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The Life of Margaret Laurence

by James King

After years of what you might call biographical exile, James King has come home. It’s about time. That’s not meant to read like a pointedly parochial plaint; it’s not to suggest that some federal policing agency really ought to have long ago bullied King, who’s a professor of English at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, into paying attention to a Canadian subject. No, it’s merely a matter of facts. One is that we have unaccountably been without a full biography of Margaret Laurence who, 10 years after her death, stands as one of the wisest and most powerfully incisive writers in our literature. Another: in moving as a biographer among several non-Canadian literary titans (he’s published lives of Herbert Read, William Blake, and Virginia Woolf), King has in his research, analysis, and insight proved his considerable mettle.

In practice, there’s every reason to be pleased that the match – King and Laurence – was finally made. The Life of Margaret Laurence isn’t a definitive biography, but only because there’s no such thing. But King’s is a full and fascinating book, as a narrative; as a rich view of the landscape of Canadian writing and publishing; and as an account of the complex forces that shaped Laurence’s remarkable body of fiction and its tormented heroines.

In his preface, King notes that there has long been a wide breach between Laurence’s persona during her years in the public eye – the very image of the “pleasant, ordinary, middle-aged woman” – and the most memorable of her Manawaka characters, the formidable, willful likes of Hagar Shipley and Morag Gunn. One of King’s central achievements is that, by drawing on previously unseen diaries and notebooks as well as on the fertile record of Laurence’s letters, he’s able to clearly reconcile writer and work. As Laurence recognized of The Diviners’ Morag: she was, among other things, a “means of getting at the ways in which our ancestors stalk through our lives, the ways we make myths of our parental figures and even of our own lives.”

King’s careful study of those stalking ancestors (Laurence’s severe grandfather, John Simpson, chief among them) is another of the biographer’s achievements, as too is the light he casts on the fierce tension between Laurence’s need to write and her guilt over the toll that need took on her marriage and her children.

The book’s end – the revelation that, in early 1987, aged 60, Laurence chose suicide rather than face a lingering death from cancer – has already been played out in the press. Delivered up as an item of news, the death made the life sound like an irredeemable tragedy. And there is, it’s true, evidence of a plenitude of pain in such things as King’s portrayal of Laurence’s alcoholism, her fear of intimacy, her “emotional instability and recurring anxiety.”

And yet there’s every chance the reader will come away from The Life of Margaret Laurence with an abiding sense of the same kind of heroism that King talked about in his 1994 biography of Virginia Woolf, “a heroism which exists apart from her considerable achievement as a writer.”