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Doris Lessing’s Autobiography and the Experience of Exile

Catherine Bernard
p. 115-118

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1I thought I might concentrate on Lessing’s autobiography, since it is a part of her work which is probably less well known to readers than the rest of her production. She published two volumes of autobiography, the first one entitled Under my Skin, published in 1994 and the second one, Walking in the Shade, published in 1998. The turning point between the two volumes is the moment when Lessing leaves Rhodesia for England, that is in 1949. Now my contention today will be that Lessing’s autobiography affords a sort of double exploration—first of all, an exploration of the organic link between subjectivity and history—and here I return to the grounds already covered by my two colleagues—and a second exploration of the organic link between the genre of autobiography and the self.

2A few preliminary remarks before coming to the two volumes themselves: to a great extent, I would argue that Lessing’s autobiography has learnt from the lessons of metafiction and has learnt from The Golden Notebook itself. Interestingly enough, the autobiography, I would suggest, is derivative, if you want, from the fiction, rather than the other way round. And Lessing, in the two volumes, applies the lessons of metafiction to a twofold exploration of her self and of the narrativity of life and of the capacity of life to narrate or not.

3So, precisely the central question in her autobiography is ‘how does a life narrate?’—to paraphrase Ford Madox Ford (276). How can we construct a narrative of one’s life? And relentlessly of course, her answer will be that this narration can only be a lure, can only be a construct, that there is no overarching meaning for a life, for a given life. And what she does throughout her autobiography is somehow to modernize this lure, modernize the impossibility of narrative to construct a sort of truth, a sort of foundational truth for her life. Somehow once you have read the two volumes of her autobiography, you come to the conclusion that she herself has turned into some sort of fiction, a figment of her own life, just as Virginia you were mentioning Lessing between inverted commas, ‘Doris Lessing or Doris Lessing’, and she indeed constantly hesitates between the two. So somehow her autobiography provides a constant displacement of truth, which in itself of course has become a bit of a truism: this idea that there is no truth to be found, that the truth is a construct, etc. She somehow incorporates this into her narrative.

4The other preliminary remark I wanted to make is that unlike what we find in other autobiographies, there is no return back to any foundational event or truth in her autobiography. If there is one, it is the experience of the First World War and not her experience, but the experience of her father. And I wanted to quote from volume I first of all: ‘[. . .] I was born on the 22nd October 1919. My mother had a bad time. It was a forceps birth. My face was scarred purple for days. Do I believe this difficult birth scarred me—that is to say, my nature? Who knows. I do know that to be born in the year 1919 when half of Europe was a graveyard, and people were dying in millions all over the world—that was important. How could it not be? Unless you believe that every little human being’s mind is quite separate from every other, separate from the common human mind. An unlikely thing, surely’ (Lessing 1994, 8).

5So, somehow the foundational moment is that moment of dislocation within history that was the First World War for her father, who was wounded in the war. From that moment of acute discrepancy at the heart of the historical narrative, I would suggest, derives the entire autobiography, that is, she founds her autobiography in that moment of pain, of historical pain, of overarching historical pain.

6Now having said this, what she offers in her two volumes of autobiography are two visions of history and that is what is remarkable is that she changes her tack on history, and one should differentiate between two distinctive, two different approaches to history that she has in her two volumes.

7In volume one, we have the impression that there is no historical coherence, that there is no collective history left, that there is no meta-narrative left, somehow, that could give her destiny some sort of coherence. What is interesting is that she constantly associates her own youth in Rhodesia with a counter-narrative of Empire, with a certainty that she was the daughter of a dying Empire, and she constantly insists on the fact that Rhodesia itself was in the margins of the British Empire, that it was a late addition to the British Empire, that it was from the start a marker or a sign of the dying destiny of Britannia, of glorious Britannia, that there was no coincidence—or if there is any sort of coincidence between individual destiny and collective destiny it is a negative coincidence, a coincidence in the sense that they were all losing something as they were trying to build, to carry on building the Empire. Thus in volume I, she relentlessly insists on the fact that collective destiny is already a lure, is already a collective persona, that the British Empire was somehow a collective mask, a masquerade as well, and also that Rhodesia from the start was already in the fringes of empire.

8What does that make her? Well, that makes her a stranger in Africa from the start and when she returned back to England afterwards of course, it was to make her an alien in England as well. She was an alien wherever she lived. She was an alien, she was a stranger everywhere.

9So once again, in volume I, she insists on this idea that there is no return back to an origin, that there is no return back, no nostalgia: that is very interesting. Her autobiography is totally devoid of any form of nostalgia. There is this certainty that she cannot go back, that there is nothing to go back to, because there is no historical coincidence, because history is already dislocated. In order to impress this idea on the reader, she, of course, constantly resorts to that trick which consists in underlying the tension between what we know of course in French as ‘je narré’ and ‘je narrant’, that is, the object of the autobiography and the subject writing the autobiography, and she constantly insists on this, on this notion that she reads back of course, and she incorporates that capacity of the ‘je narrant’ to read history back, obviously, which creates a very intense feeling of de-familiarization.

10Now this feeling intensifies in volume II, the volume that covers the years when she is back in England. Interestingly enough in volume II—which is chiefly devoted to the years of political activism essentially, and of course to her private life, but essentially to her years as a political activist—what we find somehow returning—a sort of ‘résurgence’ here—is the old, the ancient, historical model of interpretation, that is, a very powerful hindsight effect: ‘I told you, I knew from the start, and of course history has proved me right.’ And once again in volume II she constructs herself, she builds herself some sort of persona, the persona of the all-knowing historical subject this time, who knew from the start communism was somehow a trap, that she observed communism but from the margin, from the fringes of the movement, that she never was truly a communist. She constantly insists on this, constantly distances herself from the movement, from the party.

11What is remarkable in other words is that somehow even in volume II, even when she insists on this idea that yes, there is a discrepancy between past and present—we were talking about it previously—no, there is no historical sense of coherence, yes, what characterizes historical modernity is precisely the gap, the discrepancy between past and present and future, precisely what she tries to do is to bring out a sense of tension at the heart of history. So whether it be in volume I a sense of tension at the heart of empire or in volume II a sense of tension at the heart of political activism, what I think is that the lasting lesson of Lessing’s autobiography is this idea that we are simply a succession of masks, a succession of personae, and she very much insists on this; she defines herself as a succession of images, a succession of selves—rebellious adolescent, bright young thing, young divorced mother, political activist, promising novelist, etc. And she plays with these postures, and the idea is that somehow we are constantly posturing, and that is a very metafictional way of approaching autobiography.

12To conclude I would simply suggest once again that autobiography never truly stabilizes in the two volumes of memoirs, and that her autobiography offers a sort of counter-narrative: the narrative of a lasting discrepancy that cleaves the subject.

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Ford, Ford Madox, Joseph Conrad: a Personal Remembrance, London: Gerald Duckworth, 1924, partly published in ‘Developing the Theory of Impressionism with Conrad’, Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, ed. Martin Stannard, New York: Norton, 1995, 276.

Lessing, Doris, Under my Skin (Vol. 1), London: HarperCollins, 1994.

Lessing, Doris, Walking in the Shade (Vol. 2), London: HarperCollins, 1998.

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Catherine Bernard, « Doris Lessing’s Autobiography and the Experience of Exile »Études britanniques contemporaines, 36 | 2009, 115-118.

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Catherine Bernard, « Doris Lessing’s Autobiography and the Experience of Exile »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 36 | 2009, mis en ligne le 08 septembre 2017, consulté le 27 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Université Paris 7—Denis-Diderot.
Catherine Bernard is Professor of British Literature and aesthetics and head of the English Department at Denis-Diderot—Paris 7 University. Her research deals with contemporary aesthetics and modern art, focusing on Andy Wharhol, the Land Art, Rachel Whiteread, the Young British Artists, studying also recent contemporary fiction such as Graham Swift, Antonia Byatt, Martin Amis or Peter Ackroyd. She has published numerous articles about Modernism, especially on Virginia Woolf’s fictional works and essays (Mrs Dalloway, Gallimard, Foliothèque, 2006). She also worked at editing several books about Woolf’s works in collaboration with Christine Reynier (Virginia Woolf, le pur et l’impur, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2002). She is currently involved in establishing the Pléiade edition of Woolf’s novels and is the head of the Société d’Études Woolfiennes.

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