Canadian author Margaret Laurence was born Margaret Wemyss in 1926 in Neepawa, Manitoba. Both her parents died when she was a child: her mother in 1930 and her father in 1935. Young Margaret, her step-brother and step-mother then moved into the home of her grandfather, an autocratic man who was the town undertaker. He had a library which must have brought her many happy moments looking through books, at pictures of plants and animals from faraway countries.
Though the Trans-Canada Highway runs through Neepawa, it is still a quiet small town, and when the young people grow up many of them still move away for work or an education. Margaret Wemyss left Neepawa to attend Winnipeg's United College, graduating in 1947, and then worked as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen.
Also in 1947, she married Jack Laurence. He took a posting overseas in Somalia, so the Laurences traveled first to London, England, then to Africa. Margaret Laurence lived in Africa from 1950 through 1957, the first two years in Somalia and the next five in Ghana (before independence, called the Gold Coast), where her husband was working as a civil engineer. She bore two children: Jocelyn in 1953 during a trip to England, and David in 1956 in Ghana. During this time she translated Somali poetry and prose. Her career writing fiction began with stories set in Africa.
On returning to Canada in 1957, the Laurences settled in Vancouver. There she finished her first...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Jean Margaret Wemyss was born on July 18, 1926, in Neepawa, Manitoba, Canada. She began writing at the age of eight, and at age thirteen she sent a story to a Winnipeg Free Press competition; in that story, she first used the name Manawaka for a town similar to her native Neepawa. She contributed stories to her school magazines and later to the university magazine when she attended United College in Winnipeg. She completed a B.A. in honors English from that institution in 1947 and went to work as a reporter on the Winnipeg Citizen. She married Jack Laurence, an engineer, and moved with him to England in 1949. In 1950, her husband was offered a job in Somaliland to build dams in the desert, and so the Laurences moved to Africa, a place that would have a strong effect on Margaret Laurence’s writing career. It was there that she began to write seriously.
In 1952, the couple moved to Ghana, where Jocelyn was born. Laurence had been translating Somali folktales and poetry, which were published as A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose by the Somali government in 1954. That same year, the Laurences’ son David was born. In 1957, the family returned to Vancouver, Canada.
In 1960, her novel This Side Jordan was published simultaneously in Canada, England, and the United States. Two years later, she separated from Jack Laurence and moved with her children to Buckinghamshire, England. There, she published her...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Margaret Laurence was born Jean Margaret Wemyss on July 18, 1926, in Neepawa, Manitoba, to Robert Wemyss and the former Verna Jean Simpson. Laurence’s mother’s family was of Irish descent; her father’s, Scottish. Although she was separated from the “old country” on both sides by at least two generations, her early memories, like those of Vanessa MacLeod in the short stories in A Bird in the House and of Morag Gunn in The Diviners, are of a proud and lively Scottish ancestry.
When Laurence was four, her mother died, and her aunt, Margaret Simpson, left a respected teaching career in Calgary and went home to care for her niece. A year later, she and Robert Wemyss were married. They had one son, Robert, born only two years before his father died of pneumonia. In 1938, Margaret Simpson Wemyss took the two children and moved in with her father, the owner of a furniture store. This domestic situation in slightly altered form provides the setting for the Vanessa MacLeod stories in A Bird in the House. Laurence lived in Grandfather Simpson’s house until she went to United College, University of Winnipeg, in 1944.
John Simpson was a fierce and autocratic man of eighty-two when his widowed daughter and her two children moved in with him. Laurence resented his authority over her and her stepmother; this relationship fostered Laurence’s empathy with women struggling toward freedom. All of her heroines—Hagar...
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A few events shaped Margaret Laurence’s life and affected her highly autobiographical writings: her birth as Jean Margaret Wemyss and early years in the Canadian prairie environment; her time in Africa with her civil-engineer husband on assignments; and her separation and ultimate divorce. Her African experience led her to an understanding of language, culture, and folktales; poetry; and a nomadic way of life. Her African experience also taught her of the need for myths that define human lives and bind communities. Finally, it gave her greater appreciation for home and self.
Laurence’s adolescence in a predominantly Scot-Irish Canadian but also Métis cultural environment pervaded her mental landscape and made her agonize over the latter’s plight. The result was the Manawaka cycle of novels and an interconnected set of short stories that Laurence described as “fictionalized autobiography.” This work records the saga of an Indian French Canadian Métis family over generations. The story is told from the perspective of Vanessa MacLeod, Laurence’s alter ego. The dichotomy that Laurence discovered between Africans living by faith and Canadians living by logic she finds replicated between Indians and whites in Canada.
Laurence’s broken marriage, which left her with the care of two children, led to A Jest of God, a pioneering work on the subject of a woman’s sexual awakening and single parenthood. Despite the centrality of...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Margaret Laurence was born Jean Margaret Wemyss on July 18, 1926, in Neepawa, Manitoba. Her ancestry was a mixture of Scottish and Irish-Canadian. She was an inveterate reader as a child and began to write stories in her childhood. She wrote stories for the school magazine; by the age of thirteen she had imagined a fictional town of Manawaka, clearly based on Neepawa. Later she would portray that town of Manawaka as the context for her heroines’ varied experiences.
Laurence’s father, Robert Wemyss, was a lawyer, and her mother, Verna Simpson, was a musician. Her maternal grandfather was a cabinetmaker and became the town undertaker. Laurence’s youth was marked with tragic losses and remarkable adaptations on the part of her family. When Laurence was four, her mother died suddenly, and her aunt came to live with her father and her. This aunt, Margaret Simpson, married Laurence’s father a year later, and the couple had one child, Robert. Laurence and her stepmother developed a close relationship that persisted throughout Laurence’s formative years. Tragedy struck again four years later when Laurence’s father died. Laurence’s stepmother faced an uncertain future since she was a woman rearing two children alone. Help arrived in the person of Laurence’s maternal grandfather, eighty-two years old and also recently widowed, who came to live with them. The grandfather was in good health and became a strong influence in Laurence’s life. Although...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Margaret Laurence was always faithful to her Canadian roots as a writer. Her depiction of life on the harsh prairie landscape, particularly her creation of the fictional town of Manawaka, which functions as the setting for four of her novels and a short-story collection, is an integral part of the sense of place in her works. Her creation of strong women characters and her treatment of themes relevant to women’s experiences place her in the forefront of feminist writing. Laurence portrays women who overcome problems of identity, limited roles, the complexities of motherhood, and the perils of marriage relationships. Laurence probes the nuances of communication in human relationships and exposes the difficulties faced by individuals who seek to uncover secrets about their pasts and about themselves.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Jean Margaret Wemyss Laurence was one of Canada’s most successful and influential twentieth century novelists. Her mother died when she was young, and her father, after remarrying and having one son, died when that child was two years old. In 1938 the widow and her two children moved in with her autocratic father in Neepawa. In Laurence’s autobiographical stories in A Bird in the House, the grandfather appears as an authority against which the heroine and her widowed mother struggle. Laurence’s themes—struggles against oppressive forces, search for identity, and attempts to overcome failures in communication—developed from this situation. The fictional town of Manawaka is based on her hometown.
Laurence took honors in English at the University of Winnipeg and covered the local labor news for a year for the Winnipeg Citizen. Her awareness of exploitative structures expanded in that year to include political oppression. In 1948 she married Jack Laurence. They moved to Africa and had a daughter and a son. During these years in Africa, Laurence produced her first novel, This Side Jordan, the short-story collection The Tomorrow-Tamer, the travel journal The Prophet’s Camel Bell, and translations of African folktales. A theme common to much of Laurence’s work is the growth of an outsider’s self-knowledge and humility in an alien environment. The stories in The Tomorrow-Tamer were collected in...
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Margaret Laurence was born Jean Margaret Wemyss on July 18, 1926, in the small town of Neepawa, Manitoba, Canada, to Robert Wemyss and Verna Simpson Wemyss. Like Jason Currie, Hagar's father in The Stone Angel, Laurence's father was of Scottish protestant ancestry. And just as Hagar is raised without a mother, Laurence's mother died when Laurence was four. She was raised by her aunt, Margaret Campbell Simpson.
In 1944 Laurence won a scholarship to study English at United College in Winnipeg, where she published poetry and stories in the college paper. After graduation she worked as a reporter for The Winnipeg Citizen, and in 1949 she married Jack Laurence, a civil engineer. In 1950 her husband's work took him to the British protectorate of Somaliland (now Somalia) in Africa. In 1954, Laurence published a translation of Somali poetry, A Tree for Poverty. After living in Ghana from 1952 to 1957, the Laurences returned to Canada. Laurence's first novel, This Side Jordan (1960), and her collection of short stories, The Tomorrow-Tamer (1963) were both set in Ghana.
In 1962, Laurence separated from her husband and moved to England with her two children. Two years later, The Stone Angel was published. The fictional town of Manawaka in which much of the story takes place is based on the Neepawa of Laurence's childhood and youth. The Stone Angel was the first of five books by Laurence that have become...
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From her own experience, Laurence created a story cycle consisting of five books, each of which features a strong female protagonist. Of the five, The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), and The Diviners (1974) were all denounced as immoral. Published during a time of rising Canadian conservatism, The Diviners was subjected to particularly vicious attacks. Although it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Medal for Fiction and the coveted Molson Prize, the novel became the focus of a 1976 effort by right-wing Protestant churches to remove it from the grade thirteen curriculum in Peterborough, Ontario. Two years later the book was subjected to yet another attempt to remove it—along with J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937)—from grade thirteen English in southeastern Ontario.
The Diviners is a coming-of-age story that includes—like many of Laurence’s other novels—earthy language and moderately explicit depictions of sexuality. Nonetheless, many critics believe that Laurence suffered at the hand of censors primarily for her attempts to portray the development of female independence.
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