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Two Ransom Center archives illuminate Doris Lessing’s life, work, and relationships

By Megan Barnard

Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing died on Sunday at the age of 94. She was born in what is now Iran, grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe, lived briefly in a boarding house in South Africa, and settled as an adult in London. She was deeply influenced by the racial and social injustices she witnessed, and her books reflect a lifetime of experience observing racism, colonialism, communism, and terrorism. She wrote frankly about relationships between women and men and is heralded as an early feminist writer, though she never embraced that distinction. She was an avid reader and was largely self-educated through books, as her formal education ended when she was just 15 years old. Yet she remained unsentimental about books. In one letter in her archive, which resides at the Ransom Center, Lessing noted, “[I] wish that people would just read books and get all the sustenance from them they can—and then throw them away and go on to the next useful sustaining book.”

 

Early in her career, Lessing applied this same attitude toward her manuscripts. As a young writer in England, she had little space and less money. She moved frequently and saw little value in her cumbersome stacks of manuscripts and papers, so she discarded them. As a result, manuscripts of many of her most notable books, including The Golden Notebook, have been lost.

 

Fortunately, Lessing later changed her ways. The drafts and working papers of more than 50 of her novels, plays, stories, and other works are available for research at the Ransom Center, where they have resided since 1999. The 45-box collection includes Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series, her two autobiographies, and novels such as The Good Terrorist and Mara and Dann. Although few of Lessing’s early works appear in the archive, another Ransom Center collection offers a rare glimpse of Doris Lessing from this period.

 

American author Clancy Sigal lived with Lessing in London in the late 1950s. In many ways, they were kindred spirits. The two writers were passionate about many of the same social concerns. In the photograph above, the two can be seen, according to Sigal, “in a bus, in the mud, on our way to cut through the barbed wire of a nuclear air base.” Their relationship may have been intellectually deep, but it was emotionally fraught and stormy. It also provided great fodder for literature. It’s no secret that Lessing modeled the infamous Saul Green of The Golden Notebook on Sigal. Once at a party, Lessing even boasted to the guests, “I invented Clancy.” Sigal was less than thrilled to appear in Lessing’s novel, a book that is widely hailed as a cornerstone of feminist literature. Yet he, too, looked to their relationship for inspiration, even decades after it had ended. Rose O’Malley from Sigal’s 1992 novel Secret Defector, is just one of many characters he created who bear a striking resemblance to Lessing.

 

The journals in Clancy Sigal’s archive detail the difficulties of their relationship, and traces of their time together appear throughout his writings. His archive includes letters from Lessing, some dated long after their relationship had ended, showing that they remained friends for decades. In one such letter, written in November 2001, not long after the September 11th attacks, Lessing harkened back to their earlier years of social activism, “Do you think the world is even madder now than [w]hen we knew it was?” she asked. “God, what a world.”

 

Image: Clancy Sigal and Doris Lessing, ca. late 1950s. 

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