A life in books
I first read the Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1919- 2013 ) in my twenties, when I was working in Tanzania, East Africa as a Volunteer teacher in 1975. I borrowed the book from the Library and was just stunned I had never read anything like it before. It was as if she was speaking to me and describing my own inner world- she wrote about menstruation, female orgasm and emotional breakdown. Unheard of! Not even D.H Lawrence had written so vividly about women and their relationships.
With this novel, written in 1962, Doris Lessing set out to write a differently structured book.
It consists of a conventional novel, ‘Free women’, and several notebooks, each in a different colour, kept by the protagonist Anna Wulf, a novelist struggling with writer’s block. The black notebook deals with Africa, the red notebook her Communist Party days, the yellow is autobiographical, the blue is a sort of diary. The golden notebook at the end brings together the ideas and thoughts from other sections.
It was daring in its day for its frank exploration of the inner lives of women who, unencumbered by marriage, were free to raise children or not, and pursue work and their sex lives as they chose.
She was a prolific writer. Over a nearly fifty year period (1950-2008) her published works included: twenty-six novels, twenty-three volumes of short stories, five autobiographical/memoirs, as well as another sixteen volumes of non fiction, opera, drama and poetry collections. She was a Nobel Prize winner and she lived in Camden! In the 1960s, after a decade of renting flats in various parts of London, she made enough money from her books to buy a house in Charrington Street, Somers town. Later she moved to Gondor Gardens in West Hampstead, where she died aged 94 in 2013. She is buried in Golders Green Cemetery. Yet you would be hard pressed to know this because there is no plaque or any recognition at all!
Born to British parents in Iran as her father was a clerk at the Imperial Bank of Persia. He lost a leg in WW1, so he moved the family to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to farm- unsuccessfully. Doris’s love of literature and her skill with the written word was virtually all self-taught. Her convent girls’ school told her she couldn’t read the classics- Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling were unsuitable for girls – so she left school aged 13 and became a nurse-maid and read Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Ibsen and Stendhal recommended by her employer and purchased at Salisbury (now Harare) bookshops.
She led an unconventional life: married Frank Wisdom aged nineteen with whom she had two children, Jean and John, left her husband and two children in 1945, married again and had another son – Peter, left that husband in 1949, brought Peter to England with the draft of her first published novel ‘The Grass is Singing’ in her suitcase. It was published in 1950 and received the Somerset Maugham award in 1954. Controversially, it decried the dispossession of black Africans by white colonialists, who themselves were satirised by her.
In her autobiographies she explains her need for space and time to write- had she stayed in her first marriage she would have become an alcoholic like her mother, she says.
Often described as curmudgeonly, she was also constantly moving on. When she first arrived in England she was a member of the Communist Party and was friends with with Vanessa Redgrave. Her support of the Anti-Apartheid movement led to her being banned from South Africa and watched by MI5 for over twenty years. Then she ditched communism in favour of Sufism at the end of the 1950s. This influenced her writing which led to a changed direction to science fiction.
She also wrote under a pseudonym as Jane Somers – possibly a link to the home she had in Somers Town – to prove how difficult it is to get published as new writer
She tackled race, ideology, gender politics, workings of the psyche, including mental breakdown, and was considered one of the most prominent outspoken and controversial writers of the 20th century. So why did it take over fifty years to receive the Nobel Prize? She was one of 11 women to ever receive the Nobel Prize for Literature at that time- 1909- 2007. Since then, five more have won the prize, although only 59 women out of 603 prizes and 962 laureates received the prize across the board in all subjects since its inception, ie 1901 to 2021.
She loved her house in Hampstead. When Nick Holdston was asked by the family to catalogue her 4,000 books in order for the estate to be settled, he found the books randomly stacked in every room but none had any personal markings or inscriptions until he reached the small room in the converted attic at the top of the house which was her bedroom cum study. Here were over 100 pamphlets and books on Sufism and they were well marked. She used to rise early and work relentlessly. She once said that the felt she had been successful as a writer because she had a capacity for sticking at it! The view from this little room included the London Eye and her long tangled garden.
Doris Lessing actively contributed to the local community, she battled to stop a former reservoir in her street, teeming with wildlife, becoming sold to property developers. ‘On the one hand she was the towering intellect that she was, but to us she was just a great companion,’ said agent, long-time friend and former Hampstead resident Ann Evans (cited in the Ham and High).
She wrote about her love for Gondor Gardens in a short story collection called London Stories.
Dominique’s Café was a favourite haunt of hers because it sold decent coffee and featured in one of her short stories ‘The New Café.’
She gave regular readings at her local bookshop, West End Lane Books.
But why is there no plaque?
This is a woman who:
· Wrote the Golden Notebook in Holbein Mansions, Langham Street, Westminster where she lived from 1959-1962- rented from her publisher Howard Samuels for £5.00 per week – there is no plaque on that house;
· bought her first house in Charrington Street Somers Town- there is no plaque on that house; and
· then bought her house at 24 Gondor Gardens – there is no plaque on that house.
This needs a Lessing-style campaign!
Sylvia Mcnamara specialises in walks about women; for more information on these and other walks contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image at top of page is of Doris Lessing talking, (c) Elke Wetzig (elya) derivative work: licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0