I imagine that the vast majority of Canadian readers of my generation know Margaret Laurence through her novel The Stone Angel, a wonderful but not very kid-friendly book that has been a staple of Canadian high school curricula for at least two generations. If that was your first encounter with Laurence you can be forgiven for not going any deeper into her oeuvre; I loved The Stone Angel, but that was more despite the way it was taught to me in high school rather than because of it, and I can see why many readers would be inclined to steer clear of her other work. Margaret Laurence’s books are, on the surface at least, less exciting than those of Canada’s other great Margaret, Margaret Atwood. Who would want to read about village life in pre-war Manitoba when there are fast-paced stories about dissatisfied urban intellectuals to devour, and who cares about a subtle examination of the indignities of old age when there are various dystopias to read about? This is a viewpoint I well understand; CanLit contains too many mediocre books about rural life in the distant past and not enough books about contemporaneity or speculation. Margaret Laurence does not write those mediocre rural books. “Mediocre” is not an adjective that applies to Margaret Laurence.
I had a conversation online recently about class. This isn’t surprising given the narrative surrounding the last American presidential election, but there were a number of people trying to explain to myself and to others1 that it is wrong to imagine that different economic classes necessarily mean different cultural classes, as after all, pop culture in America is more or less the same for everyone. My lived experience tells me this is bullshit; I’ve had one foot in poverty and working class life and one foot in the middle class most of my life, and there are some pretty crazy cultural differences, and many of them have fuck all to do with entertainment choices. Culture as we understand the word today isn’t just about what music you listen to, what books you read,2 what movies you watch, and so on: it’s also about what assumptions you can make about how the people around you will think and behave in different situations. That stuff is culture, too.
Anyway, I bring this up because on top of the obvious feminist reading The Diviners presents3, the novel also has a lot to say about class. Morag Gunn doesn’t exactly start out with a lot of chances; her parents both died when she was very young, and she went to live with Christie, the scavenger, and his wife Prin who had almost nothing except their dignity, and as can be the case with the poor, very often not even that. But she’s got her brain, and a strong desire to use it, and thankfully not too many people at home trying to get in her way. She goes to school in Winnipeg where she meets interesting people and falls in love with—and marries—a professor named Brooke who is more than a little creepy in a way that should be familiar to just about everyone, but who also comes from a world that is entirely alien to her, and not just because he was born in England and lived his happiest years in India.
I don’t know if it was as obvious to readers in 1974 as it was to me in 2017, but even without his obvious creepiness and without the damage he’d suffered as a child that made his expectations for a partner so intense4 it never would have worked. Why? Because despite being intellectual equals and (eventually) economic equals, the cultural divide between them is simply too great. Brooke comes from wealth and Morag comes from poverty, and their worldviews have almost no common ground whatsoever. They love many of the same things, but can’t talk about them in a serious way because they don’t even share the same idea of what a conversation looks like. This is easy to chalk up to his being a dick about women, but it’s more than that: poor people and upper middle class people talk about things using different communication strategies, and while Morag is perfectly aware of this and tries to adapt, she’s never comfortable in Brooke’s world, and Brooke, like people with money everywhere, never even sees the difference because not seeing it doesn’t impact him in any meaningful way. I feel a great kinship with Morag in this regard; Morag can operate in the same register as Christie Logan the scavenger, or in Brooke’s register, or in her Métis sometime-lover Jules Tonnerre’s, but she doesn’t feel comfortable in most of them, acutely aware of her class origins and of the tools she’s acquired to escape them. I too can operate in nearly any register, but there are some that I have never quite felt comfortable in and others I’ve never been able to let go of no matter how hard I’ve tried. And there are even some in which I have no fucking clue at all what a conversation is even supposed to look like.
Like the Nuisance Ground that Christie Logan manages there are more valuable things in The Diviners to dredge up than readers might imagine at first glance, and indeed, like Christie himself,5 Laurence puts on a great show of bluntness to mask her true depth and subtlety. Morag grunts and curses and glowers and rages to hide the truth about herself: that she sees. At times, we are lucky enough that Laurence lets us see as well.