Nobel prize winner was ahead of her time

By Gaby Wood

Bids for popularity were not Doris Lessing's thing.
Bids for popularity were not Doris Lessing's thing.

Already in the hours since the death of Doris Lessing was announced, many people will have watched a widely circulated video, filmed on her doorstep in 2007.

In it, she has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the news of which is relayed to her by reporters as she alights from a London taxi.

"Oh Christ," she says in apparent irritation, and puts down her shopping bags. Watching, you think she must have heard it wrong. But no. Pausing to check whether she has left anything in the cab, she turns to the camera crews and sighs. "I'm sure you'd like some uplifting remarks of some kind," she says.

Bids for popularity were not Doris Lessing's thing. Of course, that made her more appealing.

She was popular in ways she never meant to be. Take her best-known work, The Golden Notebook, which Margaret Drabble called "a novel of shocking power and blistering honesty". Its most striking formal aspect - that writers are divided selves - was largely ignored in favour of its much more controversially intimate aspect.

In a later preface to the book, Lessing wrote that it had been "instantly belittled as being about the sex war".

Yes, though it wasn't belittling. Lessing wrote about women's ambivalence with regard to motherhood and sex and work in a way that was simultaneously shocking and influential.

If she rejected the feminist label, it was perhaps because she had no need for it. If others gave it to her, it was maybe because they needed her. The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, was not only ahead of its time but a blueprint for women. As Lessing put it, it was written "as though the attitudes that have been created by the women's liberation movements already existed".

She was both a single mother and an absent mother, having brought the child of one marriage with her to London, and left two children from a previous marriage in Rhodesia.

"For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing," she said of this decision. "There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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