Doris May Lessing, Nobel Prize in Literature 2007

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Doris May Lessing (Tayler)

Birthdate: (94)
Birthplace: Kermānshāh, Kermanshah, Iran
Death: November 17, 2013 (94)
London, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Capt Alfred Cook Tayler and Emily Maud Maude Tayler
Ex-wife of Frank Charles Wisdom and Gottfried Anton Nicolai Lessing
Mother of John Wisdom; <private> Wisdom and Peter Lessing
Sister of Harry John Tayler

Occupation: German-British writer
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Doris May Lessing, Nobel Prize in Literature 2007

Doris May Lessing CH (née Tayler; born 22 October 1919) is a British writer. Her novels include The Grass is Singing, The Golden Notebook, and five novels collectively known as Canopus in Argos.

Lessing was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. She was described by the Swedish Academy 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 ever person to 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 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 here that Doris was born in 1919. The family then moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925 to farm maize, 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 was not successful and failed to deliver the wealth the Taylers had expected.

Lessing was educated at the Dominican Convent High School, a Roman Catholic convent all-girls school in Salisbury (now Harare). She left school aged 14, and thereafter was self-educated; she left home at 15 and worked as a nursemaid. She started reading material on politics and sociology that her employer gave her, 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.

Following her divorce, Lessing was drawn to the community of the Left Book Club, a communist book club which she had joined the year before. It was here that she met her second husband, Gottfried Lessing. They were married shortly after she joined the group, and had a child together (Peter), before the marriage also ended in divorce in 1949. Gottfried Lessing later became the East German ambassador to Uganda, and was murdered in the 1979 rebellion against Idi Amin Dada.

When she fled to London to pursue her writing career and communist ideals, she 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."

Writing career

Because of her campaigning against nuclear arms and South African apartheid, Lessing was banned from that country and from Rhodesia for many years. She moved to London with her youngest son in 1949. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was published in 1950. Her breakthrough work, The Golden Notebook, was written in 1962.

In 1984, she attempted to publish two novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers, to demonstrate the difficulty new authors faced in trying to break into print. The novels were declined by Lessing's UK publisher, but accepted by another English publisher, Michael Joseph, and in the US by Alfred A. Knopf. The Diary of a Good Neighbour was published in England 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 Neighbor and If the Old Could, listing Doris Lessing as author.

She declined a damehood, but accepted appointment as a Companion of Honour at the end of 1999 for "conspicuous national service". She has also been made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature.

In 2007, Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was 87, making her the oldest winner of the literature prize at the time of the award and the third oldest Nobel Laureate in any category. She also stands as only the eleventh 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 following the award had left her without time for writing.

Lessing's fiction

Lessing's fiction is commonly divided into three distinct phases: the Communist theme (1944–1956), when she was writing radically on social issues (to which she returned in The Good Terrorist [1985]), the psychological theme (1956–1969), and after that the Sufi theme, which was explored in the Canopus in Argos sequence of science fiction (or as she preferred to put it "space fiction") novels and novellas.

Lessing's Canopus sequence was not popular with many mainstream literary critics. For example, in the New York Times in 1982 John Leonard wrote in reference to The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 that "[o]ne of the many sins for which the 20th century will be held accountable is that it has discouraged Mrs. Lessing... She now propagandizes on behalf of our insignificance in the cosmic razzmatazz." To which Lessing replied: "What they didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time. I also admire the classic sort of science fiction, like Blood Music, by Greg Bear. He's a great writer." Unlike some authors primarily known for their mainstream work, she has never hesitated to admit that she wrote science fiction and attended the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention as its Writer Guest of Honor. Here she made a well-received speech in which she described her dystopian novel Memoirs of a Survivor as "an attempt at an autobiography."

When asked about which of her books she considers most important, Lessing chose the Canopus in Argos sequence. These novels present an advanced interstellar society's efforts to accelerate the evolution of other worlds, including Earth. (Similar concepts occur in science fiction by other authors, e.g. the Progressor and Uplift sequences.) Using Sufi concepts, to which Lessing had been introduced in the mid-1960s by her "good friend and teacher" Idries Shah, the series of novels also owes much to the approach employed by the early 20th century mystic G. I. Gurdjieff in his work All and Everything. Earlier works of "inner space" fiction like Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) also connect to this theme. Lessing's interest had turned to Sufism after coming to the realization that Marxism ignored spiritual matters, leaving her disillusioned.

Lessing's novel The Golden Notebook is considered a feminist classic by some scholars, but notably not by the author herself, who later wrote that its theme of mental breakdowns as a means of healing and freeing one's self from illusions had been overlooked by critics. She also regretted that critics failed to appreciate the exceptional structure of the novel. She explained in Walking in the Shade that she modelled Molly partly on her good friend Joan Rodker, the daughter of the modernist poet and publisher John Rodker.

Lessing does not like the idea of being pigeonholed as a feminist author. When asked why, she explained:

   What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, 'Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.' Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.
   —Doris Lessing, The New York Times, 25 July 1982


Lessing's largest literary archive is held by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, at the University of Texas at Austin. The 45 archival boxes of Lessing's materials at the Ransom Center contain nearly all of her extant manuscripts and typescripts up to 1999. Original material for Lessing's early books is assumed not to exist because she kept none of her early manuscripts. Other institutions, including the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa, hold smaller collections.


  • Somerset Maugham Award (1954)
  • Prix Médicis étranger (1976)
  • Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1981)
  • Shakespeare-Preis der Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F. V. S., Hamburg (1982)
  • W. H. Smith Literary Award (1986)
  • Palermo Prize (1987)
  • Premio Internazionale Mondello (1987)
  • Premio Grinzane Cavour (1989)
  • James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography (1995)
  • Los Angeles Times Book Prize (1995)
  • Premi Internacional Catalunya (1999)
  • Order of the Companions of Honour (1999)
  • Companion of Literature of the Royal Society of Literature (2000)
  • David Cohen Prize (2001)
  • Premio Príncipe de Asturias (2001)
  • S.T. Dupont Golden PEN Award (2002)
  • Nobel Prize in Literature (2007)



   *The Grass is Singing (1950), 
   *Retreat to Innocence (1956),
   *The Golden Notebook (1962),
   *Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971),
   *The Summer Before the Dark (1973),
   *Memoirs of a Survivor (1974),
   *The Diary of a Good Neighbour (as Jane Somers, 1983),
   *If the Old Could... (as Jane Somers, 1984),
   *The Good Terrorist (1985),
   *The Fifth Child (1988),
   *Love, Again (1996),
   *Mara and Dann (1999),
   *Ben, in the World (2000) – sequel to The Fifth Child,
   *The Sweetest Dream (2001),
   *The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2005) – sequel to Mara and Dann,
   *The Cleft (2007),
   *Alfred and Emily (2008),

The Children of Violence series

   *Martha Quest (1952),
   *A Proper Marriage (1954),
   *A Ripple from the Storm (1958),
   *Landlocked (1965),
   *The Four-Gated City (1969),

The Canopus in Argos: Archives series

   *Shikasta (1979),
   *The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980),
   *The Sirian Experiments (1980),
   *The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982),
   *The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983),

Opera libretti

   *The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (music by Philip Glass, 1986),
   *The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (music by Philip Glass, 1997),


   *Playing the Game (graphic novel illustrated by Charlie Adlard, 1995)


   *Each His Own Wilderness (three plays, 1959),
   *Play with a Tiger (1962),


   *Fourteen Poems (1959),
   *The Wolf People - INPOPA Anthology 2002 (poems by Lessing, Robert Twigger and T.H. Benson, 2002)

Short story collections

   *Five Short Novels (1953),
   *The Habit of Loving (1957),
   *A Man and Two Women (1963),
   *African Stories (1964),
   *Winter in July (1966),
   *The Black Madonna (1966),
   *The Story of a Non-Marrying Man (1972),
   *This Was the Old Chief's Country: Collected African Stories, Vol. 1 (1973),
   *The Sun Between Their Feet: Collected African Stories, Vol. 2 (1973),
   *To Room Nineteen: Collected Stories, Vol. 1 (1978),
   *The Temptation of Jack Orkney: Collected Stories, Vol. 2 (1978),
   *Through the Tunnel (1990),
   *London Observed: Stories and Sketches (1992),
   *The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches (1992),
   *Spies I Have Known (1995),
   *The Pit (1996),
   *The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels (2003)

Cat Tales ,

   *Particularly Cats (stories and nonfiction, 1967),
   *Particularly Cats and Rufus the Survivor (stories and nonfiction, 1993),
   *The Old Age of El Magnifico (stories and nonfiction, 2000),
   *On Cats (2002) – omnibus edition containing the above three books

Autobiography and memoirs

   *Going Home (memoir, 1957),
   *African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (memoir, 1992),
   *Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 (1994),
   *Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949 to 1962 (1997)

Other nonfiction

   *In Pursuit of the English (1960),
   *Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (essays, 1987),
   *The Wind Blows Away Our Words (1987),
   *A Small Personal Voice (essays, 1994),
   *Conversations (interviews, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, 1994),
   *Putting the Questions Differently (interviews, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, 1996),
   *Time Bites (essays, 2004),
   *On Not Winning the Nobel Prize (Nobel Lecture, 2007, published 2008)

Sere also: "Doris Lessing - Photo Gallery".

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Doris May Lessing, Nobel Prize in Literature 2007's Timeline

October 22, 1919
Kermānshāh, Kermanshah, Iran
Age 19
Age 27
November 17, 2013
Age 94
London, United Kingdom