Before I ever knew anything else about her, before I grew to admire her as an unflinching writer often ahead of her time, and respect her as an unapologetically outspoken woman who opposed war and injustice and who championed the rights of the downtrodden, I knew this about Doris Lessing: She had abandoned her children when they were very young, divorced her first husband, married a German communist, subsequently divorced him too and then left Rhodesia for England.
And because of the way the adults in my small life discussed it, and because we sang patriotic songs about how we ourselves would never give up on Rhodesia, I suspected this woman to have been guilty of unpardonable sins, although I wasn't quite sure which parts were most deplorable—the divorces, the leaving of Rhodesia, the German communist as a second husband (a double horror by our British-Rhodesian standards), or the abandoning of her offspring.
"Her books are quite good," my mother said. "But what funny ideas she had, and those poor, poor children."
Mum appeared to take what Lessing had done surprisingly personally. This made sense only when I considered that while my mother was actively engaged in the violent effort to keep Rhodesia white-run and communist-free, Lessing had tilted herself at our political system with such ferocity that in 1956 she'd been declared persona non grata by both Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa.
Also, the elder of Lessing's two abandoned children—all grown up now—was my mother's beloved friend, John Wisdom.
I knew John, who was born at the start of World War II, as a booming man of robust appetites and perpetual bachelorhood, red lips flaming out of a thick black beard.
That he had ever had a mother seemed impossible to me then, partly because in that adrift decade following Ian Smith's 1964 Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain, a lot of the white Rhodesian adults around me seemed motherless in both the literal and vernacular sense of that word.
A Nasty Little Society
This was the mid-1970s. I was six or seven, picking up dropped pieces of conversation with the calibrated precision of a war child.
Rhodesia was a small southern African country increasingly at messy odds with itself, its atmosphere of stifling control made even more airtight by the paranoia of its own racially restrictive policies and politics.
"It was a … very nasty little police state," Lessing said of it in a 2007 Australian radio interview. "Now, while I was growing up I didn't really notice. When I say notice, I knew it was bad; I had no idea how bad it was until I went out of Rhodesia and looked at it from the outside."
It wasn't until she was in her early 20s, during a visit to South Africa, that Lessing was able to garner this distancing view and conclude without equivocation that the country of her youth was "a very ugly, nasty little society and I didn't like it at all. It was also very provincial, culturally isolated."
Born in British-controlled Persia in 1919 to parents who so balked at the arrival of a daughter, it was left to the doctor to come up with a girl's name, in 1924 Lessing moved with her family to what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.
Her father, wounded in World War I, was a broken man whose terrible stories of battle his daughter absorbed as a sort of toxin.
"It gave me a terrible sense of foreboding, a belief that things could never be ordinary and decent, but always doom-ridden," Lessing told a reporter in 2008. "The Great War squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And my parents never passed up an opportunity to make me feel miserable about the past."
The Himalayas of Tedium
Lessing's mother, a nurse, was heartbreakingly cast up against the hidebound restrictions of the colony.
Lessing recalled how shortly after the family moved to the maize farm in Rhodesia, her mother's trunks of silk dresses, hats, and high heels arrived in the mud home. Desolated by the isolation in which she found herself, Doris's mother allowed her two small children to tear up the fancy gowns for play clothes.
"She was warm-hearted but insensitive," Lessing was reported to have said much later. "Nursing the wounded must have been hell. They would arrive by the lorry load, some already dead. That must have torn her up. It took me a long time to allow her that."
Young Lessing seemed always to be trying to escape—the confines of the convent in Salisbury (now Harare) to which she was sent, her mother's Edwardian mores pointlessly brought to the mud hut on the struggling maize farm, her father's disappointed war-weariness, the confines of two early marriages.
Propelling herself out of whatever situation stifled her, she could appear heedless, almost panic-stricken.
She left school by 13, left home by 15, and was married to Frank Wisdom, a civil servant ten years her senior, by 19.
A few years later—terrified of the suffocating ennui she felt as a wife and mother, a situation she once described as climbing the "Himalayas of tedium"—she left Wisdom and their two young children, John and Jean.
"For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing," she said later. "There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn't the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother."
Not an Ordinary, Decent Life
By 1949 Lessing had moved to England with her son Peter, born of the second marriage.
Here, she turned her decades of unhappiness in Rhodesia into tomes of loosely autobiographical, world-class literature—scores of novels, four memoirs, poetry, librettos, and plays—ultimately winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.
She received news of the award with a gallant dearth of enthusiasm. "Oh, Christ," she famously muttered when a member of the press told her about the prize. "I couldn't care less … I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one." The response is classic Lessing, impolitic to the point of heroic.
She lived in London 64 years, and in Persia and Rhodesia for only 30, but the weight of her personality remained centered in those early years.
For one thing, listening to interviews conducted with her over her later years, I am struck by Lessing's accent—unmistakably that of a white Rhodesian/Zimbabwean with its clipped consonants, its protracted vowels, its slightly nasal hum.
I am struck too by her eloquent impatience, for which she has received both praise and censure in the press. But she won that impatience honestly. Having fought from an early age to break free of the cocooning isolation of a racist and misogynistic culture, she had done what every writer must do if she is to be any good: Court eviction from the tribe that raised you, and later from any tribe that seeks to co-opt you.
In her final book, Alfred and Emily, published in 2008, Lessing reimagines her parents' circumstances if they had been allowed "ordinary, decent lives of the kind they would have had if there had been no World War I."
It left me wondering: As much as she hated the first third of her life, as heartbreaking as her decision to leave her young children evidently was—"I thought that would go without saying, that if a mother gives up her children, it's very painful," she told an American reporter in 1994—it seems entirely possible that if Lessing had been raised in London, say, or New Jersey, instead of Rhodesia, she might herself have been able to lead an ordinary, decent life.
What then of the literature she might have written? Surely nothing as spare and poignant as her first novel, The Grass is Singing, and nothing as pivotal and controversial as her seminal 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook.
I think, too, she might have been better versed in niceties and tact, and that too would have been a crying shame.
Lessing died at her home in London on November 17, 2013, age 94, just weeks after the death of her son Peter. She is survived by her daughter Jean and by grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her son John Wisdom died of a heart attack on his coffee farm in Zimbabwe in 1992. He was 52.
Alexandra Fuller, a regular contributor to National Geographic, grew up in southern Africa. Her memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight covers her early experiences.