British writer Doris Lessing on Thursday won the Nobel Literature Prize for five decades of epic novels that have covered feminism and politics, as well her youth in Africa.
Lessing, who will be 88 on October 22, is only the 11th woman to have won the prize since it was first awarded in 1901.
The Swedish Academy described her as "that epicist of the female experience who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny."
Lessing was out shopping when the prize was announced and only learned the news several hours later when she returned to her London home, where she was met by a throng of journalists.
"This has been going on for 30 years," said Lessing who put down her shopping bag and sat on her doorstep, head in her hand, after being told of the award by the waiting photographers.
"I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush," she said.
Lessing, whose work has covered a multitude of topics, has over the years been mentioned as a possible Nobel laureate but she was not seen as among the frontrunners this year.
Although "The Golden Notebook", her best known work, established her as a feminist icon back in 1962, she has consistently refused the label and says her writing does not play a directly political role.
Nonetheless, for the Nobel jury, "the burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th century view of the male-female relationship."
Born Doris May Taylor in Khermanshah, in what is now Iran, on October 22, 1919, Lessing spent her formative years on a farm in Southern Rhodesia, what is now Zimbabwe, where her British parents moved in 1925.
It was, she later reflected, a "hellishly lonely" upbringing. In "Africa Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe", published in 1992, she describes going back in 1982 to the country where she had grown up.
Unsurprisingly, she could not wait to escape and in 1939 married Frank Wisdom, by whom she had two children before their divorce in 1943.
She then married a German political activist named Gottfried Lessing, but divorced again in 1949, when she fled to Britain with her young son and the manuscript of her first novel, "The Grass Is Singing."
A searing examination of racial oppression and colonialism, it was published the following year to rapid success.
Her radical political affinities drew her into the British Communist Party, but she resigned in 1956 at the time of the Hungarian uprising, never to return.
Her "Children of Violence" series of novels, published between 1952 and 1969 around a central character named Martha Quest, first established her credentials as both a writer and a feminist.
"I wasn't an active feminist in the 1960s, never have been," she has since insisted. "I never liked the movement because it's too ideologically based. All sorts of claims were made for me that simply weren't true."
In the 1980s, with her popularity in brief decline, she decided to test the importance of a name in publishing, and submitted a novel under a pseudonym, only to find it rejected. It was later published, when she revealed her true identity.
Over the years, she became an increasingly outspoken critic of Africa, particularly the corruption and embezzlement by governments.
She was barred entry to South Africa in 1956, but was finally able to revisit in 1995, after the fall of apartheid.
Her novel "The Good Terrorist" (1985), about an immature young woman who joins a terrorist cell, has strong echoes today.
In recent years Lessing, who lives in the London suburb of Hampstead, has also written several works of science fiction.
She is also probably one of the oldest people anywhere to have her own page on the popular social networking web site MySpace.
On a recent visit the site announced, under the label "Female - 87 years old," that "Doris Lessing has 136 friends."
Last year, the Nobel Literature Prize went to Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.
Lessing has won a number of awards and prizes, including the Prix Medicis in 1976 and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1995.
She will receive a Nobel gold medal, a diploma and 10 million Swedish kronor from the hands of Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel prizes.
The Nobel peace prize will be announced on Friday.