I think I had read maybe four pages into the correspondence between Margaret Laurence & Gabrielle Roy when I knew. I knew there would have to be a whole section on correspondence on this blog – because how could there not be?
15 February, 1976
Dear Gabrielle Roy –
Joyce Marshall gave me your address, so I’m venturing to write to you. Joyce said you had mentioned that you’d like to meet me, and I was so very pleased to hear it – it’s a cliché, I know, but I have admired your work for a long time. You know how there are sometimes scenes from novels which continue to inhabit the mind forever after? For me, one such scene is the one in The Tin Flute in which Rose-Anna is told that Daniel has leukemia, and not told that it will be fatal. There are many other scenes (and characters) in your work which remain with me always, but somehow that is one scene which has in a sense grown in power in my mind throughout the years – when I first read it, I was in my early twenties, and did not yet have my children; later, when my daughter was a month old, in England, she developed a mysterious illness with convulsions..it turned out that she had had her yellow fever and smallpox injections too close together and in the wrong order (we were going out to West Africa), a fact which medical science only discovered several years later. At the time, they didn’t know what was wrong with her, so they told me she probably had spiral meningitis – it was, in a sense, the reverse of Rose-Anna’s experience, for they neglected to tell me that the disease was not always fatal. In my terrible pain, believing she would die, I remembered Rose-Anna. Although the circumstances of my life and Rose-Anna’s could hardly be more different, I have always felt I knew that woman awfully well. There is a part of her in me, the part that never ceases to be concerned over one’s children, even though mine are now 20 and 23.
Laurence and Roy had a seven-year correspondence – somewhat frequent in the beginning and growing more spare near the end (a two-year gap) where Laurence wrote to Roy soon before Roy died of a heart attack in July of 1983. They only got to meet once during that time but developed a friendship through letters based on their common bond of writing (Laurence called it “being members of the same tribe”) and being from small Manitoba towns. They also shared a bond of poor-health, Laurence, while 17-years younger than Roy, had suffered from arthritis and eye problems for years, then took her own life in January 1987 after learning she had inoperable lung cancer.
However. what they really shared was a desire to get to know and understand one another and the letters are a small glimpse into the lives of two of Canada’s most celebrated women authors. They talk a lot about writing and share their work with one another. Laurence also liked to tell little stories of her life that Roy, who was more reclusive, seemed to really appreciate. Of course authors are people too and these ones are Canadians to boot – and so the letters are often apologetic. Laurence seemed to feel a lot of guilt that she couldn’t correspond in French with Roy and they both spent a lot of time apologizing for the other’s poor health and for not replying sooner. Such polite ladies. I wish I could have them both for tea.