A strange place it was, that place where the world began. A place of incredible happenings, splendors and revelations, despairs like multitudinous pits of isolated hells. A place of shadow-spookiness, inhabited by the unknowable dead. A place of jubilation and of mourning, horrible and beautiful.
It was, in fact, a small prairie town.
--Margaret Laurence, "Where the World Began."
Margaret Laurence (née Jean Margaret Wemyss) began her life in the small prairie town of Neepawa, Manitoba on July 18, 1926, and, as she explains in her 1972 essay, "Where the World Began," it shaped her vision of the world for the rest of her life. Although she lived in England, Africa, and several different parts of Canada during her life, her fiction remains rooted in a small town on the prairies.
She left Neepawa when she was 18 and attended an affiliate college of The University of Manitoba.1 She published her first poetry at this time, under the pseudonym "Steve Lancaster." She also made her first academic publications. Ideologically she was strongly influenced by both Christian and Progressive politics, most notably the Social Gospel movement, the influence of which proved particularly strong and lasting in the western Canadian provinces.
After graduating, she began writing for The Winnipeg Citizen, and she married Jack Fergus Laurence. His engineering career took them overseas. While living in Somalia she collected folk tales, poetry, and other aspects of oral and written culture, which she translated and published as A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose (1954). Her first novel, This Side Jordan (1960) and a memoir, The Prophet's Camel Bell (1963), both took their inspiration from her life in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa.
The couple had a daughter and a son before separating and later divorcing.
A lifelong writer, Laurence began publishing fiction and poetry regularly while living in Africa. Her most famous novel, The Stone Angel, first appeared in 1964. The story recounts the life of headstrong Hagar Shipley from the perspective of her final days, when she chooses, at ninety, to run away on a kind of personal quest. She finds herself in a place called Shadow Point. Like many of Laurence's works, the novel takes place mainly in Manawaka, Manitoba, a fictional small town based loosely on Neepawa. Also, as in many of her works, a mythic sense of the world permeates an essentially realistic depiction of life. The Stone Angel remains a classic of Canadian and world literature, and was adapted to film in 2007, with Ellen Burstyn as the nonagenarian Hagar.
Subsequent novels include A Jest of God (1966), The Fire-Dwellers (1969), and The Diviners, (1974). Warner Brothers adapted A Jest of God as Rachel, Rachel in 1968. The film, which stars Joanne Woodward, represents Paul Newman's directorial debut. Editions of the book can be found under the film's title. Anne Wheeler directed a television adaptation of The Diviners in 1993. Laurence also published two collections of short stories, five works of non-fiction, and four children's books.
Laurence won numerous awards and accolades during her lifetime. Both A Jest of God and The Diviners won the Governor General's Award for Literature. She was invested in The Order of Canada in 1972, and posthumously named a Canadian National Historic Person in 2016.
In 1986, Margaret Laurence was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. With no chance of recovery, she chose instead to end her life by lethal overdose. She is buried in Neepawa Cemetery, in the town where the world began.
1. United College. The University later became the University of Winnipeg.
Some sources (other than Laurence's works themselves):
"Margaret Laurence." Encyclopedia Britannica.
"Margaret Laurence: Canada's Divine Writer." CBC Archives.
Margaret Laurence. "Where the World Began." McLeans. December 1, 1972.
Clara Thomas. "Margaret Laurence." The Canadian Encyclopedia.
For reQuest 2020: an E2 revue. Um, sort of.