Books

Margaret's grieving

Beloved writer Margaret Laurence battled several demons

JUDITH TIMSON September 15 1997
Books

Margaret's grieving

Beloved writer Margaret Laurence battled several demons

JUDITH TIMSON September 15 1997

Margaret's grieving

Beloved writer Margaret Laurence battled several demons

JUDITH TIMSON

Books

When Margaret Laurence was in her mid-30s, she wrote The Stone Angel, a fiercely beautiful novel whose heroine, Hagar Shipley, an obstinate, querulous woman of 90, is a burdensome presence in her children’s lives. Hagar rages against her approaching death, realizing towards the end that she has blocked herself from experiencing the true, deep feelings of joy she might have had: “I must always, always have wanted that—simply to rejoice. How is it I never could ... When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?”

It was Hagar who in 1964 set Laurence on the path to becoming one of Canada’s most loved and respected writers, and Hagar who became her most memorable character. It was even Hagar, as James King writes in his enormously moving biography, The Life of Margaret Laurence, whom Laurence thought of when, facing terminal cancer at 60, she took the overdose of sleeping pills that ended her life. “I don’t want to be Hagar,” she wrote in a still-unpublished journal she kept until her death on Jan. 5,1987.

The fact that Laurence took her own life—which only a handful of friends and family knew—is perhaps, on the surface, the most surprising thing in the book. But it is not the most interesting, or even the most revealing. King, an English professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, strips away the outer layers of the “stout dowager of Lakefield,” as the public perceived Laurence, and reveals a deeply troubled woman who struggled to define herself as a writer but, in the process, may well have felt she lost her soul.

It is difficult to overstate how profoundly sad The Life of Margaret Laurence is. King presents her as such a potent mix of strengths and frailties that she was able to emerge as an author in the ’50s (a fairly difficult era for women who wanted to be writers) and eventually produce the Manawaka novels, in which she told the stories of formidable women like Hagar and writer Morag Gunn in The Diviners. But Laurence was also so vulnerable that she succumbed to alcoholism, stopped writing adult fiction before the age of 50, and was engulfed in a desperate loneliness before her death. No one knew, says King, “the extent of Margaret’s anguish.”

All the seeds of Laurence’s character were sown in early childhood. Born into a prosperous family in Neepawa, Man., a small town that became the fictionalized Manawaka of her novels, “Peggy” Wemyss lost her mother to a kidney infection at the age of 4 and her father to pneumonia five years later. It was the death of her mother, Verna, an emotional, deeply intuitive woman, that marked Laurence for life. King quotes fellow writer Sylvia Fraser describing Laurence’s passionate identification with people who had suffered similar losses as constituting a “stigmata of the soul.”

Laurence was raised by her less emotional but nonetheless supportive aunt Marg (whom she called Mum). A slim, vibrant girl, Peggy wanted to be a writer from the age of 8, and closely observed her dictatorial grandfather and other members of her community. Famous for asking importunate questions, she nonetheless carefully concealed her ruthless determination, thinking it was unfeminine.

King charts Laurence’s life through several incarnations. At 21, he recounts, “imbued with a wonderful optimism,” she fell in love with and married engineer Jack Laurence, moving with him to Somaliland. But Laurence rebelled at being the memsahib, declining as a white woman to exercise her colonial power, and that created friction between husband and wife.

Africa was where, she said later, she learned to look at herself. From her experience there, she produced a collection of short stories and the novel This Side Jordan (1960).

But it was also where she began to drink heavily, “far more than any other woman in her circle.” King theorizes that Laurence drank in part to blunt the pain that enveloped her when she wrote. The very act of writing dredged up something dark within her.

Perhaps more disconcerting than the drinking is King’s depiction of Laurence as a flawed parent. Desperately wanting children, she gave birth to a daughter, Jocelyn, in 1952, and assumed that she could continue to focus on her writing. But after a visit from her concerned stepmother,

Laurence, now living back in Vancouver, wrote in a letter, “I thought I could do everything. But Mum knew, as I could not, that there would be a price.” King writes that Laurence’s two adult children, Jocelyn and her younger brother, David, born in 1954, both believe “they paid an unfair price for her creativity.” As a mother, “she often seemed in a fury,” and the children were made to feel like nuisances.

It is always tricky to analyze the competing forces in a woman writer’s domestic life. Very few prominent male writers, especially from that era, would ever be described as flawed because they closed the study door on their children, or were not always available to look after their emotional needs. But King’s assertions have added poignancy because he acknowledges that both children were permitted to read the manuscript for factual errors in exchange for supplying material relating to their mother. In fact, one of the great unresolved conflicts of Laurence’s life was the soul-wrenching split between the demands of motherhood and her passionate desire to write. As she said in one letter to a friend: “If only one could be one thing or another, either mother or woman, either woman or writer, but God damn, to be split in so many ways is just not fair.”

In the ’60s, Laurence’s marriage dissolved, and she moved to London with the children to pursue, albeit unsuccessfully, an affair with a Caribbean writer. Her decision to leave her husband essentially freed her from the role she found most difficult—“I am just not a suitable wife,” she said—but it left her lonely for the rest of her life, as she was unable to form any other lasting relationship with a mate. (King, however, does make it clear that Laurence enjoyed many long and rich friendships.)

In the meantime, Laurence had, as she herself wrote, “killed off’ Peggy and become Margaret, the writer, who would raise her children in a rambling cottage in the English countryside before moving back to Canada, and would produce such acclaimed novels as A Jest of God (1966), which became the movie Rachel, Rachel, starring Joanne Woodward, The Fire-Dwellers (1969) and The Diviners (1974). In the 1980s, much to Laurence’s dismay, The Diviners was temporarily banned in her adopted home town of Lakefield (near Peterborough, Ont.) because of its explicitly sexual material.

After The Diviners, Laurence found she had nothing more to say through her fiction, and the realization was, she remarked, “in some

odd way a kind of relief.” But even then, drunk by early evening most nights, she was tormented by what people expected of her as a writer, and what she could actually give them. “I have not published an adult novel in 12 years and won’t and can’t” she wrote in her journal in 1986. “Lord, don’t they know how anguished that has been for me?” Although the depth of Laurence’s despair is, at times, almost unbearable to read about, King concludes that the author “triumphed against the dark forces that beset her.” In a letter to a friend outlining the extent of her cancer, she did affirm: “I am so lucky that my kids are grown and I have lived to do my lifework. No regrets.”

Unlike her haunting fictional creation, Hagar, Laurence felt she had been able, in her lifetime, to rejoice. With tears streaming down her face, she told another friend shortly before her death: “And I’ve danced, I’ve danced.” As for speaking the heart’s truth, she had done that all along, in her novels.

Fifteen months into investigating the life of novelist Margaret Laurence, biographer James King, 55, an American-born professor of English at McMaster University, had a pivotal meeting in Toronto with Laurence’s two children, Jocelyn and David. They handed him her private journal and told him: “Mum killed herself.” His heart pounding, he knew then, he recalls, that he had a book “far more explosive” than he had originally thought.

King took home the journal and began to read it. “The way she did herself in suggested elements of greatness to me,” he says. “I thought, ‘I want to produce a book that is worthy of this torment, this woman.’ ” In fact, he says, he feels he has produced his own Manawaka novel.

'She did, in fact, succeed in doing what she was bom to do'

King, who has written biographies of Virginia Woolf and Herbert Read, had always been fascinated by the strong fictional heroines created by Laurence, but was disappointed when her memoir Dance on the Earth was published two years after her death. “I thought it was Milquetoast,” he said. “She didn’t do herself justice.” Laurence is his first Canadian literary subject (his second one will be flamboyant Canadian publisher Jack McClelland).

Despite its tragic elements, King believes his book affirms Laurence’s heroic qualities, and her status as a writer. “Several people have said it’s the saddest book they’ve ever read,” says King, "but in a life like that you have to balance it out—she did, in fact, succeed in doing what she was born to do.” □