Donez Xiques - Issue 106

A Very Large Soul: Selected Letters from Margaret Laurence to Canadian Writers. Edited with a preface and introduction by J.A. Wainwright. Dunvegan, Ontario: Cormorant Books, 1995. xxi + 264 pp. $18.95.

"I had to discard 8 months work and years of brooding on the novel I hoped to do, because it turned out I had outgrown it and did not really want to write it. I think another novel is growing under the surface. It is all an odd experience..."(13). These comments by Margaret Laurence prior to beginning work on The Diviners, her last novel, occurin acollection of more than two hundred letters: A Very Large Soul: Selected Letters from Margaret Laurence to Canadian Writers edited by J.A. Wainwright. The book is fittingly dedicated to Malcolm Ross, who taught Margaret during her college days, and who as teacher, critic and editor has made outstanding contributions to Canada's literary life.

In 1980 Margaret Laurence remarked that after reviewing her papers she reali ' zed that she had received letters from 109 Canadian writers; and while she did not enumerate the number of fellow writers to whom she had written, correspondence in various repositories, particularly the very extensive holdings at York University, indicates that that number was equally large. J.A. Wainwright, who edited this important collection of letters from Laurence to more than thirty Canadian authors, 9 women and 23 men, has made a valuable contribution to a growing body of work about one of Canada's foremost writers.


The reader must bear in mind, though, that hundreds of other letters to and from Margaret Laurence remain to be examined in order to achieve anything like a full picture of her life. Material from the decade between the publication in 1953 of "Uncertain Flowering," her first story (in Story) and the November 1962 letter to George Woodcock in A Very Large Soul is not represented here because of the specific focus of this volume and because much of that material is not readily available.

A Very Large Soul is interesting precisely because the letters in this collection, written over a 24 year period, are addressed to various persons, not to a single friend or colleague. This is a collection to be read, not skimmed, though the letters may be approached in several ways. The arrangement is not chronological but alphabetical - in this case a good decision; for the writer's relationship varies with each recipient, resulting in a complex and interesting view of Margaret Laurence between the ages of 36 and 60.

Numerous letters to A dedele Wiseman and to Al Purdy are not included since the extensive Purdy-Laurence correspondence, which requires a volume of its own, has already been published (1993). And the hundreds of letters between Adele Wiseman and Margaret Laurence are now in ' the process of being published (edited by John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky).

Most of the letters in A Very Large Soul were written after Laurence had become a mature writer with an established career, but they reveal over and over again her extraordinary generosity in corresponding with younger writers. Her enthusiasm for and interest in their work are tangible. Laurence is consistently straight forward, never feigning interest or concern. In addition, her letters to well-established colleagues contain quite specific comments on their work, and, as a result, readers will be tempted to jot down titles of novels, short stories and poems to add to their own reading list.

The range of Laurence's responses to situations in life and literature is interesting and varied. At times one senses that she is thinking aloud, trying to resolve conflicts and deal with anxieties about her writing. In a review such as this, general statements tend to fall short of what one is trying to convey; it is difficult to capture the flavor of these letters which span two decades or to arrive at an accurate portrait of Laurence rather than a mere sketch. The following references to her letters may better serve as entry to this important collection than an attempt to sum up the disparate parts.

Laurence's excitement following the winter 1975 meeting of the Writers' Union is palpable in this letter to Andreas Schroeder: "[The sessions] were just terrific...... It was so good to see you all again! Like wow! I know what you mean-it really is like a new infusion of energy" (191).

Her lengthy remarks to Harold Horwood about what she was trying to accomplish in The Diviners shed much light on that ambitious last novel of hers, and on writers' dilemmas and self-doubts (96).

Laurenceis adamantin her instructions to archivist and bibliographer William Ready about the manuscript of The Diviners, reporting to him that she intends to include a note with the manuscript: "Those parts which have been cut but which are still legible because I only drew a line through them, must not ever under any circumstances be printed in a critical article, essay, thesis or anywhere else. I'm sorry to sound so fussy, but I find I cannot bear to contemplate those bits which I have carefully taken out because they didn't belong, being at some time or other printed - it seems to make nonsense of the painstaking job of revision, the object of which is to make a better novel" (164-65).

She writes to Hugh MacLennan about her belief in God and in free will, but she also worries because she feels that "we have, as a race (all of mankind) not used it well. What gives me hope, I suppose, is the possibility of grace" (117).

Laurence's correspondence with Ernest Buckler began at a time when he was experiencing great discouragement over his work. Her esteem for Buckler and her concern for him are reflected clearly in Laurence's letters. In one instance she refers to The Stories of Ernest Buckler which had recently been published, and mentions "the ways in which the stories communicate the sense ofplace so beautifully, so that the reader is enabled for a while to enter, really enter, your country, your place. Another thing - the way in which you can communicate and make comprehensible the sadness and even the tragedy of those hurtful silences between people who love each other, and the subtleties of father-son and brother-brother relationships, in which each must tread very carefully, but never, it seems, can tread quite carefully enough. I found these stories very moving indeed" (29-30?). The correspondence is not one-sided, however, for in other letters to Buckler, Margaret Laurence is quite candid about her own discouragement and it seems as if Buckler's letters to her buoyed Laurence up as well.

To Gabrielle Roy, she writes in 1977: "I wish with all my heart that in Anglophone Canada (and yes, in the prairies which you and I both love so much) that more people could have realized, really realized, long ago, the way in which people in Quebec feel about their history, their language, their heritage, their identity. I only pray (and I use that word advisedly) that it may not be too late" (178).

Margaret Laurence's dedication to writing dominates the correspondence, but there are moments when her letters are full of humor and spontaneous "banter." Readers also learn of her relief at being settled into Elm Cottage, her genuine pleasure in the achievement of fellow writers, her concern with ethical issues related to her manuscripts, and frustration in endeavoring to resolve to her satisfaction problems of form in The Diviners. In editing this correspondence Professor Wainwright wisely kept the focus on Canadian writers and writing; and the book gains enormously because of that.

In A Very Large Soul readers will not find revelations about very personal matters, nor much that could be called startling. The letters are remarkably devoid of "gossip." While some readers may regret that there are not more details about Laurence's daily life and concerns, matters of that sort generally are of interest only to the parties involved or to a dedicated biographer. In fact, when these letters are perused in their entirety rather than in an edited version, one actually finds that very little of significance has been omitted. Reading A Very Large Soul often gives one the sense that Laurence is a bit rushed. She frequently writes to acknowledge letters, to express regret for not replying more promptly or writing more often, and to congratulate another writer for a recently published work. Occasionally, as in her letters to Hubert Evans and Gabrielle Roy, one feels that Laurence is writing out of her own deepest feelings. In 1983, for example, she remarks that the past two years have been "a good time for me, in terms of my own life and friends and children, but not such a good time in terms of my work, which still seems to evade me, much as I try. I do not tell many people about this anguish, because they would not understand because it is my own private concern" (189).

Those who wonder about a writer's life will find much to ponder in these letters. However, it is misleading here to single out particular correspondents, creating the impression that letters to one person are more important than to another because in reality something of Laurence is revealed to each one. For instance, only one letter to Alice Munro is included, but its interesting content is not repeated elsewhere in the collection and the excerpts from Wainwright's interview with Munro are very enlightening.

The tedium of reading through an unedited correspondence is usually the task of a biographer who then has the responsibility to summarize, interpret, and provide a wider context for the subject's life. And in the case of Margaret Laurence these letters actually make clear the need for a current full-scale biography which would take into account recent scholarship as well as material that has been placed in various repositories since Laurence's death in 1987. Nevertheless, inA Very Large Soul the notes which Wainwright provides both to the text of the letters and for the background of each recipient are often very useful. The unfortunate omission of an index and chronology for these letters mars the volume's usefulness, however. In addition, one remains puzzled that Wainwright was unable "to find out whether Sinclair Ross has received the Order of Canada (254) or to locate Leslie Fiedler's essay on Mordecai Richler (published in the Running Man) which aroused laurence's wrath (206); and is readily available in Fiedler's Collected Essays. While the biographical notes about the background and work of each recipient are indeed helpful and Wainwright has managed to track down important data, there is some inconsistency in citing page references to journals and newspapers, as well as some factual errors. Such points, however, do not erase the significance of this important collection.

The varied correspondence in A Very Large Soul has been gathered with the intention of letting these letters to other writers show Laurence communicating "her complex thoughts and feelings about their work, her work, and Canadian cultural matters in general" (iii). This collection certainly accomplishes that. Professor Wainwright's diligence in obtaining some letters which are still in private hands and for adroitly interspersing remarks from his interviews with fifteen of the recipients adds considerable substance to this volume. A Very Large Soul is definitely a rewarding reading experience.