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University of Texas at Austin

Doris Lessing:

An Inventory of Her Papers at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Lessing, Doris, 1919-2013
Title: Doris Lessing Papers
Dates: 1943-2008, undated
Extent: 76 document boxes (31.92 linear feet), 1 oversize folder (osf), 9 galley files (gf)
Abstract: The Doris Lessing Papers document the English author's creative life through artwork, clippings, correspondence, galley proofs, journal pages, libretti, manuscripts, notes, objects, page proofs, photographs, play scripts, printed material, screenplays, and sound recordings. The focus of the collection is on her professional rather than personal life.
Call Number: Manuscript Collection MS-2460
Language: Predominantly English , with some (mostly printed) material in Dutch , French , German , Japanese , Norwegian , Portuguese , and Spanish
Access: Open for research

Administrative Information

Acquisition: Purchases, 1999 (R14457, R16015); 2015 (15-01-012-P)
Processed by: Liz Murray, 1999; Richard Workman, 2016

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch

Doris Lessing was born in 1919 to English parents who were resident in Persia (now Iran) at the time. Her father, Alfred Tayler, was a bank employee. The family lived in Persia until Doris was five years old, when her father bought a farm in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Lessing spent the next 25 years in Africa, marrying and divorcing twice and having three children before she took her youngest child, Peter, and moved to England in 1949.
The next year her first novel, The Grass Is Singing , was published. She supported herself and her son by writing poetry, articles, stage plays, screenplays for television and film, short stories, and novels, including the Children of Violence novel series (1952-1969). Her best-known novel, The Golden Notebook , was published in 1962 and established her for life among the most prominent writers in England.
In the 1960s, Lessing came under the influence of Sufi writer and teacher Idries Shah. As a result, her work veered away from realism in The Four-Gated City (1969), Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), and especially the science-fiction novel series, Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979-1982), to the dismay of some of her readers. Even though she occasionally returned to more realistic methods in some of her later work, for the rest of her career Lessing often chose unconventional paths, as in the graphic novel Playing the Game (1995), Mara and Dann: An Adventure (1999), The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2006), and The Cleft (2007).
Also unconventional in a different way were the two novels that Lessing wrote and secretly published under the pseudonym Jane Somers-- The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could… (1984). Only she and her agent Jonathan Clowes (and later her American editor, Robert Gottlieb, who was so familiar with her work that he immediately guessed her authorship) knew of the ruse. She explained that she wanted to demonstrate how difficult it had become for a young author to be published.
Lessing collaborated with American composer Philip Glass on operatic versions of two of her novels, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1988) and The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1997).
She also produced a significant amount of nonfiction, including African Laughter (1992), a memoir of four visits to Zimbabwe; the two volumes of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997); and a collection of her nonfiction writing, Time Bites (2004).
Lessing received many awards in her long career including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. She died at age 94 in 2013.


"Doris Lessing: A Retrospective." Jan Hanford, (accessed 9 August 2016).
Lessing, Doris. Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 . New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Lessing, Doris. Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962 . New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Scope and Contents

The Doris Lessing Papers document the English author's creative life through artwork, clippings, correspondence, galley proofs, journal pages, libretti, manuscripts, notes, objects, page proofs, photographs, play scripts, printed material, screenplays, and sound recordings. The focus of the collection is on her professional rather than personal life. The papers are arranged in two series: I. Works, 1943-2008, undated, and II. Personal and Career-Related, 1947-2007, undated.
The Works series represents the majority of the papers, filling 70.5 boxes. It is arranged in five subseries: A. Novels, 1970-2008, undated; B. Short Fiction, 1949-2006, undated; C. Dramatic Works, 1959-2004, undated; D. Poetry, 1943-2005, undated; and E. Nonfiction, 1963-2007, undated.
Lessing's papers were acquired by the Ransom Center in two lots: one accession was assembled under her personal supervision in 1999 and has been available to researchers through a preliminary inventory; the other was acquired under the terms of her will in 2015. The present arrangement re-catalogs the earlier acquisition and combines both accessions. To make it possible for users to identify which accession included a particular item, folders containing material from the 1999 accession are labeled with registration numbers R14457 or R16015; folders containing material from the 2015 accession are not labeled with an accession number.
The papers clearly illustrate Lessing's usual working method. After some preliminary handwritten notes, she composed her first draft at the typewriter, making a carbon copy. Then she revised both copies by hand before sending one to a typist for retyping, requesting an original and usually several carbon copies or, in later years, word-processed printouts. This process of editing and retyping was often repeated several times before she submitted the manuscript to her publisher. This guide refers to each of these stages of the manuscript as a "draft," and these drafts are arranged in chronological order based on internal evidence (Lessing did not date her manuscripts). Thus "first draft" means the earliest version present among her papers, not necessarily the earliest draft that she put down on paper (for example, if a version has been lost).
In the process of revising a draft, Lessing sometimes re-typed longer passages on small pieces of paper rather than writing them by hand (she recognized that her handwriting was difficult to read, saying people told her it was "ghastly" ) and paper-clipped them to the original page. To prevent these slips of paper from becoming misplaced and to preserve information about their original location, the paper-clipped revision was photocopied, the paper clips were removed, and the photocopy, small slips, and original page were slipped into a plastic sleeve. This was done only if the correction was typed on small pieces of paper; if the correction was typed on a full-size sheet, it was merely left in place and the paper clip removed.
Lessing frequently typed her drafts on the back of previously used paper; sometimes incoming correspondence, unfinished outgoing correspondence, and manuscripts of other works. No attempt was made to identify and catalog this material.
Often Lessing filed correspondence to and from her typist, publisher, or others with her manuscripts. Such letters were left in place and arranged in chronological order. Significant individual correspondents are included in the Index of Correspondents at the end of this guide.
Lessing's original folders are preserved and filed behind the material they originally enclosed.
Subseries A. Novels contains material for all of Lessing's novels beginning with The Four-Gated City (1969). She explained that all earlier material had been lost.
The novels are arranged in alphabetical order by title.
Included are drafts of an uncompleted novel, The Memorymakers, which was intended for serial publication in Ink magazine until it folded and Lessing abandoned the project.
The bound proof copy of If the Old Could … contained dozens of torn slips of paper marking Lessing's corrections. These slips were marked with corresponding page numbers and removed to a separate envelope.
While most of Lessing's papers were not particularly well organized beyond being grouped by title, the manuscript of The Cleft was in such confusion that no attempt was made to reorder it during processing at the Ransom Center.
Subseries B. Short Fiction is arranged in alphabetical order by title, with individual stories and book-length collections grouped separately.
Subseries C. Dramatic works includes stage and musical plays, screenplays for television and film, and opera librettos. Many of the works in this section had not been published when this guide was written. They are arranged in a single alphabetical list by title.
Many of the manuscripts in this section bear the imprint of Gregson & Wigan, who were apparently her theatrical agents until the firm was purchased by EMI in 1970. Presumably these scripts were returned to her at that time.
At some point (perhaps when they were still in the possession of her agent) several of Lessing's manuscripts of dramatic works were stained by an unidentified liquid that permeated the pages and their folders. These manuscripts have been sleeved in plastic. Patrons using them may wish to consult Ransom Center staff about precautions they can take to avoid direct contact with these materials.
Subseries D. Poetry is the smallest section of Lessing's works. Most of her poems were written early in her career, though she occasionally wrote and published verse as late as 2005. Lessing herself labeled a folder "The ones I like," and that arrangement is preserved here. An attempt was made to arrange drafts in chronological order during processing.
Subseries E. Nonfiction contains articles, essays, journalism, reviews, prefaces, and other writing grouped as either individual pieces or books. Many of the individual manuscripts in this section lack titles; where the same piece appeared in the anthology Time Bites, the title found there is the one under which the piece is cataloged; otherwise, the title written on the manuscript, if any, was chosen. Untitled and uncompleted pieces are grouped at the end.
After her 1986 visit to Pakistan to learn about refugees from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Lessing wrote about her experiences in two simultaneous publications: an article, The Catastrophe, published in The New Yorker , and a book, The Wind Blows Away Our Words , published in England. Because these two publications included essentially the same material, all drafts were filed together under the book title, and only galley proofs under the article title.
Series II. Personal and Career-Related encompasses five boxes and is divided into two subseries: A. Personal, 1947-2007, undated, and B. Career-Related, 1956-2002, undated.
The Personal subseries contains some loose pages with dated, journal-like entries. A portion of these describes Lessing's experience taking the drug mescaline in 1963. These pages were originally placed by Lessing among her poems, but since no connection with any of the poems could be discovered, they were moved to this section.
The Personal subseries also contains correspondence that was not filed in conjunction with any particular manuscript or other group of papers.
The Career-Related subseries contains clippings, photocopies, and printed publications containing reviews of Lessing's work, profiles, and interviews, as well as documents and correspondence relating to her travels to give readings and talks and to receive awards.

Related Material

For additional materials related to Doris Lessing at the Ransom Center, see manuscript holdings for: Clancy Sigal, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., Joan Rodker, John Osborne and Helen Dawson, Peter Owen, Ltd., Norman Mailer, and Tom Stoppard.
Other repositories with holdings of Lessing's papers include the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia and the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Tulsa.

Separated Material

One audio recording was transferred to the Ransom Center Sound Recordings Collection.
One original print was transferred to the Ransom Center Art Collection.
Two books were transferred to the Ransom Center Library and are listed in the University of Texas Library Catalog .
A small number of miscellaneous objects was transferred to the Ransom Center Personal Effects Collection.

Index Terms


Drabble, Margaret, 1939- .
Glass, Philip.
Gottlieb, Robert, 1931- .
Holroyd, Michael.
Sigal, Clancy.


Jonathan Clowes Ltd.


Authors, English--20th century.
Fiction--20th century.
Novelists, English.
Women authors--20th century.


London (England).

Document Types

Galley proofs.

Container List