Lessing was born in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran), on 22 October 1919, to Captain Alfred Tayler and Emily Maude Tayler (née McVeagh), both British subjects. 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. The couple moved to Kermanshah, for Alfred to take a job as a clerk for the Imperial Bank of Persia; it was there that Doris was born in 1919. In 1925, the family moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to farm maize and other plants on about 1,000 acres (400 ha) of bush that Alfred bought. In the rough environment, Emily tried to lead an Edwardian lifestyle, which would have been easy had the family been wealthy; in reality, such a lifestyle was not feasible. The farm did not deliver any monetary value.
Lessing was educated at the Dominican Convent High School, a Roman Catholic convent all-girls school in Salisbury (now Harare). She left school at age 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, born in 1939, and Jean, born in 1943), 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 married shortly after she joined the group, and had a child together (Peter, born in 1947), before they divorced in 1949. She did not marry again. Gottfried Lessing later became the East German ambassador to Uganda, and was murdered in the 1979 rebellion against Idi Amin Dada. Gottfried was an uncle of German politician Gregor Gysi.
Lessing moved to London in 1949 with her youngest son, Peter, to pursue her writing career and communist beliefs, but left the two elder children with their father in South Africa. She later said that at the time she saw 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.” As well as campaigning against nuclear arms, she was an active opponent of apartheid which led in 1956 to being banned from South Africa and Rhodesia for many years. In the same year, following the Soviet invasion of Hungary, she left the British Communist Party. Lessing first sold stories to magazines at the age of 15, in South Africa. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was published in 1950. Her breakthrough work, The Golden Notebook, was written in 1962. By the time of her death, more than 50 of her novels had been published.
In 1982, Lessing tried to publish two novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers, to show the difficulty new authors faced in trying to have their works in print. The novels were declined by Lessing’s UK publisher, but were later accepted by another English publisher, Michael Joseph, and in the US by Alfred A. Knopf. The Diary of a Good Neighbour was published in Britain and the US in 1983, and If the Old Could in both countries in 1984, both as written by Jane Somers. In 1984, both novels were re-published in both countries (Viking Books publishing in the US), this time under one cover, with the title The Diaries of Jane Somers: The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could, listing Doris Lessing as author. Lessing declined a damehood in 1992 for it being in the name of a non-existent Empire; also declined appointment as OBE in 1977. Later she accepted appointment as a Companion of Honour at the end of 1999 for “conspicuous national service”. She was also made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature.
In 2007, Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She received the prize at the age of 88 years 52 days, making her the oldest winner of the literature prize at the time of the award and the third-oldest Nobel laureate in any category (after Leonid Hurwicz and Raymond Davis Jr.). She also was only the 11th woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature by the Swedish Academy in its 106-year history. Lessing was out shopping for groceries when the announcement came, arriving home to tell reporters who had gathered there, “Oh Christ!” She told reporters outside her home, “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all. It’s a royal flush.” She titled her Nobel Lecture On Not Winning the Nobel Prize and used it to draw attention to global inequality of opportunity, and to explore changing attitudes to storytelling and literature. The lecture was later published in a limited edition to raise money for children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. In a 2008 interview for the BBC’s Front Row, she stated that increased media interest after the award had left her without time or energy for writing. Her final book, Alfred and Emily, appeared in 2008. A 2010 BBC radio documentary titled Useful Idiots listed among “useful idiots” of Joseph Stalin several prominent British writers, including Doris Lessing.
During the late 1990s, Lessing suffered a mini-stroke which stopped her from travelling during her later years. She was still able to attend the theatre and opera. She began to focus her mind on death, for example asking herself if she would have time to finish a new book. She died on 17 November 2013, aged 94, at her home in London, predeceased by her two sons, but survived by her daughter, Jean, who lives in South Africa.
- October, 22, 1919
- Kermanshah, Persia
- November, 17, 2013
- London, England