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DL/WHI - [Whitehorn Letters]

Reference code
Level of description
[Whitehorn Letters]
Quantity & Format
111 Letters (typescript and MS)
3 Photographs
2 Telegrams
2 Postcards
Personal name
Lessing, Doris May, 1919-2013
System of arrangement
Letters catalogued to item level
Lessing, Doris May, 1919-2013
Immediate source of acquisition or transfer
Francis Fitzgibbon
Scope and content

The Whitehorn Letters are a collection of 110 letters sent by Doris Lessing to RAF servicemen John R.M. Whitehorn and Coll MacDonald. Some of the letters are addressed to both of them, others individually, and some she asks to have re-directed.

All the letters are signed ‘Tigger’, Doris’s nickname.

Doris met these two young cadets and their friend Leonard Smith (Smithie) while they were training in Southern Rhodesia. At the time she was married to her second husband Gottfried Lessing and she was a member of the Communist Party.

She loved all three. She fell in love with Smithie but her primary love appears to have been John, a serviceman some 5 years her junior. In her letter of 17/1/1945 she writes “I love you all in undivided one-third shares.”

The letters begin when the servicemen are still in Southern Rhodesia in November 1944, John having arrived in Rhodesia in late 1943 to do his flying training, stationed first in Bulawayo and then in Gwelo. By the middle of 1945 the three had left Southern Rhodesia and Doris writes to John and Coll at R.A.F. H.Q. M.E.F. (Middle East Forces) and R.A.F. S.E.A.A.F. (South-East Asia Air Force). John’s service takes him to Egypt , India, Burma, and finally 6 months in Surebaye, Indonesia before they demob in autumn 1946.

Doris wrote separately to Smithie who wasn’t always in close contact with John and Coll. Smithie later sold these 150 letters to the University of Sussex. Smithie was involved in reviewing the draft manuscripts for Doris’s first novel ‘The Grass is Singing’ and many of her doubts and queries are recorded in these letters.’

Photographs of Lessing's three children can be found in letters 062, 073, 074.


John Whitehorn died on 30 May 2003 and he left instructions for these letters, which were kept in a shoebox, to be returned to Doris, or given to the University of East Anglia.

When his widow, Marion, wrote to Doris on 30/6/2003 to tell her of John’s death, she mentioned that she would send Doris the letters, but they were not sent.

It was only after John’s widow, Marion, died in 2007 that his step-son Francis FitzGibbon found the letters and instructions, and got in touch with Doris.

Doris did not wish to re-read them and she instructed that they be offered to UEA, along with other papers she would soon be depositing.

In conversation some 10 years before, Doris promised her papers to Chris Bigsby, Professor of American Studies at UEA. These papers, covering the period 1969-2007, were deposited in the UEA Archive in March 2008. Material deposited in 2013 after the author's death is currently under embargo during the writing of her authorised biography.

The 1940s letters were deposited on 21/4/08 by Chris Bigsby who had obtained them directly from Francis FitzGibbon.

Francis FitzGibbon asked that John’s name be associated with the collection. Hence they are known as the Whitehorn letters within the Doris Lessing Archive.

The gifting of the letters to UEA was discussed between Doris and John in correspondence towards the end of 1993. In a letter to John dated 9/11/1993 Doris had not wanted to re-read any of her letters to John or Smithie “There is a good deal of pain in those long ago far-away things.”


There are summaries of the 110 letters at item level. The item level records are intended as an aid to navigating through the letters many of which were undated. The letters are wordy and lengthy and a considerable amount of time should be set aside for their reading and appreciation. The letters have been scanned and are available electronically within UEA's Archive Reading Room. They are stored as pdfs and printed transcripts are also available. Transcripts were funded by a generous grant from the Strachey Trust. Access to the original letters is not permitted due to their fragile nature.


153 letters of Doris to Len Smith (Smithie) 1944-1949, were sold to the University of Sussex. These letters were made available at the Keep in 2016. An introductory workshop was held on 3 March 2016 with talks by John Masterson and Pam Thurschwell (a copy of Thurschwell’s paper is included with the Whitehorn letters at UEA).

Lessing and Whitehorn briefly corresponded in the late 1990s and 2000. This is held at UEA in the series DL/A-Z Correspondence (of the 2008 deposit).

Other Lessing papers and manuscripts (1940-1999) have been deposited at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Description and arrangement The letters have been numbered sequentially, 001-111, and are arranged chronologically. Envelopes, where included, have been digitised along with the relevant letter.


Old place name / New place name
Gwelo / Gweru
Marandellas / Marondera
Northern Rhodesia / Zambia
Salisbury / Harare
Southern Rhodesia /Zimbabwe
Umtali / Mutare
Conditions governing reproduction
Copyright of creator. All rights reserved.
Existence and location of originals
Originals stored in UEA Archives but not available due to their fragile nature
Existence and location of copies
Transcripts and scanned PDFs of the letters are available for consultation.
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