Doris Lessing is considered a South African writer, although Africa is not the place of her birth. She was, in fact, born in Persia (now Iran) to British parents in 1919. As a child, she and her parents moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she lived until 1949 (Sage, 15). White colonists had not previously settled in the part of Africa to which her family moved (Charters 894). In 1949 she moved to London where she still, apparently, resides.
Lessing's life appears characterized by displacement. Charters tells us that "Lessing left school at the age of fourteen in rebellion against her mother" (894). Although neither Charters nor Lessing tell us for certain, it seems she may have been pushing against a representative of the colonialist mindset and way of life
that she fought as an adult. Her unease with her status as a British national in Africa can be clearly seen in an event related by her biographer Lorna Sage
in a quote from Lessing's "Being Prohibited," a piece written for The New Statesman. At the age of 16, Lessing was waiting in a train at a border crossing between Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. The forms she had been given to fill out at the border required her to declare nationality, birthplace, and other information. In this quotation, Lessing relates her discomfort at being one of the "Herrenvolk" (Sage 16):
I had written on the form: Nationality, British, Race, European; and it was the first time in my life I had to claim myself as a member of one race and deny the others . . .
The immigration man . . . looked suspiciously at my form for a long time before saying that I was in the wrong part of the train. I did not understand him. (I forgot to mention that where the form asked, Where were you born?, I had written, Persia.)
"Asiatics," said he, "have to go to the back of the train…"
"But," I said, "I am not an Asiatic."
For Lessing, this incident seemed to display her lack of a secure "place" in the world. Insecure in the role of British national, unable to be a "real" national of her adopted homeland, she is further separated by the place in which she was born. According to Sage, in the same piece Lessing investigates the idea that maybe "it was her Persian birth rather than her 'red' anti-racist politics that made her a prohibited alien" (16). One would have to wonder at that assessment, given her lifelong political stance, but the related incident might seem to give concrete evidence as such to a person who felt so dispossessed.
Lessing's sense of dispossession seems to have carried over into her adult years. At 19 she married a civil servant, from whom she was separated in 1942. In that same year, she joined a communist group "founded by British servicemen and other temporary exiles in the colony" (Sage 23). In 1945, she married a German communist, from whom she was divorced in 1949, the same year she moved to England with her son. In England she once again found herself in a dispossessed state, as Sage relates "a rejected landlady, hearing that Lessing comes from Africa, mutters darkly, 'I've known people before, calling it sunburn'" (17). In 1952, Lessing joined the British Communist Party, from which she resigned in 1956 (Sage 39).
Information such as this might go a long way toward explaining much of Doris Lessing
's work. From what has been written about her life, it can be assumed that Lessing was not happy with the noblesse oblige that came with white European womanhood in South Rhodesia. Reflecting this, some of her stories seem to have a semi-autobiographical flavor; an example of this would be the story "The Old Chief Mshlanga," which openly criticizes the colonial state of mind. In others of her writings, Lessing characterized the colonials as dreamers, neurotics, madmen, or wastrels, as in the stories "Eldorado," and "The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange," and in her novels which comprise the Children of Violence series, and The Grass is Singing. Colonials who are able to learn about their displaced position in the African world often go away sadder, as does the child in "Mshlanga." The boy who is the main character of "Sunrise on the Veld" is another such character; after watching a wounded buck being eaten alive by ants, he realizes that the buck had a broken leg, and that many of his careless shots may have caused other animals to suffer such agony.
Lessing did not reserve her displeasure at the politicians or colonists who threatened to consume the African landscape, but also toward the writers whose works seemed to fan the flames. Sage tells us that Lessing felt Isak Dinesen, who wrote Out of Africa (published 1938), was "feudal" for being unable to see that "her 6000 acres were not hers," despite the pleasure that Dinensen took in the landscape.
Africa was not Lessing's only subject. Charters describes Lessing's novel The Golden Notebook, "an experimental book exploring the destructive relationships between men and women that mirror the lack of coherence and order in our fragmented, materialistic society" (894), as being her "most influential" (894). In a reflection of real life, some of her writing concerned English women. These English stories, according to Sage, "reflected [Lessing's] own uprooted state" (41). Despair is a common theme, and England's society is characterized as being cold and passive. British people are often shown as indifferent and self-absorbed.
A story that displays all of these characteristics is "To Room Nineteen." It describes a logical, well-matched couple who marry in their "well-seasoned late twenties" (Lessing 397) and base their marriage on "intelligence" (397). The story traces the descent of the marriage to its end, through numerous affairs, a growing apart, and the loss of connections. It is because of these lost connections that the main character, Susan Rawlings, slides into despair and the ultimate passivity of death.
Doris Lessing is a diverse writer, whose works reflect her varied background. Although some of her work could be characterized as feminist, or socialist, or communist, none of these characterizations completely describe the stories she has produced. Like Lessing herself, her work seems to defy finding a simple, obvious label.
Ann Charters, ed. The Story and Its Writer. Fifth ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.
Lessing, Doris. Stories. New York: Knopf, 1978.
Sage, Lorna. Doris Lessing. New York: Methuen, 1983.