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Editorial: A Woman’s Voice; Doris Lessing’s Literary Legacy

For a graying generation or two of women in this country and throughout much of the Western world, author Doris Lessing will be remembered not so much as the polemicist she was but as a literary prophet. While her radical politics and nonconformist behavior occasionally led to public censure, she was nonetheless revered for giving voice to silent members of her sex at a time when many felt stifled by the conventions of marriage and motherhood.

Lessing, who died Sunday in London just shy of her 95th birthday, was a maverick who expressed herself in a variety of genres, including poetry and science fiction. She was not, in truth, a consistent or consistently polished prose stylist. But she attempted, as she put it, “to break a form; to break certain forms of consciousness and go beyond them.”

She is best known for her 1962 breakthrough novel, The Golden Notebook, a multilayered narrative about an emotionally fragile single mother striving to make sense of her personal, professional and political life — much like Lessing herself at the time. The Golden Notebook has been called the founding novel of the feminist movement, avidly read by women seeking to raise their consciousness during the stirrings of the late 1960s and 1970s.

The Golden Notebook for some reason surprised people but it was no more than you would hear women say in their kitchens every day in any country,” Lessing said somewhat dismissively of her most critically acclaimed and enduring book. When, in 2007, Lessing won the Nobel Prize at age 88 for a body of work that included dozens of novels and short stories, she was praised as “the epicist of the female experience” and as having “personified the woman’s role in the 20th century.”

Lessing, ever the contrarian, wasn’t much interested in accolades from the literary establishment; nor, ironically, was she all that sympathetic to popular feminism. She was irritated by the characterization of The Golden Notebook as a feminist work, according to the obituary in The New York Times, and she often had harsh words for feminists. Later, when she took to writing dystopian fantasies about colonized planets in faraway galaxies, feminists and other fans of her early woman-centric novels would have less-than-kind words for her.

Be that as it may, Lessing, for all her literary daring and experimentation over many decades, is likely to be commended to future readers chiefly because of her ability to capture the emotional depth and complexity of women’s lives at a transformative time in modern history. In this sense, she fulfilled a dream of another great writer, Virginia Woolf, who imagined a day when more women would begin to “explore their own sex, to write of women as women have never been written of before; for of course, until very lately, women in literature were the creation of men.”

Woolf wrote those words in 1929, asserting that women who aspired to write had no firm literary tradition to follow — Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters notwithstanding — because so few sentences had been shaped to express female reality. Lessing, one of only 13 women to receive the Nobel literature prize in its 112-year history, helped to change that, shaping a reality that resonated for millions of women, including many of the award-winning female writers who followed her.