Doris Lessing, Social Commentator and Nobel Prize Winner in Literature

A powerful, politically minded and acerbic Nobel Laureate, Britain’s Doris Lessing was a treasured social commentator and novelist who continued her prolific and award-winning career into her 80s.

Doris Lessing’s Early Years

Doris Lessing was born Doris May Tayler in what is now Iran on October 22, 1919, to British parents. The family moved to modern-day Zimbabwe when Lessing was four to become farmers, though they struggled once there. Lessing clashed with her mother, and left home when she was 15. She worked as a nursemaid while writing stories, and sold two to magazines. In 1937, she moved to Salisbury. She married at 19, but later left her husband and young children. After joining a Communist group, she met and married Gottfried Lessing. According to The New York Times, Gottfried was a German communist, and the marriage was “her ‘revolutionary duty’ to protect him in a wartime environment hostile to Germans.” Though they planned to—and did—divorce after the war, they had a son together. After divorcing Lessing, Doris took her son and moved to London.

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Doris Lessing’s Notable Accomplishments

Her first novel, “The Grass Is Singing,” was published in 1950 and was later adapted into a movie. She published short stories, and then a five-novel series, called “The Children of Violence.” The novels are about life in Colonial Africa. “The Golden Notebook” was published in 1962 and is considered her breakthrough novel.

In the 1970s, she began writing science fiction including a series called “Canopus in Argos.” She then returned to contemporary literature in the 1980s.

In 2007, Doris Lessing, at the age of 89, became the 11th woman to receive the most significant award in world literature, the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel judging committee called her an “epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire, and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”

The popular novelist and social commentator, who has won dozens of other prizes, was underwhelmed by the significance of the Nobel. Upon being told by reporters that she won, she replied, “Oh, Christ. It’s been going on now for 30 years, one can get more excited.” She later quipped, “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all…It’s a royal flush.”

The Rest of the Story

Lessing continued writing novels through 2008. Her last novel, “Alfred & Emily” is part memoir and part fiction, and focuses on her parents. She died November 17, 2013 at the age of 94.

Dr. Nick Turner, in providing a critical perspective of Lessing’s work on the British Council of Literature’s site, “[S]he is a fierce writer, unafraid to speak unpalatable truths…No one other than Lessing is capable of writing about African landscapes, outer space, Sufism, nuclear holocaust, Spanish rural poverty, a Hampstead political family, and cats, all within the same career.”