Monday, 18 November 2013

Dame of what?

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Novelist Doris Lessing passed away yesterday, aged 94, following an impressive career during which she wrote, most notably, The Golden Notebook, won numerous awards for her work, and never minced her words. In 2007, when informed by reporters outside her home that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, she famously reacted with an endearing indifference that has since been replayed by thousands. Indeed, she later called winning the award a "bloody disaster." 15 years before that, in 1992, she was offered the chance to become a Dame—an opportunity Lessing, who was brought up in Southern Rhodesia, rejected with the letter below, sent to then-Prime Minister John Major's Principal Private Secretary, Alex Allan.

(Source: University of East Anglia; Image: Doris Lessing, via.)

24th November, 1992

Dear Alex Allan,

I am sorry I did not reply earlier, but I was in the States.

Thank you for offering me this honour: I am very pleased. But for some time now I have been wondering, "But where is this British Empire?" Surely, there isn't one. And now I see that I am not the only one saying the same.

There is something ruritannical about honours given in the name of a non-existent Empire.

And there is another thing. When young I did my best to undo that bit of the British Empire I found myself in: that is, old Southern Rhodesia.

And surely there is something unlikeable about a person, when old, accepting honours from a institution she attacked when young?

And yet...how pleasant to be a dame! I would adore it. Dame of what?

Dame of Britain? Dame of the British Islands? Dame of the British Commonwealth? Dame of ....? Never mind.

Please forgive my churlishness. I am sorry, I really am.

Yours sincerely,

Doris Lessing