Doris Lessing (1994) Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography to 1949.

Doris Lessing is one of those authors I kept meaning to read. Her father was an officer wounded in the Great War and her mother the nurse that nursed him, rather a romantic ideal, but reality often knocks spots off those kinds of notions. Her great love was killed before she could marry him and he’d lost a leg, well, they had each other. Then they’d a loan from the land bank and a failing farm in Southern Rhodesia.  She was upwardly mobile, longing to engage with a better class of person. He was bitter about the war and dirt poor. They had two children. A boy and a girl. England was always home (they didn’t return to).  And this is Doris’s story. She is an African, a kaffir lover, a Communist that left her own two children a boy and a girl with Frank, her first husband, married Gottfried, a German refugee, and fellow Communist, didn’t love him, but had a child with him.  ‘Our sexual life was sad,’ she says of Gottfried. ‘He was deeply puritanical and inhibited. I could have believed he was a virgin.’ In this period of her life she feared her dreams because she distrusted the pleasure of sadness. She married him because in those days people could not have affairs. This is an older and wiser narrator looking backing, interpreting and analysing the things her younger self understood.  Gottfried she understood. He considered her ‘not suitable material as a Communist cadre. The trouble was fundamental – it was me, myself, my nature.’   There is a mystical element to her notion that nature’s response to the great catastrophes of the First and Second World War was to make females more fecund. These ideas are not developed in any way, but asides, the book reads as if the narrator is address you the reader. As a writer she is an outsider looking in. Communism was the only answer to a system that routinely exploited 99% of the population and elected officials that thought blacks were on the same branch of the tree as apes, were prone to laziness and did not need much of an education. ‘Every group, of whatever kind, however it starts,’ Lessing writes, ‘will end as a religious of mystical group.’ Both she and Gottfried decamp to London. She with the finished manuscript for her first novel (which I’ve not read) The Grass is Singing, which in the 1950s became an international success. A remarkable lady in lots of different ways.   


Read more! The Golden Notebook is, in my view her absolute best. Long but worth it and you can skip sections and then return. It's all about 'free women' back  in the 60's. Free from domestic slavery if they could get by without a male provider, free from the benignly intended dictats of 70's and 80's feminism telling us girls that men are wrong and women are right and one fanny is worth 100 willies. I am a feminist by the way I am simply an elderly one!

Anna in the Golden Notebook is also free from the colonial rule of Rhodesia, now modern Zimbabwe as she has moved to London and has published a book. She is also free from the African Liberation struggle in which she was an active participant, exciting but frightening times and her male comrades sometimes treated her simply as a bit of skirt.

All that lived-experience freedom and not yet forty. How to make sense of her past? Anna keeps 5 notebooks and sorts it into topics. How to have a creatively meaningful future? Her raw troubled times with the divorced American Saul Green are among the best bits, sheer reality where ideals of the mind, needs of the body and two fragile egos struggling not to crack up lock on to one another.

Doris Lessing took nothing for granted either in her work or in her life. A true heroine.

 Just read Lessing's 'The Fifth Child' on recommendation from Blackjack. Would like to take the risk of saying that I am 99.9% sure you'll like it, celtic if you haven't read it yet. It's pathetically dark and disturbing, but written so skilfully and just the slimmest of books to leave such a devastating blow to the psyche. I feel I've missed out on all her books because am so late coming to them. Elsie - I'm going to read The Golden Notebook, too now I've read this.


The Golden Notebook is perhaps her most famous book. I'll have a look. Thanks Elise. The Fifth Child sounds like one of her sci-fi books, I'll take a look. thanks Vera.


I remember reading The Fifth Child. Yes V, it's very good in a feet on the ground way.