A foundational figure in Canadian women's literature, Margaret Laurence will be remembered for her works and for the personal warmth, strength and humour which she shared so generously
Margaret Laurence (née Jean Margaret Wemyss), CC, novelist (born 18 July 1926 in Neepawa, MB; died 5 January 1987 in Lakefield, ON). A Companion of the Order of Canada and three-time winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction, Margaret Laurence is one of the pivotal and foundational figures in women’s literature in Canada.
Early Life, Education and Family
Margaret Laurence was born in Neepawa, Manitoba, to Robert Wemyss and Verna Jean Simpson. Her mother died when she was four years old, which prompted her maternal aunt, Margaret Simpson, to come live with the family. Four years later her father died, leaving Laurence predominantly under the care of her aunt for most of her childhood. She began writing stories and poetry at the age of seven.
Laurence was educated in Neepawa and in 1944 she attended United College in Winnipeg, where she wrote extensively for the student paper. She graduated in 1947 with an Honours in English and went on to work as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen. That same year she married Jack Laurence, a hydraulic engineer.
In 1949, the young couple moved to England and later to Somaliland (an autonomous region of Somalia) and Ghana in Africa where Jack Laurence worked as a dam builder with the British Overseas Development Service. Their first child, Joceyln, was born in 1952, and second, David, in 1955. In 1957 the family moved from Ghana to Vancouver, and in 1962 Margaret Laurence and the children moved to England, settling in the village of Penn in Buckinghamshire.
Margaret and Jack Laurence were divorced in 1969, and in 1973 Margaret Laurence returned to live permanently in Lakefield, Ontario
Early Career and the Influence of Africa
Aside from her reporting at the Winnipeg Citizen, Margaret Laurence’s first work for publication did not occur until the Somaliland years. In 1954, the British Protectorate of Somaliland published A Tree for Poverty, her translations of Somali folk tales and poetry.
Africa transformed Laurence from an idealistic, young, Western liberal to a mature woman who saw at first-hand the problems of emergent nations, empathized with their peoples and read deeply into their history and literature. Her first published fiction was a story, "Uncertain Flowering," published in a Whit Burnett anthology for 1954; it was followed by the stories set in Ghana, published in various journals and gathered into The Tomorrow-Tamer and Other Stories in 1963. This Side Jordan, her first novel, was set and drafted in Ghana and published in 1960. All her African fiction reflects a determined apprenticeship to writing, and a burgeoning talent based on a passionate belief in the dignity and potential of every human being.
The Stone Angel and Literary Success
Back in Vancouver, Laurence revised her memoirs of the Somaliland years, published as The Prophet's Camel Bell (1963), and then turned her attention to Hagar Shipley, who had developed in her imagination out of her Prairie background.
The Stone Angel (1964), Laurence’s second novel, the story of Hagar's last journey towards recognition of love and freedom, was a landmark event for Canadian literature and the keystone of Laurence's career. It placed the town of Manawaka (which is based on Neepawa, Manitoba, where Laurence grew up)firmly in Canada's imaginative landscape and pointed the way for the works to follow. Many comparisons have been made of Laurence’s literary depictions of Manawka to William Faulkner’s Yoknaptawpha county, the fictional Mississippi town where a number of his novels and stories are set.
Laurence followed the success of The Stone Angel with the novel, A Jest of God (1966). It tellsthe story of Rachel Cameron, who, through the ordeal of one summer in Manawaka in the 1960s, finds a fragile but sustaining selfhood. A Jest of God won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1966 and was adapted to the screen under the title, Rachel, Rachel, starring Joanne Woodward and directed by Paul Newman.
Seven of the eight stories of A Bird in the House were published from 1962 onward; with the addition of an eighth, they were gathered together and published in 1970. The maturing of Vanessa MacLeod, their heroine, is based on Margaret Laurence's own experiences. The deaths of her own parents, the changes caused first by loss and grief and then by the practical circumstances of her life, are present in the spirit of Vanessa's story. Stacey MacAindra of The Fire-Dwellers (1969) is Rachel Cameron's sister. Married to a struggling salesman, living in Vancouver and the mother of four, Stacey is the beleaguered housewife of our time. She thinks of herself as commonplace and ordinary, but Laurence's great achievement is to reveal to us her extraordinary qualities of love, fortitude and vitality.
The Diviners (1974) was Laurence’s final novel. It tells thestory of writer Morag Gunn, and is true in its spirit to Laurence's own maturing, and is the climactic work of the Manawaka cycle. A complex and profound novel, it brings the Scottish pioneers and the Métis outcasts of Manawaka together and culminates in the joining of past and present and the affirmation of the future in the person of Pique, the daughter of Morag and Jules Tonnere. Now considered to be a classic of Canadian Literature, The Diviners won The Governor General’s Literary Award in 1974. In 1993, it was adapted for television and aired on CBC.
From time to time, Laurence found refreshment in writing children's books. Jason's Quest (1970) is a joyfully inventive tale about a mole and his friends, its essence a confrontation between the forces of darkness and light. Six Darn Cows (1979) is a carefully crafted story for very young readers, and The Olden Days Coat (1979, rev 1982) is a magic Christmas story. A Christmas Birthday Story (1980) is the retelling of a work first written when her own children were very young. In 1968 Laurence's continuing interest in African literature was expressed in Long Drums and Cannons, her tribute to the upsurge of Nigerian writing in English between 1958 and 1964. In 1976 she collected and introduced a group of her occasional essays, Heart of a Stranger.
From her home in Lakefield, Laurence was constantly active in organizations promoting the cause of world peace, particularly in Project Ploughshares. She was awarded the Order of Canada and honorary degrees by 14 Canadian universities. The Stone Angel was the first Canadian novel to be required reading for France's prestigious "Agrégation" examination. Her works were translated into many languages, and before her last illness she was preparing to journey to Britain, where the Manawaka novels were being reissued by Virago Press, and to Norway, where the translation of The Stone Angel has been a bestseller. For three years she was chancellor of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. She died in Lakefield, Ontario, in 1987.
She was much beloved and will be remembered for her works and for the personal warmth, strength and humour which she shared so generously. Her final literary legacy, the memoir, Dance on the Earth, which she finished before she died, was edited by her daughter Jocelyn and published in 1989.
Patricia Morley, Margaret Laurence (1981); Clara Thomas, Margaret Laurence (1969) and The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence (1975); George Woodcock, ed, A Place to Stand On (1983).