by Jane Rogers

Jane Rogers is the author of 9 novels, including The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Arthur C.Clarke Award 2011) and Conrad and Eleanor (2016). She also writes short stories (Hitting Trees with Sticks 2012) and radio drama.

The writer Doris Lessing was dangerous in quite a number of ways. As a ‘political agitator’ and former Communist, she was deported from South Africa in 1956. She was only allowed to continue her visit to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) that year because the authorities had made a mistake with her records. The UK government considered her sufficiently dangerous to keep her under surveillance by MI5 and MI6 for 20 years, on account of her communism and anti-racist activism.

She was certainly dangerous personally. Her idealism, combined with her sense that her life had a mission, led to behaviour which was scandalous in the 1940’s, and which must have been emotionally damaging, both to herself and those who loved her. For example, she left her husband of four years and her two little babies, to work for the Party and then to permanently quit Rhodesia for England.

She was dangerous as a writer. Above all, as a writer. Because she was fearless in her determination to explore and dissect the history she lived through; apartheid, the fall of Communism, the effects of World War 2, and the changing relationship between women and men. And to dissect herself; her dreams, her past, her motives, her mistakes. Dangerous because she was looking for truth and she did not take prisoners. Dangerous because of the subject matter she dared to uncover.

Born in 1919 in Persia, Lessing and her family moved to Rhodesia in 1925. She grew up on a large but impoverished farm on the high Karroo, and developed a love of the country and of Africans which radiates through all her work. Lacking much formal education, she read voraciously and quickly began to despise the hypocrisy and racism of white settler society. She joined the CP in 1944 and first came to the UK in 1949, bearing her third child and the manuscript of her first novel. The Grass is Singing  was published in 1950 to international acclaim, and Doris was launched as a writer. She was also an impoverished single mother, living by her journalism and her fiction, struggling to retain her belief in Communism in the face of increasing evidence of Stalin’s atrocities, and eventually leaving the party in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. She moved on to explore a range of other belief systems and ways of interpreting the world (through psychoanalysis, Buddhism and Sufism) in a continually developing attempt to make sense of her experience. At every stage of her life she wrote prolifically and with intense emotional and political involvement. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 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’s writing is, obviously, what drew me to her. As a young feminist writer myself in the 1980’s, Lessing was a role model – an incredible adventurer through fictional forms and structures. She wrote novels: realist-autobiographical (the Martha Quest books); present-day political (The Good Terrorist); dystopian science fiction (Memoirs of a Survivor); space fiction (The Canopus in Argos quintet); and unclassifiable (The Fifth Child). Under her own name and pseudonyms, she published more than 50 novels. She wrote plays which were staged at the Royal Court; she wrote some of the best short stories of the twentieth century; she wrote journalism and reportage; and the two volumes of her autobiography, Under My Skin  and Walking in the Shade  offer a penetrating investigation into her own life and work.

She was the first woman writer I read who wrote about sex as if it was a very interesting but perfectly normal part of life, which deserves discussion as much as any other human experience. To certain types of men I think she must have seemed extremely dangerous. The collapse of conventional prohibitions about sex in the face of global war, followed by the sexual emancipation of women in the 50’s and 60’s, gave her plenty of scope. Her entirely reasonable belief that women and men are equal enabled her to take and discard lovers in a way that some men undoubtedly found unromantic. But she was neither heartless nor complacent.  The book which  many consider her greatest, The Golden Notebook (1962) sets out to analyse (amongst other themes)  precisely what the differences are between men and women, in what they want from a sexual relationship.

The protagonist, Anna Freeman (yes, notice the name) is interested in exploring her own contradictions. She is a ‘free’ woman who has rejected the idea of marriage, yet she is heartbroken when her lover of five years, Michael, leaves her. She sleeps with a range of other men, but some are patronising, some inadequate lovers due to their fears and misconceptions about women, and some are purely trophy-hunting. She finds herself having to play the role of mother, saintly counsellor, wise woman. Some of these men treat her as if she has no feelings at all, so that they can betray or insult her at will.  Sexual liberation is both freedom and misery. Anna does not want to believe, politically or ideologically, in monogamy, so her lasting grief over the loss of Michael is something she tries to dismiss, and even blames herself for. There is no answer.

Anna is a writer who cannot write and has scant respect for the successful book she has written; she is a Communist at the moment when the truth about Stalin emerges. She is a single mother. The novel’s structure reflects the deep divisions in her life; it consists of four notebooks, black for her writing life, red for her political life, yellow for stories where she tries to make sense of her experience and blue for her diary. Her greatest struggle is to keep herself open to every experience and to be willing to be changed by it. Anna is a character in transition. Or in breakdown, some would argue. It would be impossible to refer to her as a victim or an innocent or a career woman, though she contains elements of all three of these. What is striking is the honesty with which her often conflicting lives (physical, emotional, intellectual) are portrayed, and this is surely why so many women revere this book.

Lessing was never afraid to push into dangerous subject matter. It is well documented (not least by Lessing herself) that she didn’t get on with her mother, and that she felt horribly impatient with her mother’s hypocrisy, self-pity, and ineffectualness. When Doris became a mother herself, she had no compunction about abandoning her own children, who were being brought up with all the privileges and prejudices of white settler society. She writes about this in Under My Skin (1994):

‘It was the way of life I had to leave . . . I explained to the babies that they would understand later why I had left. I was going to change this ugly world, they would live in a beautiful and perfect world where there would be no race hatred, injustice, and so forth … I carried, like a defective gene, a kind of doom or fatality, which would trap them as it had me, if I stayed. Leaving, I would break some ancient chain of repetition. One day they would thank me for it.

I was absolutely sincere. There isn’t much to be said for sincerity, in itself.’

Oh but there is! There is a very great deal to be said for sincerity. And how many of us could publically expose and acknowledge our deepest mistakes?  Knowing Lessing’s own history, I found the topic of motherhood  revisited in a very moving way in The Good Terrorist (1985). This novel is ostensibly about IRA terrorism in London. But it is really about a mother-daughter relationship. The daughter, Alice, is pig-headed and blinkered by revolutionary political ideals which are not in the least thought through. She feels contempt for her bourgeois mother, but her mother is a useful source of money. The mother loves her, supports her to the point of financial ruin, disagrees profoundly with her politics, tries repeatedly and considerately to help her in a whole range of ways, and is rejected. The mother is the voice of sanity in the book, the person who sacrifices herself for the sake of a relationship which is quite impossible, but not because of the fault of the older woman. The mother is the tragic heroine whom the reader loves.

This is one of Lessing’s greatest achievements; that she was not afraid to change her mind. To keep on striving passionately for what she believed, in life as in literature, but always to keep a beady critical eye on herself, on what she had done and become. To be dangerous to herself. She continually renewed herself through interrogation.

Dangerous, difficult, brilliant, honest; one of the towering writers of our times.


Feature image: doris lessing stories tbp by CHRIS DRUMM on Flickr, used under CC-BY-2.0 license.