Writing the Self: Selected Works of Doris Lessing

Lynda Scott
Dept of English
University of Otago
Dunedin, New Zealand

Deep South v.2. n.3. (Spring 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Lynda Scott

Critics of Lessing often discuss her fiction within its psychoanalytical and Jungian frameworks and focus only on specific textual details such as the dreams of the protagonists. While this method centres on the characters' quest for selfhood, critics have not fully applied a psychoanalytic approach to her self-representational writing, which is also a quest for, and construction of, selfhood. In this paper I will discuss the links between psychoanalysis or psychotherapy and self-representational writing with specific references to The Golden Notebook, The Diaries of Jane Somers, a selection of her autobiographical essays, and Under My Skin, part one of her autobiography which was only published in 1994.

I examine Lessing's notion of "selfhood" through these novels and alongside her autobiography proper because Under My Skin is, I believe, an example of what postmodernist theorist Linda Hutcheon calls historiographic metafiction [1]. If indeed any autobiographical enterprise involves the self-conscious and deliberate textualisation of oneself and the creation of a "fictive" construct, Lessing deliberately posits fiction and truth as two sides of the same coin. Linda Hutcheon defines historiographic metafiction as "offered as another of the discourses by which we construct our versions of reality", arguing that "both the construction and the need for it are what are foregrounded in the postmodern nove". In this paper, I do not, however, seek to allow "autobiography" to collapse completely into the genre of fiction, but rather, to highlight the "autobiographical" nature of much of Lessing's fiction and the fictionality and constructed nature of Under My Skin, as well as her numerous interviews and non-fiction works. Both her "self-representational" works and her "autobiographical" works I consider to be therefore, more therapeutic than confessional, although the genres easily allow this also.

Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are dialogical and teleological processes which probe an individual's past, past selves, memories and mental states as do also many of Lessing's self-representational texts, for example, The Memoirs of a Survivor which Lessing sub-titled "An Attempt at Autobiography". Psychoanalysis in particular can be valuable to literature both as a tool to understanding texts, and as a metaphor for texts: self-representational texts become a presentation of oneself in various guises, a search for "truth", "answers", and a means of achieving explication and purgation. H. Porter Abbott, for example, in Diary Fiction Writing as Action, discusses the therapeutic nature of much diary writing or self-representational writing, an argument which I extend to include autobiography. He provides an examination of Anna Wulf's diary writing in The Golden Notebook and comments of Lessing that "part of [her] complex effort is to erode the boundaries between writing and living one's life" [2].

Psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and self-representational writing, all provide opportunities to reach the past, analyse past experiences, and perhaps re-invent them by experiencing them again, while living in the present. During a session with a psychoanalyst or a psychotherapist, an individual endeavours to reconcile her or his present feelings and existence with the past which she or he may have suppressed. An act of self-representational writing such as Lessing's resembles the relationship and situation created between an analyst and analysand. Lessing occupies the position of both while she is drafting, re-drafting, reading and re-reading Under My Skin. She is able to recreate past selves and commune in an inner dialogue with earlier and necessarily fictive selves while constructing a coherent text that represents a healed and unified self at a particular instant in time. Because an individual's perception of her or his self is forever changing and the unconscious realm is a dynamic one, the self-representational text is also a historical artefact, and may be likened to on-going records of therapy sessions. Under My Skin is a reference point in Lessing's personal life. Perhaps she will use it as a basis for Part Two of her autobiography, but she could just as easily discard it, drafting instead a different "past".

Again, Lessing's autobiographical writing resembles a therapeutic session because she invests herself with authority and distance through the literary positioning of herself as "author". She is able to exert power and command over the text while at the same time allowing her own silent past to be re-created. Despite Lessing's treatment of her younger "selves" as characters, they do not survive within Under My Skin which revolves around the Lessing of the present, although the development of these characters, however partial, allows Lessing to provide another perspective on her fictive past.

The process of self-representational writing enables Lessing to sustain a dialogue with herself and her past in an attempt to heal inner divisions and to create a unified self. While an androcentric concept of "self", according to Sidonie Smith, presents the self as unified and static, a theory of autobiography that is flexible enough to validate an individual's construction of "truth" and of themselves allows a dialogue between the present "self" as conceived by the autobiographer and past fictive selves [3]. Cora Agatucci provides a Bakhtinian explanation: The Diaries and their implied author may be conceptualised in Bakhtinian terms as a new entry in the ongoing conversation represented by Lessing's corpus, a confrontation with previous authorial identities readers have constructed from her works, an attempt to dialogise those conversations and reopen the debate [4]. As Agatucci concludes, The Diaries is a deliberate meeting of Lessing's identities and a construction of a new identity or self.

Paul John Eakin provides another explanation conceiving "the autobiographical act [to be] as a re-enactment of a certain drama" [5]. Rather than defining an autobiographical act as a "transparent record of an already completed self", he suggests that it is "an integral and often decisive phase of the drama of self-definition" [6]. Such a definition, which accords with my suggestion that an autobiographical text is similar to a record of a therapy session, allows the reader to view autobiographical texts existing over time and in different contexts, with different tones and emphases, as steps or phases, in the move towards the creation of an identity and "selfhood".

Psychoanalytic theory lends itself well to an examination of self-representational writing not simply because it allows a dialogic process to develop, a meeting of past and present, but also because of the similarities between dreaming and self-representational texts. Like an analyst, Lessing has drawn close links between her use of dreams (which may involve meeting previous identities or selves) as windows on to her daily life and as tools for resolving artistic block. She holds the traditional nineteenth-century view that writers "are the traditional interpreters of dreams and nightmares" [7]. Dreams have constantly played an important role in both her personal and artistic life [8]. The prolific dream life given to Martha Quest, Anna Wulf, Kate Brown and others, including Charles Watkins who embarks on a dream voyage into his inner space, illustrates the significance she attaches to dreams.

It is feasible to compare Lessing's Under My Skin to dreaming, which is after all neither a"truthful" nor "fictional" enterprise, because to my mind, dreams at least partly construct any autobiographical work: dreams which have either occurred in reality or which the autobiographer projects on to the future. The act of dreaming is similar to self-representational work because such a work creates a springboard from which to dive into the rest of your life. The text becomes the dream-space in which to re-live your life and relationships in the way that you think you did or wished you had. The autobiographical act is a result of pre-text. It arises from the autobiographer's own life which occurs before the text and which the autobiographer and the reader read as the text. The act of autobiography also becomes the pre-text for the construction of a self-image by the autobiographer and the reader, the latter reading the autobiographical text while considering her or his own life-text. The self-conscious and careful selection of events, people, and memories within an autobiographical text either "fictive" or "deliberate" re-orders the past and can generate more memories. Simultaneously, however, the working of the unconscious violently warps and twists the autobiographical texts from its author's plan [9].

I argue that the act of writing about herself, and the resulting construction of a self-image or images, can be for Lessing a form of dreaming or wish-fulfilment. Wilson likewise argues: "So we might turn the ambiguity of the relationship between fiction and biography on its head, and instead of seeing fiction as a reflection of reality, might prefer to see autobiography as equally an ordering of the 'tentative unfinished' raw material of the 'real' in a metaphoric and symbolic creation of 'self'" [10]. An example of dreaming to re-create a past event more favourably in Under My Skin is Lessing's re-telling of her experience of a happy "rebirth" while under the influence of mescaline. She says: "The actual birth was not only a bad one, but made worse, by how it was repeated to me, so the story teller invented a birth as the sun rose with light and warmth coming fast into the enormous room" [11] The story teller is of course Lessing, who in her autobiography deliberately draws comparisons between stories and dreaming.

According to Lessing, dreaming, like writing, is creative and she states: "The unconscious artist who resides in our depths is a very economical individual. With a few symbols a dream can define the whole of one's life and warn us of the future, too" [12]. In a similar way, a self-representational writer condenses a text such as Under My Skin for personal reasons and because of artistic constraints. While memories which a self-representational writer such as Lessing recalls may not become part of the finished text, they remain in the consciousness of daily life. Therefore, an autobiographical work can be both a therapeutic and a learning experience. An autobiography that refuses to adhere to the androcentric model of a formal coherent construction will not develop as expected. The act of self-representational writing involves delving into one's past as an individual's memory constructs it, and it can question the importance and relevance of whatever memory retrieves from one's own history. As Lessing muses: As you start to write at once the question begins to insist: Why do you remember this and not that? Why do you remember in every detail a whole week, month, more, of a long ago year, but then complete dark, a blank? How do you know that what you remember is more important than what you don't [13].

Because the autobiographical act is a re-reading of one's past, a recognition that is self-conscious and selective, it becomes a re-vision, a re-writing of the past in the light of the present. This applies whether it is "fictional" or "autobiographical", distinctions which Lessing blurs. The Diaries of Jane Somers is a re-vision of Lessing's own mother-daughter relationship, re-imagined from the point of view of both as a daughter and a mother. Jane, whom the reader may compare to both Lessing and her mother Emily Maud Taylor, gradually comes to enter into an emphatic and symbiotic relationship with Maudie. She learns to act on her pity, opening herself up to the perspectives and emotions of others and experiencing the painful rawness of her own loneliness and closed-off emotional life. She acts in a way in which neither Martha in Children of Violence nor Lessing herself does. Jane reluctantly accepts the responsibilities of caring for Maudie and her many emotional demands. As a result she learns to respond to her own emotions and begins to nurture relationships with people close to her. The principle of "You've helped me and now I'll help You"[14], dominates the relationship, which develops from a mother-daughter relationship fraught with conflict, self-denial, complaints, and selfishness. Jane becomes a mother to Maudie and later to her nieces Jill and Kate. By experiencing herself as a mother to Maudie she is able to "deliver" her from her life while "delivering" herself from her lonely and sterile existence.

Through self-representational writing, Lessing, as Jane Somers, is able to act on the pity she felt for her mother in life. Always concerned to analyse and understand her past, she admits in Under My Skin:" I was in nervous flight from her ever since I can remember anything, and from the age of fourteen I set myself obdurately against her in a kind of inner emigration from everything she represented .... Now I see her as a tragic figure, living out her disappointing years with courage and with dignity. I saw her then as tragic, certainly, but was not able to be kind" [15] Claire Sprague has suggested that Lessing's abrupt intrusion in The Four-Gated City into the pathetic and lonely musings of May Quest, at first un-named and therefore symbolically universal, indicates a personal and writing difficulty [16]. Martha, disturbed in her descent into her past and "self", is unable to reconcile herself either to her mother or to the memories of the past. The authorial intrusion is significant; it illustrates the distance Martha still must travel in her past to be able to live in her present and future, and it also forcefully demonstrates the generational and psychological distance between mother and daughter. The break in the novel's progress to allow such a complete immersion into the mind of May Quest also suggests Lessing's growth in sympathy and understanding towards her mother. Such a sympathy Lessing acquires through aging and through becoming a mother herself.

I shall use Lessing's self-representational texts to illustrate such an evolving sense of selfhood. Lessing's parents for example, are people she portrays differently within her texts. Her autobiographical essay "My Father", written in 1963, provides a sense of the terrible nostalgia and regret her father experiences for his youth, that is, his life before the First World War. When recalling the words of a fortune teller who had said he would be lucky, he says:

" I did not understand what she meant, but both times in the trenches, first when my appendix burst and I nearly died, and then just before Passchendaele, I felt for some days as if a thick, black velvet pall was settled over me. I cannot tell you what it was like. Oh, it was awful, awful, and the second time it was so bad I wrote to the old people and told them I was going to be killed" [17].

This account, while fictionalised to an extent, allows Lessing to come closer to the horror which her father experiences, and to a recognition of her father's comment: "You should always remember that sometimes pepla are all seething underneath. You don't know what terrible things people have to fight against" [18]. Her writing about her father's trauma and his inability to forget, which later sees him indulging in a haphazard and desperate way in money making schemes such as gold mining and alchemy, means that Lessing forces herself to face the realities of her father's unhappiness, a condition which the young Martha in Children of Violence refuses to acknowledge. Martha's irritation at her father's pills, potions, and hypochondria, a feeling which the growing Lessing shares, becomes gradually translated in Children of Violence, into the understanding or pity which Lessing acquires over time. Lessing says: "We use our parents like recurring dreams, to be entered into when needed; they are always there for love or for hate; but it occurs to me that I was not always there for my father", a statement which she could not have made had she not come to understand the impact of the war on the psyches of individuals [19].

Her autobiographical essay, is, I believe, a dream, or perhaps a nightmare, into which she deliberately enters so as to be able to understand her father, and so absorb his tragedy and unhappiness into her life in a more positive way. Lessing's mother similarly obsesses her: she is present in the characters of Mrs Quest, Jane Somers, Maudie Fowler, and others. Lessing uses her autobiography Under My Skin as a tool to understand her past, and to create a sense of calm out of a whirlpool of emotions, adolescent tensions and rebellion against her mother. She realises that: "For years I lived in a state of accusation against my mother, at first hot, then cold, and hard, and the pain, not to say anguish, was deep and genuine. But now I ask myself, against what expectations, what promises, was I watching what actually happened?" [20]. Impertinent Daughters and The Diaries of Jane Somers illustrate Lessing's changing sense of selfhood, and both involve attempts to view her mother through her mother's eyes, rather than through the eyes of a rebellious adolescent, young wife or mother. All of these viewpoints are no less legitimate or "truthful", but simply present the truth from a different perspective, that is, the truth of a younger and fictive self.

Lessing's creation and re-creation of fictive selves is similar to Anna Wulf's moves towards individuation and the finding of "self" through her self-representational writing in The Golden Notebook. Of course, Anna is yet another example of a fictive self. Anna, and so therefore, Lessing herself, is linked to Virginia Woolf through her surname and her occupation as a woman writer, alone and struggling to be independent. Like Virginia Woolf, Anna is preoccupied with the process of writing, the inability of writing to adequately convey experience, and the unreliability of memory. Virginia Woolf in "A Sketch of the Past" considers the way in which fiction resembles psychoanalysis, a learning experience which is therapeutic, while Anna Wulf comments that "literature is analysis after the event" [21]. Anna Wulf's different notebooks all contain different selves through time, viewed from different angles. Likewise, Lessing's self-representational writings, both "fictive" and "deliberate", are examples of Lessing's conception of "self" at different stages of her life and psychic development.

Therefore in conclusion, I suggest that Lessing's self-representational writing is a form of psychoanalysis or psychotherapy which is therapeutic and may involve wish-fulfilment or dreaming because Lessing, uses the position of author to act as psychoanalyst and character simultaneously. A dialogic process thus develops both between Lessing as author and Lessing as character, and between Lessing's fictive selves, which exist in a variety of self-representational texts. Such an argument posits Lessing's sense of selfhood as dialogical, teleological and evolving, as are the processes and aims of psychoanalysis or psychotherapy.


[1] Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory, Fiction, p.40
[2] H. Porter Abbott, Diary Fiction. Writing as Action, p.118
[3] Sidonie Smith, A Poetics of Women's Autobiography - Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation, p.5
[4] Cora Agattucci, "Breaking from the Cage of Identity: Doris Lessing and The Diaries of Jane Somers", in Morgan and Hall, p.47
[5] Suzanne Nalbantian, Aesthetic Autobiography, From Life to Art in Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin, p.38
[6] Ibid., p.38
[7] Doris Lessing, "The Small Personal Voice", in Doris Lessing. A Small Personal Voice. Essays, Reviews, Interviews, Ed. PaulSchlueter, p.11
[8] Jonah Raskin, "Doris Lessing at Stony Brook: An Interview", in Schlueter, p. 71
[9] Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, p.108
[10] Elizabeth Wilson, "Yesterday's Heroines: On Reading and Rereading Doris Lessing", in Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives Reading and Rereading Doris Lessing. Ed. Taylor, Jenny, p.64.
[11] Doris Lessing, Under My Skin, Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949, p.21
[12] Jonah Raskin, p.71
[13] Doris Lessing, p.12
[14] Doris Lessing, The Diaries of Jane Somers, p.260
[15] Doris Lessing, Under My Skin, p.15
[16] Claire Sprague, Rereading Doris Lessing. Narrative Patterns of Doubling and Repetition, p.113
[17] Doris Lessing, "My Father" in Schlueter, p. 94
[18] Ibid., p.94
[19] Ibid., p.89
[20] Doris Lessing, Under My Skin, p.15
[21] Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p224


Abbott, Porter, H. Diary Fiction. Writing as Action. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press. 1984

Agattucci, Cora. "Breaking from the Cage of Identity. Doris Lessing and The Diaries of Jane Somers". Gender and Genre in Literature Redefining Autobiography in Twentieth-Century Women's Fiction: An Essay Collection. Ed. Morgan, Janice and Hall, T. Colette. London: Garland. 1994 pp.45-56.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory, Fiction. New York, London, Routledge. 1988

Lessing, Doris. "My Father". Doris Lessing A Small Personal Voice. Essays, Reviews, Interviews. Ed. Schlueter, Paul. London: Flamingo. 1994. pp.89-101.

-----. The Diaries of Jane Somers. 1. The Diary of a Good Neighbour, 2. If the Old Could .... London, New York: Penguin Books. 1985. -----. The Golden Notebook. London: Michael Joseph Ltd. 1962.

-----. "The Small Personal Voice". Doris Lessing A Small Personal Voice. Essays, Reviews, Interviews. Ed. Schlueter, Paul. London: Flamingo. 1994. pp.7-27.

-----. Under My Skin. Volume One of my Autobiography, to 1949. London: HarperCollins Publishers. 1994.

Mitchell, Juliet. Psychoanalysis and Feminism. London, New York: Penguin Books. 1990.

Nalbantian, Suzanne. Aesthetic Autobiography From Life to Art in Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin. Basingstoke, England: Macmillian. 1994.

Schlueter, Paul. Ed. Doris Lessing. A Small Personal Voice. Essays, Reviews, Interviews. London: Flamingo. 1994.

Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women's Autobiography Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 1987.

Sprague, Claire. Rereading Doris Lessing. Narrative Patterns of Doubling and Repetition. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press. 1987.

Raskin, Jonah. "Doris Lessing at Stony Brook: An Interview". Doris Lessing A Small Personal Voice. Essays, Reviews, Interviews. Ed. Schlueter, Paul. London: Flamingo. 1994.

Taylor, Jenny. Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives. Reading and Rereading Doris Lessing. Boston, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. 1982.

Wilson, Elizabeth. "Yesterday's Heroines: On Reading and Rereading Lessing and de Beavoir", Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives. Reading and Rereading Doris Lessing. Ed. Taylor, Jenny. Boston, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. 1982. pp. 57-74.

Write a letter to The Editor.