Novelist Margaret Laurence died last week of lung cancer at the age of 60 in her home at Lakefield, Ont. Timothy Findley, author of The Wars and The Telling of Lies was her friend for two decades. His assessment:
In what has become one of the best-known passages in Canadian writing, Margaret Laurence brought her masterpiece— The Diviners—toward its rolling conclusion: “Morag walked out across the grass and looked at the river. The sun, now low, was catching the waves, sending out once more the flotilla of little lights skimming along the greenbronze surface. The waters flowed from north to south, and the current was visible, but now a south wind was blowing, ruffling the water in the opposite direction, so that the river, as so often here, seemed to be flowing both ways. Look ahead into the past, and back into the future until the silence.”
Last week that silence came for Margaret Laurence—though only she would have been aware of its presence. For the rest of us, the silence is filled with the sound of her voice.
“A strange place it was,” she wrote of the place where she was born; “that place where the world began. A place of incredible happenings, splendors and revelations . . . .” Jean Margaret Wemyss (pronounced Weems) was born in Neepawa, Man., on July 18, 1926. Her family always called her Peggy and, even now, if you go to Neepawa and make inquiries, those who knew her as a child still speak more freely of Peggy Wemyss than they do of Margaret Laurence.
When Peggy Wemyss was four years old, her mother, Verna Jean Simpson, died. Her father, Robert, a lawyer, remarried with Margaret’s aunt, Mar-
garet Campbell Simpson, but died a short time later—before his daughter and her stepbrother had left their childhood behind. In a memoir, which she completed with her daughter, Jocelyn, just before her death, Laurence pays particular tribute to the women who shared in her Prairie upbring-
ing—her natural mother and her aunt-turned-stepmother whom Margaret always called “Mom.”
All those adults had a lasting and creative influence on Margaret Laurence’s sense of the world —its demands on human beings and their right to make demands of it. The world you were a child in, she maintained, stayed with you all the days of your life. Its light was the light you always saw by and its dark the dark that colored all your days.
Certainly, everything that Laurence wrote was colored by the devils of her childhood: death, the Depression and what Prairie folk always refer to as “the everlasting drought.” The images wrung from her battles and victories over these devils infused her writings with the kind of immediate veracity unique to the greatest works of art. Laurence would have resisted such an assessment of what she did, but what she did had greatness in it, regardless of what she believed. The greatness lay in the way she set her people before us: whole and articulate, hungry for the life she gave them.
Peggy Wemyss—married in 1947 to civil engineer John Laurence and divorced in 1969, the mother of two loving children, Jocelyn and David —ultimately lived alone. But alone is perhaps not quite the right word. She lived—as any writer must—in tandem with the artist inside her. Each one drew on the other’s strengths and weaknesses in order to come to terms with what Laurence perceived neither as a duty nor as a need to become a writer, but as her right to become whole —as complete as any of the women whose lives she created with such consummate skill.
“It is my feeling,” she said, “that as we grow old-
er we should become not less radical but more so.” Long before she died last week in Lakefield, Ont., her home for the past 12 years, both Laurence the writer and Laurence the woman had achieved through her books and in her everyday life a kind of radicalism the rest of us can only envy. Envy, yes; but not in a spirit of jealousy: only in the spirit of respect. Her writings—most notably The Diviners (1974), A Jest of God (1966) and The Stone Angel (1964)—had incurred, because of their unsparing integrity, the wrath of all wrong-thinking people. And her life— as a dedicated feminist, a Canadian nationalist, a human rights activist and advocate of nuclear disarmament-had become an inextinguishable beacon for others.
Brave, but modest, she was sometimes nervous in the extreme: virtually unable to stand when she made a speech or gave a reading. The questions she faced from the floor of public forums were inevitably tense with the drama inherent in a person who can barely stand up because of her fear, but who knows that she must rise to the occasion. Her body often betrayed her, forcing her to hold fast to the back of the chair in front of her. Whenever it was known beforehand that Margaret was going to make an appearance, a chair and table were provided. Even from a distance, any witness could see her shaking.
Robin Phillips, the noted stage director, once choreographed an entire evening of readings given by writers in opposition to censorship, around the fact of “Margaret Laurence’s table.” It sat just where it should, left of centre from the audience’s point of view. That every writer, that night, making exits and entrances, had to contend with this table—the one they all have to face every day of their working lives—was a marvellous symbolic gesture. That it was Margaret Laurence’s table made it doubly symbolic of what that evening was about.
No other writer in Canadian history suffered more at the hands of those professional naysayers, book-banners and censors than Laurence. And that suffering—make no mistake of it— took its toll, both professionally and personally. So be it: she was prepared for that. And, in the long run, she triumphed, knowing that her books had been written, as she said herself, “in order to clarify, proclaim and enhance life—not to obscure and demean and destroy it.”
“My lifetime here is a short span,” she wrote once, “but I am not here as a visitor. Earth is my home.” And we are the better for it.fy
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