[LESSING, Doris (1919-2013)] – NOBEL PRIZE MEDAL. Nobel Prize Medal in Literature awarded to Doris Lessing in 2007.
18 carat green gold plated with 24 carat gold, 66mm diameter. Profile bust of Alfred Nobel facing left on obverse, legend 'ALFR. NOBEL' at left and his birth and death dates in Roman numerals at right, signed at lower left ‘E. LINDBERG 1902’, reverse with allegorical depiction of a youth sitting under a laurel tree before a Muse, legend ‘INVENTAS VITAM IUVAT EXCOLUISSE PER ARTES’ around edge, the plaque at base inscribed ‘D. LESSING/ MMVII’ with ‘ACAD … SUEC’ either side, signed lower left ‘ERIK LINDBERG’; original red morocco gilt case. [With:] the accompanying diploma signed by two representatives of the Swedish Academy Nobel Committee for Literature, Stockholm, 10 December 2007, in Swedish, calligraphic text heightened with gold facing decorative woodcut with added colours, on vellum, 2 leaves, 330 x 205mm, laid down in black morocco binding with gilt monogram. Case. Provenance: by descent.
The Nobel Prize Medal in Literature for Doris Lessing, described by the Swedish Academy as ‘that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny’ (Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014).
Doris May Lessing was born on 22 October 1919 in Persia, spending her earliest years first in Kermanshah and then in Tehran, an early life that she would later paint in vivid colours. A brief return to England at the age of five, where the cold and grey failed to impress the young Doris after the brightness of Persia, proved only temporary: in 1925, her father, Alfred, took up a government offer, buying 1,000 acres of virgin bushland in Southern Rhodesia to farm. To the especial disappointment of Doris’ mother, Emily, who had cherished the social element of expat life in Persia, the family farm failed to significantly thrive and money was often short: their relatively reduced existence was a source of unhappiness, and Alfred and Emily’s marriage suffered for it. As a child, happiest exploring the bush, Doris railed against the standards of Edwardian England that still prevailed in colonial Rhodesia: all attempts to instill a formal education failed and she left school at the age of 13, yet she was a formidable auto-didact, reading voraciously any books available to her, many of these sourced by her parents from England for her. She was already writing, and had stories accepted by local journals even before she left home in 1937 at the age of 15, working first as a nursemaid and then as a telephone operator.
Her first marriage, in 1939, was to the civil servant Frank Charles Wisdom; two children, John and Jean, were born to them, but the couple drifted apart, later divorcing, as Doris was drawn further into a communist community whose members shared her growing unease at the treatment of the black African population. Her second husband, Gottfried Lessing, whom she married in 1946, was one of their number: their union lasted until 1949, and saw the birth of a son, Peter, with whom she moved to London in that year.
Having already been published in local and South African journals, Lessing quickly made her mark in England: her debut novel, The Grass is Singing (1950), which explored the pressures to conform in white South African society and the entrenched racial divides, was an immediate success, and in 1952, Martha Quest, the first of her five semi-autobiographical ‘Children of Violence’ novels (1952-1969) set in Southern Rhodesia, was published. In 1956 she returned briefly to South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, but her vociferous criticism of the racial policies in both countries resulted in a ban on re-entry (which would stand until 1995): instead, Doris contented herself with campaigning for nuclear disarmament, while opposing apartheid from outside Africa.
In 1962 Lessing published the work that would bring her onto the world stage and established her as a major writer of her time, The Golden Notebook, a study of a woman's psyche and life situation, sexuality, and political ideas, including a powerful anti-war and anti-Stalinist message, as well as an extended analysis of communism and the Communist Party in England from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the 1960s, short stories, essays, and plays were in constant demand, keeping her very busy, while she continued to lend her vocal support to various political causes.
As her work garnered prizes and plaudits, Doris continued to experiment with her output. In total, her oeuvre would comprise over 50 works, spanning several genres – from science-fiction to 1985’s realist fable The Good Terrorist, a disturbing take on how terrorists are made that divided reviewers, and including a couple published under the pseudonym ‘Jane Somers’, created to show the difficulty new authors face in trying to get their work printed – but all characterised by penetrating studies of living conditions in the 20th century, behavioural patterns, and historical developments.
Having declined an OBE in 1977 and a damehood in 1992 as honours linked to a non-existent Empire, Doris accepted appointment as a Companion of Honour at the end of 1999, and in 2007, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel announcement was made while Doris was at the grocer's with her son Peter; upon returning home to a waiting crowd of reporters, who told her the news, her initial reaction was ‘Oh Christ!’, though she quickly added that she was ‘delighted’ to have won. At 88 years and 52 days old, she became the oldest winner of the Literature prize, the third-oldest Nobel laureate in any category, and only the 11th woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She used her Nobel lecture, ‘On Not Winning the Nobel Prize’, to highlight the global inequality of opportunity; it was later published in a limited edition to raise money for children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.
According to his will, the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel established the prizes in 1895, and the prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace were instituted in 1901. Only one Nobel Prize Medal for Literature is known to have sold at public auction.