Doris Lessing was born Doris May Tayler in Kermanshah, Iran, in 1919. She attended a convent school in what is now Harare, Zimbabwe, but left at the age of 13 to follow her own educational path. She left home two years later to work as a nursemaid, and she started reading about politics and sociology. She also started writing.
Lessing met her first husband in1937 and they had two children, John and Jean, before their divorce in 1943. Shortly after that she joined the Left Book Club, a publishing group that had a strong left-wing influence in the UK, where she met her second husband, Gottfried Lessing. They had a son, Peter, and divorced in 1949.
After the divorce, she moved to London with Peter, leaving her first two children in South Africa with their father. She became politically outspoken, opposing apartheid and campaigning against nuclear arms; this led to 20 years of secret service surveillance on her.
Lessing’s politics came out in her writing: her early work was influenced by her communist leanings, with her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, following the theme. Over the years she explored psychological themes, innovative structures and feminism in her work.
In all, Lessing published more than 50 novels, many under the pseudonym Jane Somers. When they awarded her the Nobel Prize in 2007, at the age of 88, the Swedish Academy called her “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”
Lessing died at home in London in 2013, at the age of 94. In addition to a raft of published work, she left behind a literary archive of some 45 archival boxes at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, at the University of Texas at Austin, a smaller collection at the University of Tulsa and a personal archive, including 40 years’ worth of diaries, at the University of East Anglia.
Why is she on the list?
Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.
- Nobel Prize in Literature
- Man Booker Prize nomination
- Man Booker International Prize nomination
- Top 100 Works in World Literature
- 100 Greatest novels of all time
- The 100 best novels written in English
Read about Lessing
Doris Lessing, by Carole Klein and Anna Fields
Doris Lessing: A Biography, by Carole Klein
Image: Garoa, Flickr