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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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In 2007, the Nobel Committee justified the award of the Nobel Prize to Doris Lessing, describing her as ‘that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny’. It is true that Doris displayed fire, and she was certainly a visionary. But to single her out as an ‘epicist of the female experience’ seems exaggerated, as is the emphasis on the ‘divided civilisation’ she scrutinized. Examination of the female experience has long been of interest to writers, although perhaps differently handled. And consideration of our civilization, as opposed to barbarism, has occupied thinkers from the very beginning of its existence. Both are issues that have been treated by distinguished writers in times gone by.

When Doris Lessing published her first novel, The Grass is Singing, in 1950 she established herself indisputably as a mistress of English prose. The title of the book was borrowed from The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot:

Doris quotes this verse at the beginning of her book. She also offers another quotation (from an unknown author): ‘It is by the failures and misfits of a civilisation that one can best judge its weaknesses.’ These epigraphs make us responsive to the spirit in which The Grass is Singing was composed.

The style of the language is highly lyrical:

It was such a lovely, lovely day, with its gusts of perfumed wind, and its gay. glittering sunshine. Even the...

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