Margaret Laurence (née Jean Margaret Wemyss), CC, novelist (born 18 July 1926 in Neepawa, MB; died 5 January 1987 in Lakefield, ON). Margaret Laurence was one of the pivotal and foundational figures in women’s literature in Canada. Two of her novels — A Jest of God (1966) and The Diviners (1974) — won the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. She also wrote acclaimed poetry, short stories and children’s literature, helped found the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Writers’ Trust of Canada, and served as chancellor of Trent University. She was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1972 and was named a Person of National Historic Significance by the government of Canada in 2018.
Early Years and Education
Margaret Laurence was born in Neepawa, Manitoba, to Robert Wemyss and Verna Jean Simpson. Her mother died when she was four years old, which prompted her maternal aunt, Margaret Simpson, to come live with the family. Simpson later married Robert and became Margaret’s stepmother. When Margaret was eight, her father died, leaving Margaret in the care of her stepmother for most of her childhood. She began writing stories and poetry at the age of seven.
Laurence was educated in Neepawa. In 1944, she attended United College in Winnipeg, where she wrote extensively for the student newspaper. She graduated in 1947 with an honours in English and went on to work as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen. That same year, she married Jack Laurence, a hydraulic engineer.
In 1949, the young couple moved to England. They later lived in Somaliland (an autonomous region of Somalia) and Ghana in Africa where Jack Laurence worked as a dam builder with the British Overseas Development Service. Their first child, Jocelyn, was born in 1952, and their second, David, in 1955.
In 1957, the family moved from Ghana to Vancouver. In 1962, Margaret Laurence and her children moved to England, settling in the village of Penn in Buckinghamshire. Margaret and Jack Laurence were divorced in 1969. In 1973, Margaret Laurence returned to live permanently in Lakefield, Ontario.
Early Career and Writing in Africa
Aside from her reporting at the Winnipeg Citizen, Margaret Laurence’s first work for publication did not occur until her years in Somaliland. In 1954, the British Protectorate of Somaliland published A Tree for Poverty, her translations of Somali folk tales and poetry.
Africa transformed Laurence from a young, idealistic Western liberal to a mature woman who saw first-hand the problems of emerging nations. She empathized with the peoples of Africa and read deeply into their history and literature. Her first published fiction was a story, “Uncertain Flowering,” published in a Whit Burnett anthology for 1954. It was followed by her stories set in Ghana, published in various journals and gathered into The Tomorrow-Tamer and Other Stories (1963). This Side Jordan, her first novel, was set and drafted in Ghana and published in 1960. All of Laurence’s African fiction reflects a determined apprenticeship to writing, and a burgeoning talent based on a passionate belief in the dignity and potential of every human being.
The Stone Angel (1964)
Back in Vancouver, Laurence revised her memoirs of the Somaliland years, which were published as The Prophet's Camel Bell (1963). She then turned her attention to the character of Hagar Shipley, who had developed in her imagination out of her Prairie background.
The Stone Angel (1964), Laurence’s second novel, is the story of Hagar's last journey towards recognition of love and freedom. It is a landmark work in Canadian literature and the keystone of Laurence’s career. It placed the town of Manawaka (which is based on Laurence’s hometown of Neepawa, Manitoba) firmly in Canada's imaginative landscape. Her literary depictions of Manawaka are similar to William Faulkner’s Yoknaptawpha county, the fictional Mississippi town where a number of his novels and stories are set.
A Jest of God (1966)
Laurence followed the success of The Stone Angel with the novel A Jest of God (1966). It tells the story of Rachel Cameron, who, through the ordeal of one summer in Manawaka in the 1960s, finds a fragile but sustaining selfhood. A Jest of God won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1966 and was adapted to the screen under the title Rachel, Rachel, starring Joanne Woodward and directed by Paul Newman.
A Bird in the House (1962)
Seven of the eight stories in A Bird in the House were published from 1962 onward. They were also published together, with the addition of an eighth, in 1970. The maturing of Vanessa MacLeod, the heroine of the stories, is based on Margaret Laurence’s own experiences. The deaths of Laurence’s parents — the changes caused first by loss and grief, and then by the practical circumstances of her life — are present in the spirit of Vanessa's story.
The Fire-Dwellers (1969)
Stacey MacAindra of The Fire-Dwellers (1969) is Rachel Cameron’s sister. A beleaguered housewife and mother of four, Stacey is married to a struggling salesman and lives in Vancouver. She thinks of herself as commonplace and ordinary, but Laurence’s great achievement is to reveal her extraordinary qualities of love, fortitude and vitality.
The Diviners (1974)
Laurence’s final novel, The Diviners (1974), is the climactic work of the Manawaka cycle. A complex and profound novel about the story of writer Morag Gunn, it unites the Scottish pioneers and the Métis outcasts of Manawaka. The novel culminates in the joining of past and present and the affirmation of the future in the person of Pique, the daughter of Morag and Jules Tonnere. Now considered to be a classic of Canadian Literature, The Diviners won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1974. In 1993, it was adapted for television and aired on CBC.
Margaret Laurence also wrote several notable children’s books. Jason's Quest (1970) is a joyfully inventive tale about a mole and his friends, its essence a confrontation between the forces of darkness and light. Six Darn Cows (1979) is a carefully crafted story for very young readers, and The Olden Days Coat (1979, rev. 1982) is a magical Christmas story.
A Christmas Birthday Story (1980) is the retelling of a work first written when Laurence’s own children were very young. Laurence’s continuing interest in African literature was expressed in Long Drums and Cannons (1968), her tribute to the upsurge of Nigerian writing in English between 1958 and 1964.
Essays and Memoir
In 1976, Laurence published a group of her occasional essays under the title Heart of a Stranger. Her final literary legacy, the memoir Dance on the Earth, was edited by her daughter Jocelyn and published in 1989.
From her home in Lakefield, Ontario, Laurence was active in organizations promoting the cause of world peace, particularly in Project Ploughshares. She also helped found the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Writers’ Trust of Canada, and was chancellor of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, from 1980 to 1983.
Honours and Legacy
Margaret Laurence was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and received honorary degrees from 14 Canadian universities. The Stone Angel was the first Canadian novel to be required reading for France's prestigious “Agrégation” examination. Her works were translated into many languages. Before her last illness she was preparing to journey to Britain, where the Manawaka novels were being reissued by Virago Press, and to Norway, where the translation of The Stone Angel was a bestseller. In 2018, Laurence was posthumously named a Person of National Historic Significance by the government of Canada.