When it comes to literature, Doris Lessing has her hand in every dish. She claims the titles of novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer, and biographer – if anyone proves that it’s possible to do it all, and well, it’s Lessing. She won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, along with the David Cohen prize in 2001.
Lessing was born on October 22, 1919 in Persia (present-day Iran) to English parents, Captain Alfred Tayler and Emily Maude Tayler. Her father, an injured veteran of World War I, worked for the Imperial Bank of Persia, while her mother was employed as a nurse. When Lessing was six years old, her family relocated to Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) with hopes to start over as maize farmers.
Lessing’s upbringing was filled with unforgiving rules and rigid gender roles. While she enjoyed spending time outside in nature, her mother struggled to raise a daughter who matched the ideals of Edwardian society. Lessing attended a strict convent school, followed by an all-girls school in Salisbury. She dropped out at the age of 13.
Although Lessing never returned to school for a formal degree, she valued the act of learning and continued to educate herself. She devoured works by Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. She also embraced fiction writing, later saying, "Yes, I think that [unhappy childhoods lead to fiction writing]. Though it wasn't apparent to me then. Of course, I wasn't thinking in terms of being a writer then – I was just thinking about how to escape, all the time."
Although Lessing married twice and had three children, she strongly resisted her society’s tendency to push women, and especially mothers, into the background. She spoke of her mother’s generation, saying: “it was as if their lives came to a stop when they had children. Most of them got pretty neurotic – because, I think, of the contrast between what they were taught at school they were capable of being and what actually happened to them." Lessing claimed her writing was a path to freedom that other women of her time did not have.
As a teen, Lessing entered the literary world when she published two short stories in South Africa. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was released in 1949, marking the beginning of a successful career as a professional writer.
Lessing wrote extensively about her life experiences; even her fiction is deeply autobiographical. She drew inspiration from her childhood in Africa, and she explored topics such as racial inequality, culture clashes, and political and social injustices.
Lessing’s work was often critiqued for her portrayal of “unfeminine” women, who expressed anger and aggression. She responded to these criticisms by saying, "Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise."
Upon winning the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, Lessing was heralded by the Swedish Academy as "that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny."