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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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Visits to ‘Central Africa’ and their Aftermath


Extract for File No. PF 97,471

Name: Lessing, Doris

Date of Delivery: 19.7.55

Cox speaking to Visitor (possibly Vella) Pillay

12.52 Cox then spoke for a moment or two about the situation, and then told V. that Doris Lessing and Paul?Hobart [sic], the?artist [sic], were probably going to S. Africa for the NEWS CHRONICAL (sic). It seemed that Doris Lessing had asked for the names of comrades with whom she might get in touch. Cox thought this was a bit ticklish and asked V.’s advice. Cox told V. that he proposed to give her the name of Ray Alexander, who, in any case, held a public position, but he wanted to know if he should tell her about the others, Bram (Fisher) and Berrange.

V. then spoke almost inaudibly for a minute or two, making reference to?Peter [sic],? Watson [sic],?Brenda Watts [sic]. They seemed to agree not to tell ‘her’ to ‘approach Bram’. Cox said that ‘she’ had had a talk with Simon? [sic] not so much about S. Africa as about Rhodesia, because Charles Mzingeli and she had met? [sic] here.


No action is to be taken on this material without reference to the responsible section, nor may its ←74 | 75→contents be disclosed outside the Service without permission.

Extract for File No. PF 97, 471

Name: Lessing

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