The Doris Lessing Papers

Scope and Content

Books (1942 - 2000): Printed material, mainly first editions, of Doris Lessing's works and contributions. There is a copy of John Donne's poetry which passed between Leonard Smith ('Smithie') and Doris Lessing. Correspondence (1944 - 1993): 155 letters from Doris Lessing ('Tigger') to Leonard Smith, along with 20 greetings cards, 2 photographs and a typewritten introduction to the collection by Leonard Smith. The Making Of The Representative For Planet 8 (1988 - 1989): Tape recordings of, and ephemera related to 'The Making Of The Representative For Planet 8' an opera composed by Doris Lessing and Philip Glass based on Lessing's novel of the same title. Articles and Clippings (1970s - 1996): Print articles and clippings either written by, or about, Doris Lessing.

Administrative / Biographical History

Doris May Lessing (nee Tayler) was born in Persia (now Iran) on October 22, 1919 to Captain Alfred Cook Tayler, who survived the First World War, and Emily McVeagh, a nurse. In 1925, the family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where they ran a 3000 acre maize farm, which was often blighted by economic failure. Lessing left school at 14 and never returned to education; at 15, she moved away from home to become a nursemaid. In 1937, she moved to Salisbury (now Harare) where she worked as a telephone operator for a year. In 1939, aged 19, she married her first husband Frank Wisdom; they had two children together, John and Jean. When the marriage ended in 1943, the children remained with their father. Lessing became involved in Communist politics, in particular with a local group called the Left Club. In 1945 Lessing married for a second time - to Gottfried Lessing, a German Jewish refugee who was also a member of the Left Club. They had one son together; Peter, born in October 1946; however the marriage also ended in divorce in 1949. During this time, Lessing wrote her first full novel alongside plays and poems; she began attempts to get her material published. In April/May 1949, Lessing moved from Southern Rhodesia to England, bringing along her young son and a completed manuscript. The manuscript became her first novel, 'The Grass Is Singing', published in 1950; it marked the beginning of her career as a professional writer. Throughout her writing life, Lessing continued to draw on and reflect upon her time living in Africa; her work was often criticial of colonial culture and treatment of black Africans. In 1956, in response to her views, Lessing was declared a prohibited alien in both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa; the ban stayed in place for 30 years. The 1950s marked a time of change for Lessing. She became disillusioned with the Communist Party and left entirely in 1954. She began her first major set of novels - the 'Children of Violence' series, featuring the heroine Martha Quest. The books followed Martha through adolescence, marriage, motherhood, divorce, communism and the apocalypse of a Third World War. Lessing also published short story collections and memoirs during this time. In 1962 Lessing's most famous work, 'The Golden Notebook' was published. The novel's honest exploration of self sparked a great deal of critical debate. The novel was hailed as a milestone for women's liberation, something that Lessing always struggled with; she believed she had simply written things publicly that women always discussed privately. The 1960s also saw the continuation of Lessing's 'Children of Violence' series, and her experimentation with psychological and metaphysical themes. She became interested in Sufism, a spiritual aspect of Islam. Although supportive of some aspects of Islam, she remained critical of others. Throughout the 1970s, Lessing continued to publish widely; she wrote several collecions of short stories and several novels during this period. Her novels began to take on elements of science fiction, seen in 'Briefing For A Descent Into Hell' and 'Memoirs Of A Survivor'. At the end of the 1970s, Lessing began work on a new set of novels - the 'Canopus in Argos: Archives' series. The series continued her exploration of fantasy and space fiction. In the 1980s, two novels written by a new writer called Jane Somers gained little attention in the press; it was later revealed that Jane Somers was actually Lessing, writing under a different name to avoid the high-profile attention her work had acquired. Lessing continued to write novels during this time, notably the political fiction 'The Good Terrorist' in 1985; it has been argued that the Jane Somers novels allowed Lessing to return to the world of realism again. In 1988, Lessing collaborated with the composer Philip Glass to create an opera based on her book 'The Making Of The Representative For Planet 8'. Lessing wrote two volumes of autobiography in the 1990s, charting her life up until the mid-1960s. In 1993, her eldest son John died suddenly from a heart attack. In 1995, she received an Honourary Degree from Harvard University. Later in the same year, Lessing was able to return to South Africa after being banned for decades previously; she was now praised for the very views which had prohibited her from travelling in past years. She was able to see her daughter and grandchildren for the first time in many years. Lessing kept writing throughout the 1990s, but when 'Love Again', her first novel in 7 years, was released in 1996 she refused to do any promotional work for the book. In 1997, Lessing collaborated with Philip Glass once more to create an opera based on her novel 'The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five'. In 1999, Lessing was appointed a Companion of Honour in Queen Elizabeth II's New Year's Honours List. Lessing revealed she had turned down the offer of becoming a Dame. The 2000s marked a period of great critical acclaim for Doris Lessing. In 2001, Lessing won two major prizes for her work: the Prince of Asturias Prize in Literature and the David Cohen British Literature Prize. She was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. In 2007, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Lessing's final novel, 'Alfred and Emily', was released in 2008. Lessing's younger son Peter lived with her for the majority of his life and died a few weeks before his mother. Doris Lessing died on November 17, 2013, aged 94.

Access Information

Items in the collection may be consulted for the purpose of private study and personal research, within the controlled environment and restrictions of The Keep's Reading Rooms.

Acquisition Information

The Archive was purchased with help from theV&A.

Other Finding Aids

An online catalogue is available on The Keep's website .

Archivist's Note

Description created by Joanna Baines, 2014 - 2015. Hanford, Jan. "Biography", Sage, Lorna. "Doris Lessing obituary", The Guardian, 17th November 2013. The Telegraph. "Doris Lessing - obituary", The Telegraph, 17th November 2013.

Conditions Governing Use

Please note that although the letters are owned by the University of Sussex, copyright is held by the Lessing Estate. No reproduction of any part of these letters is allowed without prior permission from the Lessing Estate.

Please do not take photographs or make copies of any of this material without permission. All enquiries should be directed to Special collections at the University of Sussex in the first instance