Margaret Laurence, née Jean Margaret Wemyss, novelist (b at Neepawa, Man 18 July 1926; d at Lakefield, Ont 5 Jan 1987).
Margaret Laurence, née Jean Margaret Wemyss, novelist (b at Neepawa, Man 18 July 1926; d at Lakefield, Ont 5 Jan 1987). She was educated in Neepawa and at United College, Winnipeg, and married Jack Laurence, a hydraulic engineer, in 1947. In 1949 they moved to England and later to Somaliland and Ghana where he worked as a dam builder with the British Overseas Development Service. Their 2 children were born in 1952 and 1954. In 1957 the family moved from Ghana to Vancouver, and in 1962 Margaret Laurence and the children moved to England, settling in the village of Penn in Buckinghamshire. Margaret and Jack Laurence were divorced in 1969, and in 1974 Margaret Laurence returned to live permanently in Lakefield, Ont.
From age 7 she wrote stories; though she wrote throughout high school and college and worked after graduation for the Winnipeg Citizen, a labour daily, her first work for publication did not occur until the Somaliland years. In 1954 the British Protectorate of Somaliland published A Tree for Poverty, her translations of Somali folktales and poetry. Africa transformed Laurence from an idealistic young western liberal to a mature woman who saw at first hand the problems of emergent nations, empathized with their peoples and read deeply in 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 the stories set in Ghana published in various journals and gathered into The Tomorrow-Tamer in 1963. This Side Jordan, her first novel, was set and drafted in Ghana and published in 1960. All her 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.
Back in Vancouver she revised her memoirs of the Somaliland years, published as The Prophet's Camel Bell (1963), and then turned her attention to Hagar Shipley, who had developed in her imagination out of her prairie background. The Stone Angel (1964), the story of Hagar's last journey towards recognition of love and freedom, was a landmark event for Canadian literature and the keystone of Laurence's career. It set the town, Manawaka, firmly in Canada's imaginative landscape and pointed the way for the works to follow.
A Jest of God (1966) is the story of Rachel Cameron, who, through the ordeal of one summer in Manawaka in the 1960s, finds a fragile but sustaining selfhood. Seven of the 8 stories of A Bird in the House were published from 1962 onward; with the addition of an 8th they were gathered together and published in 1970. The maturing of Vanessa MacLeod, their heroine, is based on Margaret Laurence's own experiences. The deaths of her own parents, the changes caused first by loss and grief and then by the practical circumstances of her life are present in Vanessa's story, not in correspondence of detail, but in truth of spirit. Stacey MacAindra of The Fire-Dwellers (1969) is Rachel Cameron's sister. Married to a struggling salesman, living in Vancouver and mother of 4, Stacey is the beleaguered housewife of our time. She thinks of herself as commonplace and ordinary, but Laurence's great achievement is to reveal to us her extraordinary qualities of love, fortitude and vitality.
The Diviners (1974), the story of writer Morag Gunn, is true in its spirit to Laurence's own maturing and is the climactic work of the Manawaka cycle. A complex and profound novel, it brings the Scottish pioneers and the Métis outcasts of Manawaka together and culminates in the joining of past and present and the affirming of the future in the person of Pique, the daughter of Morag and Jules Tonnere.
From time to time Laurence found refreshment in writing 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 magic Christmas story. A Christmas Birthday Story (1980) is the retelling of a work first written when her own children were very young. In 1968 Laurence's continuing interest in African literature was expressed in Long Drums and Cannons, her tribute to the upsurge of Nigerian writing in English between 1958 and 1964. In 1976 she collected and introduced a group of her occasional essays, Heart of a Stranger.
From her home in Lakefield, she was constantly active in organizations promoting the cause of world peace, particularly in Project Ploughshares. She was awarded the Order of Canada and honorary degrees by 14 Canadian universities. The Stone Angel was the first Canadian novel to be required reading for France's prestigious "aggregation" examination. Her works were translated into many languages, and before her last illness she was preparing to journey to Britain, where the Manawaka novels are now being reissued by Virago Press, and to Norway, where the translation of The Stone Angel has been a best-seller. For 3 years she was chancellor of Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.
She was much beloved and will be remembered for her works and for the personal warmth, strength and humour which she shared so generously. Her final literary legacy, the memoir, Dance on the Earth, which she finished before she died, was edited by her daughter Jocelyn and published in 1989.
Patricia Morley, Margaret Laurence (1981); Clara Thomas, Margaret Laurence (1969) and The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence (1975); George Woodcock, ed, A Place to Stand On (1983).