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From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

The Bear Tamer Reconsidered

Marian Engel’s letters revive interest in a neglected CanLit icon

Sandra Martin

Marian Engel: Life in Letters

Christl Verduyn and Kathleen Garay, editors

University of Toronto Press

295 pages, hardcover

Intimate Strangers: The Letters of Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy

Paul G. Socken, editor

University of Manitoba Press

104 pages, hardcover

The headline on Marian Engel’s obituary in The Globe and Mail in February 1985 misspelled both her first and last names. “Author wrote best seller, won award,” it declared. She was so much more than that skimpy accolade attests. Engel was both a citizen and a writer, as committed to cultural nationalism and improving the lot of her fellow scribes as she was dedicated to writing her own fiction. The author of seven novels, two collections of short stories, two children’s books and an essay on islands, Engel was also a working journalist, the founding president of the Writers’ Union of Canada, a prime agitator for public lending right (paying royalties to authors for the use of their books in libraries) and the chair of the board of the Toronto Public Library. She died of cancer at the age of 51.

Her best known novel is Bear. I sought it out after reading Christl Verduyn and Kathleen Garay’s Marian Engel: Life in Letters. The story of a love affair between an archivist and a shaggy male bear, the novel was reviled as pornography and lauded for its literary daring back in 1976, the year it won the Governor General’s literary award for fiction. Reading it again, I remembered Engel’s economy of style and language, her earthy metaphors and her eroticism.

“In the winter, she lived like a mole, buried deep in her office, digging among maps and manuscripts,” is the way Engel describes her protagonist, Lou, the archivist, in the first sentence of the novel. Elsewhere, Engel describes “packing snow … falling in caterpillars off the greening branches” and morels like “strange decayed phalluses.” And all of this is mere foreplay to Lou’s coupling with the bear. “A fat, freckled, pink and black tongue. It licked. It rasped, to a degree. It probed. It felt very warm and good and strange. What the hell did Byron do with his bear? she wondered.”

Before the book’s release, Robertson Davies, himself a great lover of bears (as he made clear in The Manticore) wrote to Engel’s publisher, Jack McClelland. He said in part: “The theme of Bear is one of the most significant and pressing in Canada in our time—the necessity for us who are newcomers to the country, with hardly four hundred years of acquaintance with it, to ally ourselves with the spirit of one of the most ancient lands in the world. In our search for this spirit, we are indeed in search of ourselves.” It is good to have these prescient comments included in Verduyn’s and Garay’s volume, but it would have been better if the editors had printed the rest of the letter in their notes. Instead we have to make do with McClelland’s teasing remarks about “a brilliant and wildly amusing letter about the book and how it will be received by various critics across the country.” Curious readers shouldn’t have to search in Robertson Davies’s For Your Eyes Alone: Letters 1976–1995 to find the complete version.

Engel, who had earned a Master’s degree at McGill University under Hugh MacLennan, was no stranger to Canadian literary tropes and artifacts. She went even further in Bear than Davies suggested. She linked the spirit of the wilderness (the bear) with aroused and erotic contemporary feminism in the character of her protagonist, Lou—“a woman rubbing her foot in the thick black pelt of a bear.” By embracing the bear, Lou is laying claim to the male tradition of taming nature and giving it an exquisitely female twist. Instead of shooting the bear and turning its fur into a trophy rug for her floor, she entwines herself in the animal’s lusty physicality.

Bear is not without its faults, but it is such a landmark book in Canadian letters that it is strange that Engel is a largely forgotten figure. Her early novels are mostly out of print, which is a shame, for they hold up as portraits of women trying to create a sexual and artistic life in the welter of domesticity. Engel’s current obscurity is another reason to be grateful to the editors and especially Verduyn, who has mined Engel’s papers to academic advantage over the years. She has published three earlier books on Engel: Dear Marian, Dear Hugh: The MacLennan-Engel Correspondence (1995), Lifelines: Marian Engel’s Writing (1995) and Marian Engel’s Notebooks (1999).

Still, I don’t think Life in Letters does justice either to Engel’s life or her times. The title suggests rather more than the selection of approximately 125 letters to and from Engel delivers. The letters, which are arranged in chronological chapters beginning in 1960 when Engel lived and travelled in England and Europe, range across aspects of her adult life: marriage to broadcaster and writer Howard Engel, the birth of her twins, Charlotte and William, the struggle to earn enough time and money to write, her engagement in literary and cultural politics, her maturity as a writer, and finally illness and death. The range is broad but the depth is shallow. The editors may well claim that they are presenting “a unique perspective on Canada’s literary scene during the period 1960–85,” but to me the book is a hasty panorama rather than a fully fleshed portrait.

Each chapter begins with a contextual essay by the editors. Far too often they give us a précis of the letters we are about to read rather than adding the necessary information to fill in gaps in the correspondence. In their notes they frequently explain things that most readers will already know and neglect to tell us stuff we want to know. For example, there is a letter from Hugh MacLennan in which he says: “Yeats said it all in The Second Coming.” The editors have provided the following note: “W.B. Yeats (1865–1939), Irish poet and playwright.” Surely most readers of a collection of literary letters will know Yeats’s dates, if only approximately, and his nationality. Some learned speculation on what MacLennan meant by his comment would have been far more useful.

That same letter has two other editorial clangers. MacLennan adds a long P.S. giving Engel intimate details about a woman from North Hatley named Anne, clearly in response to a question Engel has posed in an earlier letter. In passing, MacLennan also comments that “no man who ever lived could write the stuff Alice Munro is turning out.” There is an editorial note giving Munro’s birth date and highlights of her career—as if her identity were obscure—and nothing at all about the mysterious Anne. She must be Anne Coleman, the author of I’ll Tell You a Secret: A Memoir of Seven Summers. Her book, which was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award in 2004, is the story of her physically chaste but emotionally passionate relationship with MacLennan. Surely Verduyn should be expected to know that.

There are other irritating slips. We are told that Engel had cancer, but never what kind. Timothy Findley mentions a negative review his novel The Wars received in The Globe and Mail and then writes: “Oh well. Peggy is reviewing it in the Financial Post(!)” The editors include a note saying they have been unable to trace this review. Their archival searches do not include Second Words: Selected Critical Prose 19601982, a compilation of Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction writing. The review is reprinted on page 290.

What saves this book are the letters themselves. They reveal Engel as a smart, funny, feisty, frustrated, passionate and often difficult woman who liked a drink (and the argument that often followed). She was a good friend to writers in this country and to many icons of CanLit, including Margaret Laurence. Their letters show the depth of their affection and their concern about each other’s health.

In January 1983, two years before her own death, Engel writes to Laurence: “Last summer I thought both of us were in bad shape but I probably transferred a lot of my fears about myself to you. I, however, am just fine; it was the shingles that knocked my blood count down last year.”

A little more than a year later, Engel’s relentless illness has beaten back her brave bluster. She writes to Laurence to thank her for a bouquet of flowers and comments on another gift she has received. “A psychiatrist I know in Winnipeg sent E. Kubler-Ross’s new book about death, which is about being kind to cancer patients and full of photos. I got so mad I decided that the only return present was a stone angel with FUCK OFF engraved on it. One doesn’t NEED pictures of people getting thinner and thinner and being grateful to their spirit-guides: one needs flowers and books and music and friends; a scented and satisfactory house.”

Their letters were also about gossip, writing and feminism. Laurence writes in April 1984 about the snobbery of Bloomsbury and how she read Virginia Woolf’s books “with suitable reverence, as was expected then” as a young woman, “…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!!”

What a contrast between the feisty Engel/Laurence correspondence and the formal and circumspect exchange in Intimate Strangers: The Letters of Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy, edited by Paul G. Socken. Roy (1909–83) and Laurence (1926–87) both came from small towns in Manitoba, although from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Laurence began the correspondence by writing to Roy in 1976 to compliment the older writer on her masterpiece, The Tin Flute, and on her memoir, The Road Past Altamont. “I shared something of that Manitoba background and could understand and feel it so well,” she wrote.

They wrote 32 letters in all (18 from Laurence and 14 from Roy) over a seven-year period from 1976 to just before Roy’s death in 1983. Mostly the letters are respectful and admiring, with Laurence apologizing for not being able to correspond with Roy in French. The two women, who had not met when they began writing to each other, grope toward friendship and share confidences about literary troubles.

Laurence sends Roy a copy of her last novel, The Diviners, with a letter in which she relates an argument with their mutual publisher, Jack McClelland, and the disturbing news that her novel has been called obscene. “A local school trustee, who is a fundamentalist,” wants the book removed from the grade 13 curriculum. He has not read the book because “one does not have to wade in the muck to know what it is all about.” Roy replies sympathetically and in a subsequent letter praises The Diviners as “a search for water, truth, identity, words, but beyond all that, for whoever or whatever compels us to the endless search.”

Both women are middle aged at the time they begin writing to each other. Their successes are in the past and ill health is overtaking them. The letters are subdued in tone, almost elegiac, and they read more like diplomatic exchanges with an eye to posterity than missives blistering with the heat of immediacy. They are not without charm or literary and biographical interest, but they do seem slight when enclosed within hard covers—a chapter rather than a book.

Sandra Martin is a writer and journalist living in Toronto.

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