The Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence & Adele Wiseman

407 pages,
ISBN: 0802080901

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Epistolary Novelists
by Clara Thomas

In the spring of 1982, Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman were together at Adele's house in Toronto, looking over the large cache of letters that Margaret had written to Adele since 1947, the year their friendship began. Adele's letters to Margaret had already been deposited in the Archives at York University and Adele was thinking of selling her papers to York as well, a move that Margaret was urging. At that time they found only a half-dozen of those hundreds of letters that they wished, for personal reasons, to destroy, and they called me to ask if I would edit a selection of their correspondence. I could not possibly have undertaken so large an editorial task-an editor's patience I do not have-and they abandoned the idea of such a project. But now, with both the Laurence and Wiseman papers at York, John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky have selected and edited the correspondence with a care and understanding that would have delighted both women. Their painstaking editorial work has perpetuated a friendship that was especially important to Laurence and Wiseman, an enduring source of emotional and professional support over four decades. Lennox and Panofsky have shaped their material into a seamless narrative drama of two voices-so successfully that readers may overlook or take for granted a process that demanded of the editors great care and understanding. Their introduction, notes, and index gratifyingly and sensitively answer a wide-ranging roster of contextual and peripheral questions.
There is a very large imbalance in the correspondence: Margaret's letters to Adele begin in 1947, the year their friendship began; Adele's to Margaret only in 1962. The two women had long since discovered the depth of their empathy and the identical views they held on their destined profession as writers when, in 1949, Margaret and Jack Laurence moved from Winnipeg to England, and then to Somaliland, where Jack was employed by a British firm in the building of dams. From 1951 to 1957 (when they moved back to Vancouver), they were on the move, first in Somaliland and then in Ghana, sometimes living in a truck on dam construction sites. Their nomadic life was not conducive to acquiring or saving any possessions at all. Besides, Margaret was a long, long way from recognition or acknowledgement of the potential value of letters: in fact it was not until well into the seventies that she could contemplate without anger the possibility of any outside readership of private correspondence, and it was 1980 before she was ready to countenance the sale of her own papers to York. Adele, on the other hand, had a strong and secure evaluation of her own professionalism from very early days. As well, she always carried with her the tangible as well as intangible evidences of her intense involvement with family and friends. Late in her life, her Toronto home was in itself a well-stocked archive of her lifelong affections and connections.
Although when the Laurences left Canada the friendship was only a few months old, the two women had already recognized in each other a total commitment to their careers and, even more remarkable, a total agreement as to a novelist's goals and responsibilities. They came from vastly different backgrounds, Margaret of long-established, Scotch-Irish, small-town Protestant descent, Adele a first-generation daughter of immigrants to the Jewish community of North Winnipeg, but they were joined by a passionate belief in the social value of art and in its deeply moral basis. In a profound way they felt themselves as writers to be soldiers in the endless human crusade against oppression, injustice, and unthinking conformism to false values. Thereafter, though their lives were often lived continents apart, they could give each other total encouragement and support. When Adele was suffering from repeated rejections of her play Lovebound, Margaret wrote her a remarkable five-page essay on the meaning she had found in it, concluding with a summary that was a statement of their faith in the writer's task: "[to show] the ways in which people continue to damage one another, and the ways in which sometimes there can be healing; the basic importance of tradition as one's place of belonging in a specific way, and the basic unimportance of creeds and all these differences when one human is face to face in any real way with another." Similarly, when Margaret went through traumatic times of doubt in the early processes of every novel, Adele was always there with staunch support: "Everything you've done in relation to your new novel [The Fire-Dwellers] seems to me precisely right as soon as I hear about it.. You ask if it's possible to crack up without knowing you're cracking up.. So what's happening now? Of course you must realize you're stuck. You can't go back because there's no back to go to. One way or another you're going to have to complete this novel." As Adele often said of herself, she was a natural optimist, with a bubbling sense of humour, and that was one of her major gifts to Margaret, who gradually became able to counter her built-in insecurity with saving laughter.
The Laurences' African years, which saw the birth of their two children, Jocelyn and David, were for Adele years of adventure and travel, working in London and Rome, planning and embarking on a trip to China unfortunately aborted in Hong Kong because of visa problems, and finally, of return to Canada and a position through the sixties, teaching at Macdonald College of McGill University. In Montreal she met and married Dmitri Stone, a marine biologist, gladly mothered his three sons, and, in 1969, aged forty-one, to her unending delight, gave birth to their daughter, Tamara. Success came much more quickly to her than to Margaret: her first novel, The Sacrifice, was acclaimed, and rightly so, when it was published in 1955. At that time Margaret was doggedly working on fiction-short stories and a novel-and also on the translation into English of Somali literature, both poetry and tales, a collection published as A Tree for Poverty in 1954.
The maturing of Margaret Laurence is wonderfully charted through the editors' selection of letters: she began writing to Adele as a very young and selfconscious woman, as her first letter, from her home town of Neepawa, demonstrates. She had found in Adele and her family a closeness and a cultural knowledgeability that she felt were embarrassingly lacking in her own background, a supposed inferiority that she chafed under. The African experience was not only a massive culture shock, it was also a catalyst that brought about a remarkable growth in her, personally and professionally. The young woman who went to Africa returned to Vancouver in 1957 in an irreversible process of change. Though her break with Jack Laurence did not come until late in 1962, the growing tensions of their marriage and her burgeoning independence as both woman and writer are palpable in her letters. Their decisive moment of parting came about when he read and rejected her "old lady novel", as she called The Stone Angel, and though she tried to accept his verdict, as she always had, and even put the manuscript away for months, this was their breaking point. As she wrote to Adele later, his rejection was the end of her "delayed adolescence" and her excessive emotional and professional dependence on his approval.
With the publication of The Stone Angel, Margaret was well launched into immediate and lasting success and the development of the following novels of the "Manawaka cycle": A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, Bird in the House, and, finally, The Diviners, which, as early as 1967 she had known intuitively would be her final novel and had so written to Adele. She and the children settled down in England near the village of Penn in Buckinghamshire, in the house she called Elmcot, which she was able to buy with the proceeds of the Newman-Woodward film Rachel, Rachel. Though she and Jack made brave efforts to keep their marriage afloat, the letters tell their story of a gradual recognition of irreconcilable differences, and for Margaret, a combination of guilt and relief that she lived with for the rest of her life. They also tell the story of a loving but harassed single mother, coping with the daily imperatives of meals, illness, schooling, and friends, as well as with the overwhelming need to get on with her current work. Every novel brought her agonizing doubts as she struggled to find its fitting form-and every time she won. The letters record the struggles.
As for Adele, these were also years of crowding demands of teaching, children, family, friends, and, always, writing, though she worked far more gradually and with far fewer storms of uncertainty than Margaret. Her worst times came when a manuscript was finished to her satisfaction, and sent out to potential publishers. She was not amenable to editors' suggestions-as Margaret quickly came to be, once the trio of McClelland, Knopf, and Macmillan was solidly behind her. It was after, literally, years of rejections and new starts that Crackpot, Adele's second novel, was finally published by McClelland & Stewart in 1974. During Adele's recurring times of rage and frustration Margaret's reassurances never faltered. As far as she was concerned, Adele's writing was of international or mythic significance while her own, she insisted, was superficial by comparison. For her part, Adele considered herself "not incapable of responding to someone whose judgement I respect", but such persons were few and far between, with the result that her work was held up, seemingly endlessly. Her long play Lovebound was never published, though finally privately printed.
In 1973 Margaret moved back to Lakefield near Peterborough, Ontario, and, since Adele and Dmitri by then were living in Downsview, then Kleinburg, and finally on Rushton Road in Toronto, calls and visits often supplanted letters, though did not replace them entirely. Sometimes, guilty at the size of their phone bills, they had spells of their old-style correspondence. Sometimes, too, and this was particularly true of Margaret, only the release of writing out feelings would relieve them. This was the case during Margaret's truly agonizing ordeals at the activities of the book-banners, who struck at the very roots of her basic belief in the deep moral seriousness of her work.
In general, though, her letter-writing during the last decade of her life did not decrease, but it was largely devoted to the answering of her mail. Hundreds of readers wrote to her, and to them all she replied, often at the rate of ten letters a day. Only in 1984 did she falter and accept a limitation: "Adele, I really think I have to throw out the mail. There are so many things I want to do, and I just cannot continue to spend my life running a business office. I'll answer the letters that pertain to income, and the ones I really want to do for younger writers, and that is IT." These were the years of her social activism, when she was constantly besieged for appearances and speeches in support of the many causes dear to her heart. Nuclear disarmament was the chief of these, but there were numbers of others, and all clamouring for her attention. For a writer's gathering organized by Adele in 1984, protesting the power of critics, she wrote a wisely balanced statement called "The Critic on the Hearth": "We all care about writing, in all its multitudinous spoken and written forms. We care about the Word. In a world where a lot of people do not care about or value the Word, let us know that whatever our differences we are on the same side."
And in her last letter to Adele, just a few weeks before she died, she testified once again to the friendship that had sustained them both for so long: "Dearest Adele: Old friend, sister, colleague.." 

Clara Thomas is a Professor Emeritus at York University, and the author of several books, including two on Margaret Laurence.


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