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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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Secret Service Files

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While she remained in Southern Rhodesia, Doris Lessing was unsettled and confused in mind. Her thoughts turned constantly to the idea of finding a new home in England. She would go ‘with never a glance behind me. I was waiting for my future, my real life to begin. Behind me a door had slammed shut. [ …] I was not going home to my family, I was fleeing from it. The door had shut and that was that.’1 Her extraordinary life in England is related in Volume Two of her remarkable autobiography.2 In this book she also tells us about her interest in Communism, giving us an idea about how active she was within the British Communist Party. The Secret Service reports corroborate this, documenting her precise movements, whom she met, and what she said. They begin almost as soon as she arrived. The Rhodesian Security Liaison Office reported to the Director General of the security service in London, informing him that Mrs Lessing had sailed from Cape Town for the UK about the middle of March 1949 with the intention of taking employment in England. London soon confirmed that ‘the Subject entered England on 28th April 1949’.

This is where our records begin. The Rhodesian Secret Service had kept an eye on Doris right from the day she had been noticed as a person working with the local communists. Even after she had left Salisbury the Secret Service maintained close contact with MI5. All these reports have now been...

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