Doris Lessing: A Biography

Doris Lessing: A Biography

by Carole Klein

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Doris Lessing: A Biography by Carole Klein

A searching first biography of the celebrated literary rebel who continually reinvented herself and the world in her prodigious work, this book is based on exclusive interviews with the fascinating Doris Lessing's lovers, colleagues, and friends. This first biography of one of the twentieth century's most influential writers uncovers the woman that Lessing herself withheld in her autobiographical novels and memoirs. For beyond the courageous, resourceful figure who fearlessly challenges the status quo in works like the four-volume Children of Violence or Lessing's masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, this revealing study finds an emotionally fragile woman forever in search of her essential identity. Displaced and rebellious, Lessing also always broke the rules. Born in Persia to a hypercritical mother, and a father who had been shell-shocked in World War I, she was raised in Rhodesia. Twice married and divorced by the age of thirty, she moved to Britain with an unpublished manuscript in her suitcase and only one of her children in hand. An ardent Communist before and during World War II - when she was married to a German - she distanced herself from the Party shortly thereafter. Similarly, she ardently embraced and then discarded feminism. A prolific writer, she continued throughout her career to chart new territory, most famously with the series of science-fiction novels she submitted to her publisher under a pseudonym, and to reinvent the formidable persona masking the far more frangible self that this book reveals.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786708062
Publisher: Avalon Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/17/2000
Edition description: 1 CARROLL
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.06(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Born into a Broken World

'We use our parents like recurring dreams,' writes Doris Lessing, 'to be entered into when needed; they are always there for love or for hate.'

    Like a detective on an elusive case, Doris Lessing has studied old photographs of her parents. Are there traces to be found of the people they became? Would she discover the ultimate source of her own years of waking nightmares?

    There is a photo of Lessing's mother, Emily Maude McVeagh, in adolescence. She is a tall girl with a round, confident face. Her hair is pulled back and tied with a black bow. She wears a school uniform, blousy white shirt and long dark skirt, a proud young citizen of her beloved British Empire. Born in 1884, Emily was named after her mother Emily Flower, who died giving birth to a son when Emily was three years old.

    Emily Maude's father, John William McVeagh, had worked himself up to the middle class, from office clerk to manager of a bank in suburban London. Class was immensely important to him, the yardstick by which he measured his opinions and decisions. He must have been smitten with his beautiful young wife. How else could he have overlooked the fact that during her short life she had never really abandoned her working-class habits and tastes? Had she lived past the age of thirty two, their marriage might well have foundered as McVeagh became increasingly preoccupied with his social position.

    As it was, McVeagh never mentioned his wife to his children, and their home contained not a single pictureof her. It was almost impossible for young Emily to conjure up a truthful image of her mother. There were only the vague memories of her earliest childhood and the obvious disapproval of the household staff who raised the three children after their mother's death. With no one to counteract the servants' version of her mother as an imprudent, common woman, Emily Maude adopted that view as well. In Under My Skin (the first volume of her autobiography), Doris Lessing recalls the disdain in her mother's voice whenever she mentioned Emily Flower. Her pursed mouth and little sniff seemed to imply that Emily Flower's death was fitting punishment for her lower-class ways.

    McVeagh remarried when his three children were still young, but his elegant new wife had little interest in taking on a mother's role. McVeagh was not troubled by his wife's aloofness towards his children. He was equally remote as a father, stern and demanding, with never a gesture or expression of love. The only family life Emily experienced was when everyone attended what her father considered important public rituals of the empire: the funeral of Queen Victoria, Edward VII's coronation, or the visits of the Kaiser and other heads of state.

    To her daughter, Emily expressed no love for her father, but did insist that she respected and admired him. His formal portrait hung on the mud wall of their African childhood home in Southern Rhodesia. Doris detested the man she saw inside the ornate frame. His corpulent form and chubby face, greased hair and old-fashioned, tightly tailored clothes were the very embodiment of what Doris disliked about England. In that image she saw the arrogance and repression of the British empire and the class system that went with it.

    Despite her loveless background, Emily Maude was a lively girl with many friends. She often went to the theatre, musicals, and late suppers with her friends. She liked the rough and tumble of hockey and lacrosse, and less boisterous sports such as tennis and bicycle excursions. She did well in school, far better than her dull-witted brother. And, unusual for the time, her father considered sending her to university. One can imagine McVeagh's enthusiasm when he told his daughter of his enlightened plans, and his dismay when she rejected the rare and costly opportunity of a university education.

    Emily stood her ground. Although she was a talented musician who dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, her practical nature together with a genuine desire to care for people, made her feel she should first be trained as a nurse. McVeagh was furious. Respectable middle-class girls did not become nurses. If Emily went through with these shocking plans, she would get no help from him.

    That might have been the end of it, but John McVeagh underestimated his daughter's determination. Emily went off to train at London's Royal Free Hospital, where the work was hard and the wages low. Despite the obstacles in her path she passed her final exams with high marks, which no doubt bolstered her self-assurance.

    By the time Emily Maude graduated to being Sister McVeagh, she had put the dream of being a concert pianist behind her, although later in life she would grow melancholy about abandoning music. She would lament who she once was and might have become. As a newly licensed nurse, however, she was happy with her work. She loved being needed. The gratitude of her patients when she came to their bedsides was like an expression of their love, which Doris Lessing believes was her mother's true motivation for entering nursing. Emily fed her hunger for love through the people who needed and valued her.

    Despite the heavy demands of her workday, Emily filled her evenings with a busy social life and played the organ at various churches. When she could, she went on holidays with friends, and no matter how crowded her life, she found time to read prominent authors of the day such as George Bernard Shaw. Nursing was always arduous work, but its demands dramatically escalated with the onset of war in 1914. Trainloads of soldiers arrived at the Royal Free Hospital. Sister McVeagh ministered to these wounded bodies with such dedication that a number of the men wrote poems to her. She was proud of these tributes, and kept them in an album that she treasured long past her nursing days.

* * *

Doris Lessing's father, Alfred Cook Tayler, was born in 1886 in a small farming village near Colchester where his father was a bank clerk. The job was respectable but lowly and the family had to make do on very little money. Alfred's mother, Caroline, who appears in a baby picture of Alfred, is described by Doris Lessing as a 'fat, plain woman' with 'the face of a head cook.' And indeed, Mrs Tayler worked wonders in the kitchen on her limited resources. Decades later, when Alfred suffered from diabetes and had to follow a Spartan diet, he rhapsodised over memories of suet, and treacle pudding and ham and sausages smoked at home.

    Besides the all-important Bible there was apparently little interest in books and certainly no money for them. On Sundays, the family went to church three times, and all week Alfred anxiously anticipated that day which always recurred too quickly. Alfred had an older brother who was superior to him in school and their father beat his younger son when he didn't do as well. When they finished school both young men became bank clerks like their father, but Alfred remained a clerk while his older brother rose quickly to a managerial post. Lessing says her father found little pleasure in his clerk's job. But, he tried hard to improve his skills and he even laboriously changed his handwriting because one of his superiors disparaged it. Alfred may have felt that he would not mind his bank clerk's job so much if his personal life were richer.

    Whatever the reason, one day Alfred decided to live on his own in Luton, about an hour away from the family home. It was a happy move. Away from his family and the narrow confines of his little village, he was free to indulge the side of him that loved to play, to be expansive, to be free of imposed, arbitrary constraints.

    He swam and rowed, played football and cricket, sang at musicals and danced with the local girls, thinking nothing of walking ten or fifteen miles to attend dance parties that might be held two or three times every week. He would stay until the very last, walking back under the stars. By the time he reached home he could often see the beginnings of a rising sun. Buoyed by the previous evening's pleasures, he would wash and shave, make tea and porridge, and set off for work.

    The girls in Luton all loved him. For a time he was engaged to one girl, and then broke it off and became engaged to her sister. Their mother was equally smitten with their charming, handsome suitor and, until the second broken engagement, welcomed him into her house as if he were her son. Doris Lessing recalls that when Alfred told this story in front of his wife, (he repeated it many times, like all his reminiscences) he would invariably add, 'Just as well I didn't marry either of them; they would never have stuck it out the way you have, old girl.' As Lessing reports statements like these her tone is biting. In all her writing about her parents and their sadness and suffering at fate's perversity, she rarely suggests that they cared for each other and tried to protect each other from the hardship they shared.

    One of Lessing's judgements that rings grimly true is that war was a defining element of her life. The carefree young Alfred was irrevocably changed by the experience of battle. Among the many early photographs of her father, the largest presents a darkly handsome young man wearing a World War I officer's uniform. He holds his body erect, his jacket is smartly buttoned and decorated with badges. He is ready to do his duty for the British Empire, enlisting as a soldier in 1914 because he was horrified at the German abuses in Belgium. Filled with idealism, he was eager to do his part, even though he 'knew' he would be injured.

    The source of his prescience was a fortune-teller. Doris Lessing writes about this fanciful streak in her father's past: 'I concluded at the age of about six my father was mad,' assuring the reader that it 'did not upset me.' The fortune-teller told Alfred that although he would twice be in great danger, he would not die because he had the protection of an ancestor — his existence unknown to Alfred — who was a famous soldier. She also said Alfred would sense beforehand his imminent injury.

    At the front, Alfred did become seriously ill with what he thought was a ruptured appendix. A few days before he was felled by the terrible pain as anticipatory dread overtook him. The feeling of dark warning was so intense before a second illness, about two years later, that he wrote to his parents from the battlefield telling them he was about to be killed. Once more, the fortune-teller's prophecy was fulfilled when his legs were riddled by shrapnel. Alfred did not die. Indeed, he would look back on it as the luckiest thing that ever happened to him because ten days after he was taken to the hospital his entire company was killed in the battle of Passchendaele.

    On a surgical table at the Royal Free Hospital, Alfred Tayler's leg was amputated at mid-thigh. He was also suffering from shell shock and despite his belief that he was lucky, he fell into a deep and prolonged depression. The combination of traumas kept him in the hospital for nearly a year. Even when he was free of physical pain, his thoughts were sombre, and at night his dreams were terrifying. A physician assured Alfred that what he was experiencing was common to people who had gone through such severe stress and that Alfred was not, as he had begun to fear, going mad. Most people had a hidden store of troublesome feelings, the doctor said. When Alfred Tayler told Doris the story years later, he always cautioned her to remember that no one could know what battles people had to wage inside themselves.

    Lying in his hospital bed, Tayler brooded over his war experience, which had been so different from his ideals. When he first entered the service, filled with patriotism and a sense of honour, the war had satisfied all his chivalrous instincts. The English soldier was the best in the entire world, he would maintain for the rest of his life. He had never experienced such friendship as he did on the field and in the trenches. This courtesy was extended to the enemy. Once, Alfred and a German soldier came face to face. As if by silent agreement, they lowered their guns, smiled at each other, and walked away. It was his Christmas of 1914, when some British and German troops gave each other presents, sang carols together, and played a rowdy game of soccer. Alfred used to wish, he said later, that he could get the opposing generals into those trenches for just twenty-four hours to see what the ordinary soldier faced every day. A firsthand look would surely persuade them to end the war. Gradually, he realised that such a visit would have made no difference at all. British authorities were horrified by stories of compassion. Soldiers were urged by every voice of society to defend his flag ruthlessly against the wicked Hun.

    Crippled and his future uncertain, Alfred felt bitterly estranged from the country he had fought for. No one in government seemed to appreciate what price had been paid by the young soldiers in the trenches. Nor did most civilians want to know about the slaughter he had managed to escape. Alfred Tayler began to call the war he had joined so proudly 'the Great Unmentionable', and wrapped up in this sardonic appellation lay his conviction that he had to leave England once he was out of the hospital.

    Alfred Tayler's war stories used to bore Doris Lessing when she was growing up, but in an experiment with mescaline in the early 1960s some of the sense memories that came to her were her father's experience of battle. This frightening event proved to her that the Great War had been an overriding influence on her life as well.

* * *

Alfred Tayler's nurse at the Royal Free Hospital was Emily McVeagh. She was kind to him and he was grateful and responsive to her. They spent many hours together and, although she didn't understand his mental anguish, she diligently tried to ease his physical suffering. When Tayler was finally ready to leave the hospital, he asked Emily to marry him.

    The proposal threw Emily into confusion. She had been offered the matronship of St. George's Hospital in London, a highly unusual opportunity for a woman in her early thirties. The idea made her proud. But the truth was, she liked nursing better than administration. Even more important, she was still mourning the military doctor she'd fallen deeply in love with who had drowned when his ship was torpedoed. There were very few men left in London and, although her photographs contradict her, Emily thought of herself a plain woman. She was nearly thirty-five, well past the conventional age of marriage.

    Understanding her dilemma, Alfred Tayler sympathised with Emily's loss and was patient with her. Long afar they did marry, his wife kept the doctor's picture on her dressing table. Alfred's voice contained genuine sorrow when he told Doris and her brother, Harry, 'Your poor mother ... he was a good chap, that young doctor.'

    Perhaps the major reason Emily finally accepted Alfred's proposal was that she very much wanted to have children — although not right away. Alfred was still quite depressed and she felt oddly ill herself. This debilitating weakness may have stemmed from the cumulative effects of her years of war work or a mild form of the devastating Spanish 'flu that swept the world after the war. She felt that if they did marry, it would be best to wait until she and Alfred were stronger before thinking about starting a family.

    As his release from the hospital drew nearer, Alfred was increasingly determined not to stay in England. Here he was, a cripple with a wooden leg, and out on the streets able ex-soldiers were selling matches in order to survive. There was no hope of dealing with his bitterness and anger unless he got away from its source.

    Alfred asked the bank that had employed him before the war to transfer him to one of their branch banks in Persia, then dominated by France and Britain, with Britain controlling most financial matters. To Alfred's delight, he was offered the job of bank manager at the British-run Imperial Bank of Persia in the town of Kermanshah.

    The news of this job had encouraged Emily to accept Alfred's marriage proposal. She was excited at the idea of sharing in the social status of his managerial position in an exotic country. She would go to parties, wearing lovely clothes, and serve elegant dinners and teas to 'nice' people. Yes, she would marry Captain Alfred Tayler.

    The wedding, in January 1919, was small and informal. Both bride and groom were too emotionally burdened to pretend to the naive joy of a traditional ceremony. There was an additional constraint: Caroline Tayler was not at all happy with her son's choice. Sister McVeagh was used to ruling people's lives, and Mrs Tayler was certain her daughter-in-law would assume the same control inside her home as she had in the hospital.

    Nonetheless, they must have made a handsome pair — the good looking Alfred and the dynamic Emily, both suffused with the excitement of a ceremony that would change their lives forever. With Alfred getting his wish to leave England, and Emily happily indulging her love of shopping by acquiring stylish frocks that she would be able to wear regularly, the couple were as happy as their bruised past allowed them to be.

    Everything seemed perfectly in order for the life they were about to start together. Except for one small matter. On their wedding night or soon after, despite their plans to postpone parenthood, a child was conceived — Doris.

Table of Contents

List of Platesix
1. Born into a Broken World3
2. A False Start10
3. Beginning Again17
4. Interlude23
5. Tom Toms and Chopin27
6. Lessons — Some Better Left Unlearned33
7. The Adventures of Tigger37
8. Lost40
9. Doris Tayler's School Days46
10. Interlude49
11. Au Pair 55
12. Smoke Got in Her Eyes60
13. "The Excruciating Divide66
14. Finding a New Family72
15. Comrade Veidt77
16. If at First You Don't Succeed83
17. `Hello Tigger, How Are You?'88
18. Breaking the Colour Bar94
19. Victory but notLiberation99
20. The Cape of Good Love105
21. A New Life111
22. In Pursuit of a Future118
23. `Then Spoke the Thunder'125
24. The Battle of Berlin132
25. Among the Believers139
26. Mother of Violence145
27. The Happy Young Woman150
28. Thoroughly Modern Mother155
29. The Perils of Partnership159
30. Red Sunset167
31. Chicago Blues173
32. Thriving on Adversity179
33. Playing with a Golden Tiger186
34. The Madness of Wisdom194
35. A Brilliant Mutation202
36. Pen Pals208
37. Finding the Way215
38. Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May223
39. Lost in Space229
40. New Skin for an Old Ceremony234
41. A Literary Rebirth241
42. `People Don't Purr'247

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Doris Lessing: A Biography 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Klein does an excellent job of pointing out the inconsistencies and the connections in Lessing's life and art...She's read Lessing's work with intelligence and subtlety, even while acknowledging Lessing's fury at those who look for autobiographical connections in her fiction. Fans will read this for the gossip as much as the thoughtful analysis
Guest More than 1 year ago
From the opening pages of this remarkable biography, the reader realizes he/she is in the hands of a master writer as well as an unusually able researcher and interviewer. In just a few pages at the start, Klein manages to vividly describe the backgrounds of Doris' mismatched parents, Alfred and Emily Tayler (Emily later exchanged her second name, Maude, for her first) and of the generation that preceded them as well. The concluding lines of this introductory chapter are surprising and perfect, as are the endings of almost all the short and immensely readable chapters. I won't spoil the story--and like all good biographies, it is a story--by revealing what those lines are. Suffice it to say that they set the tone for all that follows, starting with Lessing's generally unhappy childhood in the Rhodesia whose beauty cast a lifelong spell on the young girl, and continuing through the unbearable tensions between Doris and her mother, which Klein makes agonizingly understandable. Klein's insights into Lessing's complicated involvement with politics in general and apartheid and Communism in particular, her early marriages, the now-well known abandonment of her family (she took only one of her three children) in pursuit of her all-consuming muse, and the origins and themes of her ground-breaking books are keenly and wittily set out. Though feminists took what is arguably the best known of these, The Golden Notebook, as a Bible, Lessing, in typically contradictory mode, denied--and continues to deny--any such intent. It is in dealing with her prickly and elusive subject that Klein is at her best. She was able not only to unearth much new information, a great deal of it from previously untapped and (initally) unwilling sources--among them Clancy Sigal, who is generally assumed to be 'Saul Green' in The Golden Notebook--but to interpret and integrate her findings with skill, charm and sensitivity. Most remarkably, she resists the temptation to make Lessing a villainess, and shows real sympathy for her difficult and famously private subject, recognizing the fragility that underlies and perhaps caused her to develop
Guest More than 1 year ago
Now in her 80s, Lessing continues to publish fiction and memoirs, still an iconic figure, still prolific if less readable than she once was. For the generation of women looking for heroines in the 70s, her 'Golden Notebook' was inspirational. Inevitably, we her curious fans wanted to know what was true, what she created, where those amazing stories sprang from. This juicy, very readable biography by Carole Klein, the first to be wirrten about Lessing, is of course unauthorized--the irascible Lessing is not a woman to cooperate with biographers. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Lessing is no lovable old lady, Klein renders allows the writer her virtues, and renders her judgments crisply and fearlessly.