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MI5 Spied on a Nobel Prize Winning Author for Over a Decade, New Files Reveal

VICE News reviewed newly released MI5 files that revealed how British spies aggressively monitored Doris Lessing, famous author and Communist.
Photo by Katie Engelhart

It was 1956 and Doris Lessing — then a writer of growing acclaim and later a Nobel Prize winner — was feeling cagey. She believed that she was being watched. At home, in London, she felt herself being followed by unseen eyes, from unknown places.

Lessing, who had grown up in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), even suspected that Britain's Security Service, MI5, was tracking her goings-on — and sharing its intelligence with authorities back in Africa. She was, after all, an avowed Communist.


Lessing's friends told her that she was mad — that she was suffering from "a persecution complex."

She was not.

Photo by Katie Engelhart. The National Archives, London, UK. KV 2/4054-4058.

Newly published MI5 files, reviewed by VICE News prior to their release, reveal that MI5 was aggressively spying on Doris Lessing for over a decade.

Beginning in the 1940s — and picking up pace in the 1950s — British spooks carefully monitored the author's every turn: intercepting her mail, listening in on her phone calls, following her family, and recruiting her close associates to serve as informants. MI5 agents routinely reviewed Lessing's written articles and carefully collected newspaper reviews of her novels — some gushing, others disparaging.

In several reports, MI5 officials — responsible "for protecting the United Kingdom against threats to National Security" — stated that their aim was to observe Lessing's engagement with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). To that end, MI5 surveillance was conducted in close cooperation with London's Metropolitan Police, which maintained its own file on Lessing.

But the spy operation continued past 1956, when Lessing officially broke with the party.

Indeed, increasingly throughout the 1950s, MI5 ignored Lessing's Communist Party affiliation altogether — and focused instead on the author's hostility to apartheid in South Africa and her support for independence in British colonies and protectorates.

MI5 agents anxiously, if sometimes tenuously, linked Lessing's anti-colonial campaigning with her alleged ties to Communist organizations worldwide.


In September 1952, for instance, a secret report by MI5's Director General observed that Lessing's upbringing in Rhodesia had "brought out in her a deep hatred of the color bar which has now reached the point of fanaticism. In this way her communist sympathies have increased."

In 1958, a police report sent to MI5 confirmed that the Lessing had "used her home as a meeting place for varying numbers of people, many of whom were colored… A suggestion that immoral practices were the reason for the numerous visitors has not been substantiated and it can be safely assumed that these meetings were for the furtherance of the Communist cause."

All along, MI5's monitoring of Lessing was aided by a shadowy network of MI5 "Special Liaison Officers" in colonial Africa. In many instances, security service officials in London fed information about Lessing back to the colonies, where the author was actively supporting pro-independence figures. Notably, in 1956, MI5 even shared intelligence with law enforcement officials in apartheid South Africa, who used the information to deny Lessing entry into the country.

Photo by Katie Engelhart. The National Archives, London, UK. KV 2/4054-4058.

Lessing, who died in 2013, came to the attention of British authorities in the early 1940s: before she was famous and while she was still living in Africa. In 1943, South African authorities intercepted a report that Lessing had written, and sent to a South African newspaper, about "Communist Organization in South Rhodesia." The South Africans sent a warning back to Britain and MI5 opened its first file on Lessing.


Sporadic reports on the author arrived in London for several years, such as the news that she had joined a "Left Book Club," a report listing her as a member of the "Rhodesian Friends of the Soviet Union" society, and finally a document calling her a "Persons of Suspected Communist Tendencies."

But it was only in the 1950s, after Lessing moved to London, that she became a deliberate MI5 target. In 1951, MI5 agents took note when a review of Lessing's latest book appeared in The Daily Worker. A year later, reporters confirmed that Lessing had, like her husband, joined the British Communist Party.

From then on, the Lessing reports became more routine — and more mundane. In 1954, Lessing was reported to have joined "the Management Committee of the Russia Today Book Club, set up by the British Soviet Friendship Society."

By that point, MI5 was bugging the British Communist Party's London headquarters, on King Street. One July 1956 source report, drawing on recorded conversations, described a lecture that Lessing delivered at a meeting of the party's "Africa Committee," on the subject of conditions in British-controlled Africa. Lessing reportedly bemoaned "the lack of African understanding of how best to conduct the fight against such things as (i) the taking away of their land… (ii) the industrial color, (iii) poor living conditions, etc."

The world, Lessing argued, was well-aware of South African apartheid — but wholly ignorant about still British-administered protectorates. British rule in Rhodesia, she said, amounted to "apartheid with its claws still sheathed."


Photo by Katie Engelhart. The National Archives, London, UK. KV 2/4054-4058.

When, in 1956, Lessing made a trip to Southern Rhodesia, she was closely monitored from the inside.

A "Top Secret" report in July claimed that Lessing had "made well over half a hundred contacts" in the capital city of Salisbury — and that she was in frequent contact with "Communist friends" and "extremist Africans and others who hold pronounced views on racial questions." Spooks observed that she "took copious notes" throughout her trip, and suggested that she might be "trying to form a 'cell' among these African leaders."

No further documents, in any of the later Lessing files, make reference to the alleged cell.

MI5 agents also appear to have entered Lessing's hotel room while she was visiting the city of Lusaka. There, they read a draft manuscript of a short story she had written called The Uneasy Alliance. If published, MI5 mused, the story would "undoubtedly reveal her great sympathy for African advancement and contempt of the color bar."

"Lessing is reported by a well-placed source," the report said, "to have expressed the view that Communism is the only answer to African nationalism."

Agents concluded that Lessing must have travelled to Rhodesia on a reconnaissance mission for "International Communism," though none of the released files suggest that Lessing had been recruited for any kind of official or foreign-backed mission.

Indeed, none of the new documents suggest that Lessing, in all the years of her surveillance, even committed illegal activities — or that her Communist preaching inspired any. MI5 agents never even alleged that Lessing had directly contributed to any kind of anti-colonial unrest or civil disobedience.


But still, they watched her.

The documents do suggest that Lessing was, in the 50s, part of a dizzying array of left-affiliated clubs and committees and sub-committees: The British-Polish Friendship Society, the Committee for the Defense of French Democracy, the London Schools Left Club, the East & Central Africa Committee of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, the British Cuba Committee, Teachers for Peace, the Rhodesian Friends of the Soviet Union, Authors World Peace Appeal, and the Chelsea and Kensington Branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

For an author whose literature reveals such a passionate disdain for party bureaucracy and workaday organizational pettiness, Lessing seemed to spend a spectacular amount of time preparing for and attending committee meetings.

In 1956, Lessing quit the British Communist Party altogether, reportedly as it refused to take a hard line on the Soviet Union's brutal suppression of the Hungarian Uprising. MI5 took note of her resignation, but concluded that she retained her "Marxist convictions."

Lessing's writing — often concerned with Communist themes — was certainly the source of some of MI5's hysteria. Lessing's glamor, as a female writer of growing repute, may have sustained its interest. Indeed, MI5 agents and affiliates regularly assessed Lessing's physical attractiveness — with the majority deeming Lessing as "plump" but "attractive."


Photo by Katie Engelhart. The National Archives, London, UK. KV 2/4054-4058.

That these MI5 files — a great testament to the security service's Cold War panic — ever saw the light of day is somewhat unlikely.

MI5 is theoretically subject to the UK Public Records Act, which requires that documents are made public after several decades. But the service is granted generous blanket exemptions, which effectively nullify this duty. Unlike other government agencies, such as the Home Office or Foreign Office, MI5 releases historic documents only when it fancies. It also decides what documents are released — with the effect that terribly damning files remain buried.

In fact, MI5 is open about the fact that it continues to destroy hundreds of thousands of documents, rather than preserving them for eventual public release. Since the early 1990s, MI5 has, by its own estimate, destroyed some 200,000 files that were opened "for counter-subversion reasons."

The British security services are also exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. So while Americans can file Freedom of Information requests for CIA, FBI, or NSA files, Brits have no legal means of forcing the security agencies to publish historic material.

Prior to being released, the Lessing files were redacted. Entire pages were removed under national security exemptions.

Doris Lessing's death in 2013 likely eased the way for the release of her files.

In the end, history was, more or less, on Lessing's side — at least in Africa. The Soviet Union collapsed. The anti-colonial movements that she supported won their independence. Apartheid crumbled. But one imagines that Lessing — a shrewd observer, in fiction and in prose, of the dangers of swollen and unaccountable bureaucracies — would have loved to see what British spooks had to say about her.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart