Margaret Laurence 1926-1987
Yesterday's post bought a parcel from Bison Books in Winnipeg, A Very Large Soul ;Selected Letters from Margaret Laurence to Canadian Writers (Cormorant
Books, 1995 Ontario) and I have been in the company of this very large,
generous and honest soul on and off ever since.
First the novels,(so far The Stone Angel and A Jest of God) then a memoir (Dance on the Earth McClelland & Stewart, 1989 Toronto) and now the letters and I clearly hear the voice of this remarkable and to me unknown writer echoing off the page. Her letters are written as if she is speaking to you across the kitchen table, with plenty of local colour and expression and an innate wisdom and goodness that shines.
I have read over and again a letter written in 1984 by Margaret to the Canadian writer Marian Engel on the subject of Bloomsbury and want to replicate it here in full if you can bear it do read on. It's long but I think it deserves blog inches as I think she says the unsayable on behalf of many who would now feel unable to voice their true feelings about this holy(ier than thou) group. It's almost akin to blasphemy to criticise the much revered Virginia Woolf and the cult that it has become, yet there is something of the truth about Laurence's observations with which it is almost impossible to disagree.
These days perhaps we do need to redress the balance of adulation with the reality and Laurence would have been the first to admit this about herself as she embarrasingly collected yet another honorary degree. Peeking out courageously from behind Margaret's skirts I feel suitably emboldened to concur that Virginia Woolf never did quite "strike a chord in my heart" either.
Lakefield, Ont., 1 April 84
... The article on Bloomsbury folks is from the N.Y. Review of Books,1 and I really like the strong individual voice of the reviewer, whose views of Bloomsbury tend to agree with my own, and partly because I'm a Canadian who felt, years ago, somewhat like a naive colonial girl in literary London, and came to resent and then be amused by their attitudes . . . much later than Bloomsbury but some of the same contempt for anything not Brit was there in my time, although the upper-class Brit by that time had all but vanished from the literary scene. It's interesting ... I've read Nigel Nicholson's book on his parents, and a certain amount of the multitudinous material on the scene of those days, and of course [Virginia Woolf's] books, although none of [Vita Sackville-West's], and I feel, as I have always felt, a profound sense of repulsion towards that group, not for their sexual inclinations, heaven knows .. I couldn't care less .. but for their amazing snobbism and hypocrisy, their malice and sheer nastiness towards everyone in the world except their own little clique. Their lack of generosity, their terror at standing up for any principle, is mind-boggling. Poor Leonard Woolf must have been heroic, although I guess his reasons were mixed also. I've always .. well, for years, anyhow .. wondered what Virginia would have done if there had been no one to look after her and keep helping her in her periodic bouts of "madness". Maybe she would have written better.. ? Those of us who have had to earn our living and bring up our kids, virtually by ourselves, with a lot of moral support from friends and colleagues, may well ponder this. Personally, I think that a lot of women writers in this country, whether with children or not, and whether with mates or not, have been HEROIC. But one thing we have NOT been is bloodless, and you know, Virginia's writing, much of which I read long ago, never did strike a chord in my heart.. it always seemed so cerebral, so bloodless. Which is not to say that she didn't have magnificent gifts in terms of writing .. she did.
But she never chose to write about things closest to her own heart and spirit, and obviously I am not talking here about writing in any direct autobiographical way. I think a lot of Canadian women writers ... quite frankly.. have been braver. The incredible snobbishness.. the almost unbelievable ignorance in that way.. of the Bloomsbury group ... seems now to have been a very limiting thing in terms of their writing. I suppose it is an inability to know, really know, the reality of others. I read with suitable reverence, as was expected then when I was young, Virginia Woolf's books, and wondered why I didn't connect very much with them. Later, I saw why. They were written out of an exclusive spirit, not an inclusive one, and in some sense they were self-obsessed and unkind. We are not always kind, kid, nor should we be, but damn, we aren't exclusive!! And I believe that caring in the widest way does matter. And principles matter. This may be my Scots Presbyterian background .. if so, okay. Poor Radclyffe (sp?) Hall, thinking she might get some support, moral and vocal and financial, from those upper-class twits. Her novel was really a pretty awful one, in literary terms, but she fought her fight without the support she should surely have had. Of course, what bothers me most and always has, is that those were the people who thought they had a natural right to all the goodies of this world, and who thought they had a right not only to rule England but to be the supportive colonial force that ruled the Empire. I suppose I detest them both in a human sense and in a political sense. They thought they were superior in every way, and they did not care at all or feel any sense of responsibility. Creeps....