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Away & Back to Manawaka
by Fraser Sutherland

The first thing to be said about this reasonably candid biography is that Margaret Laurence's children deserve credit for allowing it to come about. It would have been easy for David and Jocelyn Laurence to have left extant a sanitized public version of their mother-St. Margaret of Manawaka- rather than have a biographer expose the litter of follies and misdemeanours that marked her-like most people's-lives. But they evidently understood that Laurence now belongs to history, and that history requires facts and, with the facts, some kind of truth.
Laurence was born in 1926 in Neepawa, Manitoba. Her mother died when she was four, and her father when she was nine. She was brought up by an aunt who had become her stepmother after Margaret's father remarried a year after his first wife's death. A tyrannical, choleric, and regrettably long-lived grandfather dominated her childhood and, it seems, her entire family. At eighteen she left Neepawa, if indeed she ever left it, to attend college in Winnipeg. There she met and married an engineering student ten years her senior, arguably part of her lifelong quest to find a mate who combined the gentleness and sensitivity of her father with the vitality and indomitableness of her grandfather. After jobs in Winnipeg journalism, she spent two years in Somaliland (now part of Somalia) and five years in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) while her husband worked on engineering projects. From 1957 to 1962 the couple lived in Vancouver, at which point she moved to England, beginning a protracted separation from her husband that led to divorce. Much of her English period was spent at Elm Cottage in Buckinghamshire, which she rented and later bought. By now a celebrated novelist, she returned permanently to Canada in 1973, living in a riverside cottage, or in a house at Lakefield, both near Peterborough, Ontario. Honoured, fêted, and harassed, she wrote relatively little. Diagnosed with terminal cancer of the lung and liver, she committed suicide in January 1987. She had written six novels, a travel book, a collection of short stories, a book of connected stories, a literary survey, four children's books, and a memoir, and compiled an anthology. Considering that she was only sixty when she died, these were not bad innings.
That's the chronology. In fleshing it out, James King's style has no special distinction and he is entirely too fond of "incredible" as an adjective. But he moves the story forward without fuss or ornament, always respectful but far from hagiographic. His task was not made easier by Laurence's habit of burning manuscripts and correspondence, as if she were an ore refiner melting away dross to leave only the precious metal of her fiction.
Some of King's findings are conjectural. He overstresses, I think, the brief liaison Laurence had with the Barbados novelist George Lamming, claiming that she scoured London pubs in search of him. Apart from her husband, Lamming is in fact the only sexual partner fully named. Laurence also had an affair with an African diplomat in London, whom she styled "the old lion". One would like to know the complete name, for the record, of this particular cat. On the mine-strewn topic of relationships with other writers, King says that her friendship with Margaret Atwood was ruptured because Laurence felt rivalry with the younger writer and resented that Atwood had phoned Jocelyn on the subject of her mother's heavy drinking. He also says that Laurence's long epistolary friendship with Al Purdy waned after he failed to tell her what he thought of The Diviners. Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe maybe.
King puts a feminist construction on Laurence's evolution from dutiful hausfrau to liberated artist, and asserts that her novels are centred on questions of power and self-determination. Yet, though women writers do face special pressures and conflicts, Laurence's situation in her early years as a wife and mother was not so different from a man who, say, simultaneously holds down a job and tries to gets on with his writing. At a higher, genderless level, Laurence was tormented by a dilemma every good writer confronts: the negotiation between what is owed to art, and what is owed to life. In opting to return to Canada permanently, Laurence obviously opted for life, seeking the community of writers she called a "tribe" and settling in a town ironically not dissimilar to her death-haunted birthplace. She became a besieged public figure, and the necessary artistic distance she had always needed became obliterated. It's no coincidence that she had confirmed her destiny as a writer thousands of miles from her home and native land.
Laurence was a tangled mess of contradictions: single-minded and tough-rooted, yet a trembling leaf vulnerable and hypersensitive. She had the old-fashioned notion that fiction tells a higher truth, imparting wisdom. That penchant for the spiritual sometimes warred with an intense physicality so that, with fatal results, she could not bear the disintegration of her own body. Her self-image, fully justified, was that of an intensely moral person, which is why the attempt of Christian fundamentalists to keep The Diviners from reaching the tender eyes of Lakefield teenagers shook her to the core. Except for the book-banners, King seldom has an unkind word to say about anybody, especially the fellow-writers who were dismayed by their friend drinking and smoking herself to death. Yet perhaps it was only Adele Wiseman (their correspondence is being published in November, by the University of Toronto Press) who had always fully accepted Laurence in all her wonderfully complex fallibility. Moreover, a central fact of Laurence's life was that she performed countless acts of kindness, generosity, and hospitality. King says as much, but one would like less tell, and a lot more show.
My own dealings with Laurence were slight, and revolved around her role as a putative peacemaker after Northern Journey, a literary magazine I was editing in 1974, published a short story in which Margaret Atwood appeared under her own name as a bit character. Through her lawyer, Atwood threatened a libel suit and some of her allies attempted to have the Writers' Union blacklist our magazine. We resisted these manoeuvres. During the ensuing publicity, Laurence, a founding member of the Union, held the naive but honourable notion that such general ill feeling was unnecessary. She initiated a short exchange of letters with me that ended a little testily on my part. Some time afterward I encountered her at the home, I think, of her daughter Jocelyn. We were introduced. With an embracing smile, she said that she thought writers should be friends, and that she hoped we were. I was happy to agree. Now, when I read that she was maudlin and disagreeable when drunk, I think of that sweetness.

Fraser Sutherland's most recent book is Jonestown: a poem (McClelland & Stewart).


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