Archive of Doris Lessing's private letters opens after 23 years

Doris Lessing

Smithie, who corresponded with Doris Lessing for forty years

An archive of letters written by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing to an “erstwhile lover” has been opened by the University of Sussex - 23 years after it was first acquired.

Leonard Smith, whom Lessing addresses as “Smithie”, was a 19-year-old cadet pilot in the Royal Airforce when he first met the aspiring novelist in 1944 in Southern Rhodesia. The 150 letters he received from her span several decades, revealing her views on sex, politics, and literature that were to inform some of her most celebrated works.

They also give extraordinary details of her complex personal relationships. The sexualities of many in Lessing’s radical group were fluid. In his own introduction to the archive, Smith admits he was captivated by the lively young writer (she was known as “Tigger” to close associates) and  “…like all the other RAF men, I immediately fell in love with her”.

Lessing and her then husband Gottfried, whom Smith describes as a “professional communist”, were at the centre of a group of “left-wing RAF men, various refugees, and a few local fellow-travellers”.  Smith, together with two other young admirers of Lessing, were later to emerge as the characters of ‘Paul’, ‘Jimmy’ and ‘Ted’ in Lessing’s political masterpiece, The Golden Notebook.

The letters were purchased from Smith in 1993 by the University with support from the Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund. In line with the wishes of Lessing and Smith, they remained closed for research until Lessing’s death. Lessing died in 2013. Smith, who lived in Hove, died 1996.

University of Sussex English faculty Dr Pam Thurschwell and Dr John Masterson have been delving into the boxes to get a first taste of what the letters might reveal, and will be sharing their preliminary insights at a special event, Opening the Doris Lessing Letters, on 3 March 2016 at The Keep, Brighton.

Dr Thurschwell says: “Shuttling between subjects as diverse as the Soviet Union and Communist party politics, her rejection of monogamy, race and racism, the homosexuality of many of her friends, the frustrations of being a typist, her feelings on discovering she is pregnant, her voracious appetite for reading (Donne to Hopkins to Proust to Joyce to always, a lot of Woolf), to her opinion of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Lessing’s letters of the mid to late 40s are extraordinary; fierce, often bitchy, usually hilarious, and inevitably moving.

“In these letters to a close male friend, who was also her erstwhile lover, we find her adopting an unflinching take on conventional heteronormativity that informs both the style and substance of her later works.”

Dr Masterson says: “Her letters serve as rhetorical laboratories for the kinds of risk taking and rule breaking that would come to define her life and career. I am interested in her strained relations with the dogmas of the political left, British colonialism and prejudice and how her always perceptive and invariably prescient letters continue to resonate today.”   

Notes for editors

For more information, contact the University of Sussex media relations team: Jacqui Bealing and James Hakner T + (0)1273 678888, press@sussex.ac.uk @SussexUniPress

‘Opening the Doris Lessing Letters,’ a workshop and talks on the letters of Doris Lessing to Leonard Smith, takes place on 3 March 2016 at The Keep, 4-7.30pm.  To book a place, visit: http://www.thekeep.info/events/opening-the-doris-lessing-letters/

Please note that although the letters are owned by the University of Sussex, copyright is held by the Lessing Estate. No reproduction of any part of these letters is allowed without prior permission from the Lessing Estate.


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 23 February 2016

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