Margaret Laurence's life began on July 18, 1926 in the prairie town of Neepawa, Manitoba. Born Jean Margaret Wemyss, Laurence suffered the loss of her parents at a very young age. Her mother, Verna Simpson Wemyss, died in 1930 when Margaret was only four years old; her father Robert Wemyss, who later married Verna's sister, passed away only five years after the death of his first wife. Raised from then on by her aunt/stepmother, a teacher and librarian, and her maternal grandfather, Laurence's love of literature and of writing flourished with her aunt's encouragement and guidance.
Having begun to write in the second grade, Laurence decided early in life to become a writer. She began writing professionally in 1943 when she got a summer job as a reporter for the town newspaper and in 1944 she enrolled in the Honours English program at Winnipeg's United College (known today as the University of Winnipeg). There, she began to publish her stories and poems in Vox, the United College newspaper of which she later became assistant editor. In 1947, after graduating with her BA from United College, Laurence went on to become a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen. Later that same year, she married Jack Laurence, a civil engineer.
In 1949, Margaret Laurence and her husband left for England and then, a year later, they moved to the British Protectorate of Somalia (known today as Somalia). They lived in Africa until 1957, spending the last five years of their stay in the Gold Coast (known today as Ghana). This time away from Canada marked a tremendously important period in Margaret Laurence's life. Not only were her two children born during this time, but it was also in Africa that Laurence began to work seriously on writing fiction. While her initial focus was on preparing an essay about and translations of Somali verse and prose, published in 1954 under the title A Tree for Poverty, she also wrote a number of short stories on African subjects (stories which were later compiled in 1963's The Tomorrow Tamer) and began work on her "African novel" This Side Jordan (1960). Although soon after returning to Canada she began to focus her creative efforts on writing about her own country, Laurence still maintained a great interest in African literature, culminating in her 1968 critical study of Nigerian literature, Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952-1966.
Returning home in 1957, the Laurences settled in Vancouver where they remained for five years. There, Margaret finished This Side Jordan for which, after its publication in 1960, she received the Beta Sigma Phi award for the best first novel by a Canadian writer. It was also in Vancouver that Laurence began to write her first novel with a Canadian subject. Completed and published in 1964, The Stone Angel was the first in Laurence's famous series of novels set in the fictional Manitoba town of Manawaka. Despite having "come home" in her subject matter, however, it was not long after beginning The Stone Angel that Laurence left Canada once more. After separating from her husband in 1962, she moved with her two children to England, where she settled first in London for a year and then at Elm Cottage in Buckinghamshire where they would reside for most of the next decade. It was at Elm Cottage that Laurence completed four of her five Manawaka books: The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), The Fire-Dwellers (1969), and A Bird in the House (1970). In 1966, A Jest of God won Laurence her first Governor General's Award for fiction and was soon adapted into a movie entitled Rachel, Rachel. The great critical acclaim and commercial success of the first four Manawaka novels as well as her consistent output of essays and articles solidly established Margaret Laurence as one of the most important and beloved literary figures in Canada. By 1971, less than ten years after having left Canada for the second time, Laurence received the honour of being named a Companion of the Order of Canada.
In the early 1970s, Margaret Laurence returned to Canada for good, eventually making her home in Lakefield, Ontario. Over the following several years, she continued to write but also took up writer-in-residence positions at the University of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario, and at Trent University. Working during the summers at her "Manawaka Cottage" on the Otonobee River in Southern Ontario, Laurence completed The Diviners (1974), her final novel and the fifth book in the Manawaka series. It was for The Diviners that Laurence received her second Governor General's Award and in the following year she was awarded with the prestigious Molson Prize. While she did not write any more novels, Margaret Laurence went on to write a book of essays entitled Heart of a Stranger (1976), her posthumously published memoirs Dance on the Earth (1987), and, continuing what she had begun in 1970 with Jason's Quest, three books for children: The Olden Days Coat (1979), Six Darn Cows (1979), and The Christmas Birthday Story (1980). Laurence also maintained her connection with the university community and served as chancellor of Trent University from 1981 to 1983.
During the last decade of her life, Margaret Laurence was actively involved in speaking and writing about issues that concerned her such as nuclear disarmament, the environment, literacy, and other social issues. Today, that work continues through organizations like the Margaret Laurence Fund and honours like The Margaret Laurence Award for Excellence which continue to support such worthy causes in her name. Margaret Laurence died on January 5, 1987 and her ashes were interred at the Riverside Cemetery in Neepawa, Manitoba.