Margaret Laurence 13

[portrait of Margaret Laurence]

(A 256-colour version
of the above portrait
is available.)

Margaret Laurence

Born in Neepawa, Manitoba on July 18, 1926, to Robert Wemyss and Verna Simpson Wemyss, Margaret lost her mother at the age of four. Margaret Simpson, an unmarried sister of Verna Wemyss, came to care for the family, and one year later married Margaret's father. They had one son Robert, who was born in 1933. Two years later Margaret's father died of pneumonia.

In 1944 Margaret Wemyss took a scholarship at Winnipeg's United College, an arts and theology college of the United Church, affiliated with the University of Manitoba. During her time as an honours English student, she had several items published in the student newspaper. She became involved with the "old left," a group of supporters of social reform.

After graduating in 1947, Margaret worked as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen where she wrote book reviews, a daily radio column, and reported on labour events. That same year she married Jack Laurence, a civil-engineering graduate of the University of Manitoba.

In 1949, they moved to England and one year later they left England for Africa where they remained for seven years. Their daughter Jocelyn was born in 1952 during a leave in England; their son David was born in the Gold Coast in 1955. The Laurences left the Gold Coast shortly before it received its independence as the State of Ghana in 1957 and returned to Canada where they lived in Vancouver for five years.

In 1962, she separated from her husband and moved to England where she lived in London for a year. She then moved to Elm Cottage near Penn in Buckinghamshire and remained there for more than a decade, with frequent visits to Canada.

Margaret Laurence accepted the position of writer in residence at the University of Toronto in 1969. In the early 1970s she moved to Lakefield, Ontario. She bought a small cabin on the Otonabee River near Peterborough where she spent the summers of 1971 – 1973 and where she wrote most of The Diviners, a novel which won her a second Governor General's Award; her first award was for A Jest of God, in 1967.

Her early work revolved around her African experience. Her first publication, A Tree for Poverty, 1954, was a collection of her translations of Somali legends and poetry. This was followed in 1960 by This Side Jordan, her first novel, set in Ghana and in 1963 by The Tommorow-Tamer, 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.

The Stone Angel, her first work of fiction set in Canada was published in 1964. It was the first book of the Manawaka series which includes A Jest of God (1966), The Fire-Dwellers (1969), A Bird in the House (1970), and The Diviners (1974).

She also wrote several children's books: Jason's Quest (1970); Six Darn Cows (1979); The Olden Days Coat (1979, revised in 1982); and A Christmas Birthday Story (1980). In 1976 Heart of a Stranger, a collection of essays was published and in 1989 her menoir Dance on the Earth appeared posthumously.

Margaret Laurence was the recipient of numerous literary awards and honourary degrees. She championed the cause of social conscience through her efforts for Energy Probe, CARAL, Project Ploughshares, Operation Dismantle, and Arts for Peace. Novice artists and writers were no strangers to Margaret Laurence. She aided them financially through the Three Guineas Foundation and spiritually through encouraging words.

Margaret Laurence died of cancer in January 1987 and was interred in Neepawa.