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Margaret Atwood in 1974: ‘Margaret Laurence was no bulldozer’

Thirty years after the distinguished Canadian author died, Laurence’s last book reminds us of ‘the need to give shape to our own legends, to rediscover what is really ours’


 

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I first met Margaret Laurence the way most people meet most writers: on the dust jacket of a book. The book was The Stone Angel, and the photograph on the back flap showed an austere, classically handsome face, with astonishing eyebrows and an expression that might best be described as “unflinching.” My first reaction was, “This is not someone I would ever want to get into a fight with.” The combination of the photograph and the strength of the book itself was enough to strike terror into any young novelist, and when, several years later, I had a chance to meet the real Margaret Laurence — having meanwhile read her three subsequent works of fiction, A Jest Of God. A Bird In The House and The Fire-Dwellers — I wasn’t sure I wanted to. By this time she was almost a legendary figure. She is one of the few Canadians to have a novel made into a feature film: Rachel, Rachel, based on her novel, A Jest Of God. She had done for the Prairies and for a certain generation of Canadians what Mordecai Richler had done for Montreal and Morley Callaghan for his own time; like them, she was published and respected as a writer outside Canada as well as in it; and she was female. It would be too much like meeting a bulldozer.

After the first minute it was clear to me that Margaret Laurence was no bulldozer. Nor was she the least bit interested in being a legendary figure: she was far too involved in the joys and despairs of being human. Too many people have said to me, “You don’t look at all like your photos” and “I thought you would be taller” (this latter especially makes me feel like the Incredible Shrinking Woman), so I didn’t say either of them, although I thought them. But Margaret Laurence herself disposed of the photo neatly. “I love that picture,” she said, “because it doesn’t look at all like me.” Apparently, she was not going to play Statue or Sacrosanct Writer or succumb to any of the other temptations that beset a writer as successful as she is. She was not wearing filmy robes or a man-tailored suit, nor did she have a long silver cigarette holder. She was not glamorous, nor was she a mad eccentric. In fact, it was a little hard to believe that this warm, unpretentious woman, dressed like a suburban housewife in slacks and shirt and with her hair back in a ponytail, was a writer at all, let alone the author of the enormously tough-minded books I knew her to be.

Second impressions are deceptive. Margaret Laurence is warm and unpretentious, it’s true — if you grow up in a small western town acting cold and pretentious you don’t last long — but underneath that she is quite a lot more like her photo than she’d care offhand to admit. She’ll apologize for anything, from the smoker’s cough that sounds like the Springhill Mine Disaster to the flourishing patch of weeds outside her cottage to her erratic work habits, but the apologies are really a way of warning you not to bother trying to get her to do anything she doesn’t want to, like quitting, weeding or stopping work. She can see further through most people’s motives than they find comfortable, which makes her a tricky politician. She’s an intensely loyal friend but a formidable enemy, and she is not a safe person to underestimate. With her hair down she does not look at all like a suburban housewife. She looks a lot more like an exotic Eskimo witch. Though she can be the essence of tact and diplomacy, sooner or later — if she decides you’re worth it — she’ll tell you what she really thinks, and it won’t always be pleasant. “I have this image of myself as a broken reed.” she sighs, “you know, absolutely weak; but I know that isn’t true. Other people don’t have to be protected from my weaknesses; they have to be protected from my strengths.”

When I first met her she was living in England. (She and her husband had separated amicably, and were subsequently divorced, after 22 years of marriage.) Her house was a rambling country-village cottage outside London whose chief characteristics were its multitude of books and its resemblance to Canada House at the height of the tourist season. Young Canadians somehow made a beeline for her house, and because of her love of people and conversation and the difficulty she has saying no, she wound up running a cross between a hotel and an Ann Landers bureau. As a result she found herself doing most of her writing in the summers, in a small cabin on the shore of the Otonabee River near Peterborough which she bought four years ago. It’s remote enough so she can work undisturbed, it’s not in a city (cities make her nervous), but it’s close enough to other people so she doesn’t feel too isolated (wildernesses make her nervous also). On the walls are posters of Louis Riel and Norman Bethune, two of her heroes, and a DO NOT DISTURB sign specially printed for her by her publisher and longtime friend, Jack McClelland. Here she works five days a week (weekends are reserved for friends), four to six hours a day and more when a book is nearly finished. She writes by hand in a scribbler, then transcribes on a typewriter. (“Learning to type,” she says, “was the smartest thing I ever did.”)

What made her decide to become a writer? Like most writers, she doesn’t really know, though she felt from the age of seven — “as soon as I could write” — that she wanted to be “a teller of stories.” She never gave up the ambition, though like many Canadian writers of her generation she never thought she would make any money at it, much less earn a living.

She was born in 1926 in the small Manitoba town of Neepawa and grew up during the Depression, an experience which those who shared it and survived it will agree was what used to be called “character-building.” She was 13 when the war broke out. and remembers watching the parade in which the town’s regiment, composed of almost all of its young men, the older brothers of her friends, marched gaily off to the front. Though no one knew it, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were on their way to the Battle of Dieppe, where most of them were annihilated. This event recurs in one form or another in every one of her novels, running like a tragic leitmotif through the lives of her characters. “The real generation gap,” she has said, “is between those born before the war and those born after it. To those born after it. it’s a kind of myth. They have no way of knowing what it was like.”

Despite this sombre social background and even despite the fact that her mother died when she was four, she remembers her childhood as a not unhappy time. Though the household was dominated by an authoritarian grandfather who did not believe in education for women and denied it to her stepmother, and though “suffragette” was at that time a term of ridicule, it was also a household in which women were expected to be intelligent; by women, that is. Her aunts were lively women who had their own careers. So she did not grow up believing that woman’s only place was in the home.

Nor did she grow up isolated from literature. The town had a good library, which her stepmother helped to run; she made a point of ordering all the recent Canadian fiction she could. Thus at an early age Laurence had read such books as Sinclair Ross’s As For Me And My House before they disappeared from view (to resurface only decades later as New Canadian Library paperbacks). She recalls this book in particular because it was about the Prairies during (he Depression, and was one of the first to show her that the stories she wanted to tell didn’t have to be about Walter Scott knights or New York sophisticates. (She believes in paying debts as well as scores, and she paid hers to Ross by helping to persuade Jack McClelland to publish a collection of his short stories, The Lamp At Noon, for which she wrote the introduction.)

Despite her grandfather she made it to university, and graduated from United College in Winnipeg in 1947 at the age of 21. She immediately went to work as a reporter for a paper called The Winnipeg Citizen. This was a short-lived attempt at a cooperative daily; during the year it lasted she not only reviewed most of the books and wrote a radio column every day, but covered the labor beat. “I didn’t know a thing about labor when 1 started,” she says, “but those union men were really terrific.” She was involved at the same time with an intellectual circle she refers to as “the Winnipeg Old Left,” comprised of CCF and CCP members and followers, a fact that may account for her political astuteness. The Diviners, her most recent novel, is the only one that draws on this area of her experience.

She was married by the age of 21, and had two children. That was back in the Forties, before Women’s Lib, new style, was even heard of. Not only was she expected by society to play wife-and-mother to the hilt, she expected it of herself. “I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” she says. “There was never any doubt in my mind about that. But for many years, when I first started writing seriously, I felt enormous guilt about taking the time for writing away from my family. My generation was brought up to believe you had to iron the sheets.”

Now that Women’s Lib is with us, she approaches the subject with gratitude but caution. “I’m 90% in agreement with Women’s Lib. But I think we have to be careful here ... for instance, I don’t think enough attention has been paid to the problems men have and are going to have increasingly because of the changes taking place in women. Men have to be reeducated with the minimum of damage to them. These are our husbands, our sons, our lovers ... we can’t live without them, and we can’t go to war against them. The change must liberate them as well.” She disagrees with extremists who state as a general principle that women should not have children, or that women who leave their husbands should dump the children on them. “General principles,” she says, “don’t apply. People shouldn’t feel compelled to have children, but they shouldn’t be compelled not to have them either. It’s a normal human desire, and one felt not only by women.”

How does she react to the fact that her own work is often taken to exemplify the Movement? “Of course I was writing about the situations of women; I was dealing with a lot of the stuff Women’s Lib is talking about now. But at the time I was doing it I didn’t realize how widespread some of these feelings were. I used to be surprised when I got letters from women saying, ‘Right on.’ My generation of women came to a lot of the same conclusions, but they did it in isolation; you weren’t supposed to say those things out loud, to question the assumption that the woman’s only role was that of housewife. I don’t believe most housewives are happy just doing housework. Does scrubbing floors fulfill you?”

She claims that she never felt particularly “oppressed” as a woman writer . . . at the time. But looking back at it she’s less sure. Some male reviewers, she feels, have given her books sexually biased reviews, and this was especially true of The Fire-Dwellers. “They found Stacey threatening. Hagar in The Stone Angel was an old woman, she was too far removed from them, and Rachel in A Jest Of God was a spinster, you know, pathetic, they didn’t have to worry about her. But Stacey was a wife and mother, and if their own wives and mothers had thoughts like hers they just didn’t want to know about them.” These reviewers didn’t claim the book was a bad book: just one they didn’t want to read. “You could sum up their attitude toward Stacey as, ‘Why doesn’t she pull herself together?’ There was a lack of perception about the reasons that she couldn’t.”

Though there are some drawbacks to being a woman writer, she feels they are luckier than women who choose a profession that demands time spent away from home. At least it is physically possible for them to pursue their careers while raising children, though the emotional demands may be great. It can backfire, though. “There’s something I feel strongly about, and that’s the area of getting grants. There ought to be a different category for women who are writers and who need grants for housekeepers. Right now they won’t give money for this. Male writers can get grants to take leave from their jobs, women can’t. But housework is work.”

Work, for her, is a key word and an honoured one and writing is hard work emotionally as well as physically; when she’s writing a book she feels she is “living” the character, taking on the personality she is simultaneously creating. “I lead a double life,” she says, “theirs and mine.” But she emphasizes that the relationship between author and character is far from a simple one-to-one equation: none of the characters in her books is “her.”

This will be an especially important and difficult distinction to keep in mind while reading her most recent novel, The Diviners. When she began to write and publish, Margaret Laurence chose a setting relatively remote from her own identity and origins, the Africa of The Prophet’s Camel Bell and This Side Jordan. With The Stone Angel she moved to her own locale, the Canadian Prairies, and each of her successive heroines — Rachel, Stacey, Vanessa — was a step closer, in age, experience and interests, to something that might be identified by the careless as herself. The central character in The Diviners is, in fact, a woman writer in her forties who is living in an isolated farmhouse and writing a novel. “I know it’s bloody difficult, it’s one of the most difficult things to do,” she says, “writing about a writer. But I had to. At first I had her as a painter, but what the hell do I know about painting?”

The Diviners, which took her three years of writing time, is a huge, risky, ambitious book, the kind writers produce at a summing-up period in their careers, if they ever make it that far. It pulls together themes, fragments of plots and characters from her previous books, but it approaches them from a new angle. In it, she revisits one of her important central creations, the small Prairie town of Manawaka; but this time it’s a worm’s-eye view. In her earlier books, we see the town through the eyes of characters who are more or less safely established on the town’s carefully structured social ladder: the daughter of a storekeeper, the daughter of the undertaker, the granddaughter of a pillar of the community. These members of the respectable petite bourgeoisie are preoccupied with fears of exposure, especially self-exposure: of their emotions, of their fantasies, of their well-kept secrets. The price of exposure, as they well know, is a fall off their particular rung of the ladder onto a lower one. But in The Diviners we experience the town through the eyes of those who are already at the bottom and have no further to fall.

The central character, Morag Gunn, has lost her parents as a young child and has been adopted by the town “scavenger,” or garbage collector, Christie, and his fat, almost half-witted wife, Prin. Christie himself has a good deal of scorn for those who make an icon of respectability. Since he collects their garbage, which includes the empty liquor bottles and wasted food of the pious, and in one instance an aborted child, he knows that what is thrown out by the back door often goes unacknowledged at the front. He tries to amuse Morag by “telling” the garbage of his clients, much the way a fortune teller tells cards.

By this, however, Morag remains unamused. She spends her childhood detesting the shabbiness of her surroundings and the combination of snobbish contempt and smug pity visited on her by the richer townspeople. For her, as for Laurence’s other heroines, Manawaka is a place that must be escaped from, though she has even more incentive; and for her also it is a place that is finally inescapable. She drags it with her inside her head, replaying it obsessively in an attempt to find some clue as to who she really is.

As a young girl, however, her aim is to get as far away from it as fast as possible, and she begins by fleeing to university and marrying her cultivated English professor. She acquires a veneer of culture and the respectability she has always craved. But life in the well-laundered academic circles of Toronto becomes sterile for her, especially since it is combined with the paternalism of her husband, who takes to suppressing her ambitions as a writer by amending her manuscripts, pointing out when she protests that he has a more advanced degree in literature than she has and therefore ought to know better. He also develops the habit of asking her whether she has been a good girl, and waiting for the answer, before he doles out her weekly ration of sex.

She escapes once more, this time into a transient affair with Jules Tonnerre, a member of the only family in Manawaka that was less respectable than hers. The Tonnerres are Métis, descendants of a man who fought with Riel at Batoche. Like Morag, Jules despises his immediate family and reveres a past he has never known. After this, Morag escapes still farther; with her illegitimate child by Jules, she flees to England, then to Scotland, in a search for her “real” ancestors, her real roots. Through a process of elimination she comes to discover that perhaps her real ancestral home is not Scotland but Manawaka; and that the father she is searching for is not the dead man she cannot remember, but Christie himself, garbage collector, seer, and teller of stories. Both Morag and Jules learn to accept their ancestors, the real ones and the mythical ones also. Ironically, by the end of the book Morag’s daughter is going through the same process, except that Morag herself is the rejected parent, disreputable Christie the mysterious and saintly ancestral myth.

The Diviners is a large and complex book, an orchestration of themes as well as a collection of stories. It’s about Canada as well as Manawaka, “about the need to give shape to our own legends, to rediscover what is really ours, what is here.'’’ Paradoxically, The Diviners is at once the most “international” of Laurence’s books and the most national. “They are not,” she says, “mutually exclusive.”

Morag’s discoveries and decisions are paralleled to a certain extent by Margaret Laurence’s own, although Laurence made them first. She decided four years ago that she was going to move back to Canada permanently, and the only things that kept her in England were the need for her children to finish school there and the necessity of disposing of her house and making the practical arrangements for the move. “Living in England,” she says, “convinced me that my real place was in Canada. I was writing from a Canadian background, this is my spiritual home, and I kept having to come back anyway. My real involvements are here.”

At the moment she’s spending a term at Trent University as Writer-in-Residence, a job she finds exhausting but rewarding. “I can’t give public speeches without a chair,” she says; “if I stand up my knees knock together, I mean literally.” She’s bought a yellow-brick house in Lakefield, perfect for her because it’s neither city nor wilderness; she’ll move into it at the end of the academic year.

What next? Does she have another book planned? “No,” she says, quite positively. “I don’t think I’ll ever write another novel. It’s not because I don’t want to. I just have this knowledge, it’s sort of a Celtic second sight — I always have had it about my books — and I just don’t think I will.”

One of the characters in The Diviners is an old man who is able to witch for water with a divining rod. One day he simply loses the ability. His comment is that the gift was a gift in the first place, not an inalienable possession; he was grateful while it was there, but its loss does not particularly sadden him.

This is the way Margaret Laurence feels about writing, about the prospect that she may never start another novel. It isn’t for her sake that we may hope she’s wrong this time: it’s for ours.

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