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Doris Lessing 100: UEA exhibition marks the centenary of Nobel Prize winning novelist

PUBLISHED: 09:44 22 October 2019 | UPDATED: 11:04 22 October 2019

Doris Lessing at her typewriter. Picture: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Doris Lessing at her typewriter. Picture: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

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A new exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts offers an intimate and unprecedented look at the life of Doris Lessing, born on this day 100 years ago and the first - and only - female British author to win a Nobel prize.

Doris Lessing 100 celebrates the life and work of the only female British author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here, curator Justine Mann talks to visitors including Professor Christopher Bigsby, Lessing's close personal friend. Picture: Andy Crouch/SCVA/UEA/BACWDoris Lessing 100 celebrates the life and work of the only female British author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here, curator Justine Mann talks to visitors including Professor Christopher Bigsby, Lessing's close personal friend. Picture: Andy Crouch/SCVA/UEA/BACW

If you've ever wondered what the life of an influential and award-winning 20th century writer might look like, stripped back to approximately 100 boxes of art, objects and private correspondence, then a new exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre might shed some light.

Combining personal letters, notebooks, film clips, reports from MI5 and even stills of a dystopian film shot on Rouen Road in Norwich, Doris Lessing 100 offers a revealing exploration of the life and work of Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century.

The exhibition charts her early life in Southern Rhodesia to her involvement in the Communist Party of Great Britain, detailing how she became active in Afghan rights, enchanted with Sufi mysticism and fascinated by the potential of new technology during the tumultuous years of the Cold War.

Documents from the National Archives also reveal how she became the target of secret surveillance from MI5 and MI6, while journals and notebooks, which have never been seen before, illustrate how she developed the structure of her most famous novel, The Golden Notebook.

Several photographs also show actors on the set of Memoirs of a Survivor, a 1981 adaptation of her dystopian novel starring Julie Christie, which was partly filmed on Rouen Road in Norwich.

"Lessing is the only British woman writer to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and it's such a privilege to have her private archive available to the public in Norwich," says Justine Mann, exhibition curator and archivist at the British Archive for Contemporary Writing, which houses approximately 100 boxes of Lessing's personal effects.

Emma Claire Sweeney will take part in a panel event at UEA this Saturday, discussing how Doris Lessing's legacy has informed and influenced her writing. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDEmma Claire Sweeney will take part in a panel event at UEA this Saturday, discussing how Doris Lessing's legacy has informed and influenced her writing. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

"It's quite amazing that she left her archive to a university," says Justine. "She left school at 14 and was self-educated. She was quite scathing of academics who tried to characterise her work, but she liked the atmosphere of UEA."

Lessing was, in fact, a close personal friend of Christopher Bigsby, emeritus professor at UEA, who brought her to the university in the early 1990s after interviewing her for Radio 4's arts review programme, Kaleidoscope.

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She subsequently appeared at several of the university's literary festivals, including one in 2007, just a few weeks' after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, aged 88. Her friendship with Bigsby was instrumental in her decision to leave her archive - comprising personal love letters, diaries and papers - to the UEA.

Now, that archive has become the British Archive for Contemporary Writing and is home to other literary materials from prize-winning writers such as Naomi Alderman, Malcolm Bradbury, J.D Salinger, Lorna Sage and Roger Deakin - and it wouldn't exist, says Justine, if it hadn't been for Lessing's influence.

"The gift of her archive became the catalyst for asking other writers to share theirs," says Justine. "UEA were staggered at the size and profile of it - you had to be quite disciplined when going through the boxes, so we tried to find a narrative and followed that."

Doris Lessing 100 celebrates the life and work of the only female British author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Picture: Andy Crouch/SCVA/UEA/BACWDoris Lessing 100 celebrates the life and work of the only female British author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Picture: Andy Crouch/SCVA/UEA/BACW

But the exhibition is about more than just a single writer, says Justine. "She wrote 50 books and moved in traditions and genres, but for people who don't know Lessing, there is also just a lot of history of the 20th century - the history of post-war Britain."

In addition to offering an intimate look into Lessing's creative process, with annotated notebooks, personal letters and intimate journals, the exhibition also offers an insight into her legacy, and shows various translations of her works.

This is something which will be further explored in fringe events happening throughout Norwich this autumn, including at the Julian Study Centre, UEA, on Saturday, October 26, as contemporary writers Rachel Cusk, Professor Lara Feigel and Emma Claire Sweeney come together to discuss Lessing's lasting effect on their writing.

On Friday, November 22, the Millenium Library will host Lessing in the Library, a free event which will focus on the genesis of Lessing's most famous novel, The Golden Notebook, as Justine joins UEA academic Dr Nonia Williams to introduce archival material relating to the novel.

"We're really excited to be bringing the exhibition out of the Sainsbury Centre, and for people to get a real sense of Lessing through her personal letters," says Justine. "Lessing can be seen as a hard read but there's a really big fan base."

Film fans can also see a full screening of Memoirs of a Survivor at Cinema City on Tuesday, November 26, and Justine is particularly keen to meet anyone who may have been an extra and can spot themselves in the footage.

Lara Feigel will join Emma Claire Sweeney and Rachel Cusk to discuss the impact of Lessing's work at a special panel event on Saturday, October 26. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDLara Feigel will join Emma Claire Sweeney and Rachel Cusk to discuss the impact of Lessing's work at a special panel event on Saturday, October 26. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

For more information, visit http://dorislessing100.org or email lessing100@uea.ac.uk.

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