Out of the Archive: The Doris Lessing Centenary at UEA

Nonia WilliamsMCRm

In Doris Lessing’s centenary year, this panel reflects on the author and her writing through the lens of her extensive archive, held at UEA. The overall aim of the panel is to argue for and energise our (re)engagement with Lessing, as well as to demonstrate the different kinds of literary critical and creative work that working with and in the rich resource of Lessing’s archive can generate. The panel draws on the work that went into the Doris Lessing centenary celebrations at UEA, including an exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, an academic conference, and public events. We will give four short papers.

“Oh academics”: Lessing's resistance to categorisation in her letters at UEA (Justine Mann, Archivist, UEA)

Lessing fiercely resisted interpretation and categorisation by some academics and yet she chose to bequeath her vast archive of personal diaries and correspondence to an academic institution. This paper will introduce the significant archive holdings at UEA’s British Archive for Contemporary Writing (BACW) including highlights of Lessing’s exchanges with academics. It will examine the challenges inherent in selecting and interpreting material for the centenary exhibition, Doris Lessing 100, and how these were compounded when imagining her likely response.

Triviality, materiality and synchronicity in the Lessing Archive (Jacob Rollinson, Postgraduate Researcher, UEA)

While cataloguing and describing the correspondence of Doris Lessing for the BACW, I have nurtured the idea of an second, imaginary archive reserved for those items whose triviality seemingly disqualifies them from scholarly use, but which stand out as examples of the ephemerality of lived experience, or offer the illusion of some occult organising principle operating within the minutiae of the traces we leave behind. I present the items from Lessing’s legacy that I would place inside this archive of trivial synchronicities.

Doris Lessing and the Language of Communism (Matthew Taunton, Lecturer in Literature, UEA)

In Lessing’s early fiction and in her letters from the 1940s, she vigorously interrogated the nature of Communist language: ‘capitalist hyenas, social democratic treachery, running dogs of fascism’, etc.. These linguistic and attitudinal clichés appear across Lessing’s work as ‘structures of repetition’ (Koselleck), persisting for generations, but Lessing is fascinated by their emergence in moments of historical rupture (like the Russian Revolution), before they became part of a habit or routine. This paper uses Lessing’s work—predominantly the Children of Violence series—as well as her unpublished letters to investigate what Hannah Arendt called the ‘condensation of happenings into concepts’.

The Textures and Textualities of Ageing (Nonia Williams, Lecturer in Literature, UEA)

This paper focuses on correspondence between Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark, and Lessing’s novel The Diary of a Good Neighbour and essay ‘Old’. The letters and faxes between Lessing and Spark express a lively and forthright defence of their identities as ageing women and as writers, and I read between archival and literary materials to consider differences and overlaps between the writing of age and ageing in Lessing’s correspondence and in her published writing. I show how Lessing’s techniques such as narrative perspective and dialogic form are used to express an ambivalence that resists and complicates cultural narratives of ageing.

Sun 1:00 pm - 2:15 pm