Margaret Laurence

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For the Australian actress, see Margaret Laurence (actress).
Margaret Laurence
Born (1926-07-18)July 18, 1926
Neepawa, Manitoba
Died January 5, 1987(1987-01-05) (aged 60)
Lakefield, Ontario
Occupation novelist, essayist, academic, Chancellor
Alma mater United College of Winnipeg
Genre Canadian Literature
Children's literature
Literary movement CanLit
Notable works The Stone Angel
The Diviners

Jean Margaret Laurence, CC (née Wemyss) (18 July 1926 – 5 January 1987) was a Canadian novelist and short story writer, and is one of the major figures in Canadian literature. She was also a founder of the Writers' Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada's writing community.


Early years[edit]

Margaret Laurence was born Jean Margaret Wemyss in Neepawa, Manitoba, the daughter of solicitor Robert Wemyss and Verna Jean Simpson. She was known as "Peggy" during her childhood. Her mother died when she was four, after which a maternal aunt, Margaret Simpson, came to take care of the family. A year later Margaret Simpson married Robert Wemyss, and in 1933 they had a son, Robert. In 1935, when Laurence was nine, Robert Wemyss Sr. died of pneumonia. Laurence then moved into her maternal grandfather's home with her stepmother and half-brother. Her novel Bird in the House is based on stories of her living in her grandfather's house. She lived in Neepawa until she was 18.


In 1944, Laurence attended Winnipeg's United College, an arts and theology college associated with the University of Manitoba, that would later become the University of Winnipeg.[1] Before attending, she applied for academic scholarships that were granted based on her academic record and financial need.[2] During her first year at United College, Laurence studied in a liberal arts program which included courses in English, History, Ethics, and Psychology. Laurence's interest in English literature was present even in high school, and her interest in writing her own works continued into her formal education. Within the first few weeks of attending the college, Laurence had works of poetry published in the University of Manitoba's publication The Manitoban.[2] She submitted this work under the pseudonym "Steve Lancaster", in what she later credits as a reference to the Lancaster bomber, a highly powerful and successful bomber of the Second World War. Another of Laurence's achievements during her first year of college was being welcomed into the English Club, an organization of senior students who discussed poetry, led by professor Arthur L. Phelps.[3] This was her first time being around peers who were also passionate about literature, and it was an opportunity for her to expand her knowledge as both scholar and writer. "Tony's", a part-cafeteria, part-coffee shop in the basement of United College, was another important place for Laurence to share her literary interests with colleagues. She would meet with friends and discuss literature; those who were writers would share their works with the group.[3] Laurence's years in college not only shaped her from an academic perspective, they also provided opportunities for her to develop creatively and professionally.

During this period Laurence became associated with the leftist intellectual movement the "Social Gospel", which would remain important to her for the remainder of her life. In her senior year of college, Laurence had an increasing number of responsibilities while also continuing to have her own work printed in local publications. She became an associate editor of Vox, United College's literary journal, and was also the publicity president of the Student's Council.[2] These opportunities encouraged Laurence to hone her craft of writing, while also giving her the tools to work in journalism -- as she would do upon graduation. She showed promise and success in her early literary pursuits. During her undergrad, Laurence had at least eighteen poems, three short stories, and a critical essay published.[2]

Laurence graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature in 1947.[3]

Later life[edit]

Following her graduation from United College, Laurence worked at the independent newspaper the Winnipeg Citizen, which was owned cooperatively by citizens.[2] Also not long after graduating, she married Jack Fergus Laurence, an engineer. His job took them to England (1949), the then-British protectorate of British Somaliland (1950–1952), as well as the British colony of the Gold Coast (1952–1957). Laurence developed an admiration for Africa and its various populations, which found expression in her writing. Laurence was so moved by the oral literature of Somaliland that she began recording and translating poetry and folk tales, which would later be complied into the work A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose (1954).[1]

In 1952, Laurence gave birth to daughter Jocelyn during a leave in England. Son David was born in 1955 in the Gold Coast. The family left the Gold Coast just before it gained independence as Ghana in 1957, moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, where they stayed for five years.

In 1962, she separated from her husband and moved to London, England for a year. She then moved to Elm Cottage (Penn, Buckinghamshire) where she lived for more than ten years, although she visited Canada often. Her divorce became final in 1969. That year, she became writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto. A few years later, she moved to Lakefield, Ontario. She also bought a cabin on the Otonabee River near Peterborough, where she wrote The Diviners (1974) during the summers of 1971 to 1973. Laurence served as Chancellor of Trent University in Peterborough from 1981 to 1983.

In 1986, Laurence was diagnosed with lung cancer late in the disease's development. According to the James King biography, The Life of Margaret Laurence, the prognosis was grave, and as the cancer had spread to other organs, there was no treatment offered beyond palliative care. Laurence decided the best course of action was to spare herself and her family further suffering. She committed suicide at her home at 8 Regent St., Lakefield, on January 5, 1987. She was buried in her hometown in the Neepawa Cemetery, Neepawa, Manitoba. Laurence's house in Neepawa has been turned into a museum. Her literary papers are housed in the Clara Thomas Archives at York University in Toronto and at McMaster University's William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections in Hamilton.

Literary career[edit]

One of Canada's most esteemed and beloved authors by the end of her literary career,[4] Laurence began writing short stories shortly after her marriage, as did her husband. Each published fiction in literary periodicals while living in Africa, but Margaret continued to write and expand her range. Her early novels were influenced by her experience as a minority in Africa. They show a strong sense of Christian symbolism and ethical concern for being a white person in a colonial state.

It was after her return to Canada that she wrote The Stone Angel, the book for which she is best known. Set in a fictional Manitoba small town called Manawaka, the novel is narrated retrospectively by Hagar Shipley, a ninety-year-old woman living in her eldest son’s home in Vancouver. Published in 1964, the novel is of the literary form that looks at the entire life of a person, and Laurence produced a novel from a Canadian experience. After finishing school, the narrator moves from Toronto to Manitoba, and marries a rough-mannered homesteader, Bram Shipley, against the wishes of her father, who then disinherits her — disinheritance is a recurring theme in much of Laurence's fiction. The couple struggles through the economic hardship and climatic challenges of Canadian frontier existence, and Hagar, unhappy in the relationship, leaves Bram, moving with her son John to Vancouver where she works as a domestic for many years, betraying her social class and upbringing. The novel was for a time required reading in many North American school systems and colleges.[5]

Laurence was published by Canadian publishing company McClelland and Stewart, and she became one of the key figures in the emerging Canadian literature tradition. Her published works after The Stone Angel explore the changing role of women's lives in the 1970s. Although on the surface her later works like The Diviners depict very different roles for women than her earlier novels do, Laurence's career remained dedicated to presenting a female perspective on contemporary life, depicting the choices — and consequences of those choices — women must make to find meaning and purpose.

In later life, Laurence was troubled when a fundamentalist Christian group succeeded in briefly removing The Diviners as course material from Lakefield District Secondary School, her local secondary school.

The Stone Angel, a feature-length film based on Laurence's novel, written and directed by Kari Skogland and starring Ellen Burstyn premiered in Fall 2007.

Awards and recognition[edit]

Laurence won two Governor General's Awards for her novels A Jest of God (1966) and The Diviners (1974). In 1972 she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

The Margaret Laurence Memorial Lecture is an annual lecture series organized by the Writers' Trust of Canada.

The Stone Angel was one of the selected books in the 2002 edition of Canada Reads, championed by Leon Rooke.

The University of Winnipeg named a Women's Studies Centre, and an annual speaker series, in Laurence's honour.

At York University in Toronto, one of the undergraduate residence buildings (Bethune Residence) named a floor after her.



Short story collections[edit]

Children's books[edit]

  • Jason's Quest (1970)
  • Six Darn Cows (1979)
  • The Olden Days Coat (1980)
  • The Christmas Birthday Story (1982)



  1. ^ a b Staines, David (2001). Margaret Laurence: Critical Reflections. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press. p. 2. ISBN 9780776604466. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Xiques, Donez (2005). Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer. Toronto: Dundurn Press. p. 133. ISBN 9781550025798. 
  3. ^ a b c Powers, Lyall; Bumsted, J.M. (2005). Alien Heart: The Life and Work of Margaret Laurence. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press. p. 56. ISBN 9780887551758. 
  4. ^ Margaret Laurence: Canada's Divine Writer | CBC Archives
  5. ^ Review - The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence - January Magazine


  • King, James. The Life of Margaret Laurence. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1998. ISBN 0-676-97129-6.
  • Powers, Lyall. Alien Heart: The Life and Work of Margaret Laurence. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-87013-714-X.
  • New, W. H., ed. Margaret Laurence: the Writer and Her Critics (1977)
  • Thomas, Clara. Margaret Laurence (1969)
  • Thomas, Clara. The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence (1975)
  • Woodcock, George, ed. A Place To Stand On: Essays By and About Margaret Laurence (1983)
  • Mujahid,Syed:Feminism in Margaret Laurence's 'The Stone Angel',Synthesis:Indian Journal of English Literature & Language,Vol.2.No.2pp.95–101
  • Gupta,Rashmi:Social Taboo of Patriarchal Society:A reading of Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God.Synthesis:Indian Journal of English Literature & Language,Vol.2.No.2pp.102–106
  • Shiny,V.S.:Sundogs-A post-colonial Protest and Affirmation of the Native Canadian Consciousness.Synthesis:Indian Journal of English Literature & Language,Vol.2.No.2pp.102–107

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
William Morton
Chancellor of Trent University
Succeeded by
John Josiah Robinette