restricted access Doris Lessing (review)
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Reviewed by
Ruth Whittaker. Doris Lessing. Modern Novelists Series. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 144 pp. $18.95.

Whittaker's study focuses on the entire Lessing canon (with the exception of The Fifth Child, of course) from The Grass is Singing (1950) to The Good Terrorist (1985). The general editor of this series of books from St. Martin's, Norman Page, suggests in his Preface that each volume in the series is intended both as an introduction to the novelist for the newcomer and as a study of the oeuvre for a person familiar with Lessing's work. Although Whittaker's book is adequate as an introduction to Lessing, it definitely does not supercede the discussion of the Lessing canon by Betsy Draine (Substance Under Pressure, 1983) and Roberta Rubenstein (The Novelistic Vision of Doris Lessing, 1979).

Whittaker analyzes Lessing's works in seven chapters: "Background and Influences," "The Colonial Legacy," "The Children of Violence," "The Golden Notebook," "Madness, Dreams and Prophecy," "Canopus in Argos: Archives," "Return to Realism." As is obvious from the chapter tides, the focus in the different chapters shifts from biography and discussions of a particular work to thematic concerns. Consequently, there is some redundancy in the material presented. The information in the chapter on colonial legacy is repeated when Whittaker discusses The Children of Violence. Similarly, she discusses Four-Gated City in the Chapter on Children of Violence and in the chapter on "Madness, Dreams and Prophecy." The book would have benefitted greatly from better organization—one based on thematic concerns rather than on chronology.

If Whittaker had based the organization of her book on themes such as "colonialism," "Sufism," "Jungian influence," and so on, she could have better explicated the difficult concepts in Lessing's works. Even so, Whittaker's discussion of Sufi philosophy is rather sketchy, and Sufi is not linked directly to the elements in Lessing's narrative techniques—an important connection that needs to be made in an introduction to Lessing.

However, despite lengthy plot summaries, Whittaker manages to set forth in simple language the essential elements in each of Doris Lessing's works, including [End Page 822] the short stories and the plays. Whittaker has to be commended for the clarity and precision of language. Her style is refreshingly devoid of critical jargon.

The book also carries a useful bibliography of Lessing's works and of selected critical works and interviews. The index to the book is fairly adequate but often not comprehensive. For example, Sufism is not listed in the index although some space is devoted to it, but a passing mention of Muriel Spark is indexed. Careful editing might have saved the author such embarrassments. Overall, the book succeeds in what it sets out to do; it is a good introduction to the works of Doris Lessing although it might not be of much use to an advanced scholar.