‘A compelling storyteller’

Doris Lessing charmed generations of readers with more than 50 works over six decades, ranging from searing critiques of colonialism to science fiction, plays, short stories, poetry and two operas.

Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series established her as a feminist – a label she did not welcome. Juan Martin / EPA
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The Nobel Prize-winning British author Doris Lessing spent decades trying to escape her unhappy family life as well as being labelled a feminist and leftist icon, and it made for gripping reading in her novels.

Hailed as one of Britain’s greatest contemporary writers, Lessing, who died on Sunday at age 94, was best-known for her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, considered a landmark work among many feminists.

But she charmed generations of readers with more than 50 other works over six decades, ranging from searing critiques of colonialism to science fiction, plays, short stories, poetry and two operas.

In 2007, at age 87, she became the oldest winner of the Nobel Literature Prize for the “scepticism, fire and visionary power” with which she scrutinised society, often through works inspired by her lonely childhood in Africa and experience of radical politics.

Lessing was out grocery shopping at the time of the Nobel Prize announcement and only found out about it when she returned to her London home to find crowds of journalists swarming outside.

She responded with a characteristic: “Oh, Christ”, before sitting down on her doorstep with her head in her hands.

Tributes have poured in for the author, with Charlie Redmayne, the chief executive of her British publisher HarperCollins, describing her as “a compelling storyteller with a fierce intellect and a warm heart”.

Doris May Tayler was born to British parents in 1919 in Kermanshah, in what is now Iran. She spent her formative years on a farm in Southern Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – after her parents moved there in the 1920s.

It was, she later reflected, a “hellishly lonely” upbringing.

Her strict mother sent her to a convent school where the nuns terrified the children with tales of hell and damnation.

She dropped out at the age of 13 and continued to educate herself by reading the works of great authors, including Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, before becoming a nursemaid at the age of 15.

In 1939 she married Frank Wisdom, with whom she had two children before their divorce in 1943.

She then married the German political activist Gottfried Lessing, but divorced again in 1949. She fled to Britain with the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, in her suitcase.

An unflinching examination of racial oppression and colonialism, it was published the following year to huge success.

Lessing’s radical political leanings drew her into the British Communist Party, but she resigned in 1956 at the time of the Hungarian uprising and never returned.

It was her Children of Violence series, published between 1952 and 1969, based around a central character named Martha Quest, that established her as a feminist – but Lessing never accepted the label.

“I never liked the movement because it’s too ideologically based,” she once said.

Her 1985 novel The Good Terrorist, about a young woman who decides to carry out a bomb attack in London, continues to resonate with readers today.

She was barred entry to South Africa in 1956 because of her “outspoken” political views, but was finally able to revisit in 1995 after the end of apartheid.

She became an increasingly outspoken critic of corrupt African governments and deplored the lack of thirst for knowledge shown by western youths compared with their counterparts in developing nations.


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