‘Where is this British Empire?’ Doris Lessing’s Life-Writing

In her playful letter to Alex Allan, principal private secretary to then-British Prime Minister John Major, Doris Lessing declined the latter’s offer to confer her with a Damehood, asking ‘where is this British Empire’? She explained that, as a young woman, ‘I did my best to undo that bit of the British Empire I found myself in: that is, old Southern Rhodesia’. Lessing’s determination to expose the inequalities of colonial rule and to track the long legacies of imperialism after formal decolonisation is an interest which spans the entirety of her writing career. Born in the ruinous aftermath of the First World War, raised during the final years of the British Empire and emerging as a writer immediately after the Second World War, Lessing’s life writing both repeatedly depicts her memories of a white settler childhood and remains in pursuit of the colonial past.


Emma Parker is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds whose doctoral research examines the memoirs and autobiographies of Penelope Lively, Doris Lessing and Janet Frame. She has published articles and reviews in Life Writing, Auto/Biography Studies, Doris Lessing Studies, Wasafiri, Moving Worlds and is a contributor to Documenting Trauma in Comics (2020). She is currently co-editing a collection of essays entitled British Culture After Empire: Migration, Race and Decolonisation, which is forthcoming with Manchester University Press.