Doris Lessing, who died Sunday at age 94, began her literary career as a political incendiary and ended it as a British national treasure.
By then, she had been acclaimed by the world. When she won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2007, the oldest writer and the 11th woman to receive it, the British reveled in her grumpy reception of the news. Returning from a shopping trip to her North London home, Lessing was confronted by a horde of journalists and camera crews. “Oh, Christ,” she remarked. Sitting on her doorstep in her blue-jean skirt, flannel shirt and African-patterned vest, Lessing noted that she had already won “every bloody” literary prize in Europe, so this was the “royal flush.”
Later she added that, since the Nobel Prize couldn’t be posthumous, “they were probably thinking they’d probably better give it to me now before I’ve popped off.” What could be more British and endearing? By the 21st century, Lessing was being promoted by the publisher Fourth Estate as one of the “best-loved” women writers in England.
I can’t imagine Lessing liked being described as beloved any more than she wanted to be categorized as a woman writer. From the very start of her literary career, she rejected traditional “feminine” styles and subjects and found Virginia Woolf, among others, too ladylike and limited. Cantankerous, irascible, outspoken, she thrived on controversy and outrage. She held back nothing, lovable or not — wrote unapologetically in her autobiographies about leaving her children behind when she moved from Zimbabwe to London in 1949, did not hesitate to denounce feminism in public, as at the Edinburgh festival in 2001 when she denounced “the automatic rubbishing of men” by “fat and complacent” feminists. She belittled the importance of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
When “The Golden Notebook” (1962) was hailed as a “feminist bible” for its intimate and explosive portrait of Anna Wulf, whose experience as a South African radical, Marxist, writer, lover, mother and “free woman” is broken into separate sections, Lessing strongly objected. That was not what she had meant at all. She insisted that “The Golden Notebook” was a response to the “collapse of communism” and the breakdown and fragmentation of consciousness among left-wing intellectuals and activists.
“I knew this was an extraordinary time,” she said in the Guardian. “I was watching extraordinary events. I wanted to record them.” When women readers dramatically described “The Golden Notebook” as a revelation about female sensibility, she wondered why reading something in print had so much more impact than what they must have heard all their lives. But as an American feminist admirer of “The Golden Notebook,” I found Lessing’s anatomy of a free woman to certainly be news.
Of Lessing’s many subsequent novels, I most liked “The Sweetest Dream” (2004), in which she hilariously satirized all her former political allegiances — communism, the women’s movement, even African nationalism, and especially, in a Dickensian rogue named Comrade Johnny, the career revolutionary as con man and parasite, rather than superhero. Nothing could be less politically correct, or more inimitably the great and golden Doris Lessing.
Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English at Princeton University and divides her time between Washington and London.