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Margaret Laurence: Critical Reflections

David Staines

The Spirit and the Letter: The Correspondence of Margaret Laurence

John Lennox

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  • 1 Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman, ed. John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky (Toront (...)

1 Few pleasures involving writers and their words can match the excitement and energy of working with exchanges of letters between gifted correspondents. This is certainly true of the approximately 450 letters in the Laurence-Wiseman correspondence and the 300 letters in the Laurence-Purdy correspondence.1 The immediacy of voice, tone, and detail leaps off the page in the give-and-take of lively and often passionate conversation. The reader has the impression of watching life take shape as he is drawn into the language, priorities, and history of the personalities who seem to write at a thousand different stages in the course of a changing, living life. The retrospective gaze of the autobiographer or biographer is absent—their poetics of selection and patterning remain to be determined. However, the wider view of a life writ large is not so much absent from letters (in fact, some letter-writers have a very good sense of that) as off-stage, waiting in the wings while the protean dynamics of dailiness temporarily prevail.

2The so-called silent third in this encounter is the person whom Adele Wiseman and Margaret Laurence referred to as the “unknown reader,” the privileged listener who hears the voices speaking. If one or more of those voices is well known, as is the case with Laurence, the focus of this paper, the reader already identifies her with the African and Manawakan works, and with the voice of her memoir, Dance on the Earth. Gradually, however, he recognizes in the letters the distinct accent of the individual who is, after all, addressing another and, willy-nilly in the process, creating a narrative of a life of which the individual letters are episodes.

  • 2 Clara Thomas, “The Accommodating I,” Recherches anglaises et nord-américaines (RANAM) 24 (1991): 7 (...)

3Clara Thomas has written about Margaret Laurence’s search for an appropriate form for Dance on the Earth and about Laurence’s delight in locating the female-centred celebration of the four women who had meant the most to her life: her mother; her stepmother, who was also her aunt; her mother-in-law; and her daughter.2 I was one of many who, as I read the memoir, thought that I heard very clearly the speaking voice of Laurence. In the writing and then dictating of her memoir, Laurence made some important and conscious decisions: (1) that beyond her immediate circle of readers, her memoir would be directed to a broad readership; (2) that it would be in some ways a public document that addressed the social and political issues that were of great importance to her—peace, the environment, the position of women, and censorship; and (3) that its emphasis as memoir would be directed as much to others as to herself.

  • 3 Evelyn J. Hinz, “Memesis: The Dramatic Lineage of Auto/Biography,” Essays on Life Writing: From Ge (...)

4For all its highly personalized context, Dance on the Earth begins with Laurence’s strong public voice and there is throughout her memoir the sense, for all the personal detail, that the public Laurence is the persona who is the protagonist of the memoir. In fact, the spatial metaphor of the title and its provenance as an old Shaker hymn are both suggestive of the links between life writing and drama as those affinities have been explored by Evelyn Hinz.3 Further, one might argue that “dance” and “earth,” as art and dwellingplace, are central in Dance on the Earth to what Hinz calls the “life myth” that is explicitly or implicitly articulated in autobiography and memoir.

5To an extent, the Margaret Laurence who speaks in her letters to Al Purdy and Adele Wiseman is very similar to the person we encounter in Dance on the Earth—intense, warm, gutsy, and possessed of a good sense of humour. There is also, as there must be, in the memoir and in the letters, a selection of what is told and how it is told. There is not, however, in the letters as there is in the memoir, a narrative shaping of a life seen retrospectively and seen as a whole. Nevertheless, there are moments when a sense of life is consciously expressed in terms of a pattern, be it that of a prolonged adolescence and delayed adulthood, of an emergence of a newly named self, or of a metaphor, as she wrote to Al Purdy, like “cats and roses” (August 31, 1967). There are also moments in the letters when one encounters a self-consciousness that goes beyond and beneath the ephemera of ordinary, day-to-day life. And there is always the sense and spirit of the writer’s vocation—embryonic, then emergent, and finally triumphant.

6The letter is the ordinary embodiment of the theme that fills Laurence’s work—communication. For a good part of her writing life, she lived outside Canada and for the early years of that expatriate period, she lived completely apart from her own culture and geography as a Canadian. Letters became not only a way of keeping in touch with family and friends, but also a means of orienting herself to a new environment. A beneficial corollary to this was the way in which the new world before her eyes posed a writer’s challenge to describe it simply and evocatively and, in so doing, to practise her writer’s craft. Some of these early descriptions were composed almost as set pieces and reflect the painterly quality of many descriptions of setting in the Manawaka cycle. Here, for example, in 1951, Laurence describes in a letter to Wiseman the view framed by the door of her and Jack Laurence’s house in Sheikh, Somaliland:

Our front door is like a picture-frame, and the picture contains the soft line of hills; the red sand of the valley and the blue-green rocks; the green flat-topped trees; a flock of tiny white sheep, grazing a few feet from the house, and tended by a brown robed Somali woman with a scarlet headscarf. The yerki (little boy) is there too, with his little switch of dried grass, rounding up the stragglers in the flock. I think it is the quiet one notices most about Sheikh. During the whole sunny day, only the odd scrap of birdsong; the strange minor-key chanting of the boys as they work; the early morning clank of water-tins as the Somali woman brings up our three donkey-loads of water each morning; the frantic chirp of the yerki, a little boy so tiny that one can hardly see how he copes with the relatively large cows he drives through the valley; and the occasional tic-tic-tic of a lizard in the walls of the house. (February 12, 1951)

7In a way, as Laurence and others have pointed out, Africa made her in effectively delaying the appearance in her writing of the prairie background that was to propel her to prominence. She later reflected on how fortunate she had been that her first real challenge as a writer had been to translate and describe a land and culture totally different from her own. That exercise began in her letters.

8The African focus, however, had not been her intention when she first came to Somalia. At that time, as Laurence wrote to Wiseman, she was working on a novel about a love affair between a young woman and her Ukrainian boyfriend in a small prairie town. She experienced slow progress and difficulties in the writing and eventually she abandoned this project in the face of the stunning realities and disorientations of her new life. Instead, she found her first real literary challenge close to hand in translating Somali poetry and folk tales, which were to appear in her first book, A Tree for Poverty (1954).

9As her lifetime of letters reflects, this was a recurrent pattern in Laurence’s way of working—a series of false starts, some amounting to hundreds of draft pages, followed by crises of uncertainty. Writing to Al Purdy in June 1967, Laurence described this process:

I’m still at the stage of grappling unsuccessfully with this new novel. I know all the problems and none of the solutions. It is absolutely shapeless and doesn’t seem to have a natural form. I’ve written pages and pages of sheer nonsense. I feel like hell about it, in one way, and yet in another way I know the thing is there, if only I can manage to stumble onto a way to do it. I really ought to be feeling depressed, but in some odd fashion I feel quite the reverse, and yet I’m not doing work worth anything right now. (June 28, 1967)

10There were usually alarums, momentary despair, and decisive action. The day after her letter to Purdy, she wrote almost identical letters to him and Wiseman—“I am a firebug”—in which she described how she had burned the hundreds of draft pages of The Fire-Dwellers. Then, in fairly short order, would follow the immensely energizing discovery or confirmation of the real story she wanted to tell, and the first stages of putting that story on paper.

11In the midst of these harrowing moments of doubt—and they were truly harrowing for a person of Laurence’s intensity—letters were a godsend. They were, first of all, treasured and intimate means of communication. They could be therapeutic and even cathartic. They were also—and this, I think, should be particularly emphasized—written. If one was blocked or disheartened, one could always write letters and in the simple process of putting pen to paper, reaffirm one’s vocation even if only through complaints about inadequacy and possible failure. Letters were salutary in another fundamental way since, instead of talking something away, they became instrumental in writing it out.

12The letters from the 1950s are fascinating in their charting of the artistic and personal growth of Laurence. Unlike the retrospective amplitude of The Prophet’s Camel Bell or Dance on the Earth, these letters are full of the moments of youthful enthusiasm. Five months after the Laurences’ arrival in Somaliland, Margaret was writing that her real ambition was to understand Somali stories and poems, and four months later she reported that she had written several stories set in an East African colony. In the same letter, she wrote at length about translating Somali poetry and stories:

When possible, I’ve translated exactly, but of course the process of putting it into more or less literary English lies in the choice of words... there are, I discover, an awful lot of synonyms in English. But the difficulties will be obvious from a few examples: in one love poem, the word “place” occurs, but in the Somali, a special word is used, which means “place” and also means “the grace of God,” implying that the place referred to was highly blessed or particularly fortunate in some way. I’ve translated that by including the second meaning... “a place of Allah’s kindly grace”...which is really what it means, altho’ only one word is used in Somali. (September 4, 1951)

13The letter concluded with the inclusion of Laurence’s translation of several “belwo,” or short lyric poems. Much as it was to be the case when Purdy wrote Laurence, she used her correspondence with Wiseman to discuss and even experiment with her early translations.

14The letters also reveal the early depth and strength of Laurence’s commitment to her writing:

I spend most of each day at my typewriter, either writing notes on what’s been happening, or things I’ve seen of Somali life, or things I’ve found out about Somali beliefs and culture; or else I am working at the Somali poems and stories... I’ve collected quite a few, but of course can only get them slowly and painstakingly, through English-speaking Somalis, and thus miss a good deal... also I may never even hear some of the best stories, as they naturally don’t know what I want to hear, and just tell me any stories that happen to arise naturally out of what has been happening or what we’ve been talking about. The rest of the time I spend writing stories. I’ve only done four so takes a lot of time... so much more than one thinks it’s going. (November 9, 1951)

15On the whole, the 1950s were wonderful years for Margaret Laurence. She was happy in her marriage, thankful for her children, grateful for the opportunity to travel and to live in different parts of Africa, and encouraged by the publication of A Tree for Poverty. Her letters also reveal her preoccupation with and her insecurity about the quality of her work. Living far removed from any real literary community and hesitant about discussing her ambitions with others, she relied considerably upon her husband’s literary judgment. She described her early stories as “the only good things I’ve ever written in prose, except for odd passages here and there. But I mean as a whole. Jack thinks so, too. Adele, it really is the first time I’ve ever written anything that he thought was good, as a whole. There have been odd bits in the novel that he liked, and his criticism was always very helpful, but this time it was different” (September 4, 1951). A second uncompleted novel set in Somaliland was submitted to Jack Laurence’s scrutiny.

16In her writerly relationship with her husband, Laurence experienced an ambivalent combination of gratitude and malaise. In her isolation, it was Jack who was asked and did offer his opinion, advice, and suggestions. His encouragement helped her in developing confidence as a writer and played its part in preparing her for inevitable future stages that would direct her ever outward. She was grateful for his interest and listened to his criticism, but by stages she became less and less content with her compliance. As the years passed, malaise turned gradually into restiveness and finally into rebellion when she insisted on the integrity of her own creative instincts, even at the price of her marriage. The process was inevitable and its culmination marked the watershed of Laurence’s life.

17Inklings of this metamorphosis became more evident as Laurence wrote and revised what was to be her first published novel, This Side Jordan. She and Wiseman had been writing about Wiseman’s difficulties in completing The Sacrifice, which had been accepted by Macmillan and Viking for publication in September 1956; Wiseman had written to say that Gollancz had recently agreed to publish it in England in October. As Laurence began revising the draft of the African novel she had decided to call This Side Jordan, she wrote Wiseman, “I’m sorry to bore you with all this, but you’re the only person I know who will understand” (July 10, 1956). Talk about writing jostled with Margaret’s delighted descriptions of the Laurences’ children. It also developed in terms of the emerging sense of her own creative autonomy as she described the need to get her novel off to the publishers:

I’ve got one more episode to do in the first draft, then a heck of a lot of fixing up (parts I’ve decided to change since they were first written, etc) to do before I start turning my attention to re-writing proper. In other words, the story has to be hammered into shape before I start worrying overmuch about the style. Maybe that’s wrong—I don’t know. I think perhaps in the past I may have fussed over writing too much, bleeding it to death in the process... The thing is, I can’t talk about it to anyone except Jack, and altho’ he is wonderful about it, and has an excellent critical mind, he hasn’t actually done this kind of work himself. I often feel I am leading a double life—do you? It seems a kind of irony to me the thing in life which is most important to me, next to my husband and kids, is something I can never talk about, never let anyone know about, even. Too much talking about one’s work can be a bad thing... But it seems sometimes strange to me that this past tour something important has happened to me, and Jack is the only one who knows about it. One feels sometimes it must show, but it doesn’t. I am a mother and housewife. Full stop. Thank god, at least Jack has followed it every step of the way—it would be unbearable if there wasn’t anyone. (July 23, 1956)

18Her lifelong friendship with Wiseman was also marked by a measure of deference, and Laurence had early stood in admiration of Wiseman’s single-minded dedication to writing her first novel and in awe when that novel was published as The Sacrifice to immediate and resounding kudos. Almost as if by some principle of imaginative primogeniture, Wiseman thereby became the senior writer and that was the position that she implicitly occupied from then on in their friendship. When, in later years, Laurence’s own writing carried her to unprecedented prominence as the Manawaka works appeared in steady succession, she felt protective of Wiseman. The protectiveness reinforced the sense of deference that had always been part of their friendship and always would be.

19Once the draft of This Side Jordan had been revised, as she thought, to her satisfaction, Laurence felt the stirrings of another. In early 1957, she debated between returning to her half-finished novel on Somaliland and another project that was eventually to claim her entire attention:

And someday I would like to write a novel about an old woman. Old age is something which interests me more & more... I picture a very old woman who knows she is dying and who despises her family’s sympathy and solicitude and also pities it, because she knows they think her mind has partly gone—and they will never realize that she is moving with tremendous excitement—part fear and part eagerness—towards a great and inevitable happening, just as years before she had experienced birth. I probably sound off my rocker. It is only because you are the only person, apart from Jack, to whom I can spout these vague and half-formed ideas. (March 17, 1957)

20The Laurences’ return to Canada in 1957 was for Margaret in creative terms what the African experience had been in cultural terms—a shock, exacerbated by her stepmother’s death from cancer, followed by growth and then, uniquely in this case, by independence. In the ensuing years, Laurence came to know the academic world as a marker for the English Department at the University of British Columbia and felt an outsider; the circumscribed world of wife and mother became more and more confining; she felt defiant and angry rather than diffident in the rejection of her stories; she felt progressively more confident about her writing. The publication of This Side Jordan was a milestone and the urgency of her next project, her “old lady” novel, as she called it, was paramount.

21The summer of 1962 was a turning point in Laurence’s life and a confluence of forces precipitated the crisis: The Prophet’s Camel Bell, her farewell to Africa, had been accepted by Macmillan; Jack Laurence had been offered a job in Pakistan; the first draft of her next novel was completed. Following their custom, Jack had read it and suggested wholesale revisions. Margaret tried unsuccessfully to do so and concluded that only she, in fact, knew best how to write it. They decided on a trial separation during which Margaret would take the children to England and try to make her career as a professional writer there, while he would go to Pakistan. She was plagued with remorse but equally determined to go ahead.

22The letters of this time reflect both Laurence’s anguish and a precise sense of a watershed. First, she characterized her life to this point as a “kind of delayed adolescence, at the advanced age of 36, and it is really now or never” (August 29, 1962). Second, after nearly a year in England, she initiated another rite of passage and took a new name—Margaret instead of Peg or Peggy, as she had signed her name thus far in letters to Wiseman. She noted, “It has nothing to do with my writing—it’s something further back, at least I think so” (August 17, 1963). On a very conscious level, she was aware of the importance of these passages and gestures. Such self-consciousness in a retrospective autobiographical work is one thing. In the present, it is remarkably perceptive and, to a considerable extent, enabling—in spite of the risks, a sign of change, growth, and empowerment.

23The letters from 1962 after her move to England with her children are full of personal and professional apprehension. They reflect her concern for her children’s well-being and her own sense of the enormous chance she was taking. There were also moments of elation—her publisher Alan Maclean suggested a book of short stories, which Macmillan undertook for 1963; the African service of the BBC accepted a series of folk tales for broadcast; a story appeared on CBC radio; she felt the beginnings of another novel; she joined the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament and joined the march to Aldermaston. Capping 1963 was her move to Elm Cottage in Penn in late December.

24Underpinning the see-saw alternation between stark terror and momentary elation was the emergent bedrock of courage and resolution and rueful self-acceptance. These characteristics of the mature Laurence declared themselves in language that was to become her epistolary landmark—the colloquial and the resolute together:

Anyway, the way I feel about Hagar [as she then styled her novel] at the moment is that if Macmillan’s [sic] thinks it is unpublishable, I will feel disappointed, but I will still disagree with them. “Here stand I; God help me, I can do no other.” I have always been very drawn to those words of Martin Luther’s. Imagine what it must have taken to say that in the whole Establishment of the western world, when it is so difficult to say it even of issues on an infinitely smaller scale (however, not smaller to me). So—we will see. (January 2, 1963)

25Laurence began to refer to members of her “tribe,” and to use the phrase that was to become almost the signature of her new sense of self—“the hell with it [or him or her or them, as the case might be], take me or leave me, it’s all the same to me—I can’t change to suit everyone” (December 27, 1963). Written two days before her move to Elm Cottage, her non serviam was, even with all its attendant contingencies, exhilarating.

26Laurence was not ready for the friendship of Al Purdy until she had passed through the crucible of her departure from Canada and her first years in England. She had lost much of her diffidence and deference; her commitment to her writing and her situation as primary parent had made her far more decisive than she had been before. Laurence was also less influenced by convention and less intimidated by her own intensity and creative obsession; she recognized and accepted them as dimensions of her vocation. Notwithstanding, she was even more in need of communication.

27If Wiseman was her alter ego—sharing the same literary ambition and experiencing the kind of critical success and attention that Laurence desired and enjoyed vicariously through their friendship—Purdy was, in a sense, her counter-ego, goading her, refusing to indulge her, and always reminding her of the accents of home. Five or ten years earlier, his attentions might well have overwhelmed her. Coming when they did, they acted as a spur. She was more than ready for the stimulation and challenges of this friendship and this is why, I think, she replied so early and volubly to Purdy.

28Laurence’s years in Africa had shown her how little she knew about the world and how her Canadian background appeared, at that time, limited and parochial. Africa brought cultural and creative awakening. Her return to Canada put her in contact with the Vancouver literary community and with academics at the University of British Columbia. Even though her friend Gordon Elliott introduced her to Jack McClelland, she found academic talk about books and writing to be pretentious and unconnected with her own ideas and convictions. Her Vancouver years had made her resolve that her own identity as a writer would be determined by herself alone. In both these periods of her life, being a Canadian was something to be downplayed or taken for granted. Ironically, her first Canadian novel, The Stone Angel, made her an expatriate once again and propelled her to England. It was there that she came home emotionally and psychologically as a Canadian and, to a considerable degree, she did so because of Purdy. Wiseman supported her as an individual and a writer; Purdy supported her as a Canadian writer. From this fact issued the great themes of her letters to Purdy: vocation (always), creation, professionalization, and patriation.

  • 4 Margaret Laurence-Al Purdy: A Friendship in Letters, xi-xxxvii.

29I have written elsewhere of the correspondence between Laurence and Purdy.4 Other aspects of their literary friendship speak to Laurence the writer and individual. As two strong-minded and forceful individuals, Laurence and Purdy became close friends because their primary form of communication was epistolary. They quickly came to know and respect their differences as much as their common ground, and this empathy is palpable in their letters, where circumstances and issues made them by degrees mostly sympathetic and sometimes edgy. Sympathy created solidarity while the edginess provided the elements of energy and variety that both found stimulating. Correspondence also allowed them to balance nuance and candour in a way that was more difficult in person.

  • 5 Clara Thomas, “The Unknown Margaret Laurence,” The Literary Review of Canada 2, no. 11 (December 1 (...)

30Their shared sense of vocation was the overriding bond between them as they recognized the Canadian accent in each other’s work. Each, I suspect, recognized in the other the play of idiom, image, and rhythm that gave their work the peculiar stamp of place as central rather than incidental. Laurence’s letters to Purdy reveal her as a gifted and intuitive reader of his poetry and redirect us to the poetic aspects of her own fiction. They also suggest affinities, through Purdy’s work, to other poets. Laurence’s references to Gerard Manley Hopkins in different letters to Purdy make the connections of rhythm and phrasing between Hopkins’s “The Windhover” and Morag’s description of the great blue heron intriguing. Clara Thomas has noted the affinities between Purdy’s “Joe Barr” and Laurence’s Christie Logan, and has written at length on the influence of Milton in The Diviners.5 One could add that the presence in Laurence’s work of nineteenth-century British poets, particularly the Victorians, is a subject that is waiting to be explored.

31I would also argue that the final stage of Laurence’s professionalization in the world of letters was the result of her correspondence with Purdy. When she realized that he made carbon copies of his letters to her and to others, she was initially offended: “probably unjustified curiosity, but why do you put Margaret Laurence at the top of your letters to me? Do you make carbons and stash them all away? I hope to Christ that nobody keeps my letters to them—they are not for keeping” (December 11, 1967). After Purdy’s blunt and confirming reply, she confessed that she too kept friends’ letters. From Purdy she learned to keep copies of her own. Purdy’s sense of himself as a writer of consequence was an example that Laurence was ready at this point to emulate in practice. She needed to recognize consciously that role, and Purdy was the catalyst.

32Purdy was also extremely important to Laurence in other ways. The increasing popular and critical recognition that greeted the publication of her Manawaka works and the tendency to characterize Laurence as a woman of substance and principle (which she was) came close at times to idealization and contributed substantially to the process of making her a national icon. To the extent that he could—through his own iconoclastic nature and his antipathy to taking, or being taken to, high moral ground—Purdy countermanded this tendency, always urging Laurence to focus on her work, on her writing, while downplaying the importance of public expectations that followed in the wake of her fiction and that her own sense of moral obligation would later impose on her return to Canada. Purdy himself was not always consistent in his own actions. His role as editor of The New Romans did assume high moral ground and he recognized Laurence’s importance to that project; on several other occasions he became involved in national debate over the Americanization of Canadian publishing. This, however, was the only political issue on which Purdy was prepared to act. By and large, he rejected the notion of a writer’s public obligation. Laurence herself, however, seemed to understand that part of the price of her return would be the assumption of a public role and, not surprisingly, she accepted it.

33Because Purdy began his friendship with Laurence when she was firmly established as the creator of the Manawaka fiction, she could address that preoccupation with amazing prescience, telling Purdy how many novels she had left to write (three) and speaking resolutely about the conclusion of the Manawaka cycle after she had finished The Diviners. The letters about the writing of the novels confirm her obsessive patterns as a “method” writer—constantly worrying about form, transcribing notes during the night:

Spent two damn-nearly-sleepless nights while portions of this opening part of S. III were composing themselves in full technicolour in my head. Too tired to get up and write it down; unable to shut the TV inside off for the night. Terrible. Got up and scrawled down key words, and in morning would look at them and think “what did I mean by jerusalem?” (September 3, 1971)

34When she had finished the draft of The Diviners, Laurence wrote to Purdy:

So I feel a bit odd, and empty, as though part of my inner dwelling-place has now been removed from me. I don’t know where to go now—this is why I’ve always said this would likely be my last novel. I have been preparing myself mentally for this day, but now that it is here, I guess I’m not really prepared for it after all. (February 3, 1973)

  • 6 Dennis Lee, “The Poetry of Al Purdy: An Afterword,” The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, ed. Russell B (...)
  • 7 Al Purdy, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea: An Autobiography, ed. Alex Widen (Madeira Park, B.C.: Har (...)

35She was, however, prepared in the sense that she had decided to return to Canada. While she shared with Wiseman a personal and creative past that went back to the earliest days of her marriage, Laurence and Purdy had in common a sense of physical rootedness that was closely linked to the sense of home as an actual physical place. Dennis Lee has noted that “by 1960, dug in at Roblin Lake, Purdy was finally in motion.”6 Home and writing were symbiotically connected. Laurence took delight in homemaking, be it in Somaliland, Vancouver, Penn, or Lakefield. Her need for a home space, a “dwellingplace,” was as firmly entrenched as Purdy’s, and the landscapes, towns, villages, gardens, and water that appear in their work as a reflection of that need are also found in their letters’ spoken and unspoken articulation of the powerful pull of home. That, I think, was at the core of their recognition of each other as kindred spirits. As Purdy writes in Reaching for the Beaufort Sea: “Apart from the instant in communication between two people, generally male and female, in which vistas and landscapes are opened up and limitless—there is simply nothing at all like writing what you believe to be a good poem.”7

36Margaret Laurence’s letters to Adele Wiseman and Al Purdy cover five decades and reflect the stages and events of a lifetime. Marriage, adventure, children, and vocation mark the first stage. As the fulcrum, vocation precipitates, directs, and consolidates the second stage. The third stage moves beyond vocation to service, to the public role and the social causes that were to become so closely identified with Margaret Laurence after she returned to Canada in 1973. The drama of this lifetime as revealed in the letters is found in the first two stages, although her correspondence with Wiseman and Purdy continued until her death. The first two stages are totally absorbing in terms of the way they recount a narrative of discovery, process, growth, and achievement. The spirit and the letter are complementary and we have every reason to be grateful for both.


1 Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman, ed. John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997); and Margaret Laurence-Al Purdy: A Friendship in Letters, ed. John Lennox (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993).

2 Clara Thomas, “The Accommodating I,” Recherches anglaises et nord-américaines (RANAM) 24 (1991): 79-89. Also in All My Sisters: Essays on the Work of Canadian Women Writers (Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1994).

3 Evelyn J. Hinz, “Memesis: The Dramatic Lineage of Auto/Biography,” Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice, ed. Marlene Kadar (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992), 195-212.

4 Margaret Laurence-Al Purdy: A Friendship in Letters, xi-xxxvii.

5 Clara Thomas, “The Unknown Margaret Laurence,” The Literary Review of Canada 2, no. 11 (December 1993): 7-9; “Towards Freedom: The Work of Margaret Laurence and Northrop Frye,” Essays on Canadian Writing 30 (1984—1985): 81-95. The latter is also in All My Sisters: Essays on the Work of Canadian Women Writers.

6 Dennis Lee, “The Poetry of Al Purdy: An Afterword,” The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, ed. Russell Brown (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986), 373.

7 Al Purdy, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea: An Autobiography, ed. Alex Widen (Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour Publishing, 1993), 281-282.


Department of English
York University
North York, Ontario

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