LITERARY LOCATION: 3556 West 21st Avenue, Vancouver

Canada's most revered novelist in the 1970s, Margaret Laurence, wrote the first draft of one of Canada's greatest novels, The Stone Angel, while living here between 1957 and 1962. Prior to separating from her husband in 1962 and leaving for London, England, Laurence also published her first novel, This Side Jordan from Vancouver, and wrote most of her stories about living in West Africa. Later much of The Fire-Dwellers was set in Vancouver.

Her West Coast years were difficult. She divorced in 1969 and eventually made her home in Lakefield, Ontario, from 1974 until her suicide in 1987. "The good things that happened to me [in Vancouver]," she said, "were, among others, my meeting with Ethel Wilson and her great kindness and encouragement to me... I never felt at home in Vancouver, although I admired it a lot."


Admired and loved by many, Margaret Laurence was crushed by loneliness and despair in the end. In Alien Heart: The Life & Work of Margaret Laurence (University of Manitoba Press, 2003), friend and critic Lyall Powers gingerly refers to Laurence's suicide--as did her pussyfooting biographer James King. Powers' critical appreciation has been augmented by some seldom-seen photos--including the one at right, taken when she lived in Vancouver.

"She was not a person who demanded that people adjust to her," Alice Munro has recalled of their friendship during that formative period. During her four years in Vancouver from 1958 to 1962, struggling as a single mother at 3556 West 21st Avenue, Margaret Laurence revised her first novel This Side Jordan with some assistance from her friend Gordon Elliott; she produced the first draft of The Stone Angel, often cited as the greatest Canadian novel; and she wrote most of her short stories about Africa.

"Vancouver always figured prominently in my childhood imagination," Laurence says in Vancouver and Its Writers (1986). "It was the paradise that prairie people ultimately went to. It comes into my Canadian writing a lot, of course... [But] I never felt happy in Vancouver, although I admired it a lot and still do. This was not the fault of the city, but rather the fact that, being basically a prairie person, I felt hemmed in between the mountains and the sea, both of which tended to frighten me a bit... We are probably formed by our birth-geography more than we know."

After Laurence's first novel This Side Jordan won the Beta Sigma Phi First Novel Award, her heroines in her Manawaka novels The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), The Fire-Dwellers (1969) and The Diviners (1974) were all drawn to Vancouver. These heroines, in order, were Hagar Shipley, Rachel Cameron, Stacey Cameron MacAindra and Morag Gunn. Margaret Laurence herself mostly went by the name Peggy. She never felt entirely at home when she moved from Vancouver to London, but the title of Powers' study, Alien Heart, doesn't just emanate from geography. "I belong to those who don't belong," Laurence once said. "Only a stranger can help another stranger."

Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer (Dundurn, 2005) by Donez Xiques investigates Laurence's formative years in Africa and Vancouver, and provides a previously unpublished short story. Independent scholar Paul Comeau's purgatorial perspective in Margaret Laurence's Epic Imagination (University of Alberta Press 2005) has been described by David Stouck as the first critical study of Laurence in more than twenty years to look at her entire oeuvre. Comeau describes how Laurence turned to the epic mode to create her master narratives of loss, exile, and redemption. He cites the integral importance of the Bible, Dante and Milton's Paradise Lost, a work that Laurence evidently read before and during the composition of every novel. "Of the Old Testament passages that affected her," he writes, "the one that imprinted itself most profoundly upon her psyche was the Exodus verse--'Alas, thou shalt not oppress the stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." Comeau's perspective is enhanced by his own distant Métis heritage. "Laurence's creation of Canadian epic," he writes, "served to locate my fragmented awareness of personal ancestry within a more comprehensive framework of cultural achievement and identity."

Laurence once flatly denied she had any First Nations ancestry in a letter to her closest friend, Adele Wiseman, in 1981, but the speculation persists. Lyall Powers provides some grist for the subject. "The late Polish scholar B.W. Andrzejewski, who helped with translations from Somali literature, said Peggy informed him of her Canadian-Aboriginal blood in Somaliland early in the 1950s," says Powers, "and Professor David Williams of St. Paul's College gave me the same report of her avowal a decade later." [Also see Gordon Elliott] One of the most oft-cited studies of Margaret Laurence is Clara Thomas' The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence (M&S, 1975). Essays and tributes have been edited by George Woodcock, William New, David Staines, Christl Verduyn, Kristjana Gunnars and others.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2015] "Fiction" "Africa" "Interview"