I had intended to go to Doris Lessing’s memorial service at St Martin’s in the Fields, London on Monday 7 April 2014. However, my discussing commemoration of the forces in East Africa with a fellow researcher was so engrossing that by the time I realised what the time was, it was too late to go.
Doris Lessing has a special place in my life as an historian – ever since I read The grass is singing (1950) whilst working on my thesis. Although she had spent time in Zimbabwe, which is where The grass is singing is set, she could well have been in South Africa. I had been looking for a way to describe race relations in South Africa since World War 1 and here, in one novel, she had hit the nail on the head. Co-incidentally, The grass is singing was her first novel and the first of hers I read. Unfortunately I cannot claim to have read her last… the nearest I get is to The Cleft (2007), her second last publication.
I was drawn to The Cleft following an interview which Lessing did on Radio 4 – I can’t believe it was 7 years ago already. It was her comment that she had annoyed the feminists which got me interested and so, despite all the other reading pressures, I succumbed, got a copy and was soon engrossed. What an amazing author! As a woman, to be able to put yourself into the shoes of a Roman male historian and write the history of the world as might have been seen at that time was something I couldn’t imagine doing, and here she had done it. She seemed to grasp the issues of then and now and, again through the novel, convey this message strongly. Although, I don’t know what it is about my take on the book, but I don’t think I’ve yet managed to convince anyone else to read about the Squirts and Clefts.
There are very few novelists who have left a profound impression on me – probably only a handful to be honest – and Lessing is one of them. For me, she captures the essence of the time, in a way few other authors can, or do, and conveys this feeling in a way I as an historian can only dream of doing. It is thanks to authors like Lessing, that I can experience and help my readers understand the social environment in which my real-life characters lived. Long may her books keep her memory alive.
It’s time to add another Lessing book to my pile of ‘must read’ soon – the only other book of hers I’ve read is Particularly Cats… and Rufus (1993). I do have a shelf of novels by her but missing volume 1 of Martha Quest has slightly delayed getting stuck into that series – excuses I know, but not for much longer…
So, what have I learned from Doris Lessing? The value of novelists to historians and to be your own person.