BORN: Neepawa, Manitoba • 18 July 1926
DIED: Lakefield, Ontario • 5 January 1987
The entry on Margaret Laurence in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature opens by referring to her as “Canada’s most successful novelist.” Whether this is still true is a matter for debate, depending on how “successful” is defined.What is beyond doubt is that Laurence brought Canadian fiction out of the shadows and into the full sun, and that her strong female characters and her own example galvanized women writers.
Margaret Wemyss’ parents died when she was very young and she was raised by her mother’s sister in a household above a funeral parlour dominated by her repressive, authoritarian grandfather.Escape came at United College in Winnipeg where, broke, she went to the book department at the Hudson’s Bay Company and read new fiction, a chapter at a time, hoping the salesclerks would not throw her out.
Soon she began to publish her own writing: “Writing is an addiction with me,” she said later. At the same time, she immersed herself in the city’s rich political stew, emerging imbued with the fashionable leftist views of late wartime Canada. She married Jack Laurence, an engineer, in 1948, and accompanied him to England and to Africa.
The couple spent two years in British Somaliland and five years on the Gold Coast (now Ghana), both colonial societies quite different in char¬ acter but beginning to contemplate independence.Her first works emerged out of these years—a translation of Somalian poetry, a sensuous novel set in Africa, and a memoir of her Somalian experience.
Her sense of “social awareness, [her] feelings of anti-imperialism, anti-colo¬ nialism, anti-authoritarianism” all flowered in Africa and were evident in her writing.The marriage did not survive long after the family returned to Canada. In 1962 Laurence left her husband and took her two children to England, set up house in the coun¬ tryside, and began to mine her Canadian experiences.
The Stone Angel (1964) was the first of her novels to be set in Manawaka, the mythical prairie town populated by Scots- Irish Presbyterians that resembled her own birthplace. Its nonagenarian heroine, the indomitable Hagar Shipley, instantly became one of the great survivors and enduring characters in Canadian fiction.
Hagar’s humorous, ironic recounting of her struggle for self in a masculine-dominated world struck a chord across the country, especially with women. In 1969 Laurence returned to Canada, and she began to receive the honours and awards that ultimately included two Governor General’s Awards for Fiction, a Companionship in the Order of Canada, and a bushel of honorary degrees.
More books followed in a steady stream: A Jest ofGod, which was made into the successful Hollywood film Rachel, Rachel, A Bird in the House, a collection of short stories that verged on the autobiographical; The Fire-Dwellers’, and, most notably, The Diviners, which completed her Manawaka saga.
The Diviners featured another strong female character, Morag Gunn, and raised questions of social ostracism, racism, and sexuality. Before long, angry parents tried to ban the novel from schools in Peterborough, close by the Ontario town of Lakefield where Laurence resided, claiming that the book endorsed immorality.
Her writing aside, Laurence was an active participant in Canadian life and letters, not least as the first head of the Writers’ Union of Canada. She did stints as writer-in¬ residence at Canadian universities, served as a much-loved chancellor of Trent University, and spoke out feelingly— some might say naively—on questions of social policy and nuclear disarmament.
She was, she proclaimed, “a Christian, a woman, a writer, a parent, a member of humanity and a sharer in life itself, a life I believe to be informed and infused with the holy spirit.” Curiously, Laurence had left out from that list that she was a Canadian, but her writing had already made that obvious to herself and her fellow citizens.