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14 October 2007
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Doris Lessing
Talking about playing the classics, including Hamlet
John Gielgud
Reflects on childhood and deciding to be an actress
  Judi Dench
  Doris Lessing b1919 
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Born in Iran and brought up in Zimbabwe (then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia), Doris Lessing spent her childhood on a remote farm in the African bush. Essentially self-educated, she dropped out of school at 13, and married 6 years later. A supporter of Communism, she left her husband and young family for Gottfried Lessing, the local Communist leader, whom she married in the 1940s.

Unpopular in the colony not only for her Communist views but also for her deep commitment to African rights, Lessing's first novel, The Grass is Singing, was a critique of racial politics in Rhodesia. In 1949 she left the country with her young son and came to England about the time her novel was published. This was followed the next year by African Stories, a collection of short stories.

In London she wrote a series of autobiographical novels from 1952-69, the Children of Violence series, which explored the developing consciousness of her heroine, Martha Quest. In her life as in her work, Lessing now revealed an increasing disillusion with Communism, parting from it altogether in 1954.

In 1962, Lessing published her best-known work, The Golden Notebook, which has become a feminist classic. Innovative in content and style, the novel explored the multiple selves of a contemporary woman in terms of her creativity and feminine identity. It was to prove a lasting influence on a generation of female writers and readers.

Lessing's interest in mysticism owed much to the interpretations of the Sufi teacher Idries Shah, who held that the evolution of an individual's consciousness was closely connected with the evolution of the society. From 1979, Lessing developed this theme with a science fiction series, Canopus in Argus: Archives (1979-83).

Using the vehicle of science fiction to investigate the possibility of higher planes of existence, she wrote a number of novels which sought to go beyond the SF genre, especially in The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980) and The Sirian Experiments (1981).

Contemporary society continued to interest Lessing, however, and in 1985 she published The Good Terrorist, a satire on student politics. Two volumes of autobiography were published in 1995 and 1997, covering the period from her African childhood to the publication of The Golden Notebook. In 1999, she was appointed a Companion of Honour for "conspicuous national service".

The Grass is Singing (1950)
Martha Quest (1952)
The Golden Notebook (1962)
Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971)
Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980)
The Sirian Experiments (1981)
The Good Terrorist (1985)
Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 (1995)
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