Laurence, (Jean) Margaret (1926-1987)

Born Jean Margaret Wemyss in Neepawa, Manitoba, perhaps no fiction writer in Canada enjoys a more revered status than Margaret Laurence. Both her parents died early, and she was raised by an aunt. She attended United College(now the University of Winnipeg), and after graduating with a BA in English, worked as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen. In 1947 she married Jack Laurence, an engineer, and with him moved, first to England (1949), and then to Somaliland and Ghana. There she developed strong anti-colonial feelings, and translated some Somali writing, which appeared in 1954 as A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose. She also began to write fiction. The Laurences returned to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1957. Her first novel, This Side Jordan, appeared in 1960, and her first collection of short stories, The Tomorrow-Tamer, in 1963. Both are set in Africa, as is her memoir, The Prophet's Camel Bell (1963). After she separated from her husband in 1962, Laurence lived with her children in Buckinghamshire, England, and there, within ten years, wrote the five novels (all located around the fictional prairie town of Manawaka) that made her reputation. The Stone Angel (1964), which won the Governor General's Award for Fiction, has been frequently cited as the best-known and greatest of all Canadian novels. Told from the point of view of a recalcitrant old woman, it recounts Hagar Shipley's inner conflict between pride and rejoicing, her fierce determination in the face of her own death. A Jest of God (1966, republished as Rachel, Rachel, also the name of the 1968 film) is a passionate exploration of the stymied passion of Rachel Cameron, a spinster schoolteacher, and daughter of the town undertaker. The Fire-Dwellers (1969) relates the story of Stacey, Rachel's sister, and her dissatisfaction with domestic life. A Bird in the House (1970) is an interconnected cycle of stories which unveil the town of Manawaka and its historical peregrinations through the eyes of the adolescent narrator, Vanessa MacLeod. Finally, The Diviners (1974), which again won the Governor General's Award for Fiction, brings all of the 'Manawaka' novels together in an exploration of writing and its commitment to place, to a solid ground. The 'Manawaka' books are powerfully-realized attempts to understand the experience of women in relation to a larger universe. Laurence is keenly aware of the doubleness of narrative and memory, the enigma of articulation in the face of time and decorum. At the same time, her work is movingly particular; she does not recoil from the sexual or the spiritual, and the compassion with which her characters' failures are drawn takes her writing far beyond the limitation of realism. She also published several children's books, Jason's Quest (1970), Six Darn Cows (1979), The Olden Days Coat (1979) and The Christmas Birthday Story (1980). Her essays, Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952-1966 (1968) and Heart of a Stranger (1976), as well as her autobiographical memoir and celebration of motherhood, Dance on the Earth, which was published posthumously in 1989, speak of a writer whose vision was generous and magnificent. Laurence returned to Canada in 1974, and lived at Lakefield, Ontario, until her death.