#111 Margaret Laurence
February 02nd, 2016
LOCATION: 3556 West 21st Avenue, Vancouver
Canada’s most revered novelist in the 1970s, Margaret Laurence, wrote the first draft of one of Canada’s greatest novels, The Stone Angel, while living here between 1957 and 1962. Prior to separating from her husband in 1962 and leaving for London, England, Laurence also published her first novel, This Side Jordan from Vancouver, and wrote most of her stories about living in West Africa. Later much of The Fire-Dwellers was set in Vancouver.
Her West Coast years were difficult. She divorced in 1969 and eventually made her home in Lakefield, Ontario, from 1974 until her suicide in 1987. “The good things that happened to me [in Vancouver],” she said, “were, among others, my meeting with Ethel Wilson and her great kindness and encouragement to me… I never felt at home in Vancouver, although I admired it a lot.”
Admired and loved by many, Margaret Laurence was crushed by loneliness and despair in the end. In Alien Heart: The Life & Work of Margaret Laurence (University of Manitoba Press, 2003), friend and critic Lyall Powers gingerly refers to Laurence’s suicide—-as did her pussyfooting biographer James King. Powers’ critical appreciation has been augmented by some seldom-seen photos–including the one at right, taken when she lived in Vancouver.
“She was not a person who demanded that people adjust to her,” Alice Munro has recalled of their friendship during that formative period. During her four years in Vancouver from 1958 to 1962, struggling as a single mother at 3556 West 21st Avenue, Margaret Laurence revised her first novel This Side Jordan with some assistance from her friend Gordon Elliott; she produced the first draft of The Stone Angel, often cited as the greatest Canadian novel; and she wrote most of her short stories about Africa.
“Vancouver always figured prominently in my childhood imagination,” Laurence says in Vancouver and Its Writers (1986). “It was the paradise that prairie people ultimately went to. It comes into my Canadian writing a lot, of course… [But] I never felt happy in Vancouver, although I admired it a lot and still do. This was not the fault of the city, but rather the fact that, being basically a prairie person, I felt hemmed in between the mountains and the sea, both of which tended to frighten me a bit… We are probably formed by our birth-geography more than we know.”
After Laurence’s first novel This Side Jordan won the Beta Sigma Phi First Novel Award, her heroines in her Manawaka novels The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), The Fire-Dwellers (1969) and The Diviners (1974) were all drawn to Vancouver. These heroines, in order, were Hagar Shipley, Rachel Cameron, Stacey Cameron MacAindra and Morag Gunn. Margaret Laurence herself mostly went by the name Peggy. She never felt entirely at home when she moved from Vancouver to London, but the title of Powers’ study, Alien Heart, doesn’t just emanate from geography. “I belong to those who don’t belong,” Laurence once said. “Only a stranger can help another stranger.”
Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer (Dundurn, 2005) by Donez Xiques investigates Laurence’s formative years in Africa and Vancouver, and provides a previously unpublished short story. Independent scholar Paul Comeau’s purgatorial perspective in Margaret Laurence’s Epic Imagination (University of Alberta Press 2005) has been described by David Stouck as the first critical study of Laurence in more than twenty years to look at her entire oeuvre. Comeau describes how Laurence turned to the epic mode to create her master narratives of loss, exile, and redemption. He cites the integral importance of the Bible, Dante and Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work that Laurence evidently read before and during the composition of every novel. “Of the Old Testament passages that affected her,” he writes, “the one that imprinted itself most profoundly upon her psyche was the Exodus verse–‘Alas, thou shalt not oppress the stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Comeau’s perspective is enhanced by his own distant Métis heritage. “Laurence’s creation of Canadian epic,” he writes, “served to locate my fragmented awareness of personal ancestry within a more comprehensive framework of cultural achievement and identity.”
Laurence once flatly denied she had any First Nations ancestry in a letter to her closest friend, Adele Wiseman, in 1981, but the speculation persists. Lyall Powers provides some grist for the subject. “The late Polish scholar B.W. Andrzejewski, who helped with translations from Somali literature, said Peggy informed him of her Canadian-Aboriginal blood in Somaliland early in the 1950s,” says Powers, “and Professor David Williams of St. Paul’s College gave me the same report of her avowal a decade later.” [Also see Gordon Elliott] One of the most oft-cited studies of Margaret Laurence is Clara Thomas’ The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence (M&S, 1975). Essays and tributes have been edited by George Woodcock, William New, David Staines, Christl Verduyn, Kristjana Gunnars and others.
MARGARET LAURENCE (1979) interview by Alan Twigg
(STRONG VOICES, Harbour 1988)
MARGARET LAURENCE was born in Neepawa, Manitoba in 1926. Educated in Winnipeg where she later worked as a labour reporter, she married in 1947 and lived in Vancouver and Africa before a formal separation from her husband in 1962. She then took her two children to London, England to pursue a full-time career as a writer. Twice recipient of the Governor General’s Award, she wrote fourteen books, the best known of which are her “Manawaka” fictions, The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), The Fire-Dwellers (1969), and The Diviners (1974). A Bird in the House (1970) allowed Laurence to come to terms with the dark childhood shadows of death and a domineering grandfather in a collection of autobiographical short stories. Margaret Laurence lived in Lakefield, Ontario until her death in 1987. She was interviewed in 1979.
T: What’s really struck me in the course of interviewing authors is the extent to which the state of mind of an artist is usually inextricably tied to the state of his or her society. You must recognize this in your own work.
LAURENCE: Oh, certainly. The thing is, whether I recognize it or not, it’s bound to be there. For instance, I don’t write a novel with the idea of commenting on society. Or I never set out and say, “Well, now it’s Canadian novel-writing time.” I think of all my characters in my Canadian books a great deal more as human individuals than I do as Canadians. I simply have a character in mind, or a group of characters, and I want to deal with their dilemmas. I want to communicate with them.
What happens is the dilemma of one particular woman often turns out to be the dilemma of a lot of women. When The Fire-Dwellers was published, a lot of women wrote to me and said how did you know this was how I felt? I didn’t know. I wrote that book by trying to connect with one human individual.
T: And that can have far-reaching effects. Yet there are some people who would argue that such fiction is apolitical.
LAURENCE: Yes, I think very many people would define political writing as something which is strictly in the political realm of governments and social issues. But I think what is political in most serious novels is something quite different. For instance, in The Stone Angel old age is itself a political dilemma. Death. We’re not supposed to think about it. But it’s there. It’s going to happen to all of us.
If you are writing out of what you know, inevitably what you know is your society around you. So if a writer is aware of social injustice, which I think I very deeply am, then that will be there, too. For instance, people sometimes ask me whether I’m consciously writing feminist novels. No, I am not. Even though I myself feel I am a feminist, I won’t write in any didactic or polemical way about it. My protagonists are women and I simply try to portray their dilemmas as truthfully as I can. I’m not doing it for any other reason than because I am interested in a character as a human individual.
T: And that’s how literature can be useful.
LAURENCE: Yes. I remember very clearly thinking before I started The Stone Angel, “Who will be interested in the life of an old woman of ninety?” Then I thought I am interested. Of course it turned out I wasn’t alone. The fact that Hagar struggles so hard to maintain some human dignity throughout the period of her dying has meant a great deal to a lot of people. In fact, to my great surprise, I discovered that novel is actually being used in a number of geriatrics courses and nursing courses for the aged. That pleases me enormously.
T: So increasing awareness is itself a political act.
LAURENCE: Yes, I think so. Otherwise I would not be writing novels.
T: Do you think writers actually create change or is their role simply to reflect it?
LAURENCE: This is the question of the chicken and the egg. I don’t know. The writer’s consciousness if formed by the society, then the writing in turn helps to do something to affect the society. It’s a two-way street. For instance, the feeling we got in the sixties that we were a culture that mattered to ourselves and the world has helped our writers, but our writers also helped in forming those feelings.
T: You once wrote, “What I care about is trying to express something that, in fact, everybody knows but doesn’t say.” Do you think Canadians might be especially dishonest with themselves?
LAURENCE: No. When I said that, I didn’t mean people who were being hypocritical. I was referring to people who experience lots of feelings in their lives but they are in some way inchoate. They aren’t verbal people. This is part of what writers do. They speak for people who cannot speak for themselves.
T: I asked that question because the pioneer experience and the influence of Victorianism have tended to make Canadians keep their emotions under wraps. That sort of repression could encourage double standards.
LAURENCE: I agree. But, as I hope it comes out in my books, I don’t think this country’s puritan background has been all bad for us. With Hagar and the generation of my maternal grandfather, whom I’ve written about in A Bird in the House, they created a very repressive atmosphere. Hagar really damaged her children. Yet at the same time that generation imbued us with an ability to survive. Besides, I don’t think the puritan work ethic is all that wrong!
T: But there’s a National Film Board profile of you which indicates your childhood was pretty bleak.
LAURENCE: Well, even though my grandfather was a very authoritarian man, I myself had the great advantage of growing up in a house where my stepmother, who was my aunt, and my other aunts, were extremely strong and liberated women. I never had the feeling that as a woman I couldn’t choose the profession that I wanted to choose. Two of my aunts were nurses, my stepmother had been a high school teacher of English and my mother had been a pianist. Also, my stepmother was an extremely enlightened woman for her day. For example, when I was young, she never tried to censor my reading. I can remember when Gone with the Wind came out, there were many mothers of daughters who would not permit their little prairie flowers to read this wicked book. But I could always read anything. Mind you, I admit there was not that much hard core porn in the Neepawa Public Library!
T: Do you think the pendulum has swung too far the other way these days?
LAURENCE: Well, a lot of the porn magazines I find vile. I detest them. But it’s not because they deal with sex. It’s because they deal with sex in an exploitive and very largely cruel way. In terms of novels, I don’t believe in writing sex scenes for the sake of bringing in a lot of sex. But if you are to wipe out sex entirely, that’s wiping out one whole area of life. I think if you’re writing truthfully about a character, you’ve got to deal to some extent with that side of their lives. As much as the novel demands and no more.
T: You’ve said that many people misread literature. Can you explain what you mean?
LAURENCE: Misreading comes in when people are unable to see what’s going on in a novel because they focus on the wrong things. I’m thinking of people who want to have my books banned, particularly The Diviners. A lot of those people not only admit to the fact that they have not read the book, they are proud they have never read it. Their eyes are blind to everything except the few sexual passages and some of the so-called swear words. That’s a sad and tragic way of reading a book. That kind of reader doesn’t want to read. To put it in its broadest sense, the motives are not of love but of hate.
T: Or of fear.
LAURENCE: That’s right. One thing the book banners commented on with The Diviners was that I dealt with the quote “seamier side of life.” Well, the seamier side of life exists. Also they complained that I showed native people in the worst possible light. I was simply incensed and enraged by that reaction! I was trying to show the Tonnerre family as real complex human individuals who had suffered at the hands of society. We are culpable. To say that I was showing them in an unfavourable light, as though I was a racist, is ridiculous. Perhaps the book banners wanted “Hiawatha.” But that’s not how real life is.
People say to me, well, if it’s banned by the school boards then all the kids are going to read it. But I’d just as soon they didn’t read it under that particular aegis.
T: We heard a lot of predictions about the possible demise of the novel as well as the possible demise of the church during the sixties, when man was busy landing on the moon. Do you think there’s a connection?
LAURENCE: I don’t really know. People have been saying the novel is dead for a long, long time. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still extremely alive. It simply finds new forms. And God, though very often proclaimed dead, is also very much alive in my opinion.
T: I think if there is a connection between religion and art, it’s that they both emphasize that man is not wholly a rational being, that the truth about ourselves must also be “divined.”
LAURENCE: I accept that connection. Certainly a very great deal of all serious art is in some way religious, even if the writers and painters don’t admit it. This is so with literature because, like faith, it frequently points to the mystery at the heart of things, the mystery and wonder at the core of every human individual. That sense of mystery and wonder comes out of a great deal of writing, as it does with religious faith. Many writers, including myself, who even though they were not thinking in any specific religious terms, have experienced something while writing which I think of as a kind of grace. This came very naturally to ancient and tribal people. They described it as possession by the gods. Nowadays when people say they have written something that surprises them, in my terms there’s a sense of grace happening there.
T: In a good book maybe some of that grace gets passed along to the reader. LAURENCE: One hopes so. I certainly feel very fortunate to have worked as a writer most of my life because I do feel I have been given a certain amount of grace. Whether deservedly or not, we don’t know. But I feel extremely fortunate to have spoken to three generations; the generation before me, my own generation and the next one. People say to me sometimes do you expect your books will be around for 150 years? I don’t know and I don’t care. I feel I’ve been lucky in being able to speak to a number of people in those three generations.
T: Do you get many letters from readers?
LAURENCE: I’ve been very fortunate. People write to me quite often. By far the larger proportion of these letters has been extremely warm and positive. I get a few poison-pen ones, but not that many, thank goodness. And of course I get letters from people who say that I’m sure that you will be tired of hearing this but your book The Diviners meant a great deal to me for such-and-such a reason. Well, I would rather hear that than a good review. It means people who are not involved in the world of books professionally are taking the trouble to say your work has spoken to them. That means a great, great deal to me. That’s what literature is all about.
T: Robertson Davies claims Canada still expects nothing from its writers.
LAURENCE: Well, I can only speak personally on that. One difficulty I’ve had in the last few years is that Canadians almost expect too much. Writers are extremely vulnerable people. It really frightens me when people say to me what are you working on now? When’s your next novel coming out? They mean it in the best possible way. But I sometimes think gosh, can I really do anything more? I’m grappling with trying to write something right now. But it really scares me.
T: Do you sometimes wish you could turn off all the tape recorders like this one and retreat from having a public role?
LAURENCE: I do feel like that sometimes. There are moments when I would like to rent a nice cabin in the arctic somewhere. On the other hand, I do feel very responsible for doing what I can to help writers who are younger than myself in whatever ways I can.
T: Was there someone in particular who helped you out when you were young?
LAURENCE: Yes. The writer who really went out of her way to help me was Ethel Wilson. I got to know her during the five years we lived in Vancouver, before my first novel was published. She had read a couple of my short stories in Prism so she wrote to the magazine expressing her enjoyment of the stories. Then she wrote to me personally. During the years in Vancouver I was absolutely starved for the company of other writers. Ethel Wilson provided that. The sense that somebody did understand. There’s no question that I would have gone on writing, but she provided me with an enormous amount of encouragement. I owe her a great, great deal. There’s no way that I can ever repay her personally. The only thing I can do is pass it on.
T: You’ve lived in Vancouver, England, Africa and now Ontario. Yet the heart of your work still appears to be the prairies. Do you still consider yourself a prairie writer?
LAURENCE: Yes, I still consider myself a prairie writer. That’s where I spent the first twenty-two years of my life and I still have a strong sense of place about the prairies. Literature has to be set somewhere. This is one of the great strengths of our writing. Whether it’s lack Hodgins on Vancouver Island or Harold Horwood in Newfoundland, our writers have a strong sense of place. Even if you’re writing out of an urban situation, like Morley Callaghan, you can still write with a tremendous sense of the earth, of the place. We’re fortunate that the whole nature of Canada is that we’re a conglomerate of regions because this has given an added dimension to our writing.
T: When do you feel Canadian literature began to come of age?
LAURENCE: It began to come of age around the Second World War. The generation of writers before me like Hugh MacLennan, Ernest Buckler, Sinclair Ross and Morley Callaghan were the first people not to base their stories on British or American models. They wrote out of the sight of their own eyes.
T: So you see yourself as part of a second generation.
LAURENCE: Yes, I do. A second generation of non-colonial Canadian writers. Now there’s a whole new generation of Canadian writers who can almost take this “valuing” of ourselves for granted. I like to keep reminding them that we owe a lot to that generation of writers before me. They worked in terrific isolation. A book wasn’t considered any good if it didn’t get a seal of approval in London or New York.
All this has changed a great deal during the sixties and seventies. A lot more people are interested in the literature of this country. But in those days we never valued what we had as a nation. For instance, when I was in high school we never read one Canadian book. Then at university I studied the contemporary novel, but all the writers were American. This was when Hugh MacLennan and Gabrielle Roy were writing some of their finest work.
I don’t suggest that we should wipe Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy out of our schools. Anybody who is writing in the English language, after all, is in some way an heir to Wordsworth and Milton and Shakespeare anyway. But Canadian writers are taking the language and making it our own. This connects with young people. They want to see what they are and where they came from. Their geographical place. Their people. I have gone to literally dozens of high schools in Canada. The kids are incredibly keen to find out more about Canadian literature. It’s because they recognize it as theirs. With a book like The Stone Angel they say well, that’s just like my grandmother. It’s truly their culture.
T: Could there be a link between the extent of a country’s nationalism and the quality of its literature?
LAURENCE: Not necessarily. I think a writer can be a good writer and have no conscious feelings about nationalism at all. But here we should stop and define what we mean by nationalism. It can take different forms. Nationalism can be that imperialist feeling Britain had at one time or it can be the nationalism of Nazism, of wanting to conquer the world. A jackboot forever stamping in the face. The way I feel about Canadian nationalism is quite different. We don’t have any territorial ambitions. We simply want to possess and own our own country.
T: A few writers, such as Mordecai Richler, have been reluctant to accept that label Canadian. Do you think one writer can be more Canadian than another?
LAURENCE: Of course Mordecai Richler is a Canadian writer. It isn’t anything that you choose. I don’t have to proclaim I’m a Canadian writer any more than I have to proclaim that my eyes are brown. It’s just part of me.
T: Is being a Canadian writer still restrictive financially?
LAURENCE: Kid, being a writer of any kind is restrictive financially!
T: Is that the main reason the Writers’ Union of Canada was formed?
LAURENCE: It was formed in order to try and get some better conditions. For example, to help our members get better contracts with their publishers. To try to get some sort of miniscule compensation for library use of our books. To lobby the government for better laws regarding the importation of foreign editions. We like to think of ourselves as a practical working union. We are, however, extremely different from a trade union in that the Writers’ Union doesn’t have the power to strike. But there’s another reason that isn’t economic. When the Writers’ Union was first formed in 1973, I was the first interim chairman. In the only address that I made, I said that I thought of the writers of this country as being members of a kind of tribe. Even thought the Writers’ Union has got much larger and we sometimes argue heatedly at our general meetings, there is still that tremendous sense of belonging to a community. And we all need that sense of community.
T: Have you ever asked yourself why someone might prefer to read your books in particular?
LAURENCE: They find something in them that relates to their own lives or has relevance to their own place of belonging. It’s the same reason they might read anyone’s books, I guess.
T: Except few books express such an encouraging belief in the power of the human will, of changing oneself.
LAURENCE: Yes, there is that. There is this feeling in all my books not of optimism-because you’d have to be a fool to be optimistic in this world but of hope.
T: And I think people also appreciate being able to get so close to your characters. When that happens, literature can offer people a safe form of intimacy. Perhaps it almost teaches us how to love.
LAURENCE: Well, I hope that a sense of love does come across. If it does, it’s because what I feel most of all when I’m writing my books is that each individual human being has great value. Each person is unique and irreplaceable. They matter. Of course, that is a very Western world outlook. But it’s profoundly my own.