Jean Margaret Wemyss Laurence was one of Canada’s most successful and influential twentieth century novelists. Her mother died when she was young, and her father, after remarrying and having one son, died when that child was two years old. In 1938 the widow and her two children moved in with her autocratic father in Neepawa. In Laurence’s autobiographical stories in A Bird in the House, the grandfather appears as an authority against which the heroine and her widowed mother struggle. Laurence’s themes–struggles against oppressive forces, search for identity, and attempts to overcome failures in communication–developed from this situation. The fictional town of Manawaka is based on her hometown.
Laurence took honors in English at the University of Winnipeg and covered the local labor news for a year for the Winnipeg Citizen. Her awareness of exploitative structures expanded in that year to include political oppression. In 1948 she married Jack Laurence. They moved to Africa and had a daughter and a son. During these years in Africa, Laurence produced her first novel, This Side Jordan, the short-story collection The Tomorrow-Tamer, the travel journal The Prophet’s Camel Bell, and translations of African folktales. A theme common to much of Laurence’s work is the growth of an outsider’s self-knowledge and humility in an alien environment. The stories in The Tomorrow-Tamer were collected in 1963, by which time This Side Jordan had already appeared. The jolt that independence brought to individuals–Ghanaians as well as bewildered and sometimes angered Europeans–is the theme in both.
The theme of The Stone Angel is survival with dignity and warmth for others. The stone angel is the monument that Hagar Shipley’s father erected for her mother’s tomb in Manawaka and reflects Laurence’s horror at the materialism of her pioneer ancestors. Hagar tells her own story through flashbacks and finally acknowledges that her plight was self-made. This honesty alone makes her an attractive protagonist. Effects of environment and heredity become increasingly important as Laurence becomes more concerned with identity. The children of pioneers are left to forge their identities without their fathers’ material wealth. Pride in family and origin replaces their fathers’ pride in personal success. In A Jest of God Laurence uses the first-person point of view to reveal the protagonist’s mocking self-evaluations. Except for her self-awareness, Rachel Cameron could be dismissed as an old-maid schoolteacher. Her situation seems to be leading to tragedy, but like other Laurence heroines, Cameron’s end is not tragic; she endures crisis and becomes strong.
Stacey MacAindra, in The Fire-Dwellers, is a conventional woman, a middle-class housewife facing imaginary as well as real dangers. The world in which she lives, however, one that includes the atom bomb and Vietnam War, is grotesque, even apocalyptic. Laurence’s complex narrative technique is marked by interruptions from internal and external sources. The levels of Stacey’s consciousness include her inner voice, bits of her memories set to one side of the page, challenges and appeals to God, and italicized dreams and fantasies. The exterior world, as for example represented by radio and television news, jars her when it breaks through to her consciousness. The title refers to her as the nursery-rhyme ladybird who must fly home because her house is on fire and to her children who will burn. A metaphorical fire, her sexual frustration, burns within her, and from without, the atom bomb and the firebombs in Vietnam are shown nightly on the television news. The protagonist of The Diviners, Morag Gunn, is an extraordinary writer with ordinary concerns. The title refers to individuals such as Morag who contribute to the understanding of life and to Morag’s friend, a true water diviner. This novel displays the most complex structure of all, with two new techniques, Snapshots and Memorybank Movies. The mythologizing of the past is one way the protagonist searches for identity.
Laurence denies a connection with women’s liberation and, despite her use of Christian ideas, also rejects the institution of the church. Like Carl Gustav Jung, she finds God in the human soul and describes religion in terms of a “numinous experience” that can lead to psychological change. Laurence redefines salvation as discovery of self and believes grace is given to find a new sense of life’s direction. During her entire writing career Laurence enjoyed critical as well as popular acclaim. In all of her fiction, she portrays her characters as beings caught between the determinism of their personal history and their free will, torn between body and spirit, fact and illusion. Endurance and progress are their tests and goals. In their search for self, these women must liberate themselves from the past as well as embrace it. Laurence says that for a writer of her background, inevitable themes concern survival with dignity and the ability to love.