If you look at a local map of the district surrounding the small town of Banket in Zimbabwe, one name stands out. There are Shona names: Mpinga, Murombedzi; there are resolutely English names, left over from the country’s colonial past: Trelawney, Darwendale. And then there is Kermanshah, the farm that Doris Lessing’s parents named after the Iranian city where, on 22 October 1919, their daughter was born.
Lessing’s parents had met during the First World War, when her father lost a leg in service and was then nursed to health by her mother at the Royal Free Hospital in London. They moved from Britain to Iran (then Persia) shortly afterwards, enjoying the luxury of colonial life.
When they were lured by UK government schemes to Southern Rhodesia in 1925 they hoped to find a comparably glittering world, but in fact the land they’d been granted was just barren bush. In the mud-clad house they constructed, Lessing’s mother’s evening dresses rotted in a trunk. But, with a curious mixture of nostalgia and optimism they named the farm Kermanshah, so Lessing grew up with this reminder of her birth overlaying the African landscape she came to love.
“I believe that the chief gift from Africa to writers, white and black, is the continent itself,” Lessing later wrote. By the age of nine, she roamed for miles through the veld alone. She ran or cycled across the mealie fields surrounding the house, on into the uncut bush, where she went for days without meeting anyone except wild pigs, porcupines and antelope. This wasn’t an idyll: she was full of frustrated longing, bored by the isolation, furious with her over-critical mother. But the expanse of the bush came to represent freedom for Lessing and she later felt the veld became “an old fever, latent always in their blood; or like an old wound throbbing in the bones as the air changes.”
The landscape of Lessing’s childhood – and her sense of being in exile from it afterwards – remained, I think, the key to her writing in the 40 books that eventually gained her a Nobel Prize. Her experience of the veld was crucial to her politics. She became a communist because she was outraged by the system of racial segregation known as the colour bar, oppressing the black people she heard playing the drums at night outside in the bush while her mother played Chopin on the piano. And the veld was also crucial to her life as a feminist. After roaming freely as a child, sometimes pausing to shoot guinea fowl, she didn’t understand the conventions governing women’s lives in the city. Living in the Southern Rhodesian capital of Salisbury (now Harare), she found the nuclear family unbearably claustrophobic and longed to escape a social world that restricted the independence of women. And so, in 1942, aged 23, she abandoned her marriage, leaving behind two children.
Looking back on Lessing now, a hundred years after her birth, it’s the freedom with which she thought and acted for herself that makes her so enticing. This was the freedom to leave her first marriage (“I would have had to live at odds with myself, riven, hating what I was part of, for years”) and then to have a new child with her second husband, Gottfried Lessing, though she knew they were going to split up. It was the freedom, while married to Lessing, to have several lovers (“I cannot imagine myself not loving several people at once in various ways,” she wrote to one lover in 1948, claiming that this was “an emotional state common to more people than will confess it”). And then it was the liberty, living as a single woman in 1950s London, to set herself up as what she called a “free woman”, a single, working mother with a succession of lovers. Politically, it was the freedom to commit to communism in Salisbury in 1942 (“It was as if her eyes had been opened and her ears made to hear,” she wrote in her semiautobiographical novel A Proper Marriage) and to join the Communist Party in London in 1952. She continued to write positively about communism until 1956, despite the growing disillusionment with Soviet Russia among the liberal intelligentsia. Within a decade the communist countries would become “freer, more democratic” than the West, she wrote in March 1956 after a trip to Southern Rhodesia funded by the party, which wanted Lessing to write articles exposing the corrupt government.
Finally, it was the self-determination, eight months later, to leave the party (“Lessing is out,” said an official in a bugged conversation recorded by MI5), disillusioned by the Soviet response to the Hungarian uprising, in which more than 2,500 Hungarians were killed and 200,000 fled as refugees.
Securing freedom of this kind wasn’t easy and didn’t always make her happy. As it had been in the veld, liberty continued to be arduous and hard won. But, powered through by the memories of her childhood, she fought for her right to be independentminded. Crucially, she claimed the freedom to make mistakes and to admit it (she later described her support for Stalinism, for example, as “a tangle of contradictory, lunatic emotions and behaviour”). This makes her especially inspiring now, when our intellectual mistakes can be so easily held against us and we are therefore often too cautious to risk unpopular opinions.
In her fiction Lessing found forms that allowed these changes of mind and contradictions to be explored. In the Children of Violence series of novels about the autobiographical heroine Martha Quest – the first appeared in 1952, just after Lessing moved to London; the last in the more psychedelic world of 1969 – she exposed institutional political life in all its absurdity. “If you are interested in the mechanisms of a Communist or left-wing group, there it all is,” she later wrote about the third novel in the series, A Ripple from the Storm. We see in the Communist Party here the solidarity of group life, the way it can nurture people and give them the power to effect change. Listening to the “calm and responsible certainty” of a communist fanatic, Martha is swung into “a state of elation and purpose”. At the same time, she’s conscious of the absurdity of the language they use and the seriousness with which they take themselves. “Why do you have to make every simple human problem into a big question of principle?” one comrade asks another.
Martha still feels the bush pulsing in the background, with her returns to the veld reminding her of a kind of truth that can’t be glimpsed in institutional life. But Lessing shows here and in her great 1962 novel The Golden Notebook that these political institutions, however cumbersome, are necessary and worth our time.
The Golden Notebook is a portrait of midcentury Britain told through the thoughts, writings and experiences of Lessing’s autobiographical heroine Anna Wulf. The narrative incorporates five alternating notebooks (black for Africa, red for communism, blue for the diary, yellow for writing, gold for the breakdown that allows the breakthrough). This enables every aspect of life to be there, and allows thoughts and political positions expressed in one notebook to be contradicted by those expressed in another. Over the course of the novel, Anna loses confidence in the Communist Party and in her own ability to use communist language in good faith. At the same time she finds that she feels even more disconnected to those outside the party than those within it, because these are people who don’t share her belief in the ideal of equality and social progress. “Better anything,” Anna writes, “than the shrewd, the calculated, the noncommittal, the refusal of giving for fear of the consequences.”
The Golden Notebook remains worth our time today because it allows these inconsistencies to stand in their full complexity, and because Lessing connects them so insightfully and eloquently to the contradictions that beset the life of the “free woman”. Anna discovers to her distress that sexual relationships bring a kind of dependency on men that she finds hard to condone in herself. She observes that “women’s emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists”. Yet she continues to strive to combine personal happiness with a way of life that honours her distrust of the nuclear family and of patriarchal men.
What is it like to be a political idealist who is also involved in the dissatisfying reality of party politics? What does it mean to be a feminist who believes that all women are on some level oppressed but is also involved in the messy reality of sexual relationships with men? These are crucial questions that are no easier to answer now than they were in the 1950s or 1960s. What Lessing gave us in The Golden Notebook in particular was a literary form capacious enough to tackle the problems of our lives in their muddled ordinariness, while also providing the ordering distance of art.
It’s a difficult novel – hard work both in its form and in its moral vision, but all the better for it. Today political protest in fiction so often takes the form of dystopia, which can feel like an easy option because it allows writer and reader to revel in their existing political view. Lessing turned her hand to dystopia too, in the brilliant, sprawling and, for me, ultimately dissatisfying Canopus in Argos series she wrote in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But afterwards she remained committed to realism, albeit a realism inflected by the limitless possibilities of unconscious thought. And she found in the untidy freedom of the novel a form capable of portraying the various liberties she had sought, gained and lost in life.
Lara Feigel is the author of “Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing” (Bloomsbury)