Margaret Laurence

Margaret Laurence (1926-1987), writer, was born Jean Margaret Wemyss in the prairie town of Neepawa, Manitoba, which inspired her fictional “Manawaka”. Her parents, of Scottish and Irish descent, died when she was young and she was brought up by an aunt who had become her stepmother. From 1944 to 1947, Margaret Wemyss attended United College, Winnipeg, with a scholarship and graduated with a B.A. honours in English. She worked as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen upon graduation and married Jack Laurence, a civil-engineering graduate of the University of Manitoba, the same year. In 1949, they moved to England and one year later, they left for Africa and remained there for seven years, first in the British Protectorate of Somaliland (now Somalia) (1950-2), then in Ghana just before its independence (1953-7). Laurence’s experience of these countries led to a variety of writings on African subjects over a period of some sixteen years. In 1962, Laurence separated from her husband after having returned to live in Vancouver for five years and moved to England, where she stayed in London and later, Elm Cottage near Penn in Buckinghamshire, for more than a decade. She accepted the position of writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto in 1969, and moved to Lakefield, Ontario, in the early 1970s. Twice the winner of the Governor General’s Award for fiction and the recipient of innumerable literary awards and honorary degrees, Margaret Laurence had a spectacular history of writing and publication. Her first book publication, A Tree for Poverty (1954), was a collection of translations of Somali legends and poetry, which was followed by her first novel, This Side Jordan (1960), set in Ghana, and by The Tommorow-Tamer (1963), a collection of stories set in the same country. Also in 1963 appeared The Prophet’s Camel Bell, a memoir of her years in Somaliland. In 1968 she published Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952-1966. Her first book of fiction set in Canada, The Stone Angel (1964), was followed by a series of publications that are known as the Manawaka series: A Jest of God (1966), The Fire Dwellers (1969), A Bird in the House (1970), and The Diviners (1974). Laurence also wrote several children’s books, including: Jason’s Quest (1970), Six Darn Cows (1979), The Olden Days Coat (1979, revised in 1982), and A Christmas Birthday Story (1980). A collection of her essays, Heart of a Stranger, was published in 1976, and in 1989, her memoir Dance on the Earth appeared posthumously. Margaret Laurence died of cancer in January 1987 and was interred in Neepawa.

The Margaret Laurence fonds (F0341) housed at York University Archives consists of manuscripts (1953-1986) by Margaret Laurence including notes and research material for The Diviners, manuscripts and drafts of short stories, children’s stories, articles, speeches and addresses, poetry and reviews ; translations of Somali poetry, and reviews of A Tree for Poverty ; a music score for For the Whaling Fleets ; drafts of introductions to other writers’ books ; recommendations for other writers ; articles written by others about Laurence and her work ; manuscripts of other writers’ works including typescript drafts of Sandy Stern’s “And After This Summer” (a screenplay for The Firedwellers), a television script for A Bird in the House (adapted by P. Wilson), a film script for The Olden Days Coat (screenplay by S. Marcus), a musical adaptation of Jason’s Quest and a stage adaptation of The Stone Angel ; correspondence (1962-1987) between Margaret Laurence and her family, her friends, other writers, artists, publishers, universities, media organizations, and readers including both general and specific correspondences regarding publication of her books, the Censorship controversy in 1974-1980, and her death ; financial records (1961-1986) of Margaret Laurence which consists of financial statements, correspondence with banks and insurance companies, income statements, household budgets, and extensive annual income tax information ; printed materials (1963-1987) by or about Margaret Laurence ; personal files (1965-1987) of date calendars, address books, honorary degrees, curriculum vitaes, notes, and miscellaneous personal items ; graphic materials (196-?-1987) that include 248 photographs of Margaret Laurence, her family and other subjects, and artwork for her children’s books, postcards, and posters ; sound recordings (1973-1987) of readings, speeches, and convocation addresses by Margaret Laurence, interviews with her, tributes to her, recordings of Songs from the Diviners, and other interviews and presentations of interest to her and moving image records (1978-1987) that consists of an interview with Margaret Laurence on the TV news, her reception of an honorary degree from Trent University in 1981, and tributes to her as a writer.

Finding aid available.

Restrictions on access apply.

Inventory number: F0341

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