Doris Lessing: A room of one’s own

A writer moves house.

Doris Lessing, pictured here in the 1950s. Photograph: Ida Kar/National Portrait Gallery

This article by Doris Lessing first appeared in the New Statesman in August 1963. The previous year she had published her breakthrough novel, “The Golden Notebook”.

When I came into this flat of four small boxlike rooms, the bedroom was painted pale pink, except for the fireplace wall, which had a fanciful pink and blue paper. The woodwork was a dark purple, almost black. This paint is sold by a big decorating shop in the West End and is called Bilberry. Two girls had the flat before me. Very little money, obviously, because the carpeting was going into holes, and the walls were decorated with travel posters. The woman upstairs told me they were young and often had parties that lasted all night. “But I liked to hear them, I enjoy the sounds of life.” She was reproachful: I don’t have parties often enough for her.

The girls left no forwarding address, following the tradition for this flat. Over the years it has often happened that the bell rings and people ask for “Angus Ferguson? I thought he lived here?” And the Maitlands? And Mrs Dowland? And the young Caitsbys? All these people, and probably many others, have lived in this flat and departed leaving nothing behind. I know nothing about them, nor does anyone else in the building, though some of them have lived here for years.

I found the pink too assertive and, after several mistakes, settled on white walls, leaving the plum-colour, or Bilberry, woodwork. First I had grey curtains, then blue ones. My large bed is under the window. There is a desk, which I had meant to write on, but it is always too cluttered with papers. So I write in the living-room, or on the kitchen table. But I spend a lot of time in the bedroom. Bed is the best place for reading, thinking or doing nothing. It is my room; it is where I feel I live – though the shape is bad and there are things about it that can never be anything but ugly.

For instance, the fireplace was of iron – a bulging, knobbed, ornamented black. The girls had left it as it was, using a small gas heater in the opening. Its heavy ugliness kept drawing my eyes to it, so I painted a panel from the ceiling downwards in the dark plum colour, so that the fireplace and the small thick shelf over it would be absorbed. On either side of the panel, since I could not have the whole wall in plum, which at night looks black, were left two panels of the absurd wallpaper, which had bright people like birds in pink and blue cages. The fireplace seemed less obtrusive, but my fire is a gas fire, a square solid shape of bronze, brought from an earlier flat where it did not look too bad. But it does not fit here at all. So the whole wall doesn’t work.

Another wall, the one beside my bed, is also deformed. Over the bed swells a grainy irregular lump, two or more feet across. Someone –Angus Ferguson? The Maitlands? Mrs Dowland? – attempted to replace falling plaster and made a hash of it. No professional plasterer could have got away with such a protuberance. On the whole, this wall gives me pleasure: it reminds me of the irregular whitewashed walls of another house I lived in once. Probably I chose to paint this room white because I wanted to have the whitewashed lumpy walls of that early house repeated here in London?

The ceiling is a ceiling: flat, white, plain. It has a plaster border which is too heavy for the room and looks as if it might fall off easily. The whole building has a look of solid ugliness, but it was built cheap and is not solid at all. For instance, walls, tapped, sound hollow; the plaster, when exposed, at once starts to trickle as if the walls were of loose sand held together by wallpaper.

I can hear everything that goes on over my head, where the old woman who likes to hear a bit of life lives with her husband. She is Swedish, gives Swedish lessons. She dresses carefully and looks a dear respectable old thing. Yet she is quite mad. Her door has four heavy, specially fitted locks inside, as well as bolts and bars. If I knock, she opens the door on a chain four inches long and peers through to make sure that I (or they) will not attack her.

Inside is a vision of neatness and order. She spends all day cleaning and arranging. When she can’t find anything more to do in her flat she posts notices on the stairs saying: “Any person who drops rubbish on these stairs will be reported to the Authorities!” Then she visits every flat in turn (there are eight identical flats, one above the other) and says confidingly: “Of course the notice isn’t meant for you.”

Her husband works for an export firm and is away a good deal. When she expects him back, she dresses as carefully as a bride and goes off to meet him, blushing. On the nights he comes back from his trips the bed creaks over my bed, and I hear them giggling. They are an orderly couple, bed at 11 every night, up every morning at nine. As for myself, my life has no outward order, and I like having them up there. Sometimes, when I’ve worked late, I hear them getting up, and I think through my sleep or half-sleep: Good, so the day’s started, has it? And I drift back to unconsciousness while their footsteps and the rattling of cups blend into my dreams.

Sometimes, when I sleep in the afternoons, which I do because afternoon sleep is more interesting than night-sleep, she takes a nap too. I think of her and of myself, lying horizontally above each other, as if we were on two shelves.

When I sleep after lunch, there is nothing unplanned about it. First I must feel the inner disturbance or alertness that is due to overstimulation, or being a little sick or very tired. Then I darken my room, shut all the doors so the telephone won’t wake me (though its distant ringing can be a welcome dreamprogenitor) and I get into bed carefully, preserving the mood. It is these sleeps which help me with my work, telling me what to write or where I’ve gone wrong. And they save me from the fever of restlessness that comes from seeing too many people. I always drift off to sleep in the afternoons with the interest due to a long journey into the unknown, and the sleep is thin and extraordinary and takes me to regions hard to describe.

But one afternoon there was no strange journey, nor was there useful information about my work. The sleep was so different from usual that for some time I thought I was awake. I had been lying in the semi-dark, the curtains, of various shades of dark blue, making a purply-moving shade. Outside it was a busy afternoon. I could hear sounds from the market underneath, and there was angry shouting, a quarrel of some kind, a man’s voice and a woman’s. I was looking at the fireplace and thinking how ugly it was, wondering what sort of person had deliberately chosen such a hideous shape of black iron. Though of course I had painted it over. Yes, whether I could afford it or not, I must get rid of the square bronze gas fire and find a prettier one. I saw the bronze shape had gone; there was a small black iron grate and a small fire in it, smoking. The smoke was coming into the room and my eyes were sore.

The room was different: I felt chilled and estranged from myself as I looked. The walls had a paper whose general effect was a dingy brown, but looking closely at it I saw a small pattern of brownish-yellow leaves and brown stems. There were stains on it. The ceiling was yellowish and shiny from the smoke. There were some shreds of pinky-brown curtain at the windows with a tear in one so that the bottom edge hung down. I was no longer lying on the bed, but sitting by the fire across the room, looking at the bed and at the window. Outside a shrill quarrel went on, the voices rising up from the street. I felt cold, I was shivering, and my eyes watered. In the little grate sat three small lumps of shiny coal, smoking dismally. Under me was a cushion, or a folded coat, something like that. The room seemed much larger. Yes, it was a largish room. A chest of brown varnished wood stood by the bed, which was low, a good foot lower than mine. There was a red army blanket over it. The recesses on either side of the fireplace had shallow wooden shelves, holding folded clothes, crockery, old magazines, a brown teapot. These things conveyed an atmosphere of thin poverty.

I was alone in the room, though someone was next door: I could hear sounds that made me unhappy, apprehensive. From upstairs a laugh, hostile to me. Was the old Swedish lady laughing? With whom? Had her husband come back suddenly?

I was desolate with a loneliness that felt it would never be assuaged, no one would ever come to comfort me. I sat and looked at the bed, which had the cheap red blanket on it which suggested illness, and sniffed because the smoke was tearing at the back of my throat. I was a child, I knew that. And that there was a war, something to do with war, war had something to do with this dream, or memory – whose? I came back to my own room, lying on my bed, with silence upstairs and next door. I was alone in the flat watching my soft dark blue curtains softly moving. I was filled with misery.

I left my pretty bedroom and made myself tea; then returned to draw the curtains and let the light in. I switched on the gas heater, which came up hot and red, driving the memory of cold away; and I looked behind its ugly bronze efficiency into a grate that had not had coals in it, I knew, for years.

I have tried to dream myself back into that other room which is under this room, beside it, or in it, or existing in someone’s memory. Which war was it? Whose was the chilly poverty? And I would like to know more about the frightened little child. He (or she) must have been very small for the room to look so big. So far I have failed. Perhaps it was the quarrel outside in the street that . . . that what? And why?

Doris Lessing was born in Persia (Iran) in 1919 and grew up in Southern Rhodesia,now Zimbabwe. Her debut novel, “The Grass Is Singing”, was published in 1950 shortly after she left Rhodesia for England. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007 and lives in London