When accosted by reporters two hours after the announcement that she had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, Doris Lessing responded with an ‘Oh Christ.’ She then went on to snap rather irritably, when asked what it meant to her, that she ‘had won every bloody prize in Europe, OK, so it was nice to get all of them. It’s a royal flush’. Later, when being handed flowers on her steps, she bemoaned that she ‘was going to have to think of nice things to say, any minute’, when really she should have been ‘left in peace’. These scenes form the opening few minutes of a recent Imagine documentary about this extraordinary novelist, give the impression of a cantankerous and frankly rude woman, and I’m ashamed to say I took rather an instant dislike to her as a person, as much as her novels are beautiful pieces of literature.
The Imagine documentary ‘Doris Lessing: The Reluctant Heroine’
There were plenty more moments of bad humour from Lessing throughout the documentary, and she was often evasive or rude to the interviewer, or else going off on grandiloquent tangents that seemed to speak of self-importance and a lack of consideration for others. Some of her actions touched on in the documentary also seemed to confirm these traits, such as her leaving her husband and two eldest children behind in Zimbabwe in 1949 to travel to Britain and pursue both her writing career and her communist beliefs.
However, as the documentary went on, I questioned my initial distaste towards her seeming ‘lack of manners’ and ‘selfish’ acts, and instead admire her. What I had been guilty of, I realised, was the ingrained double standards by which ‘great’ men and women are judged. A man who had done the exact same things as Lessing, left his family and travelled abroad to where he thought he could make the most difference, would usually be lauded as a self-sacrificing and noble individual, dedicated to a higher cause than the so -called petty concerns of everyday life. Yet for a women to do so, to break the bonds of motherhood and family and implied domesticity that our society holds so sacrosanct still has the capacity to shock and generate a sort of innate disapproval even in our supposedly liberal and enlightened 21st century. Men are the ones who are supposed to have callings, to think of things or have ambitions outside of their family, not women.
And when the occasional remarkable woman like Lessing does actually break free of these unwritten bonds and gain recognition and plaudits, we then seem to expect them to be almost pathetically grateful for society’s belated approval, and endlessly accommodating of media intrusion and unoriginal interviewers. If the subject of the Imagine documentary had been a man, my likely (and society’s typical) reaction to the dismissiveness towards the door-stepping journalists would be to think that the man was clearly an eccentric, reclusive genius, not to immediately stereotype an elderly woman as a ‘crotchety old thing’ in my mother’s words (who it should be noted then concluded that this was ‘refreshing’. Men are geniuses and shun the limelight, they are ‘humble’ and dedicated to their craft; women who act in a similar way are ungrateful, jaded or slightly batty. The point is that even when a woman has proved herself to be intellectually equal to any man, as Lessing most undoubtedly has, this is not deemed enough: they are expected to be charming and eager to please, to fulfil some idealised vision of female sociability that men - especially ‘great men’ - are excused.
How much worse these attitudes must have been at the time when Lessing made her decision to travel to Europe, to write far-reaching and socially radical novels while raising a son alone in a strange land. I now see her as not just a phenomenally gifted writer, but as a tremendously courageous individual, who possessed the personal strength to break free of the social expectations that saw most women of that period leading lives of stifled potential and quiet desperation. Indeed, Lessing herself articulated in her characteristically blunt style the internal struggle that women of the time faced: “For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn't the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother.” The reality is that whatever your personal feelings about leaving her children (which I reiterate is not an expectation placed on men with anything like the same stringency), it was an incredibly brave and independent move.
Doris Lessing never liked to be labelled as a ‘feminist’ writer, stating that: “What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, 'Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.' Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.” Now I happen to personally disagree with her assessment of feminism - that it thinks men are ‘beastly’ and wants a world without them - but I wholeheartedly agree that we should avoid at all costs making ‘oversimplified statements’ about either gender, that individuals are fundamentally unique and defy pigeonholing. This is one of the truths that Lessing’s novels are based around and the reason that we should admire her life choices even if we personally disagree with them: she refused to let expectations of or norms around her gender control or limit her life, and in so doing gave us an example of female achievement that has encouraged others to do likewise. Or not to do so, but to know that they have the option should they choose it, without ending up wholly shunned or penniless. Women can write just as well as men, and should not be apologetic or overly thankful if this is seen and recognised - we can be as fiercely private and guarded as we like, or as charming and engaged as we like, as long as we are true to ourselves.
Doris Lessing not only wrote truthful, profound and lyrical fiction, but she also fearlessly lived her own life, answering to nobody but herself and her own principles, and for that she deserves an alternative ‘Page 3’ on a feminist website, even if she herself did not declare herself part of the feminist movement. Individuals often offer more for us to learn when they do not come from our own political ‘tribe’.
And her books ARE bloody fantastic.