The archive of Doris Lessing’s letters: insights from Pam Thurschwell and John Masterson

An archive of letters written by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing to an “erstwhile lover” was opened by the University of Sussex on Thursday 3 March.

University of Sussex English academics Dr Pam Thurschwell and Dr John Masterson shared their insights with the audience who attended the event at The Keep, Brighton.

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.

About the letters

John Masterson talks about the driving energies of the letters. He says some advice from Lessing’s father, which she quotes in a letter on 7.11.46, captures that energy: ‘Don’t die like you’ve never been alive.’

John says the letters “…reveal, in often intimate, sometimes painful, invariably insightful and always compelling ways the contradictions and entanglements of what it means to be alive in one’s own skin, time and place.”

Pam Thurschwell describes the correspondence as “rich, and exuberant, even when the personal and political events Lessing experiences are distressing (such as her father’s illness and eventual death).”

Pam explains that “the letters document subjects as diverse as her writing and re-writing practices, the Soviet Union and Communist party politics, her exasperation with monogamy; race and racism in Rhodesia, her frustration at having to work as a typist, her feelings on discovering she is pregnant, her father’s protracted illness and death, her voracious appetite for reading (Hopkins to Proust to Joyce to always, a lot of Woolf), her opinions on film from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to the Marx Brothers and beyond, Lessing’s letters of the mid to late 40s are extraordinary and fierce, self-identified as “bitchy” [Oct 44 Monday morning], and often hilarious, even, or especially when the emotional circumstances they describe are painful. They are also inevitably moving.”

Pam talks about the value of the archive:  “I feel strongly that these letters should be available for future scholarship; the incredible richness of them can only add to our understanding of her early social context, her personal relations, her literary, artistic, political influences, all of which made her one of the great novelists of the 20th century. She was a novelist who continually excavated her own life for her material, capable of maintaining a wry and writerly distance on emotional and historical upheavals as they were happening, as these letters evidence.”

About “Smithie”

Pam explains Lessing’s relationship with Smithie:  “…Smithie became an important friend and interlocutor for Lessing-- a combination confidante, lover, gay best friend—part of a kind of communal identity.”

John quotes Lessing describing her feelings for Smithie as being ‘wild admiration, incredulity and the desire to throw something hard at you’ (18.4.45).

About motherhood

Pam writes about Lessing’s discovery that she will become a mother:  “…rather than simply dramatizing her own feelings about her pregnancy and marriage, the letters show her attempting to convey her ambivalent feelings to her entourage of male friends  who see her in a different light, as a comrade, writer, lover, or intellectual. The position of mother to someone else is one she is sure they won’t want to view her in (and this is borne out by her responses to their responses to her pregnancy. They are clearly writing letters which say “what? Why did you do that?”). When she tells Smithie about her pregnancy, she only does so well into a long letter about having completed a draft of her novel (title then called Ancestors and Trees).  It is something she needs to “break” to him: 

I supposed this is the point where I should break my devastating piece of news, so hold your breath, stop your eyes, & turn the page—

I am going to have a baby.

Space for recovery.

(Feb 2 1946)”

 Pam quotes Lessing on her complex feelings in relation to motherhood, her writing and her other interests:

 “I want to have this baby, and then to come down here by myself. I was not made for matrimony. I am selfish, an egotist, polygamous, amoral, irresponsible, unbalanced, and utterly not a good member of society (And I hate to think what they would do to me in the S.U., but fortunately I dont have to make a test of it at the moment) and I want to keep myself in a job, and my kid, and write, and be happy and of course a party member, and have a lover without any of the things in marriage that drive me quite crazy. Am I going to do this? I dont know…”

John talks about how Lessing combines motherhood with her interest in politics and the wider world: “In a letter dated 5.8.47, for instance, Lessing typically shifts from a description of a thoroughly domestic scene, in which she is attending to her young child, to offer a meditation on what she accurately diagnosed as one of the most pivotal, because intractable, political questions of recent times.  Moving beyond the sphere of Southern African influence, Lessing describes:  ‘the wireless talking about Palestine.  I am quite prepared to produce admirable solutions for any problem in the world today, but Palestine, I must say, has me taped.  The trouble is all my sympathy is with the Jews, but then, in the name of reason, what is their claim to Palestine, apart from an emotional one?’ 

About politics

John explains that “the letters reveal a young woman dedicated to the process of working out her ideological positions in relation to a range of issues pertinent to her immediately post-WWII environment.  These are illustrated in a couple of missives from June 1945, in which the pomp and pageantry of the British Empire is foregrounded in all its gaudy glory.”

Speaking more specifically, Pam speaks about how “in some of the letters you see her working through the revelations about the purges and Stalin’s political crimes. In October of 1947 she writes to Smithie about the uncomfortable fit between her absolute commitment to freedom in art, and Communist imperatives. Disdaining communist literary criticism, she says that “writers and comrades should understand clearly that there are two kinds of literature,” propaganda and art.”

About her father’s death

Pam speaks about “another drawn out, complex emotional drama of this period” which is “her father’s protracted final illness and death. To gauge the strength of her relationship with Smithie, she writes to Smithie on the day he dies Monday, the 29th of September, 1947: “Dear Christ Smithie I wish I could take a sledge hammer and smash up this world.” Throughout the letters leading up to his death, she charts her keen immediate sense of her father’s life and its unhappiness, and her mother’s life, and its unhappiness. She returns to her parents in her final combination counterfactual novella/memoir, Alfred and Emily from 2008, in which she imagines a different life for both of them, one in which they never met and she was never born.  In these letters you see her working through this material about them with a raw immediacy, her father’s death looming.”

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, aside from the quotes in this news release, is allowed without prior permission from the Lessing Estate.

By: Anna Ford
Last updated: Wednesday, 9 March 2016