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Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland: Letters

by Laura K. Davis (ed.); Linda M. Morra (ed.)

In the 1960s Margaret Laurence was the most highly praised female novelist in the country, the author of such important works as The Tomorrow-Tamer, The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, and The Fire-Dwellers. This after she had already written several non-fiction books about Africa, where she lived for a period before moving on to Britain and ultimately returning home to Canada. She was a doer of good works and one of the founders of the Writers’ Trust of Canada. One of the most important writers at McClelland & Stewart in the house’s heyday, Laurence formed a bond with flamboyant publisher Jack McClelland. The 400 or so letters that passed between them show a deep mutual respect and offer up many insights into writing and publishing in Canada.

The two figures thrived in what was still the golden age of letter-writing, as evidenced by the fact that both McClelland and Laurence have had books of their selected letters published since their deaths. Other editors have assembled Laurence’s correspondence with Al Purdy, Adele Wiseman, and Gabrielle Roy. Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland: Letters is much larger than the other books and exposes a great deal about Laurence’s craft, her difficulties with censorship, and McClelland’s commercial ups and downs. The latter emerges as an entrepreneurial talent, a serious book lover as well as a promoter – a sophisticated operator with a little bit of the frat boy still in his bloodstream.

At nearly 700 pages, the book would have gained much by the exercise of a little self-control. The annotation is plentiful but peppered with errors. M&S (not Anvil Press) published the first edition of George Bowering’s novel Mirror on the Floor. Curtis Brown is not a British publishing house but rather a famous British literary agency. The “Centennial Library” was not an abandoned library building in Toronto that McClelland used as a warehouse; it was the name of a series of eight M&S picture books edited by Pierre Berton.

But the letters themselves are revealing and frequently fascinating. When read in sequence they show how the friendship matured: the early letters are often a bit formal but by 1971 Laurence was signing herself “Love, Margaret” and McClelland was using “Love, Jack.”