Doris Lessing’s Double Life

Born at the end of the “Great War”—the war that she believes overshadowed her parents and her childhood—Doris Lessing can be considered an elder stateswoman now, of literature, political experience, feminism. No fewer than thirty-six books by her were listed at the beginning of the first volume of her autobiography. Walking in the Shade is the second volume and, since it ends thirty-six years ago, should fortunately be followed by at least one more.

In that first installment (Under My Skin, 1994) Lessing described her life in what was then Southern Rhodesia, until in 1949 she left behind a husband and two children and set out for postwar Britain. Her family had arrived in Rhodesia when she was four years old, trekking in an ox-drawn wagon holding trunks of carpets, silver, paintings, and finery that in the event were scarcely to be needed. The colonial territory that was meant to make them comfortably prosperous farmers never delivered more than subsistence. The Great War veteran and his hopeful wife became burnt-out, passive people. Lessing describes how she would see them at the end of the working day, sitting silently side by side on the farmhouse veranda, dentures parked on the table for comfort. “I will not, I will not!” was what the fierce child chanted to herself whenever she thought of their fate. This determination not to fall in with colonial defeat and apathy, she makes clear, has been a prime motivation in her life.

Lessing declares that frustration and the relationship with her embittered mother made her for many years “one of the walking wounded.” An honest autobiographer, however, enables her reader sometimes to glimpse more than the author herself does. Compared to that of most city-bred, TV-bound children today, much about this childhood in the African bush looks like good preparation for a confident life. By the time she was fourteen, Lessing says, she could

set a hen, look after chickens and rabbits, work dogs and cats, pan for gold, take samples from reefs, sew, use the milk separator and churn butter, make cream cheese and ginger beer,…drive the car, shoot pigeons and guineafowl for the pot, preserve eggs—and a lot else. Doing these things I was truly happy. Few things in my life have given me greater pleasure.

The bush countryside was a wide open playground for herself and her brother, and any books available were greedily absorbed. In spite of some short unhappy spells at boarding school, there was little examination pressure, no obligatory enrollment in the academic rat race, no thought of slaving to earn an essentially pointless qualification. At the age of fourteen she simply decided to leave school and took off on a series of nursemaid jobs around the country, where her sharp eyes and ears took in a great deal that was to be used in her first novel, The Grass Is Singing.

Lessing (the surname comes from the second and least important of her adult partnerships) in fact comes…

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