LAURENCE: THE FIRST LADY OF CANADIAN LITERATURE
1926 - 1983
From the First Unitarian Church of Ottawa.
Jean Margaret (Peggy) Wemyss was born in Neepawa, Manitoba,
on July 18, 1926, to Robert Harrison Wemyss, a lawyer, and
his wife Verna Jean, née Simpson. Verna died when
Peggy was four years old, and Robert later married Verna's
sister, Margaret Campbell Simpson, a teacher and later a
librarian, who was throughout the years one of Peggy's "greatest
encouragers. After Robert Wemyss's death, when Peggy
was 9 and her brother still a baby, the family went to live
with Grandfather Simpson in his big brick house on First
Peggy's first professional job as a writer was
as a reporter for The Neepawa Press in the summer
of 1943. Miss Mildred Musgrove, her English teacher, gave
her valuable criticism and encouragement during her school
years. In a letter written in 1983, Margaret stated, "I
was an extremely fortunate child. As someone who has always
been interested in reading and in writing (which I began
to do in about Grade 2 or 3), I always had someone there
who encouraged me."
Laurence with a bust made of her by sculptor
Almuth Lutkenhaus-Lackey and donated to the
National Library of Canada in 1997.
graduating from high school in 1944, Margaret attended United
College (now the University of Winnipeg), and was assistant
editor of the college paper, Vox. Jean Margaret Wemyss
graduated from United College with a Bachelor of Arts degree
in 1947 and married John Fergus Laurence on September 13,
1947, in the Neepawa United Church. She then worked for
a time as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen.
In 1950, after living for a year in England, Margaret and
her husband, a civil engineer, moved to British Somaliland.
While there, she wrote a translation of a Somali book of
prose and poetry, A Tree for Poverty. Mrs. Laurence
said that it was at that time that she "began seriously
to write. A travel book, The Prophet's Camel Bell,
written some years later, describes the Laurences' experience
They moved to Accra, Ghana in 1952, with their 2-month-old
daughter, Jocelyn, who was born in England. During their
subsequent 5 years in Africa, Margaret produced her first
novel, This Side Jordan, which won the 1961 Beta
Sigma Phi Award for the best first novel by a Canadian.
A collection of short stories, The Tomorrow Tamer,
written a few years later, is also set in West Africa. Out
of her African years came an interest in contemporary literature
by Africans, which resulted in her study of Nigerian fiction
and drama, Long Drums and Cannons. The Laurences'
son, David, was born in Ghana in 1955.
After leaving Africa, the family lived for five years in
Vancouver, and during this time, Margaret wrote The Christmas
Birthday Story, a children's book later rewritten.
After Vancouver, there followed seven years in England,
and the purchase of her home in Elm Cottage, in Penn, Buckinghamshire,
30 miles from London. In the ten year period, 1964-1974,
the Manawaka books were published:
|The Stone Angel (1964)
A Jest of God (1966), for which she received the 1967
Governor General's Award, and which was the basis for
a movie entitled "Rachel, Rachel," starring
The Fire Dwellers (1969)
A Bird in the House (1970)
The Diviners (1974), 1975 Governor General's Award
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Laurence with a seaplane
in the Canadian backcountry, circa 1959
collection of essays, Heart of a Stranger, was published
in 1976. Mrs. Laurence received
degrees from more than a dozen Canadian universities, was
made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1971, and received
other numerous other honors.
An hour-long documentary film, Margaret Laurence: First
Lady of Manawaka was produced by the National Film Board
of Canada and premiered in Winnipeg on May 7, 1979. Adaptations
of many of her works have been made for radio and television.
Many of her books have been translated into other languages.
She served as Writer in Residence at the Universities of
Toronto and Western Ontario, as well as Trent University,
where she was appointed Chancellor for the years 1981-1983.
While still living in England, Margaret established a summer
home on the Otonobee River in southern Ontario, which she
named Manawaka Cottage. Her return to Canada became permanent
in 1973, and she made her home in Lakefield, Ontario. But,
despite her years away from her birthplace, Margaret Laurence
continued to consider herself "a Prairie person, because
I have always remained deeply just that."
The last decade of her life focused on promoting causes
she passionately supportedpeace, social justice, the
equality of women, environmental protectionthrough
letters, lectures, essays and fundraising campaigns.
Margaret Laurence died on January 5, 1987, and, at her request,
her ashes were brought by her children, Jocelyn and David,
to be interred in Riverside Cemetery, Neepawa, on June 23,
the day before the official opening of The Margaret Laurence
Home, the former Simpson house where she had lived in her
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© 1997-2002 First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa
An Interview with Biographer James King
James King, a biographer and English professor at McMaster
University, has worked to reinvent the perception of one
of the most important figures in Canadian consciousness.
In his new book, The Life of Margaret Laurence, King
uses everything from unpublished letters to conversations
with friends in order to unmask the real issues that surrounded
her life and death and led her to the forefront of the Canadian
Laurence, one of Canada's finest female authors, is best
known for her novels The Stone Angel, A Jest of
God, The Fire-Dwellers, and The Diviners.
Throughout her life, Laurence had been lionized by the public
and revered by many as a predominant shaper of post-war
Canadian literature, setting the pace for other Canadian
women like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Posthumously
she has been widely honoured with gatherings as well as
being featured on a Canadian postage stamp.
Although her life has been the subject of countless lectures
and literary critiques, both during her life and after her
death, King's biography is the first full-length treatment
of her life as one of the most beloved figures in Canada's
Since her death on January 5th, 1987, the official understanding,
as reported in newspapers, was that she "died of lung
cancer in her Lakefield, Ontario home." The few friends
and family members who knew of her death as a suicide, however,
kept it a secret.
King says the biggest revelation about this book is not
about her suicide but about how much she suffered and how
insecure she was. "I think it shocks people that someone
can be so famous yet so unhappy," he tells me.
few weeks after King approached Laurence's children, Jocelyn,
45, and David, 42, with the idea of writing the biography,
he was given the green light to set the record straight
about the real life of their mother. The only condition
was that they be allowed to check over the text to guarantee
its accuracy. From the beginning, he knew that there were
questions surrounding her having lived for years with cancer
and that there existed a "mysterious diary." Through
countless interviews with friends and familywhich
took him from Vancouver to Penticton to Lakefieldhe
began to discover someone else behind the public personae
of Laurence. The woman King found was a frail and tormented
person who struggled to balance her roles as writer, wife,
of Margaret Laurence and
her daughter Jocelyn in Ghana, 1955
until well into his research did Jocelyn hand the diary
over to him. The journal contained, among other things,
the details of Laurence's suicide. "Although I had
some ideas about what happened during the years after she
was diagnosed with cancer," says King, "I was
still quite flabbergasted with the news of her suicide."
King does a great job of transforming the distance between
her public and private life into a story of sorrow and sacrifice.
In chapter 15, he discusses the importance Laurence's writing
had for her. "[It] was the consistent way in which
she had coped creatively with the losses she had endured
as a young childit allowed her to mother herself.
She could not deal with the loss of her husband in the same
way and...she sought the comforts of alcoholic oblivion
on a daily basis."
King effectively uses her letters, her diary and other resources
as the maps necessary to re-evaluate the inner landscape
that made Laurence such a great writer. Aided by the extensive
archive of Laurence's manuscripts and letters at McMaster
University, King proves himself an excellent researcher.
While the overall themes of the book are given plenty of
support, the relevance of some of the evidence used to illustrate
her conflicts does at times seem to be a bit of a stretch.
As an experienced biographer, King has explored the lives
of notable individuals such as poets William Cowper and
William Blake, as well as novelist Virginia Woolf. Although
Laurence is the first Canadian subject to be featured in
one of his biographies (his next project will be about the
life of Canadian publisher Jack McClelland), there are many
recurrent themes common to his works. This may be one of
the major reasons that King was endorsed by the family to
tell the life of Laurence.
Their concern, King says, was that they wanted a "biography
that would tell about the suicide but that would do it in
the context of a full account of her life." Based on
his earlier books, certain themes he used to explore the
connection between an artist's life and their work seemed
applicable to Laurence's life story.
The most explicit of these themes has to do with childhood
loss and the impact it had on the lives of those he has
studied. Cowper, the subject of King's first biography,
was faced with the death of his mother when he was a child.
"This plagued him his whole life," says King.
"It was the root of his anguish."
In his biography of Woolf, King also focuses on how her
mother's death marked both her literary and private life.
As with Woolf and Cowper, King takes a psychological approach
in order to understand the interplay between the life of
Laurence and her novels. Orphaned when she was young (her
mother died when she was four and her father died when she
was nine), she was never able to remove herself from her
with Jocelyn and friend, 1954
in mind King's predisposition to identify certain moments
in a person's life and to carry those motifs through the
biography, I wonder how differently Laurence's life would
have been told through the words of another writer. Is it
possible to remove the biographer from the biography? "We
write out of our own experiences," King admits, and
when telling the story of someone's life, we make "judgments
based on who we are."
Sandra Djwa, an English professor at Simon Fraser University
agrees that the biographer plays a role in the reconstruction
of people's lives. "Every literary construct is filtered
through the perceiving consciousness of the writer,"
Djwa explains. "In this sense, a biography is a literary
The revelations of Laurence's suicide attempts and the degree
of her alcoholism will certainly have an impact on the way
Canadians perceive the author. Some peoplefriends
of Laurence mostlywould have preferred this information
be suppressed. Fortunately, this was not an option for King.
"I couldn't have created a book which would have either
deliberately or intentionally whitewashed that information,"
King argues that only through a complete understanding of
the causes that shaped her actions and the impact they had
on her novels is it possible to know who Margaret Laurence
was. "Knowing this new information treasures what she
was able to do and what she was able accomplish," King
explained, "and if I'm a part of that, I'm delighted."
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© 1997-2002 First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa
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by Margaret Laurence
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Life of Margaret Laurence
by James King (Toronto: Knopf, 1997).
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