Laurence, Margaret

Margaret LaurenceMargaret Laurence (July 18, 1926-January 5, 1987), a much-loved Canadian author, was one of the great novelists of the twentieth century. Her stories feature strong women and their struggles for self-understanding and acceptance. She was known for her outspoken support of peace, women’s rights, and other progressive causes.

Jean Margaret “Peggy” Wemyss was born, raised, and is now interred in the Canadian prairie town of Neepawa, Manitoba. Peggy was the child of Robert Wemyss, a lawyer, and Verna Jean Simpson. Verna died when Peggy was four years old, and Robert, after an interval, married his late wife’s sister, Margaret Campbell Simpson. He died when Peggy was ten. Her stepmother, a teacher and a librarian, was a comfort in her childhood and was always one of her “greatest encouragers.” Another dominating influence in her young life was John Simpson, her maternal grandfather in whose home she and her stepmother lived. In her book, A Bird in the House, 1970, he is portrayed as a tyrannical autocrat. Later in life she commented, “I hated him for a long time, even after his death. Now I have a kind of respect and admiration for him.”

Peggy wrote stories from the time she was seven years old. She wrote throughout high school and college. Before receiving any recognition, she worked at a long time at her craft.

Margaret left Neepawa to attend United College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1944-47. Here she met Jack Laurence, a hydraulic engineer, whom she married in 1947. Her first jobs were in journalism, writing for The Westerner, a Communist newspaper, and the Winnipeg Citizen, a labor daily. The Laurences moved to England in 1949, and then to British Somaliland where Jack worked on building dams and Peggy immersed herself in West African literature. Her first published work was a translation of Somali prose and poetry, A Tree for Poverty, 1954.

In 1952 the Jack and Margaret Laurence moved to Accra, Ghana with their two-month-old daughter, Jocelyn, born in England. In 1955 they had a second child, David, born in Ghana. The books that first brought Laurence recognition came out of her African experience. Her first novel, This Side Jordan, 1960, set on the Gold Coast, won the 1961 Beta Sigma Phi Award for the best first novel by a Canadian. After leaving Africa in 1958 Laurence wrote three further books from her experience there: The Tomorrow Tamer, 1963, a collection of short stories; A Prophet’s Camel Bell, 1963, describing life in Somaliland; and Long Drums and Cannons, 1968, an academic study of Nigerian fiction and drama.

The Laurence family next lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, 1957-62. Here they joined the Unitarian Church. In 1961 Margaret wrote her lifelong friend Adele Wiseman, “this year (don’t faint) I’m teaching Sunday School in the Unitarian Church.” For her children and other Sunday School students she fashioned a retelling of the birth of Jesus, in which Joseph and Mary do not particularly care about their coming child’s gender. The church used the story long after Laurence left. Much later, when she published her tale, The Christmas Birthday Story, 1980, she sent a copy to the Vancouver Unitarian Church with a cordial letter crediting them for having “first inspired her” to write the story. Some Unitarian Universalist churches continue to use this story as part of their Christmas celebrations.

In 1962 Margaret left Vancouver with her children, but without her husband. She and Jack divorced in 1969. She and the children moved to England where they settled in Elm Cottage in Penn, Buckinghamshire, 30 miles from London. Shortly after arriving in England, she wrote Wiseman, “I haven’t gone to the Unitarian church here yet, as I keep feeling reluctant about it—they are somehow too cheery and positive-thinking for my present frame of mind.” In the event, her activity and membership in the Unitarian Church ceased after she left Vancouver. She much later wrote, “I agreed with many of the concepts of the Unitarian Church and still do.”

During the next seven years in England the children grew into adults. The family frequently entertained other Canadian expatriates. One friend described this home as a place of “agreeable anarchy.” It was from here that Laurence first published novels set in Canada. Many of these took place in Manawaka, a fictional town modeled after Neepawa, where she grew up. The first, The Stone Angel, 1964, was a landmark event in Canadian literature. The Toronto Globe and Mail reviewer spoke for many Canadians saying, “Laurence is unforgettable because she is us.”

A Jest of God, 1966, which received the Governor General’s Award, was the basis for a movie, Rachel, Rachel, 1968, starring Joanne Woodward. The series continued with The Fire Dwellers, 1960, the story of Stacey MacAindra, a Vancouver housewife and married sister of A Jest of God‘s spinster Rachel Cameron. Laurence fashioned A Bird in the House out of a series of autobiographical short stories written 1962-67. The autobiographical strain continued with The Diviners, 1974. The narrators of the earlier stories reappear in this final Manawaka novel, emphasizing their unity as a set. Laurence won her second Governor General’s Award for The Diviners.

The characters in Laurence’s novels struggle to understand themselves in relation to God. Throughout The Fire-Dwellers Stacey carries on a conversation with God in her head. “At the Day of Judgment, God will say Stacey MacAindra, what have you done with your life? And I’ll say, Well, let’s see, Sir, I think I loved my kids. And he’ll say, Are you certain about that? And I’ll say, God I’m not certain about anything any more. So He’ll say, To hell with you then. We’re all positive thinkers up here. Then again, may He wouldn’t. Maybe He’d say, Don’t worry, Stacey, I’m not all that certain, either. Sometimes I wonder if I even exist. And I’d say, I know what you mean, Lord. I have the same trouble with myself.”

In A Bird in the House her grandmother tells narrator Vanessa MacLeod that “God loves order.” After doing some hard observing, Vanessa concludes that “Whatever God might love in this world, it was certainly not order.” At the conclusion of A Jest of God, Rachel is able to surrender her need to control events and to celebrate her freedom in a sometimes random universe. “Where I’m going, anything may happen. Nothing may happen,” she muses. “I will be light and straight as any feather. The wind will bear me and I will drift and settle, and drift and settle. . . . God’s mercy on reluctant jesters. God’s grace on fools. God’s pity on God.”

At the conclusion of The Stone Angel Hagar Shipley, a humiliated and stubborn old woman, dying in the hospital, is visited by a frightened young minister. The visit does not go well until Hagar asks him sing a prayer of rejoicing—and though embarrassed and reluctant, he complies. He sings well enough that Hagar thinks, “He should sing always, and never speak.” Then suddenly Hagar has a revelation: “I must have always, always wanted that—simply to rejoice.”

Laurence’s fiction portrays God having the qualities of mercy, grace, suffering, pity, joy, humor, truth, fear, strangeness and disarray. Whenever someone referred to her as a religious writer, however, Laurence felt “a little confused,” as if she had been “both complimented and insulted at the same time.”

Margaret LaurenceWhile still living in England Laurence established a summer home in southern Ontario, which she named Manawaka Cottage. Her return to Canada became year-round in 1973 and she made her home in Lakefield, Ontario. In 1976, she began attending the Lakefield United Church. The United Church of Canada was thus both the church of her youth and the church of her later years. Although she had been comfortable with Unitarian belief (or lack of it) she did not feel in the Unitarian heritage the raw power of the image of crucifixion, which she thought expressed the suffering of humanity, and of women in particular. Moreover, she sought an emotional continuity with “the church of my ancestors,” the Scottish Presbyterian Church (one of the components of the United Church in Canada).

The Unitarian Church in Canada and The United Church of Canada have similar positions on most social issues. In one of Laurence’s final essays she wrote: “I want to proclaim my belief in the social gospel . . . (which) is no easier now than it ever was.” In Western Canada two of the best known leaders of the social gospel movement were Tommy Douglas (Presbyterian/United Church of Canada) and William Irvine (Unitarian), both of whom were clergy who left their pulpits in order to serve in the Canadian parliament.

The Social Gospel movement supported progressive causes and labor. Important for Laurence was its intermingling of the sacred and the secular, for she saw the handiwork of God in all activities including the ongoing struggle for dignity and justice for all people. Laurence’s last novel includes the Christ figure, Christie Logan, who takes care of the town dump and proclaims: “by their garbage shall ye know them.” On another occasion he reflects: “Some of them, because I take off the muck for them, they think I’m muck. Well, I am muck, but so are they. Not a father’s son, not a man born of woman who is not muck in some part of his immortal soul.”

Towards the end of her life Laurence wrote: “I am a Christian, or at least aspire to be, although perhaps not an orthodox one.” She found most Christian doctrines, like the divinity of Jesus, “thorny theological matters, which I as an adult have found difficult, and sometimes quite impossible, to believe in.” A few weeks before her death, in her last telephone conversation with Edmonton novelist Rudy Wiebe, she expressed herself more informally: “You know Rudy, I’ve always been a half assed Christian.”

Although she never lived in Neepawa as an adult, Laurence continued to consider herself “a Prairie person because I have always remained deeply just that.” Some there felt, and still feel, her fictional portrayal of the town unflattering. After her death, Ivan Traill, a former high school principal and the head of a group that restored one of Laurence’s childhood homes, noted that despite Manawaka’s equivocal image and Laurence’s portrayal of sex, none of her books was ever banned in local schools. “I think deep down the majority of people in Neepawa are proud that Margaret Laurence came from here.”

With the publishing of The Diviners, 1974, Laurence had finished saying what she needed to say. There remained the question of what to do with the rest of her life. She served as Writer in Residence at the Universities of Toronto and Western Ontario and Trent University. She wrote articles and children’s stories. She worked a peace activist, supporting organizations such as Project Ploughshares. She once famously chided Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for allowing the United States military to conduct test flights over Canadian air space. She also gave generously of her time to Canadian Abortion Rights Action League. Answering up to 1,500 letters a year, she inspired and encouraged a younger generation of Canadian authors.

Laurence’s feelings were mixed, however, when others began nudging her aside for the unofficial position of First Lady of Canadian Literature. She struggled with alcoholism and depression and old insecurities. Finally, she was diagnosed with cancer. After living with the disease for some months, she took her own life at sixty years of age. Her daughter, Jocelyn, did the final editing of her autobiography, Dance on the Earth, 1989. To this is appended some of her poetry, including “Prayer for Passover and Easter,” an interfaith prayer for peace:

May our eyes and hearts be opened
To all faiths that praise
And protect life . . .
May we lean
One upon another
Give and receive loving strength
And may we learn
We are one People    in our only home
Earth. Amen.

Archives of Laurence materials include the Margaret Laurence Home in Neepawa, Manitoba and the Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman fonds in the Canadian Literary Papers at York University, Toronto, Ontario. Some of her correspondence has been published as John Lennox, ed., Margaret Laurence-Al Purdy, A Friendship in Letters: Selected Correspondence (1993); J. A. Wainwright, ed., A Very Large Soul: Selected Letters from Margaret Laurence to Canadian Writers (1995); and John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky, ed., Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman (1997). Books by Laurence not mentioned above include a collection of essays, Heart of a Stranger (1976) and several children’s books: Jason’s Quest (1970), Six Darn Cows (1979), and The Olden Days Coat (1979). There are Laurence bibliographies in Susan J. Warwick, Margaret Laurence: An Annotated Bibliography (1979) and Hildegard Kuester, The Crafting of Chaos (1994).

Among many books about Laurence are Clara Thomas, Margaret Laurence (1969); Clara Thomas, The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence (1975); Patricia Morley, Margaret Laurence: The Long Journey Home (1981, rev. 1991); George Woodcock, ed., A Place to Stand On (1983); and the definitive biography, James King, The Life of Margaret Laurence (1997). Following her death there were obituaries in many Canadian newspapers. The author of this article is also in debt to a 1987 presentation by Rudy Wiebe and a conversation with Vancouver Unitarian minister, Phillip Hewett.

Article by John Marsh
Posted June 24, 2003