.

Yet there has been a narrowness to the revival of Lessing’s work since 2007. If you go into any bookshop you will find that two of her novels still dominate: The Grass is Singing and The Golden Notebook (the latter was first published in 1962); just these and a few other (broadly realist) works have been re-printed since 2007. Lessing has shown some irritation at the neglect of her later work, commenting in an interview that some people ‘think [The Grass is Singing is] the best thing I ever wrote, which is really annoying’.

In an essay published in 1957, called ‘The Small Personal Voice’, Lessing compared the twentieth-century novel to its predecessor. She wrote about:

… the warmth, the compassion, the humanity, the love of people which illuminates the literature of the nineteenth century and which makes all these old novels a statement of faith in man himself. These are qualities which I believe are lacking from literature now. (p. 10)

From the 1960s onwards Lessing sought new forms for her writing and her expectations of the reader changed. One influence on Lessing in this period was her encounter with Sufism, initially through Idries Shah’s book The Sufis. She claimed in her autobiography that from the 1960s onwards this was her ‘real life’.

One must read Lessing’s later work with an expectation that it might, like some Sufi teaching stories, make certain situations clear even though it sometimes describes those situations allegorically or metaphorically, by reference to something else. In fact, Lessing’s method seems increasingly like that of the Sufi teacher: she seeks to magnify or caricature certain aspects of human behaviour, in order to expose or understand them. Her later work often deals with human types or characteristics as much as with particular characters. As a consequence, she is less interested in some of the mechanisms of realism.

In the 1970s Lessing wrote various experimental works, such as The Memoirs of a Survivor, a book which explores individual and collective breakdown (and revelation). Then, in the early 1980s, she wrote a series of science fiction novels. The second novel in the sequence, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five, may (I think) be Lessing’s masterpiece; she has described it as a ‘legend’ and acknowledged that it is, in an odd way, more realistic than the novels around it. It tells the story of a king and queen of two realms, their arranged marriage and its consequences. As with all the books in the sequence it is concerned partly with the idea of story.

There are similar preoccupations in her later fiction. In The Fifth Child a determinedly conventional couple with four children find themselves with an inexplicable fifth child, who seems to be a sort of monstrous genetic throwback, a creature out of time. It is as though the realist mode of the novel itself gives birth to someone else, something other. Because the book is not presented as science fiction or fantasy we are asked to take the appearance of Ben, the child, as something possible – as a part of our reality.

The Fifth Child was followed by Mara and Dann, subtitled ‘an adventure’, in which a young brother and sister journey across Africa after a future ice age. Europe has in this vision become largely uninhabitable. I would make a case for this as one of Lessing’s best, and certainly one of her most enjoyable, novels.

Lessing’s later works – of which these are just a few examples – fuse the realist novel with other traditions of storytelling: myth, legend and allegory; science fiction; and the oral tradition. As a consequence, in these later works I think she achieves something close to what she admires in nineteenth-century literature. Her writing from the 1980s onwards especially is illuminated by ‘warmth, compassion, humanity [and] love of people’. For all its bleak vision, it is thus more optimistic than her earlier work; at its most powerful it may even be ‘a statement of faith in man himself’. Any re-reading of Doris Lessing’s career – and perhaps of the fiction of the last half-century – would be radically incomplete, I think if we did not take account of these works, if we did not go ‘beyond’ The Golden Notebook.

Tom Sperlinger