Mary Kenny: Doris Lessing was certainly a ground-breaking writer -- but was she a failure as a mother?
Published 01/12/2013 | 01:00
There are many reasons to praise that remarkable writer, Doris Lessing, who died recently, aged 94 -- who, by the way, smoked heavily for most of her long life. She won the Nobel Prize for literature, and yet she left school at the age of 14 -- and she always remained proud about that. She wrote a book which was considered 'a bible for feminists' -- 'The Golden Notebook' and she had also been a passionate and committed communist: but she never conformed to any form of political correctness.
Even as a communist, Doris Lessing deplored the fact that, as she wrote in an autobiography: "Stalin's deliberate mass murders are never condemned as Hitler's are, although Stalin's crimes are much more, both in number and in variety." She endorsed feminism but regretted that dogmatic views on "equality", and fears about sexual harassment, had put an end to, or at least greatly diminished, the kind of flirtation that she had much enjoyed as a young woman, back in the 1940s and '50s. She remained on the left, but also always remained pro-Israeli.
Her independence of mind was consistent: offered a Damehood of the British Empire, she rejected it on the grounds that "there is no British Empire", and if there was, she wouldn't approve of it -- she had grown up in what was then southern Rhodesia.
Pleadings that such distinguished personages as Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren had not spurned the honour would have cut no ice with Doris: she thought "Dame" was a pantomime title.
Doris Lessing (born Doris Tayler) married her first husband when she was barely 20, and left him after five years and two children. Her second husband was Gottfried Lessing, a refugee from Hitler's Germany and an ardent "one hundred and fifty per cent" Communist.
They had a son, Peter, but she left her second husband too when she chose instead to travel from Africa to live in a seedy bedsitter in London.
She brought the manuscript of her first book and her baby Peter, with her but she left the children of her first marriage behind.
This was a radical thing to do in 1950 -- although subsequently "the comrades" in the communist movement rallied round her, as her situation was seen as a rebuff of "bourgeois" values.
But if Doris Lessing was a ground-breaking writer -- her first book, The Grass is Singing was the first modern book to allude to rape or to menstruation -- was she a failure as a mother?
She certainly regarded herself as a failure as a wife, and looked back on her marriages with dismay: "I do not think marriage is one of my talents."
The daughter and son of her first marriage were taught to regard her as a dreadful person and an abandoning mother, and never allowed to communicate with her.
As for the baby she had brought to England, Peter, she certainly did all she could for him, and yet she came to reflect, in old age, that "women who have brought up a son without a father will know how difficult it is".
Peter longed for a father- figure as he was growing up. His own father, Gottfried, returned to East Germany and dropped all connection with his son for political reasons: it was considered a black mark, in the GDR, to have any contact with family or friends in "the West".
If Doris Lessing was a great feminist icon, her life is also a reminder that not only is there no such thing as "having it all", but that in order to have what you choose, or want, you must be ready to make sacrifices.
When she first arrived in London, she had virtually no money and tried, for a while, to support herself doing secretarial work. She was willing to give up the chance of a comfortable life, supported by her parents, in what was then southern Rhodesia, because she yearned for the independence of an artist's life in down-at-heel bedsitters (and she couldn't stand the "provincialism" of what was then Rhodesia).
She was also willing to give up the children of her first marriage so as to fulfil her own identity. She left her second husband, too, because he was repressing her creative ambitions: he scoffed at her writing, and called it a "bourgeois indulgence" which was beneath the standards of a wholehearted communist.
But Doris Lessing forged an independent life for herself, chose lovers instead of further marriages, and in her work, prospered -- producing a wide range of writing, including science fiction.
Her novel 'The Good Terrorist' brought a remarkable insight into the sometimes high ideals behind dreadful acts and 'The Fifth Child' is a frightening insight into a family's life disturbed by a bewilderingly disruptive offspring. Her short stories are wonderful, and she wrote plays -- it led her to a friendship with Siobhan McKenna, whom she liked a lot, but candidly criticised for being "an undisciplined drunk".
Doris Lessing put writing before everything, really: the love of her life walked out on her with the words: "You don't love me --you only care about your writing."
She denied it was true, but she debated, all through her life, whether an artist could be married and have children -- successfully. (Both her sons predeceased her; her daughter, who lives in South Africa, survived.)
Perhaps her most continuous attachment was her love of cats: those shrewd, independent felines who walk alone.