Lessing’s writing pushed boundaries and she lived life to the same beat

Doris Lessing Portrait (1950s)

Doris Lessing Portrait (1950s): Copyright CAMERA PRESS

An Unboxed blog, from Martha Griffiths, first year student of American and English Literature at the University of East Anglia.

Amongst the 110 love letters held in the Whitehorn collection at the British Archive for Contemporary Writing from Doris Lessing to her wartime lover, perhaps one gives us a greater insight into her young life, and the society she grew up in. It was written to John R. M. Whitehorn, an RAF serviceman and intimate confidante and is dated sometime around January 1945.

This letter  perfectly captures Lessing’s determination to make her own choices and express herself and her emotions towards others. It describes her relationship with both her husband and the other men that she met, mostly through Communist Party meetings. Not only is she writing to a long-term lover about her husband, but she also describes the “platonic amour” she has met recently. To many, this flirtation may come as a surprise or appear scandalous but, as she would come to say in later interviews, it was just something one did in those times.

She even joined the Communist Party out of boredom, a feeling shared by many of the RAF soldiers she met there. There is genuine affection in the note towards Whitehorn, but Lessing makes it clear that it would be an unfortunate man who attempted to interfere with her choices.

This was a woman to be reckoned with; she was totally self-aware and comfortably content to make her own choices. Lessing’s works are known for pushing boundaries and she lived her life to the same beat, whilst aware of her husband’s discomfort with her social life she was not willing to give in to the pull of domesticity.

The Doris Lessing Archive, held within UEA’s British Archive for Contemporary Writing, is an invaluable source with letters from one of the most influential female authors of the twentieth century. Her eloquence and her passion cannot mask what a formidable opponent she was if ever obstructed


Doris Lessing’s typewriter on display at the British Archive for Contemporary Writing

DL typewriter 005“I can’t be bothered to switch to a computer at my age, though I might get along with e-mail, which sounds appealing.” So said Doris Lessing during an interview with Jonah Raskin of The Progressive, before her 80th birthday.

Doris Lessing’s typewriter, an Adler from the 1990s, is now on display within our Archives Reading Room at the British Archive for Contemporary Writing. Visiting researchers, even those not remotely interested in literary archives, have been struck by its presence – as if Doris herself were peering over their shoulder.

If the machine is from the 1990s Lessing may have used it to write the two volumes of her autobiography: Under my Skin and Walking in the Shade.

There is a brief description but it is the machine’s appearance and its general condition that tell the real story. Unsurprisingly, given how prolific Lessing was as a writer and correspondent, the keys have the look of being absolutely hammered. There are smudges of ink obscuring some of the letters. The ‘door’ leading to the ribbon is missing. Here lies a typewriter that has been well and truly worked over.

Lessing had mastered the typewriter at home as a teenager while writing early fiction. She then went on to earn a living as a typist, both in Southern Rhodesia and in London. She typed virtually all personal correspondence and only handwrote in notebooks and diaries. Just as well – friends complained bitterly at what they termed ‘unreadable’, a scrawl she herself had difficulty deciphering. In her final interview, at the UEA’s literary festival in 2007, shortly after the announcement of her Nobel Prize for Literature, she described the experience of handwriting an early, unpublished novel as a key lesson – writing it long hand, at speed, and then unable to read it back.

Lessing’s official biographer – the historian, Patrick French – has privileged access to those handwritten pages and is taking up the challenge. His experience of reading 19th Century cross hatched letters may well come into its own.

The British Archive of Contemporary Writing holds collections of Doris Lessing’s personal archive www.uea.ac.uk/bacw/lessing including correspondence and other working papers. 30 boxes of material are open for consultation (the vast majority is typewritten!). A further 60 boxes remain embargoed during the writing of Lessing’s authorised biography.