Laurence, Margaret 1926–1987

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Laurence, Margaret 1926–1987

(Jean Margaret Wemyss Laurence)

PERSONAL: Born July 18, 1926, in Neepawa, Manitoba, Canada; died of cancer, January 5 (some sources say January 6), 1987, in Lakefield, Ontario, Canada; buried in Lakefield, Ontario, Canada; daughter of Robert Harrison (a lawyer) and Verna Jean (Simpson) Wemyss; married John Fergus Laurence (a civil engineer), 1947 (divorced, 1969); children: Jocelyn, David. Education: University of Manitoba, B.A., 1947.

CAREER: Writer. Worked as a reporter with the Winnipeg Citizen; writer-in-residence at University of Tor-onto, 1969–70, and University of Western Ontario, 1973; Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, writer-in-residence, 1974, chancellor, 1981–83.

MEMBER: Royal Society of Canada (fellow).

AWARDS, HONORS: First Novel Award, Beta Sigma Phi, 1961; President's Medal, University of Western Ontario, 1961, 1962, and 1964, for best Canadian short stories; Governor General's Literary Award in fiction, 1966, for A Jest of God, and 1975; senior fellowships from Canada Council, 1967 and 1971; honorary fellow of United College, University of Winnipeg, 1967; Companion of Order of Canada, 1971; Governor General's Literary Award, Fiction, 1974, for The Diviners; Molson Prize, 1975; B'nai B'rith award, 1976; Periodical Distributors award, 1977; City of Toronto award, 1978; writer of the year award from Canadian Booksellers Association, 1981; Banff Centre award, 1983; numerous honorary degrees from institutions including Trent, Carleton, Brandon, Mount Allison, Simon Fraser, Queen's, McMaster, and Dalhousie universities and universities of Winnipeg, Toronto, and Western Ontario.


(Editor) A Tree for Poverty (Somali poetry and prose), Eagle Press (Nairobi), 1954; reprinted, McMaster University Library Press (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada), 1970.

This Side Jordan (novel), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1960.

The Prophet's Camel Bell, Macmillan (London, England), 1963, published as New Wind in a Dry Land, Knopf (New York, NY), 1964.

The Tomorrow-Tamer, and Other Stories (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1964; reprinted, McClelland & Steward (Toronto, Canada), 1993.

The Stone Angel (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1964.

A Jest of God (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1966, published as Rachel, Rachel, Popular Library, 1968, published as Now I Lay Me Down, Panther, 1968; reprinted, with afterword by Margaret Atwood, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL) 1993.

Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952–1966, Macmillan, 1968; edited and with introduction by Nora Foster Stovel, University of Alberta Press (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), 2003.

The Fire-Dwellers (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1969; reprinted, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1993.

A Bird in the House (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1970; reprinted, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1993.

Jason's Quest (for children), Knopf (New York, NY), 1970.

The Diviners (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1974, with afterword by Margaret Atwood, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1993.

Heart of a Stranger (essays), McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1976, edited and with an introduction by Nora Foster Stovel, University of Alberta Press (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), 2003.

Six Darn Cows (for children), J. Lorimer (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1979.

The Olden Days Coat (for children), McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Canada), 1979, reprinted, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 1998.

The Christmas Birthday Story (for children), Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.

Dance on the Earth: A Memoir, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1989.

Margaret and Al: Margaret Laurence-Al Purdy. A Friendship in Letters, edited by John Lennox, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993.

A Very Large Soul: Selected Letters from Margaret Laurence to Canadian Writers, edited by Andy Wain-wright, Cormorant Books (Ontario, Canada), 1995.

Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman, edited by John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky, University of Toronto Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1997.

Embryo Words: Margaret Laurence's Early Writings, edited by Nora Foster Stovel, Juvenilia Press (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), 1997.

Contributor of short stories to Story, Prism, Queen's Quarterly, Saturday Evening Post, and Post Stories: 1962. Her holographs and notes are housed in the Margaret Laurence Archives at McMaster's University.

ADAPTATIONS: The Jest of God was adapted as the film "Rachel, Rachel," starring Joanne Woodward and directed by Paul Newman, Warner Bros., 1968 Sound recording adaptations include Jason's Quest Library Services Branch, (Vancouver, B.C., Canada), 1977, and New Wind in a Dry Land by CNIB (Toronto, Canada), 1979. Several works have been adapted as videorecordings, including To Set the House in Order Magic Lanterns Communication (Oakville, Ontario, Canada), in 1985 and The Olden Days Coat, by Magic Lantern Communications (Oakville, Ontario, Canada), in 1986. The Stone Angel was adapted as a play by James W. Nichol, Playwrights Canada Press (Toronto, Canada), 1991. The Diviners was adapted as a two-and-a-half-hour television special by Credo Group (Winnipeg, Canada) and Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 1993.

SIDELIGHTS: Though she was not a prolific writer, Margaret Laurence's fiction made her "more profoundly admired than any other Canadian novelist of her generation," according to Toronto Globe and Mail critic William French. Often set in the fictional Canadian small town of Manawaka, her novels and short stories earned praise for their compassion and realism and the skill with which they were told. They also aroused controversy—religious fundamentalists attempted to have one novel, The Diviners, banned from schools because it contained explicit descriptions of an abortion and a sexual affair. Laurence frequently explored the predicaments of women in society, and some of her characters were recognized as early feminists. Reviewers judged her work a powerful influence on Canadian writing; in an Atlantic review of The Fire-Dwellers one writer deemed her "the best fiction writer in the Dominion and one of the best in the hemisphere."

Non-Canadian subjects also appeared in Laurence's works. The Prophet's Camel Bell is an account of her experiences while living for two years in the Haud desert of Somaliland (now Somalia) with her husband, sharing the hardships and privations of desert life with their Somali workers. West Africa serves as the setting for the stories in The Tomorrow-Tamer and the source of the literature Laurence discussed in Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Novelists and Dramatists 1952–1966. In addition, Laurence wrote short stories, some of which were published in periodicals such as Queen's Quarterly and the Saturday Evening Post. She also edited and translated A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose and wrote books for children.

In collaboration with her daughter, Laurence completed Dance on the Earth: A Memoir shortly before her death. Published posthumously in 1989, the memoir details the important influence of three women in Laurence's life: her mother, who died when Margaret was four; her aunt, who later married Laurence's father and thus became her step-mother; and her mother-in-law, who provided emotional support when Laurence's marriage to husband John ended. The work also contains Laurence's reminiscences about her own motherhood and reveals her passionate dislike of war, nuclear weapons, corrupters of the environment, and racism. However, as several critics noted, the memoir includes little about Laurence's attitude toward her writing, especially the reasons for the diminished output after she completed The Diviners, which is probably her most-enduring work. Writing in Maclean's, Morton Ritts noted the "preachy, mawkishly poetic and unforthcoming" character of parts of Dance on the Earth and remarked that "the rich complexity that typifies Laurence's best fiction is largely missing" from the work. Canadian Literature reviewer Colin Nicholson, while admitting that he "was left wanting more," commented that "the cadence of a distinctive voice is heard on page after page, by turns relaxed and chatty, moved and emotional, angry and impassioned, but overall celebratory and grateful, and sometimes very funny." Enid Delgatty Rutland wrote in Queen's Quarterly, "Despite the limitations in, and deficiencies of, the Memoir, a transparent reading of the work reveals beliefs, attitudes, values, and commitments that are fundamental to an understanding of Laurence, as a woman and an artist."

Several volumes of Laurence's letters have also been published since her death, including A Very Large Soul: Selected Letters from Margaret Laurence to Canadian Writers and Margaret and Al: Margaret Laurence-Al Purdy. A Friendship in Letters. George Woodcock, writing in Canadian Literature, called the latter volume a "remarkable and perhaps great book." After Long Drums and Canoes was reprinted in 2003, Wendy Griswold praised the publisher's decision to do so in her review for Research in African Literatures. She commented: "While literary critics are thick on the ground, the chance to see one master novelist analyze the craft of other writers is rare. And the fact that this analysis took place over thirty years ago yet continues to reward readers gives Long Drums and Canons historical as well as critical interest…. Although Laurence recognized that she was no literary critic and apologized for her lack of theory, in fact her perceptive-yet-straightforward observations offer an unusually lucid introduction to the first generation of Nigerian novelists and dramatists in English." Griswold noted that just as Laurence finished her manuscript in 1967, Nigeria broke apart, and a long and bloody war began with Biafra. Although the book was published in 1968, Laurence herself considered it irrelevant in light of the situation; the book was never released in Canada where, according to Griswold, Laurence's reputation would have won it the attention it deserves. Noting that Laurence's book has stood the test of time, Griswold said: "The only thing she was totally wrong about was the irrelevance of her book."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 50, 1988, Volume 62, 1990.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 53: Canadian Writers since 1960, First Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.

Hind-Smith, Joan, Three Voices: The Lives of Margaret Laurence, Gabrielle Roy, and Frederick Philip Grove, Clarke Irwin (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1975.

Irvine, Lorna, Critical Spaces: Margaret Laurence and Janet Frame, Camden House (Rochester, NY), 1995.

Kirkwood, Hilda, Between the Lines, Oberon Press (Ottawa, Canada), 1994.

Morley, Patricia, Margaret Laurence, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1981.

Thomas, Clara, Margaret Laurence, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1969.

Thomas, Clara, The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1975.

Verduyn, Christi, editor, Margaret Laurence: An Appreciation, Broadview Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1988.

Woodcock, George, editor, A Place to Stand On: Essays by and about Margaret Laurence, NeWest Press (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), 1983.


Atlantic, June, 1969, March, 1970.

Canadian Forum, February, 1969, September, 1970.

Canadian Literature, spring, 1993, Colin Nicholson, review of Dance on Earth: A Memoir, p. 181; spring, 1994, George Woodcock, review of Margaret and Al: Margaret Laurence-Al Purdy. A Friendship in Letters, p. 102.

Chicago Tribune Book World, December 7, 1980.

Christian Science Monitor, June 12, 1969, March 26, 1970.

Fiddlehead, Number 80, 1969.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), December 14, 1985, January 10, 1987, March 5, 1988, November 4, 1989.

Maclean's, May 14, 1979; October 23, 1989, Morton Ritts, review of A Diviner's Life, p. 70.

New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1970.

Queen's Quarterly, spring, 1991, Enid Delgatty Rutland, review of Dance on the Earth: A Memoir, p. 216.

Saturday Night, May, 1969.

World Literature Today, winter, 1982.



Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 10, 1987.

Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1987.

Maclean's, January 19, 1987.

New York Times, January 7, 1987.

Publishers Weekly, February 20, 1987.

Times (London, England), January 7, 1987.

Washington Post, January 7, 1987.

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Laurence, Margaret 1926–1987

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