Margaret Laurence: Exploring her “Divine” Lakefield neighbourhood

Posted by on July 25, 2017

The sun blazed down late on a Saturday afternoon in July as a friend and I ambled along Queen Street in Lakefield, Ontario (population: 2,758), in the heart of the Kawarthas. Living in Toronto, a city of 2.7 million, you can appreciate that I was enjoying the relative small town quiet as we strolled along, deking into Kawartha Hardware, stopping to peek in the windows of Happenstance Books (whose window display was devoted to the Lakefield Literary Festival which was happening that weekend), before turning onto River Street and walking into Canoe & Paddle Restaurant – which is where I ran smack into a Toronto-based friend I’d not clapped eyes on in almost three years (TJ is an inveterate travel writer and seldom on Canadian soil.)

Turns out that Lakefield had been the high-school stomping grounds for my friend TJ who grew up in nearby Peterborough, where his Dad still lives.

I find small towns are like that – they’re all about connections.

I had another connection to Lakefield – one which prompted this particular July visit – through the daughter of the late CanLit author Margaret Laurence, who made her home in Lakefield, from the early 1970′s until her death in 1987. I had worked with the award-winning author’s daughter, Jocelyn Laurence, in my very first magazine job back in the ‘80s. Jocelyn would occasionally drop snippets about her mom’s life in Lakefield – which I stored away in my own memory bank as I knew I wanted to visit the “town by the river.” We had worked together for almost four months before I got up the nerve to tell Jocelyn how much I adored her mother (cue sheepish Doug moment) and that I had read the Governor-General’s Award-winning “Diviners” about ten times.

 

Insider Doug O'Neill standing infront of Margaret Laurences house

Here I am, at last, in front of Margaret Laurence’s house at 8 Regent St., Lakefield, a short walk to the Otonabee River. I like to think of this home as, “The house where Margaret wrote.”

For the record: I’ll never be (at least I hope!) one of those obsessed fan-worshippers who heads to Hollywood and stands bug-eyed outside the gated mansion hoping to catch a glimpse of a famous actor. Not my thing.  But my admiration for Margaret Laurence – fuelled by conversations with her daughter Jocelyn about the author’s life in Lakefield – long ago planted the urge to explore Margaret Laurence’s Lakefield – where she wrote the books which so resonated with me.

Somehow I never got the chance for a proper Lakefield visit apart from a quick pass through town several winters ago in a stretch limo (long story, don’t ask)  when I convinced the driver to pass by 8 Regent Street. (By that time Margaret Laurence had long died and the house had a new owner.)

Jocelyn and I would cross paths over the years and she’d joke, “So, have you made your pilgrimage to Lakefield yet?” Sadly, Jocelyn died from cancer in 2015, at almost the same age as her mother. I regretted that I never asked her: “Was she, Jocelyn, the inspiration for the character of Pique, the heroine’s daughter in The Diviners?”

This past July I finally spent a day in Lakefield, prompted in part by the annual Lakefield Literary Festival which is held each summer close to Margaret Laurence’s birthday. I stood on the lawn in front of Laurence’s house, shopped in the hardware store where shopped, sat by the river which so intrigued her, and visited the church where she sometime worshipped. And then I I walked the length of the Lakefield Trail which included a stop at the plaque dedicated to author Susannah Moodie, who figured in “The Diviners.”

Here are some highlights from my memory bank of Margaret Laurence’s Lakefield:

Insider Doug O'Neill sitting on a dock on the Otonabee River

“It was on the Otonabee, with her two children living nearby in Toronto, that Margaret Laurence closely watched the river that seemed to her to flow both ways and it was there, from 1971-73, that she wrote the text of what would be her major opus, The Diviners (1974).” – Prof. Michael Peterman, Trent University

 

Stone Angel in front of Margaret Laurence's House by Doug O'Neill

I was moved to see the iconic stone angel in the front yard of Margaret Laurence’s former home in Lakefield. “The Stone Angel” was the first of Laurence’s Manawaka series.

In fiction as in real life, riverside banks and marshes were recurring themes for Margaret Laurence. This photo of Lakefield Marsh, a short walk from Laurence’s house on Regent Street, echoes scenes from “The Diviners.”

Lakefield Marsh and canoe by Doug O'Neill

 

Susannah Moodie sign in Lakefield by Doug O'Neill

Pioneer author Susannah Moodie (“Roughing It In the Bush”), whose homestead is also located in Lakefield, frequently invaded the thoughts of Morag Gunn, the central character in Laurence’s “The Diviners.” Other authors, such as Robertson Davies, are part of the Kawarthas’ literary tradition.

Lakefield Literary Festival sign by Doug O'Neill

The Lakefield Literary Festival is held each July close to Margaret Laurence’s birthday, July 18. One of this year’s festival events was held in Kawartha Hardware store in Lakefield, around the corner of the late author’s house.