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 Shipley, Rachel Cameron, Vanessa MacLeod, Stacey MacAindra, and Morag Gunn—struggle against oppressive forces, and Laurence’s recurring theme of the lack of communication between men and women, as well as between women and women, is rooted in the domestic situation in Grandfather Simpson’s house. It appears in her first novel, This Side Jordan, as the problem between the colonialists and the Africans, between husbands and wives, and between relatives. At the beginning of her last novel, The Diviners, the problem of communication—searching for the right words—is a major frustration that Morag, theprotagonist, faces as a writer.
The encouragement and honest criticism given to Laurence by her stepmother were a great help to the girl, who started writing at an early age. At United College, she took honors in English, while her involvement with the “Winnipeg Old Left” during and after her college years reflected her dedication to social reform. Social awareness—the realization that men and women are constrained by social structures and exploit and are exploited by others through these systems—developed from her awareness that the hopes of her parents’ generation had been crushed by the Depression and that her own generation’s prospects were altered radically by World War II. After she graduated, she worked for one year as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen. Her experience covering the local labor news consolidated her social and political convictions and advanced theoretical problems to personal ones.
In 1948, Laurence married Jack Laurence, a civil engineer from the University of Manitoba. They left Canada for England in 1949 and went to British Somaliland (part of modern-day Somalia) in 1950, where he was in charge of a dam-building project. In 1952, they moved to the Gold Coast, now Ghana, where they lived until 1957. A daughter, Jocelyn, was born when they were on leave in England in 1952, and a son, David, was born in Ghana in 1955. Out of these African years came several early works, including The Tomorrow-Tamer, This Side Jordan, the translations of folktales, and the travel journal The Prophet’s Camel Bell . Of the last, Laurence said that it was the most difficult work she ever wrote...
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because it was not fiction. The importance of this work lies in its theme—the growth in self-knowledge and humility in an alien environment. During the years in Africa, Laurence read the Pentateuch for the first time, and these books of the Bible became a touchstone for her, especially pertinent to the African works and to a lesser extent to her Manawaka fiction. Here she developed the patience and discipline of a professional writer.
In 1962, Laurence and her children left Jack Laurence in Vancouver and moved to London. They remained in England until 1968, when Laurence returned to Canada to be writer-in-residence at Massey College, University of Toronto. She was affiliated with several other Canadian universities in the years that followed. In 1987, Laurence died in Lakefield, Ontario.