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Margaret Laurence: Critical Reflections

David Staines

Margaret Laurence: A Reminiscence

Joyce Marshall

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1 Margaret Laurence gave us our places. She made it seem not only possible but a fine and worthy thing for us to be what we were.

2I remember saying, I think it was to Robert Weaver of the CBC, some time during the 1950s: “What we need in this country is one great writer, recognized as such and with a considerable body of work. Then writing will be an honourable profession and the rest of us can find places for ourselves around and below that writer.” I was thinking of Norway, which has an even smaller population than Canada and speaks what a Norwegian poet has called “a little language that travels no farther than a single breath” and of what Ibsen did for Norwegian writers.

3There were, of course, already writers in this country at that time. Mazo de la Roche had a wide international reputation. So had Morley Callaghan, a far more serious writer. There were other good writers—Sinclair Ross, Ethel Wilson, W.O. Mitchell, to mention only three—and occasional good books by so-called promising writers. I for one was becoming a bit tired of all this talk of promise when what I wanted, what I sensed that all the writers in this country wanted, was accomplishment.

4And then came Margaret Laurence. Well, not exactly like that, all at once, rising like the sun or streaking like a comet into the height of the sky and pausing there. She was already writing when I spoke to Bob—African stories, many of which I’d read in Tamarack Review and elsewhere. But she didn’t live here with us at the time. I had no idea that she’d be the great figure it seemed to me we needed—until 1964, when The Stone Angel was published, and after that the other Manawaka books. And with the books came Margaret Laurence herself with all her splendid personal qualities.

5I intend to praise her and I shall, though this involves risks. There’s been a tendency since her death to turn her into an icon—more than that, a sort of saint. I don’t want to add to this. She wasn’t in the least saintly and would, I’m sure, be both startled and annoyed at being described as such. She could be at times quite difficult. She wasn’t, I’ve always felt, a particularly happy person—at least during her last years, which is when I knew her best. In other words, she had her demons and these prevented things from being easy always—for herself and for others. Anyone who ever sat with Margaret in her house at Lakefield (a former undertaking establishment, as she’d been delighted to discover) while the liquor flowed—in Margaret’s house one poured one’s own drinks and if one was a poor drinker, as I am, one didn’t return to the bottle at the end of the dining room as often as she did—one couldn’t help but see that she was tormented by many doubts, about her life and herself. At every one such session that I shared with her she found a different source of unhappiness—distress and guilt about the failure of her marriage, concern about her children. Even after she’d returned to the United Church, becoming what she called “a sort of Christian”—she was always trying to convince me that I was also a Christian of this sort, though I denied it—this seemed to add to her unhappiness rather than provide any sort of serenity or spiritual peace. She fretted because she couldn’t forgive Ken Campbell for his attacks on her books as the Lord’s Prayer told her that she should; I remember one depressing evening when I tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade her that one needn’t, in fact couldn’t, forgive everything and everyone.

6This wasn’t all of her, of course, and it’s perhaps not fair to put too much weight on words that slipped out of her while she was drinking—at a time, it must be emphasized, when she’d convinced herself after the completion of The Diviners that she’d never write another novel and so lacked the release that writing provides. She was large in every sense of that word—large in person, large in sympathies, spacious I’ve always felt, with something essentially innocent about her, an almost childlike openness (which was one of the things that made her a writer). And she was generous, in an easy, seemingly casual or even offhand way that enabled people to accept her generosity without too much difficulty. She approved of writing as an end in itself. She liked and admired writers as a species. She liked to help them. There is no other way to put it; it was as simple as that.

7I could go on for a long time about various acts of generosity and still touch on only a small part of what she did for the writers of this country—“the tribe,” as she called us—writing reviews of books she believed had been neglected, answering reviews she considered unfair, using her name and status to get those reviews and letters published, advising and helping in large and small ways. Without fuss, certainly without any hint of saintliness, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

8It was suggested at some point that the literary community exploited Margaret’s generosity. I don’t think that this was so. I knew her quite well for a number of years and it always seemed to me that her generosity was quite spontaneous. And there was always a measure of give and take. She had more to give than we did, it’s true, but we did what we could. And when trouble came we were there. When she was asked during her last illness what she wanted from the literary community, she replied, “Letters.” And the letters came.

9What did eat into her time were the requests from would-be (or sometime) writers and from schoolchildren. She told me once that her heart sank to her boots when she opened a letter and read “I am a grade ten student.” But she answered all such letters faithfully. I remember asking her whether any of these kids ever thanked her for her time and trouble. She thought for a while and then said, “No.”

10This is a small part of what she did for us as a person. Even more important in my opinion is what her accomplishment as a writer did for us as writers.

11I have to make another foray into the past at this point and try to describe what I felt as a young and youngish person trying to be a writer in Canada. It seemed to me that I was living and attempting to learn to write in a country that in the literary sense didn’t really exist. I used to think of it as taking the first cautious steps in a field of untrodden snow. Or using blocks of this snow to build something, I wasn’t quite sure what. (Not all the time, of course, but a good part of the time.) For not only was my country unknown to the world at large, it was unknown to those of us who were trying to write about it. We used to spend a lot of time trying to give Canada an identity so we could analyze that identity.

12For one thing, it didn’t have any interesting problems. Younger people may find this belief, which many of us shared, incredible, but I can remember many deep and worried discussions in which the principal concern was finding Canadian problems that were interesting enough to be worth writing. We hadn’t been invaded during the recent war. We didn’t even have a dramatic and bloody revolution to look back on.

13And yet our writing had to be Canadian. I used to waste far too much time wondering—when I should have been writing—whether what I was writing was Canadian enough, even while fearing that if it were, no one outside the country would understand or even want to read it. And if I wrote regionally, which seemed to me the only way I could write—for this is a big country to grab hold of—no one in any of the other regions would be interested. “I guess that means we’re stuck with the human heart,” I remember saying at the end of one of these discussions and, believe it or not, that seemed a pretty poor thing to be stuck with.

14Then The Stone Angel was published and here was Margaret Laurence writing about a tiny bit of a community in Manitoba without the least self-consciousness—or apparent doubt.

15I’ve always thought that she was lucky to have lived outside the country during her apprenticeship—in Africa and in England—and so missed these distracting and debilitating worries and discussions. Even far away as she was, she may have shared the worries. In fact, she probably did. But she had—and this was part of the luck—other places and societies to break herself in on. So that when the time came, she could write regionally, if you want to put it that way, and use major themes, not neglecting the ways and by-ways of the human heart, as if it were perfectly natural that these should be combined—and be taken seriously, not only in this country but all over the world. Because she was doing it supremely well. That was the thing.

16As for the books themselves—I’m referring to the Canadian books, the four Manawaka novels and A Bird in the House, the collection of linked short stories that is also set in Manawaka—I have to be personal again and try to give some sense of what they mean to me as a person and as a writer.

17The sense of place I’ve already mentioned—place so firmly and clearly established that, sharp though the details that establish it are, it becomes not merely itself, a small town in Manitoba, but a metaphor for everything that inhibits and impedes us, in life and in ourselves.

18There is also her interesting treatment of time and levels of consciousness—word-plays, time shifts, symbolism, contrast—a different tunnelling process in every book.

19But most significant to me as a writer, who happens to be a woman, is her use in all of her books of strong central female characters, all flawed to some extent, or at least incomplete, at odds with themselves, but none of them ever fully reconciled to their own insufficiencies or those of the world around them. Though they may be involved with men who baffle and outrage them, they are never in any sense victims of these men—certainly not the sort of passive sad-sister victims that abound in so many of the books by women about women. Margaret wasn’t interested, it would seem, in people who don’t put up some kind of fight. Or at least she wasn’t interested in writing about them. And though the women in her books may win only partial victories, or no victory at all, they remain unconquered.

20Along with this portrayal of strong women characters went her honest and explicit treatment of female sexuality, the sexuality of—what shall we call them—normal women? Ordinary women? Women, in other words, who are neither kinky nor whores—an aspect of human behaviour that hadn’t been much treated by Canadian writers until then. Nor, I’d venture to say, has it been treated so ably by anyone else since then.

21She suffered for that honesty, I’m sad to say, and I’m equally sad to say that the attacks on her books—particularly the attacks on The Diviners in Peterborough and its environs—darkened her last years. She was herself so honest, so clear in her intentions, that she couldn’t laugh the attacks off, as some might do, as the limited views of limited and not very important people. Nor could she say, as others might say, “Well, this is good publicity, it will increase sales.” She didn’t want the sale of her books to be increased by such means. The very notion appalled her. She knew that there was no indecency or pornography in her writing but this didn’t prevent her being deeply hurt that she should be accused of this—and by the people among whom she lived.

22She fought the attacks, though such fighting went against the grain with her. And she had support in her fight—from her fellow writers and from readers. I remember someone saying to me—I wish I could remember who this was—“Attacking Margaret Laurence is like attacking the human race.” And so we all felt.

23The books survived the attacks as they will survive all similar attacks that may be brought against them. And Margaret herself survives—the great writer we were waiting for with a body of first-class work. And we can all find places for ourselves in the tribe of which she was for so long—and still is, in my opinion—personally and artistically the leader.


Toronto, Ontario

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

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