Before Alice Munro started writing realistically about the lives of girls and women, Margaret Laurence was pioneering the same subject while helping put CanLit onto the world map.
Back in about 1979, I was among a handful of English class keeners who were taken by our teacher to see Laurence during a meet-and-greet session in Winnipeg.
As we were ushered into her presence we noticed that Laurence looked exactly as unglamorous as in her dust jacket photos.
She wasn’t exactly stern, but came across as reticent and serious while observing us from behind her giant glasses. Laurence would smile slightly or make an appreciative utterance whenever an exuberant student from our group spoke admiringly of her work.
When it was my turn to say something, I told Laurence I particularly liked her book The Stone Angel because its central character, Hagar Shipley, reminded me of my grandmother.
Laurence looked at me strangely. A question flickered across her face — did I really understand the hard, self-defeating Hagar, who robbed herself of joy through stubborn pride?
I wanted to tell Laurence that I did understand.
My hardboiled Serbian grandmother, who married the wrong man at the age of 16 to spite her parents and lived in a state of bitter remorselessness, was more like Hagar than any standard-issue granny depicted on TV.
But Laurence’s attention was soon diverted by another student, and those words were left unsaid.
The austere spectre of Hagar Shipley retreated back into the pages of The Stone Angel, and the book itself would slip off many high school reading lists over the next 35 years.
Since her death in 1987, Laurence’s star seems to have dimmed somewhat as her novels and short stories — once targeted for parental protest because of swear words and other content — become overshadowed by newer, flashier examples of Canadian literature.
But Laura Davis, a Red Deer College English instructor, hopes to put the focus back on Laurence through two new publications she’s working on about the author.
This spring, Davis’s Margaret Laurence Writes Africa and Canada will be published by Wilfred Laurier University Press. Davis is also working on a second publication, with Bishop’s University instructor Linda Morra, that will examine the letters exchanged by Laurence and her friend and publisher, the late Jack McClelland.
To Davis, the Manitoba-born author remains a major Canadian literary figure who deserves to have her works read by new generations.
“She was writing about the Canadian Prairies at a time when not many other people were writing good books about the Prairies. …” Besides “speaking about a culture that was ours,” Davis credited Laurence with creating female characters who were complicated, flawed, courageous survivors before the women’s movement went mainstream.
“She wasn’t just writing about the good wife. … Her works were very character-driven, and she wrote about these multifaceted, complex people,” said Davis, who was turned on to the author at a young age after receiving a copy of Laurence’s children’s book, The Olden Days Coat, from her mother.
By Grade 10, she was reading Laurence’s adult novels, the most acclaimed of which are set in the fictitious town of Manawaka (based on Laurence’s real hometown of Neepawa, Man.): The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, A Bird in the House and The Diviners.
Laurence remained of special interest to Davis after she became an English major at university. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Alberta, published articles and reviews on Canadian literature, and co-authored the textbook, Essay Writing for Canadian Students, with Readings.
It was Davis’s PhD dissertation on Laurence that became the basis of her upcoming book, Margaret Laurence Writes Africa and Canada. She believes it will be the first book to examine how Laurence felt about colonization while living in Somalia and Ghana in the 1950s, and how these same sensibilities emerged in Laurence’s later writing about English Canada in 1960s and 1970s.
By focusing on Laurence’s published works, and unpublished letters, Davis hopes to draw parallels between Laurence’s uneasiness about biased attitudes expressed toward Africans and her depictions of minority and disenfranchised characters in her Canadian novels.
Laurence “felt uncomfortable at being looked upon as a colonist’s wife” while living in British Somaliland with her engineer husband, said Davis.
“She wanted to distinguish herself from the English population there. She wanted people to know she was Canadian and her beliefs were different.”
First Nations and Métis characters were sympathetically portrayed in her novels, and Davis feels Lawrence did not gloss over social problems surrounding these minority groups. For instance, the Tonnerre family of Red River Métis that Laurence links to Louis Riel in her Manawaka books suffers from a troubled history and racist community judgment, and these things contribute to the downfall of several characters.
Regardless of their ethnicity, the Canadians Laurence created in her novels are not quite members of their ancestral cultures, yet are also not truly “native” to their nation, said Davis. She hopes her Margaret Laurence Writes Africa and Canada will show how these characters struggle with ideas of “self” and “nation,” and how this holds significant implications for Canadians and this country.
By tying together Laurence’s African and Canadian writings, Davis hopes to highlight how the author helped conceptualize Canadian culture as a mosaic that’s in constant flux.
In the end, Laurence was a product of her time. Davis noted her popularity as a CanLit author rose during the Pierre Trudeau years, when the former prime minister was also seeking to create a multicultural nation.
But “there was so much more to her than met the eye,” said Davis, who discovered some new facets through joint research with Morra on a second book that will examine Laurence’s correspondence with her longtime publisher Jack McClelland.
Some 400 letters written between 1959 and 1986 were pulled from Laurence’s literary archives at York and McMaster universities for this project (which doesn’t yet have a publication date). Davis is excited because some of the letters have never been published or even critically examined.
Through this correspondence, Laurence reveals concerns about nuclear weapons, her hopes for women’s rights, and finding sources of sustainable energy. The biggest surprise is her humour, said Davis. “She was really funny and it’s the kind of humour that doesn’t come out the same way in her books.”
McClelland offers Laurence advice on her writing, as well as his respect and friendship. “Jack was quite a character and she was so blunt with him. They had such a strong friendship, so dynamic and interesting,” said Davis.
One of the things the two didn’t agree on was Laurence’s commitment to the Writers’ Union of Canada, which she helped start.
She was serious about it, while McClelland saw it as more of a social outlet, said Davis.
“He did say to her he didn’t see a purpose for it beyond a social purpose.”
Sometimes delving deeply into the life of someone you admire turns up disappointment. In this case, Davis said her exhaustive research into Laurence left her feeling more appreciative of the author’s clear-eyed vision.
“She was a realist.”
When people angrily rallied to ban Laurence’s books from schools because of their profane or objectionable content, Davis said the author responded with “well, there’s a seedy side to life. I’m not going to hide it, but show it like it is.”
Whether her characters were negative and prickly, like Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel, or reviled underdogs, like refuse collector Christie Logan in The Diviners, Laurence always endeavoured to make them human.