Margaret Laurence, a Pioneering Writer Who Pioneered for a New Generation

Margaret Laurence came from the west and never forgot it. 

She was born Jean Margaret Wemyss in tiny Neepawa, Manitoba. Early life wasn’t easy for the girl, whom everyone called Peggy. Peggy’s mother died when she was four, her father when she was 10. An aunt raised her, and a stern grandfather intimidated her. “I hated him for a long time, even after his death,” Laurence later said. “Now I have a kind of respect and admiration for him.”

Laurence used writing to escape her grief. She started writing stories at age seven or eight and majored in English at United College in Winnipeg. After graduation, Laurence reported for the Winnipeg Citizen newspaper, and she married a college classmate, Jack Laurence.

Margaret Laurence
Margaret Laurence

Jack was an engineer whose work took him and Margaret to England and then Africa. It’s while living in Ghana that Margaret wrote and published her first novel. This Side Jordan (Amazon | Bookshop) is about the plight of Ghana’s former colonizers and native Africans during that country’s move to independence. The book came out in 1960, winning the 1961 Beta Sigma Phi Award for the best first novel by a Canadian.

By then, the Laurences lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, with two kids, but their marriage was failing. So Margaret separated from Jack and moved with her children to England in 1962. They settled in Penn, Buckinghamshire, a village about 30 miles from London. It’s there that Margaret Laurence started writing about her native Manitoba.

Margaret Laurence’s rough start

Laurence wrote a story set in a fictional town, Manawaka, based on Neepawa, where she grew up. Her tale’s protagonist, Hagar Currie Shipley, is a 90-year-old woman reflecting on her life. The novel came out in 1964 as The Stone Angel (Amazon | Bookshop, and it established Laurence as a prominent Canadian author. “Laurence is unforgettable because she is us,” a reviewer for The Toronto Globe and Mail wrote.

Over the next ten years, Laurence and her kids moved back to Canada, and she produced four more novels in what became known as her Manawaka series. Each centered on strong women trying to make their way in a male-dominated world.

Two of the Manawaka books won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award, including the final one, The Diviners, which came out in 1974.

Not everyone loved The Diviners, though. Some Canadian school boards banned the book for its sexual content, which caught Laurence off guard.

“I was desperately hurt,” she said a few years after the controversy. “I thought I’d get back at them in a novel. But after two years of mulling it over, I realized you don’t write fiction to get back at somebody. It was a lousy idea.”

It was a lousy idea. — Margaret Laurence

Laurence didn’t write another novel. She turned instead to children’s books, essays, and supporting other writers. Laurence responded to as many as 1,500 letters a day, and she encouraged and paved the way for Canadian women writers such as Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.

One wedding and a funeral

In Aug. 1986, Laurence received a terrible diagnosis. Already suffering from diabetes, she had advanced lung cancer. Doctors gave her six months to live. Laurence hoped to see her daughter, Jocelyn, get married.

“My daughter is planning her wedding, and I am planning my funeral,” Laurence told a friend.

The diagnosis came as Laurence was about to start a second draft for her memoir. She planned to continue typing the book but soon realized it was too complicated and would take too long for her to complete. So she dictated her words onto cassette tapes that a friend typed up. 

That December, Laurence witnessed Jocelyn’s wedding. But not long after, the writer broke her leg. It was another blow to a woman determined not to be a burden to friends and family. Then, on Jan. 5, 1987, Laurence used pills to take her own life.

For years, the world knew nothing of Laurence’s suicide. Instead, media outlets attributed her death to cancer. It wasn’t until James King published a biography, The Life of Margaret Laurence (Amazon), that the truth came out.

Laurence finished dictating her memoir before her death. Jocelyn edited it, and the book, Dance on the Earth, came out in 1989. It includes Laurence’s poetry, including the poem “Prayer for Passover and Easter.” 

The piece reads:
May we lean
One upon another
Give and receive loving strength
And may we learn
We are one People in our only home
Earth. Amen.

Margaret Laurence

  • Born on July 18, 1926, in Neepawa, Manitoba.
  • Died on Jan. 5, 1987, in Lakefield, Ontario.

Books by Margaret Laurence

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