The Life of Margaret Laurence: The Unofficial Biography by James King

I realize this morning that I did NOT blog my completion of the never-ending biography of Margaret Laurence.  I read it over a course of weeks and weeks because it shared so much ‘specific’ information that it took a great deal of time to digest.  I thought it was a fair and honest portrayal of Margaret’s life as mother, friend, wife and writer. 

I thought that it was an interesting thing that the conflict she experienced throughout her life is the same one that faces me as an artist, particular to her relationship with a partner.  I think that it is a special thing for a man to be able to accept the commitment coming from a woman in regards to her passion.  It is NOT an unusual thing to support a man in his career….used to be more the way, but it still surfaces in the contemporary world fairly regularly. A great deal of ‘domestic’ stuff and organization of the household falls on the shoulders of the woman.  I apologize to all of those ‘contemporary’ men who indeed, break the image of men of past generations.  I don’t intend to  use generalities…but some themes do surface again and again in fiction and in life. 

Anyway, I just found that whole aspect of Margaret Laurence’s life intriguing. I also really loved reading about the progression through the writing of her novels and now that I am more aware of what was on her mind, I will read them all again in the order that they were written.  They will all come alive to a greater degree. 

I learned that there was some strange but subtle history between Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood…so I’ve picked up a biography about Atwood’s work and life. I haven’t been an avid reader of Atwood’s work…but I know that my oldest daughter would recommend several of them.  Perhaps now I’ll take an interest.  Anyway, I’ve included a bit of interview material here…with James King…will give my readers some idea of his experience and research on Margaret Laurence…my all-time favourite writer!

Margaret Laurence

Reconstructing Margaret Laurence

by bruce haug

An interview with biographer James King

James King, a biographer and English professor at McMaster University, has worked to reinvent the perception of one of the most important figures in Canadian consciousness. In his new book, The Life of Margaret Laurence, King uses everything from unpublished letters to conversations with friends in order to unmask the real issues that surrounded her life and death, and led her to the forefront of the Canadian literary scene.

Laurence, one of Canada’s finest female authors, is best known for her novels The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, and The Diviners. Throughout her life, Laurence had been lionized by the public and revered by many as a predominant shaper of post-war Canadian literature, setting the pace for other Canadian women like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Posthumously she has been widely honoured with gatherings as well as being featured on a Canadian postage stamp.

Although her life has been the subject of countless lectures and literary critiques, both during her life and after her death, King’s biography is the first full-length treatment of her life as one of the most beloved figures in Canada’s cultural history.

Since her death on January 5th, 1987, the official understanding, as reported in newspapers, was that she "died of lung cancer in her Lakefield, Ontario home." The few friends and family members who knew of her death as a suicide, however, kept it a secret.

King says the biggest revelation about this book is not about her suicide but about how much she suffered and how insecure she was. "I think it shocks people that someone can be so famous yet so unhappy," he tells me.

A few weeks after King approached Laurence’s children, Jocelyn, 45, and David, 42, with the idea of writing the biography, he was given the green light to set the record straight about the real life of their mother. The only condition was that they be allowed to check over the text to guarantee its accuracy. From the beginning, he knew that there were questions surrounding her living years with cancer and that there existed a "mysterious diary." Through countless interviews with friends and family–which took him from Vancouver to Penticton to Lakefield–he began to discover someone else behind the public personae of Laurence. The woman King found was a frail and tormented person who struggled to balance her roles as writer, wife and mother.

Not until well into his research did Jocelyn hand the diary over to him. The journal contained, among other things, the details of Laurence’s suicide. "Although I had some ideas about what happened during the years after she was diagnosed with cancer," says King, "I was still quite flabbergasted with the news of her suicide."

King does a great job of transforming the distance between her public and private life into a story of sorrow and sacrifice. In chapter 15, he discusses the importance Laurence’s writing had for her. "[It] was the consistent way in which she had coped creatively with the losses she had endured as a young child–it allowed her to mother herself. She could not deal with the loss of her husband in the same way and…she sought the comforts of alcoholic oblivion on a daily basis."

King effectively uses her letters, her diary and other resources as the maps necessary to re-evaluate the inner landscape that made Laurence such a great writer. Aided by the extensive archive of Laurence’s manuscripts and letters at McMaster University, King proves himself an excellent researcher. While the overall themes of the book are given plenty of support, the relevance of some of the evidence used to illustrate her conflicts does at times seem to be a bit of a stretch.

As an experienced biographer, King has explored the lives of notable individuals such as poets William Cowper and William Blake, as well as novelist Virginia Woolf. Although Laurence is the first Canadian subject to be featured in one of his biographies (his next project will be about the life of Canadian publisher Jack McClelland), there are many recurrent themes common to his works. This may be one of the major reasons that King was endorsed by the family to tell the life of Laurence.

Their concern, King says, was that they wanted a "biography that would tell about the suicide but that would do it in the context of a full account of her life." Based on his earlier books, certain themes he used to explore the connection between an artist’s life and their work seemed applicable to Laurence’s life story.

The most explicit of these themes has to do with childhood loss and the impact it had on the lives of those he has studied. Cowper, the subject of King’s first biography, was faced with the death of his mother when he was a child. "This plagued him his whole life," says King. "It was the root of his anguish."

In his biography of Woolf, King also focuses on how her mother’s death marked both her literary and private life. As with Woolf and Cowper, King takes a psychological approach in order to understand the interplay between the life of Laurence and her novels. Orphaned when she was young (her mother died when she was four and her father died when she was nine) she was never able to remove herself from her childhood.

Keeping in mind King’s predisposition to identify certain moments in a person’s life and to carry those motifs through the biography, I wonder how differently Laurence’s life would have been told through the words of another writer. Is it possible to remove the biographer from the biography?

"We write out of our own experiences," King admits, and when telling the story of someone’s life, we make "judgments based on who we are." Sandra Djwa, an English professor at Simon Fraser University agrees that the biographer plays a role in the reconstruction of people’s lives. "Every literary construct is filtered through the perceiving consciousness of the writer," Djwa explains. "In this sense, a biography is a literary construct."

The revelations of Laurence’s suicide attempts and the degree of her alcoholism will certainly have an impact on the way Canadians perceive the author. Some people–friends of Laurence mostly–would have preferred this information be suppressed. Fortunately, this was not an option for King. "I couldn’t have created a book which would have either deliberately or intentionally whitewashed that information," he said.

King argues that only through a complete understanding of the causes that shaped her actions and the impact they had on her novels is it possible to know who Margaret Laurence was. "Knowing this new information treasures what she was able to do and what she was able accomplish," King explained, "and if I’m apart of that, I’m delighted."

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