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Margaret Laurence: Critical Reflections

David Staines


David Staines

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1The main concern of a writer remains that of somehow creating the individual on the printed page, of catching the tones and accents of human speech, of setting down the conflicts of people who are as real to him as himself,” Margaret Laurence wrote in Long Drums and Cannons. “If he does this well, and as truthfully as he can, his writing may sometimes reach out beyond any national boundary.”

2Though referring to the Nigerian plays and novels of the 1950s and 1960s, Laurence’s comments also explain the pattern and the significance of her own fiction. In her early fiction with its African settings and in her later fiction with its Canadian settings, she creates the “individual on the printed page.” The truth of her portraits, the realism of their background, and the humanity and wisdom of her vision brought her national and international acclaim. Her characters reveal, as she wrote of the Nigerian portraits, “something of ourselves to us, whoever and wherever we are.”

3Born on July 18, 1926, in the small Manitoba town of Neepawa, Laurence endured, at the age of four, her mother’s death and, at the age of nine, her father’s. Both events would colour her Canadian fiction and her autobiographical writings. After graduating in 1947 from Winnipeg’s United College, a United Church arts and theology college affiliated with the University of Manitoba, she married Jack Laurence, a civil-engineering graduate of the University of Manitoba. The two left Canada for England in 1949, and the following year they went from England to Africa, where they lived for seven years.

4In 1951 Jack Laurence was appointed director of a dam-building project in the British Protectorate of Somaliland, now Somalia. After the initial stages of the project were finished in 1952, he felt reluctant to stay on when the remaining work could be done by a Somali engineer. From 1952 until 1957 he continued his engineering work in the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Shortly before the day the Gold Coast received its independence in 1957, the Laurences returned to Canada and settled in Vancouver for the next five years.

5Fascinated by Somaliland’s extensive oral literature, Laurence began to translate poetry and folk tales. Her work led to a volume of translations, A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose (1954). She also set two volumes of fiction in the Gold Coast: her first novel, This Side Jordan (1960); and a collection of short stories, The Tomorrow-Tamer (1963). Also published in 1963 is The Prophet’s Camel Bell, a vivid re-creation of the confrontation between Canadians and Africans, between a gifted artist and the beliefs and culture of a foreign nation. The final dimension of her African writings is her critical study Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952-1966 (1968).

6For Laurence, as she observed in Heart of a Stranger (1976), many contemporary African writers “re-create their people’s past in novels and plays in order to recover a sense of themselves, an identity and a feeling of value from which they were separated by two or three generations of colonialism and missionizing. They have found it necessary, in other words, to come to terms with their ancestors and their gods in order to be able to accept the past and be at peace with the dead, without being stifled or threatened by that past.” In the next phase of her career, Laurence would begin the arduous task of chronicling her Canadian past.

7In 1962 Laurence separated from her husband, taking their two children to England, where they lived first in London before settling the following year at Elm Cottage, Penn, Buckinghamshire. In Vancouver she had written the first draft of The Stone Angel; now distanced from Canada, she returned to the draft, rewrote it, and saw it published in 1964. The first of five books set in the fictional town of Manawaka, the novel announced the maturity of the talent evident throughout her African fiction.

8 The Stone Angel is Hagar Shipley’s personal account of the last days of her life. Whereas it is set in Laurence’s grandparents’ generation, her second Manawaka novel, A Jest of God (1966), is set in her own generation and focusses on Rachel Cameron, a thirty-four-year-old spinster schoolteacher. The protagonist of the third Manawaka novel, The Fire-Dwellers (1969), is Rachel’s thirty-nine-year-old sister, Stacey Cameron MacAindra. While writing the three Manawaka novels, Laurence was also writing the sequential short stories, which she collected under the title A Bird in the House (1970), and which featured Vanessa MacLeod as the Manawaka protagonist. The series culminates in The Diviners (1974), where Morag Gunn, the forty-seven-year-old protagonist, explores the role of the artist and the centrality of the past to the artist’s understanding of her own position in the flux of time. The Diviners has a quality of finality that makes it a natural conclusion to the series.

9For more than a decade Laurence lived at Elm Cottage, though she made frequent visits to Canada. By the late sixties, however, she had decided to return to Canada when her children completed their schooling in England. By the time of the publication of The Diviners, she had settled permanently in Lakefield, Ontario.

10In what would prove to be the final decade of her life, Laurence continued her writing. As a release from difficulties in writing The Fire-Dwellers in the summer of 1967, she had turned her attention to a children’s book, Jason’s Quest (1970). In the late 1970s she wrote three more children’s books, The Olden Days Coat (1979), Six Darn Cows (1979), and The Christmas Birthday Story (1980). And two years after the appearance of The Diviners, her collection of critical and autobiographical essays, Heart of a Stranger, was published. Laurence died on January 5, 1987.

11 Margaret Laurence: Critical Reflections brings together twelve distinguished scholars, critics, and writers to illuminate Laurence’s achievement. Focussing on the various dimensions of her career and corpus that interest them, they re-examine the writings to draw their conclusions.

12John Lennox opens the collection with a broad overview of Margaret Laurence, the correspondent with Adele Wiseman and Al Purdy. In an essay that traces the biographical dimensions of the correspondence, he shows that Laurence, always “intense, warm, gutsy, and possessed of a good sense of humour,” reveals “the sense and spirit of the writer’s vocation—embryonic, then emergent, and finally triumphant.” In a complementary reflection Christl Verduyn explores the connections, first articulated in their correspondence, between Margaret Laurence and Marian Engel in an effort to suggest some of the conditions for women writing in Canada at mid-twentieth century.

13In postcolonial countries creative writers are often prominent theoreticians in the breakdown of boundaries between the discourses of the literary and the theoretical. In her analysis of Laurence’s two book-length autobiographical works, The Prophet’s Camel Bell and Dance on the Earth, published posthumously in 1989, Helen M. Buss sees the earlier book as a construction of postcolonial subjectivity for white critics and the latter book as a complex movement of the traditional fictional narrative patterns closer to autobiographical strategies.

14In “Margaret Laurence and the City,” W.H. New examines Laurence’s autobiographical and fictional writings to draw some conclusions about her sense of the city. Recognizing the paradigm that exists already in her African fiction as well as in The Prophet’s Camel Bell, he follows it through her Canadian writings. “As the embodiment of institutional power, the city falls away; as the embodiment of vitality, it promises a place in which to dwell. Recognition is all.” In “The Figure of the Unknown Soldier: Home and War in The Fire-Dwellers,” Birk Sproxton shows that the downtown cenotaph, besmeared with pigeon droppings, stands over the unravelling of Laurence’s Vancouver novel and is a primary intertext of the Manawaka fiction. And Nora Foster Stovel explores The Diviners as fiction about fiction, using its typescript as a shadow text haunting the published novel.

15Three creative writers and academics were invited to reflect on Laurence’s writings; their responses reiterate the centrality of Laurence’s Manawaka fiction. Kristjana Gunnars reflects on Laurence’s women, examining her reactions to Rachel Cameron and A Jest of God. Seizing upon the opening paragraphs of The Diviners, Robert Kroetsch sees the novel as a major poetics of prose fiction. And Aritha van Herk returns again to The Diviners to reveal “a novel written by a woman with writer’s cramp, her hand, laid bare, in pain, but written nevertheless, extant, standing firmly in the sunlight to cast whatever shadow will be cast.”

16Lest the collection draw toward its conclusion without a glance at Laurence’s writing for children, Janet Lunn contributes a brief account of Laurence’s children’s books. Positioning them within the growing body of children’s literature in Canada, she finds a strange disharmony between Laurence’s adult fiction and her four children’s books.

17Lastly, James King’s narrowly limited Life of Margaret Laurence appeared in 1997. Now two of Laurence’s own colleagues and friends, Lois Wilson and Joyce Marshall, bring candid assessments of the writer and her legacy, Wilson focussing on her religious vision and Marshall focussing on her literary vision.

18 Margaret Laurence: Critical Reflections examines Laurence’s achievement from the many perspectives of her writings, offering new and challenging reflections that do not exhaust the illimitable wealth of critical discussion. “Only slightly further out,” as Morag Gunn notes, “the water deepened and kept its life from sight.”

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2001

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