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Doris Lessing - A Life Behind the Scenes

The Files of the British Intelligence Service MI5

Peter Raina

In March 1949 the security service MI5 received notice of a suspect person about to enter Britain and went to great pains to keep her under surveillance. This person was the author Doris Lessing. She would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature as an «epicist … who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny». And it was precisely this scrutiny that troubled the guardians of the status quo. Lessing grew up in colonial Rhodesia and hated the scorn with which the colonists treated the native population. She worked tirelessly for a more just society and this drove her into support for communism. But a communist, as one of her fictional characters says, «is hated, despised, feared and hunted». Peter Raina’s book, reproducing the secret files kept on Lessing, shows that this was largely true, even though her emphasis in these troubled times was always on Peace. Lessing was eventually disillusioned by communism, and sought a better understanding of human relations than Soviet-conforming clichés could provide. However, her understanding was much enriched by the experiences of her activism and knowledge of the opposition it aroused. The secret files show how strongly Lessing followed her convictions and throw new light on how her perceptions of society evolved. Peter Raina elucidates this in a short Introduction and an Epilogue discussing aspects of her writings.

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Preface

Extract

This small volume is not a study in biography, nor is it a treatise on the literary qualities of a very distinguished British novelist. Its designs are more modest. It presents reports of the British security service, MI5, recording the activities of Doris Lessing, especially while she was a member of the British Communist Party from 1952 until 1956. Doris never made a secret of her sympathies for communism, but openly proclaimed them. She helped in founding communist cells; she played an active role in the Soviet-sponsored peace movement; she travelled to the Soviet Union with other left-wing intellectuals and, on her return, highly commended the achievements of communism in that country, doing so in several public lectures. Doris had come to hold communist views while she was still residing in Southern Rhodesia, mainly because she deplored the colour bar imposed by the white colonials so strongly. She found the unjust social status forced upon the natives utterly abhorrent, and since the imperial rulers showed no desire to remedy the atrocious conditions of the Africans, she earnestly believed that the road to freedom lay in communism.

While she remained in Southern Rhodesia, Doris was not a principal player. Her enthusiasm for the cause had her distributing left-wing literature and little more. It was only when she arrived in Britain in 1949 that she adopted more purposeful measures to further Marxist objectives. She attended communist meetings, borrowed books from the Left Wing Book Club and developed contact with various...

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