Laurence, Margaret (1926–1987)

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Laurence, Margaret (1926–1987)

Canadian writer who was one of the key figures in the development of 20th-century Canadian literature. Born Jean Margaret Wemyss on July 18, 1926, in Neepawa, Manitoba, Canada; died in Lakefield, Ontario, Canada, on January 5, 1987; daughter of Robert Wemyss (a lawyer) and Verna (Simpson) Wemyss; attended public school in Neepawa and United College in Winnipeg, Manitoba; married John Laurence, known as Jack, in 1947 (divorced 1969); children: Jocelyn (b. 1952) and David (b. 1955).

Her mother died suddenly (1930); her mother's sister came to Neepawa to look after her and married Robert Wemyss, becoming her stepmother (1931); Robert Wemyss died (1935); submitted first story to a Winnipeg Free Press writing contest (1939); worked as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen (1947–48); moved to England with husband (1949), and then to British protectorate of Somaliland (1952); family returned to Canada (1957) and she began writing; separated from her husband (1960) and returned to England with her children; made a Companion of the Order of Canada (1971); returned to Canada (1973); awarded the Governor-General's Medal for fiction (1974); was chancellor of Trent University in Peterborough (1980–83).

Selected works:

A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose (1954, reprinted 1970); This Side Jordan (1960); The Tomorrow-Tamer (1964); The Prophet's Camel Bell (1964); The Stone Angel (1964, reprinted 1968); A Jest of God (1966, reprinted 1974); Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952–1966 (1968); The Fire-Dwellers (1969, reprinted 1973); A Bird in the House (1970, reprinted 1974); Jason's Quest (1970); The Diviners (1974).

The awareness of an ability to write came early to Margaret Laurence. From age seven, she wrote stories; at age twelve, she won Honorable Mention in a children's writing competition conducted by the Winnipeg Free Press, a major Canadian newspaper. Often writing from her own experiences, she produced characters that were strong, individualistic, and tragic, and made her work a meditation on the human experience, not just in Canada but in the broader world as well. Laurence is regarded as one of the most influential Canadian writers of the late 20th century.

A deep influence on her early writing was the encouragement she received from her stepmother, Margaret Simpson Wemyss , for whom she was named, and who was also her aunt. In 1930, when Margaret Laurence was only four years old, her mother Verna Simpson Wemyss died. That year, Margaret Simpson Wemyss, eight years older than her sister Verna, returned to the small town of Neepawa to raise Verna's daughter. A clever and loving women, Margaret Simpson Wemyss had been a successful schoolteacher in Calgary; the following year, she married Margaret's father, Robert Wemyss, who was a lawyer. The bond between stepmother and daughter was young Margaret Laurence's salvation, since her father died when she was nine.

What I care about trying to do is to express something that in fact everybody knows, but doesn't say.

—Margaret Laurence

Neepawa was to serve as the model for the fictional town of Manawaka which is the setting for all of Margaret Laurence's Canadian stories. About 125 miles northwest of Winnipeg, Neepawa is the capital of the province of Manitoba, and located on a plateau overlooking a valley where two creeks merge to form the White Mud River. Encompassing fertile soil, the district was settled by Scottish pioneers who trekked westward from eastern Canada in the 1870s and 1880s in search of farmland. All the history of this small town became part of Laurence's Manawaka, but it was the cataclysmic events of her own time—the effects of the First World War, the hardships of the Great Depression, and the Second World War—that were to be shown with particular impact.

In 1944, Margaret was 18 when she left Neepawa to attend United College in Winnipeg. There she studied English and developed the foundations of her literary style, while publishing poetry and her first short stories in the college newspaper, where she was also the assistant editor in her final year. After graduation, Laurence worked for a year as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen, a labor-oriented newspaper, writing book reviews and a daily radio column.

In 1947, at age 21, she married John Laurence, a civil engineering student known as Jack. After his graduation in 1949, the young couple left Canada for England; a year later, they left England for Africa, where Jack Laurence had been hired for a dam and dike building project in the deserts of the British protectorate of Somaliland, now Somalia. When the British Colonial office discouraged Jack from taking his wife along, on the grounds that Somaliland would to be too rough and rugged a place for a woman, Jack described Margaret as "a kind of female Daniel Boone" and finally persuaded the authorities she should be allowed to go.

For the next two years, the couple lived in isolated desert camps, sometimes sleeping in tents and at other times in their vehicles. With none of the comforts of modern life, Margaret Laurence relished the experience of Somaliland. As she later wrote, "Nothing can equal in hope and apprehension the first voyage east of Suez, yourself eager for all manner of oddities." While Jack worked on dam constructions, she became intrigued by the Somali people, particularly their extensive oral literature, and set out to collect and translate examples of the tales and poems of this essentially nomadic people. In 1954, her translations were published as A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose.

In 1952, Laurence returned to England for the birth of her daughter, Jocelyn Laurence ; the family then moved on to the Gold Coast, now Ghana, where David was born in 1955; they remained there until 1957. Shortly after David's birth, in August 1955, Laurence began drafting her first novel, This Side Jordan.

Ghana is the setting of both This Side Jordan and The Tomorrow-Tamer, a collection of short stories. The country achieved independence in 1957, only a few months after the departure of the Laurences, and the charged political atmosphere of the years leading up to that independence inform both works. This Side Jordan portrays the conflict between the two prevailing social groups within Ghanese society, one colonial British and one African, during this time. Built around the threat felt by the British administrators of an established textile company during the shift to African control, the story identified the British group as sympathetic to the goals of the Africans, but in retrospect Laurence believed she had been far more successful in probing the British mentality than she had that of the Africans. Reviewers gave her achievement a more positive assessment, however. And Patricia Morley , in her biography of Laurence, describes the novel and collection as "a sensitive portrait of social change in West Africa and the pressures it exerts on individuals and groups."

The Prophet's Camel Bell, published in 1964, is a travel memoir of the author's experiences in Somaliland from 1950 to 1952, later remembered by Laurence as her most difficult work. "I believe that fiction is more true than fact," Laurence once said. She preferred fiction for the expression of characters' thoughts, and for the exploration of themes that is possible only in fiction.

After returning to Canada in 1957, Laurence turned her attention to Hagar Shipley, a character who had developed out of her own prairie background. The Stone Angel, published in 1964, is the story of Hagar's struggle in her last days to reconcile herself with her past, and became the keystone of Laurence's career as well as a landmark event in Canadian literature.

The story involves two separate but interlocking strands, in which events of the present trigger memories of the past. Hagar is a 90-year-old grandmother needing hospital care who stubbornly refuses to leave her home. Memories progress from her childhood to her marriage to Bram Shipley, which removed her from her social class and isolated her from her family, through the birth of two sons and her desertion of Bram, the deaths of Bram and her favorite son, John, to her life on the West Coast with Marvin, her surviving son. As her health fails, Hagar desperately attempts to evade her fate by making a secret journey to a nearby beach, an event Laurence's biographer Morley defines as "a descent into Self which is healing." By the story's end, Hagar is prepared for death, having come to terms with the events and emotions of her life.

Hagar's history, in the fictional prairie town of Manawaka, is an amalgam of prairie-town life and Laurence's own experience growing up in Neepawa. "In raging against our injustices, our stupidities," Laurence said, "I do so as my family, as I did, and still do, in writing about those aspects of my town which I hated and which are always in some ways aspects of myself." The setting she created was to remain the background for all her fiction set in Canada. A Jest of God, published in 1966, is the story of Rachel Cameron, who, through the ordeal of events involving one summer in Manawaka, emerges from her extended childhood into a fragile but sustaining identity. Eight stories, written and published from 1962 to 1970, and later

assembled for publication as A Bird in the House, were built around the maturation of the protagonist, Vanessa MacLeod, and based on Laurence's own childhood. A Jest of God was later adapted for the highly acclaimed American movie Rachel, Rachel, starring Joanne Woodward and directed by Paul Newman.

In 1962, after separating from her husband, Margaret Laurence left Canada for England with Jocelyn and David. She remained there for the next decade, completing The Stone Angel and A Jest of God. She also wrote numerous book reviews for journals and newspapers, as well as The Fire-Dwellers, her fourth novel, and the Vanessa MacLeod stories. During this period, she made a trip to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, to see her husband and attempt a reconciliation, but the effort was not successful and the couple divorced in 1969. Laurence was also commissioned to visit Egypt to write several travel articles on that country, and after returning to Canada held several appointments as writer-in-residence at various Canadian universities.

A hallmark of Laurence's writing is her retrospective approach to the work, drawing from the deep wells of her remembered experience. The African years took literary shape in Canada during the five years that followed; the Manawakan novels were created in England in the 1960s, and the experience of her years in Vancouver, on the Canadian west coast (1957–62), goes into The Fire-Dwellers, set down half a decade later. The Fire-Dwellers concerns Stacey MacAindra, a women married to a struggling salesman and the mother of four. Only in The Diviners does Laurence confront Canadian life in a manner contemporaneous with the time of writing. The story of writer Morag Gunn, The Diviners is the climactic work of the Manawaka series, and brings together the Scottish descendants and the Indian half-breed outcasts of Manawaka by chronicling her relationship with Jules Tonnere.

From time to time, Laurence also found refreshment in writing for children, producing Jason's Quest, Six Darn Cows, The Olden Days Coat, and A Christmas Birthday Story. In 1968, she expressed her continuing interest in African literature in Long Drums and Cannons, her tribute to the upsurge of Nigerian writing in English between 1952 and 1966.

After returning to live in Canada in 1973, Laurence became active in political organizations promoting world peace. She also influenced and advised the next generation of Canadian writers through writer-in-residence programs and served from 1980 to 1983 as chancellor of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. Meanwhile, she garnered several Canadian writing awards, most notably the Governor-General's Medal for fiction in 1974.

Margaret Laurence died on January 5, 1987, at age 61. Throughout the body of her work, her concern had been with characters who display a powerful desire for freedom; but the freedom they attain tends to be partial and imperfect, resulting in isolation. Laurence once voiced the view that human beings "ought to be able to communicate and touch each other far more than they do, and this human loneliness and isolation, which occurs everywhere, seems to me to be part of man's tragedy. I'm sure one of the main themes in all my writing is this sense of man's isolation from his fellows and how almost unbearably tragic this is." It is this reflection on the human experience that makes her a writer of note throughout the world.


Morley, Patricia. Margaret Laurence. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1981.

Thomas, Clara. Margaret Laurence. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969.

suggested reading:

Thomas, Clara. The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

Mark Vajcner , freelance writer and researcher in Canadian history, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

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