Doris May Lessing CH (née Tayler; born 22 October 1919) is a British novelist, poet, playwright, librettist, biographer and short story writer. Her novels include The Grass is Singing(1950), the sequence of five novels collectively called Children of Violence (1952-69), The Golden Notebook (1962), The Good Terrorist (1985), and five novels collectively known as Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979-1983).
Lessing was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. In doing so the Swedish Academy described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. Lessing was the eleventh woman and the oldest person to ever receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In 2001, Lessing was awarded the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime’s achievement in British Literature. In 2008, The Times ranked her fifth on a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.
Lessing was born in Kermanshah, Iran, then known as Persia, on 22 October 1919, to Captain Alfred Tayler and Emily Maude Tayler (née McVeagh), who were both English and of British nationality. Her father, who had lost a leg during his service in World War I, met his future wife, a nurse, at the Royal Free Hospital where he was recovering from his amputation. Alfred Tayler and his wife moved to Kermanshah, Iran, in order to take up a job as a clerk for the Imperial Bank of Persia and it was there that Doris was born in 1919. The family then moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925 to farm maize, among other plants, when her father purchased around one thousand acres of bush. Lessing’s mother attempted to lead an Edwardian lifestyle amidst the rough environment, which would have been easy had the family been wealthy; in reality, such a lifestyle was not feasible. The farm failed to deliver any monetary value in return.
Lessing was educated at the Dominican Convent High School, a Roman Catholic convent all-girls school in Salisbury (now Harare). She left school at the age of 14, and was self-educated from then on; she left home at 15 and worked as a nursemaid. She started reading material that her employer gave her on politics and sociology and began writing around this time. In 1937, Lessing moved to Salisbury to work as a telephone operator, and she soon married her first husband, Frank Wisdom, with whom she had two children (John and Jean), before the marriage ended in 1943.
After her first divorce, Lessing’s interest was drawn to the popular community of the Left Book Club, a communist book club which she had joined the year before. It was here that she met her future second husband, Gottfried Lessing. They were married shortly after she joined the group, and had a child together (Peter), before the marriage failed and ended in divorce in 1949. After these two failed marriages, she has not been married since. Gottfried Lessing later became the East German ambassador to Uganda, and was murdered in the 1979 rebellionagainst Idi Amin Dada.
When she fled to London to pursue her writing career and communist beliefs, Lessing left two toddlers with their father in South Africa (another, from her second marriage, went with her). She later said that at the time she thought she had no choice: “For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother.”