News Release —July 2, 1999
Ransom Center Acquires Doris Lessing Archive
Director Thomas F. Staley announced today that the Ransom Center acquired the archive of Doris Lessing, one of the century's great English language writers and an elder stateswoman of modern literature, political experience, and feminism. The archive includes typescripts, manuscripts, galley proofs, and holographs for several of Lessing's major works, notably Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Good Terrorist, and her most recent novel Mara and Dann.
With the acquisition of Lessing's archive, the Ransom Center enhances its already impressive collection of 20th century women writers. This includes the papers of Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Carson McCullers, Lillian Hellman, and Anne Sexton. According to Lucia Gilbert, head of the Women's Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin, the Ransom Center is establishing itself as one of the leading institutions for the study of women's literature. "The Center's holdings of women writers,from Edith Wharton to Anne Sexton and now the inimitable Doris Lessing, rank it as one of the major feminist literary archives in the world," said Gilbert.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize on three occasions, Lessing's work is characterized by shrewd social observation and critique. A prolific author, her often autobiographical fiction is rarely without serious social and historical comment. Her childhood experiences in Africa provide the background for a number of novellas and stories decrying colonialism, while the publication of The Golden Notebook (1962) assured Lessing an integral place in the history of feminist literature. Indeed much to Lessing's chagrin, many have dubbed the book "a feminist bible."
Yet despite her willingingness to tackle social issues, Lessing eschews dogmatism and defies categorization. She avidly downplays labeling, referring often to the need of humans to always entertain new ideas and to explore new ways of seeing and understanding. This is itself evident in much of Lessing's later work which is infused with Islamic mysticism, dreamscapes, and cosmic fantasies.
Lessing's Archive at the Ransom Center
The collection of Lessing's papers acquired by the Ransom Center is significant and unique. Highlights include:
- Holograph with corrections and a heavily revised manuscript of The Good Terrorist, Lessing's 1985 novel about a group of revolutionaries living in London.
- Master galleys and master pages for the American edition of Canopus in Argus: Making the Representative for Planet Eight, the fourth in a five volume science fiction series written by Lessing between 1979 and 1983.
- Several heavily corrected typescripts of Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If I Could... (1984), two novels published under the pseudonym Jane Somers respectively to dramatize the problems facing unknown writers.
- Extremely rare typescripts for fourteen of Lessing's early short stories, one written from Rhodesia in the 1940's.
- Heavily corrected typescripts of Lessing's most recent novel Mara and Dann, published in 1999.
Biography of Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing was born to British parents in Iran on October 22, 1919. Crippled in World War I, her father worked as clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia; her mother was a nurse. In 1924, Lessing's family moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). There, her father failed in his pursuit of fortune as a maize farmer, while Lessing's exacting mother raised Doris in stern fashion, placing her in a convent school at age nine.
Lessing's formal education came to an end in 1932 when she was a mere thirteen years old. By fifteen, she had left home to escape the demands of her overbearing mother, taking work as a nursemaid. At nineteen, she was married and soon after, the mother of two children.
Married with two children, working a dead-end job, and lacking formal education, Lessing's life seemed bound for drudgery and domesticity. Lessing, though, refused to play only the cards in her hand. She worked tirelessly to become a self-taught intellectual (as did fellow southern African writers Olive Schreiner and Nadine Gordimer) joining the communist Left Book Club and immersing herself in literature, politics, and sociology. By the early 1940's, Lessing had left her first husband, marrying shortly after a central member of her reading group. She also began writing.
In retrospect, Lessing considers making her own history despite undue circumstances one of her greatest achievements. "There was a whole generation of women," she has said, "and it was as if their lives came to a stop when they had children. Most of them got pretty neurotic, because, I think, of the contrast between what they were taught at school they were capable of being and what actually happened to them."
Writing quickly became Lessing's means of becoming what she was "capable of being." In 1949, she moved to London, and a year later published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, the story of a white farmer and his African servant in Rhodesia. Lessing followed this with Children of Violence, a two-volume series that traced the growing consciousness of its heroine Martha Quest.
In 1962 Lessing published what is widely considered her best novel. The Golden Notebook told the story of Anna Wulf, a writer attempting to use art as a means to understand her life. The novel is one of Lessing's most complex, painting multiple portraits of contemporary women and the challenge of meaningful introspection.
In the 70's and 80's Lessing's work began to show the influences of her fascination with Islamic mysticism, cosmic fantasy, and dreamscapes. Exemplars are Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and the five volume science fiction series Canopus in Argos (1979-1983). She also published several collections of short stories, a genre in which she is widely considered a master. Short story collections include This Was the Old Chief's Country (1973), a compilation of her African stories, The Sun Between Their Feet (1973), and Stories (1978).
Other novels by Lessing include The Good Terrorist (1985), the story of a group of revolutionaries in London, and The Fifth Child (1988), a horror story about the birth of a monstrous child and the effect it has and his family. Her most recent novel is Mara and Dann (1999).
Harry Ransom Center
The University of Texas at Austin
P.O. Box 7219
Austin TX 78713-7219 www.hrc.utexas.edu