Margaret Laurence

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Margaret Laurence

The Canadian writer Margaret Laurence (1926-1987) was the author of many novels and stories about Africa and Canada. The five Manawaka novels feature strongly etched heroines and won international acclaim.

Margaret Laurence (Jean Margaret Wemyss) was born in 1926 in Neepawa, Manitoba, Canada. Her father's family had been Scottish settlers in the district; her mother's, Irish. She was educated in Neepawa and at United College in Winnipeg, which she attended from 1944 to 1947. After graduation she worked as a reporter on the Winnipeg Citizen, a labor daily. In 1948 she married Jack Laurence, a civil engineering graduate from the University of Manitoba. In 1949 the Laurences went to England and in 1950 to Africa, where Jack Laurence was in charge of a dam-building project in Somaliland (now Somalia). In 1952 they moved to the Gold Coast (now Ghana), where they lived until 1957. Their daughter, Jocelyn, was born during a leave in England in 1952; their son, David, in Ghana in 1955. The Laurences returned to Vancouver, Canada, in 1957. In 1962 Margaret Laurence moved with her children to England, where she lived until moving back to Canada permanently in 1974. The Laurences were divorced in 1969. After 1974 Margaret Laurence lived in Lakefield, Ontario, a small town near the city of Peterborough. Much of her last novel, The Diviners, was written at a cottage on the Otonabee River, near her home in Lakefield.

First Successes

Margaret Laurence started writing when she was young. Her first novel, called Pillars of the Nation, was written at the age of 12 for a contest sponsored by the Manitoba Free Press. A story about pioneer settlers of the West, its town was already called Manawaka. It won honorable mention. Throughout high school and college discerning teachers such as Mildred Musgrove and Malcolm Ross recognized in her a fiction writer's talent, but it was not until her African experiences that the talent blossomed.

Intrigued by the extensive oral literature of the Somali people, she searched out and translated examples of the folk tales, love poems, and formal, highly-developed gabei, gathering them together in a book called A Tree for Poverty, published in 1954. In Ghana she began to write the short stories later collected and published as The Tomorrow-Tamer (London, 1963; New York, 1964). Her first novel, This Side Jordan (1960), is set in Ghana, and The Prophet's Camel Bell (1963), published in the United States as New Wind in a Dry Land (1964), is a retrospective account of her experiences in Somaliland. There she came to a dawning awareness that the themes of freedom, individual dignity, and survival are universal in all literature, applicable to her own Canadian past and present as well as to the desert people of Somalia. She wrote of African people with tact and empathy, so much so that she was repeatedly praised by Chinua Achebe, the senior Nigerian novelist, for her portrayals of Africans and their dilemmas.

The Manawaka Cycle

Five works set in the Canadian prairie town of Manawaka constitute the major body of Laurence's fiction: The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), The Fire-Dwellers (1969), A Bird in the House (1970), and The Diviners (1974). In them, through the voices of five memorable women, she created a multi-faceted Canadian experience through four generations. In The Stone Angel Hagar Shipley tells her story of pride and pain and of learning the meaning of love just before it is too late. Rachel Cameron of A Jest of God is a spinster school-teacher, trapped in Manawaka by the demands of her mother and, even more, by her own fears and self-distrust. Through the crucial events of one summer she comes to a degree of self-knowledge and a limited freedom. Her sister, Stacey MacAindra of The Fire-Dwellers, lives in Vancouver with her husband and four children. She is battered from all sides by an urban environment that seems monstrously threatening and by the multiple demands on her as wife, mother, and friend. But Stacey is strong, a doer and an activator. In the weeks before her 40th birthday she lives through a series of shocks that brings her an increased acceptance of herself and of the irreversible process of life.

The collection of short stories A Bird in the House centers on the young Vanessa MacLeod, her initiation into the mysteries of love and loss, and her gradual acceptance and understanding of Grandfather Connor. As a child she feared and resented him and his tyranny; maturity brings her respect for his strengths and pity for his self-imposed isolation.

The Divinersis the story of Morag Gunn of Manawaka, a writer of novels. On one level the story unfolds the process of Morag's life from the death of her parents when she was young to the novel's present when she is 47, struggling to understand her own life and caught up in a tormenting concern for her daughter, Pique. In its deepest and broadest meaning The Diviners is the story of a profoundly religious pilgrimage, the affirmation of faith and the finding of grace.

Other Works and Awards

In 1968 Margaret Laurence published Long Drums and Cannons, a study of contemporary Nigerian novelists and playwrights, and in 1976, Heart of a Stranger, a collection of personal, often autobiographical essays. She also wrote four children's books: Jason's Quest (1970), The Olden Days Coat (1979), Six Darn Cows (1979), and A Christmas Story (1980).

Margaret Laurence was a beloved and respected Canadian. She was awarded the Order of Canada, the Molson Prize, and honorary degrees by many universities. The Manawaka novels have been translated into many languages.

Further Reading

For studies of Laurence's work see Clara Thomas, Margaret Laurence (1969) and The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence (1975) and Patricia Morley, Margaret Laurence (Twayne, 1981). William New and George Woodcock have edited collections of essays, Margaret Laurence (1977) and A Place To Stand On (1983). The most complete bibliography of the numerous articles and interviews is Susan Warwick's in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors, Volume 1 (ECW Press, 1979). The National Film Board made a one-hour film, "First Lady of Manawaka," and Atlantis Films a half-hour successful film of The Olden Days Coat.

Additional Sources

Crossing the river: essays in honour of Margaret Laurence, Winnipeg, Man.: Turnstone Press, 1988.

Laurence, Margaret, Dance on the earth: a memoir, Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 1989. □

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Margaret Laurence