Marian Engel (née Passmore), OC, writer (born 24 May 1933 in Toronto, ON; died 16 February 1985 in Toronto, ON). An Officer of the Order of Canada, Marian Engel was a widely known and respected writer, particularly because of her internationally acclaimed, Governor General's Award–winning novel Bear (1976).
Childhood, Education and Career
Marian Engel grew up in Galt, Sarnia and Hamilton, Ontario. She received a BA in language studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1955, an MA in Canadian literature at McGill University in Montréal, Québec, in 1957, and from 1960 to 1961 she studied French literature on a Rotary Foundation Scholarship at the Université d’Aix-Marseille in Aix-en-Provence, France. She taught in the United States (University of Montana–Missoula), Canada (McGill University) and Cyprus (St. John’s School in Nicosia). She married (and eventually divorced) CBC broadcaster and successful mystery novel writer Howard Engel.
In her novels and stories, Engel wrote with wit and grace about the everyday lives of contemporary people, especially women. Among her seven novels are No Clouds of Glory (1968), Monodromos (1973) and Lunatic Villas (1981). She also wrote two children’s books and two collections of short stories called Inside the Easter Egg (1975) and The Tattooed Woman (1985). A special issue of Room of One's Own (9:2, 1984) is devoted to Engel and features an interview, articles on her work, original writing by her and a bibliography.
Over the course of her career, Marian Engel was also influential in the movement to enable Canadian writers to deal collectively with publishers and other institutions. She was the first chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada (1973–74). She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1982.
Marian Engel’s most enduring and influential novel remains Bear (1976), which won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Bear is the story of a reserved, unmarried Toronto librarian and archivist, Lou, who travels to an island estate in northern Ontario to sort through a collection of old books. Along with the old cottage and the old books and the spectacular landscape, the place also comes with a pet bear. Over the course of the short, compressed novel, Lou awakens to the sensuality of the natural world as well as to her sexuality, and this includes an intense — and strange — sexual relationship with the bear. The graphicness with which Engel depicts Lou’s sexual encounters with the bear made the novel at once singular in the Canadian literary canon, controversial, and a source of curiosity. Interest in the novel revived in 2014 when excerpts posted on image sharing website Imgur received over half a million visits.
Until her death in 1985, Marian Engel kept a journal she used as a source of her fiction, and she also maintained correspondence with major Canadian writers such as Hugh MacLennan, Robertson Davies, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, Alice Munro, Margaret Lawrence and many others. Her journals were edited and published as Marian Engel’s Notebooks: “Ah, mon cahier, écoute…” (1999). Her letters were collected as Dear Marian: The MacLennan–Engel Correspondence (1995) and Marian Engel: Life in Letters (2004).