Well known and widely read, Margaret Laurence is one of Canada’s most esteemed and beloved writers. The quality and significance of her work were acknowledged during her lifetime and continue to be recognized today. Laurence’s writing style was rooted in the conventions of realism and the rhythms of ordinary speech, and her best-known novels were defined by regionalism and feminism. Her most celebrated works, set in the fictional town of Manawaka, helped to establish the Canadian prairie as a literary setting. A key figure during a significant period in Canadian literature, Laurence contributed to Canada’s “literary renaissance” during the 1960s and 1970s. She also made significant contributions to Canadian writing through her efforts to establish the Writers’ Trust of Canada and the Writers’ Union of Canada and through her personal support for many writers from the 1960s to her death.
Born as Jean Margaret Wemyss in Neepawa, Manitoba, she was an avid reader from childhood and expressed a desire to write from an early age. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from Winnipeg’s United College in 1947, she married John Fergus “Jack” Laurence and in 1949, the couple went to England and then to British Somaliland and the Gold Coast (Ghana), where Fergus worked as a hydraulic engineer. Margaret Laurence began to translate Somali legends and poems, which were published under the title A Tree for Poverty (1954). She said that it was at that moment that she began to write seriously. While living on the Gold Coast, she wrote her first novel, This Side Jordan (1960), as well as a collection of short stories, The Tomorrow Tamer (1963). She later lived in Vancouver, then in 1962 moved to England with her children.
While in England, Laurence wrote The Stone Angel (1964), a novel which set the fictional town of Manawaka firmly in the Manitoba landscape. In this novel, Laurence tells of Hagar Shipley’s last voyage toward the recognition of love and liberty. Considered her masterpiece, its publication was a landmark event for Canadian literature. Her later novels further solidified her reputation, depicting strong female characters and the conflicts experienced by Canadian women, set against a backdrop of rapid social change. She won Governor General’s Awards for A Jest of God (1966) and The Diviners (1974) and in 1972 was made a Companion of the Order of Canada for her contribution to Canadian literature.
Often visiting Canada, Laurence returned permanently in 1973 and settled in Lakefield, Ontario. She was appointed writer-in-residence at Massey College, University of Toronto, in 1968, served as Chancellor of Trent Universid devoted her last years to the promotion of social causes through letters, lectures, essaysty from 1981 to 1983, an, and fundraising campaigns. Her childhood home in Neepawa, Manitoba, a town that had a great influence on her writing, is now a museum that pays tribute to her career.