Marian Engel a Life in Letters/Letters O

by Verduyn/Garay
ISBN: 0802036872

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A Review of: Marian Engel: Life in Letters
by George Fetherling

Through her novels and other fiction, Marian Engel communicated intensely and intimately with Canadian women of her own generation, the one that entered middle age in the 1970s when social and gender roles were changing so fast. She and her contemporaries seemed to be living in a different world than the one in which they had grown up. Surely this is one fact essential to any understanding of her work and career. But there are others too.
I knew Engel quite well, socially and professionally, and I've naturally been interested to observe the piecemeal publication of what the Victorians would have called her literary remains. First there was Dear Marian, Dear Hugh, an edition of her correspondence with her former teacher Hugh MacLennan, to whom she evidently felt an unrequited romantic attraction. Later came Marian Engel's Notebooks, which were scribbly and telegraphic but full of interesting un-fleshed-out revelations. (Sample entry, January 17, 1969: "Fetherling for dinner-he upsets me, he is exactly what I would like to be-a male poet w. long beautiful hair. Had curse, got drunk fast & couldn't stop talking.")
Both these books were edited skilfully by the literary historian Christl Verduyn, who now returns, in collaboration with Kathleen Garay, as editor of Marian Engel: Life in Letters. This is a fascinating selection of letters, incoming and outgoing, mostly with family members and other Canadian novelists such as Margaret Laurence, Adele Wiseman and Timothy Findley. If the choices here represent her total correspondence fairly, then Marian Engel showed her best face to the world through her letters. The fact isn't surprising, of course, because the same might be said of her fiction. She was deeply committed to writing and the writing life. They gave her purpose. They also helped her deal with the demons that interfered so often with her interpersonal relationships. Her letters give insight into these demons just as her books do.
After writing for years without attracting a publisher, Engel brought out her first novel in 1968 when she was already 35. The publisher stupidly insisted that it be called No Clouds of Glory, which sounds like an Audie Murphy western from the 1950s, rather than the title she wanted (and used on subsequent reprints): Sarah Bastard's Notebook. She had been born in southwestern Ontario during the Depression-out of wedlock, as people still said. The shame she felt comes up in the letters, as when she writes this to a friend: "Protestant theology interests me a lot because I was soaked in it in my youth; but it turns me off now because it's like games in the school yard: it's all about who's in and who's out and there is really no way of changing one's status in spite of what salvationism is preached on tv. Us illegitimates are out by birth and that's that, and it's no fun to be born dammed." Born damned. Wow. No wonder she was drawn to MacLennan, Canadian literature's essential puritan.
In any event, she was put up for adoption. Hence what I at least have always imagined to be the other haunting fact about her: Not knowing who her birth parents were, she perforce didn't know to which class she belonged. By hard work and talent, she managed to get an elite education at McGill (where MacLennan enters the picture). She always thought of herself as "a chronicler of longing and discontent," as she tells Timothy Findley. But there was a wobbly sense of entitlement at the back of her work that wasn't usually matched-not convincingly at any rate-in her social self, which forever seemed to stumble on the clumsiest working-class gaucheries and prejudices.
Several periods or events stand out in Life in Letters. One of them is joyous: the critical and commercial success of her novel Bear (1976), which won the Governor General's Award and remains her best known book-her most controlled and artful as well, a precursor of all those subsequent novels by people as different as A.S. Byatt and Julian Barnes that turn on some figure, real or imagined, from the literary past.
Another strand starts out happily but ends badly. This is her marriage to Howard Engel, in later years the author of the popular Benny Cooperman detective novels. From my own long friendship with him, he is what he seems in the letters here: a good-humoured and talented man with a nice prose style. As newlyweds they lived in Cyprus for a time. "I hope your Christmas has been as much fun as ours has," he writes to his parents-in-law. "Today we found that Greek uncles, too, doze, after turkey with their big hands spread across watch chains stretched to the breaking point. Greek babies are admired no less than Canadian bairns. We were surprised to see that the Christmas tree had survived the political troubles the Cypriots have had with the British. And speaking of trees, [Marian] has just written a letter to my folks in which, for some reason, there is no reference to our tree. I can't account for it." This is a jocular reference to his being Jewish.
While they were in Cyprus, Howard was preparing for what proved to be his long career as a CBC producer back home. Marian writes to her adoptive parents that she's "never known anyone with such guts: already he wants me to apply to the CBC for a job, though he knows I'd wind up, with his help, with a better one than he'd get, because of race, creed and outlook." I'm not sure what she means by "outlook" (his is cheerful, hers was dour) but "race" and "creed" are clearly her own references to his being a Jew-interesting in light of her confession, in an article in the Toronto Star in 1982, "that anti-semitism lurks in me, because it's part of the culture I grew up with." She didn't feel she could deny the existence of something of which she was nonetheless totally ashamed.
We read stray jottings in the letters about the collapse of the marriage after a dozen years (and one set of twins). MacLennan offers a shrewd assessment: "You've always been ferociously honest and extremely determined and fundamentally you're a woman of action, and action is clearly claiming you. I'm sorry about the marriage. It's never been an easy institution, but in a time like the present it is worse than ever, for the simple reason that its basis is a shared territory, together with the hope of improving it, retaining it and being secure in it."
Diseased marriages are like diseased bodies: the patients have good days and bad. Before the split, she tells Margaret Laurence that "Howard and I are beginning to be friends in the right way but I can't persuade him that he can't have me the way he wants to because he doesn't really want a life and family the way he thinks he does. I have given up confiding marriage-tales however: they all sound too sordid."
On a bad day five years later she reports to a childhood friend-Pauline McGibbon, a future Ontario lieutenant governor-that she's moved into a house of her own. "I still don't know whether I did the right thing, but it's done and that's that. I couldn't take marriage any longer; I don't like the alternative AT ALL but at least there's nobody telling me yesterday's sins every morning, when I goof it's my fault, when I succeed it's my own too."
That was in January 1979. By the following September, she responds quite calmly to Timothy Findley's warning about her drinking. "Thanks for your good counsel," she writes. "I'll see if I go on bad-boozing and if I do, do something about." Still, she defends her behaviour, saying "there are lots of things I do besides get stinko and phone."
In November, she is diagnosed with cancer and within weeks is able to articulate a new understanding of herself. She tells Findley:

"I've changed in the oddest way [and] am beginning to accept a lot, I think. Finally, my own imperfections. Finally, that I'm worth fighting for (and what a lot having good friends does towards one's feeling of self-love), finally, that nobody's going to take care of me if I don't take care of myself [] Things are sliding into perspective. I've dropped conspiracy theories [.] I'm just living. And that is good. Taking pleasure in weather and cats and just being. Not over-reaching, over-striving. It's as if I've finally had enough of that. I don't feel I have to justify my existence any more. Someone has given me the grace just to be."

Her network of friends rushes to her with gifts of-among other things-praise. Near the start of the cancer ordeal, Aritha van Herk writes of Engel's novel The Glassy Sea in these terms:

"Oh, Marian, if only everyone would dare to speak for us women like that-life would be so much simpler and easier and more straightforward [.] I think you have written a thing of beauty and perception unparalleled in Canadian literature."

Towards the end, when Engel's hold on life is so precarious, Laurence, not afraid to overstate matters in the service of her friend's spirits, ventures that "Jane Austen would have loved us, but I suspect she might have been a bit in awe of us, as well she might, we who have coped with having and rearing our children, writing our books, earning our livings, and not hiding the manuscripts under the desk blotter when the vicar came to tea. Wild Emily, of the Brontes, wouldn't have understood our practicality, as she had so little of it."
Engel was a fighter and rallied many times. In 1981 she tells an academic friend: "I'm very interested in men at the moment and there seem to be some around at last." But the one she has a crush on is one of her doctors and he's gay. She begins taking piano lessons, and finds them enjoyable but taxing. "My eyes are very tired these days-mostly I'm tired in fact."
She died bravely on February 16, 1985.

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