This from Hugh MacLennan to young Marian Engel in 1956: “If I can be of any help to you, don’t hesitate to write and tell me so. I’m cynical about theses, having done one myself, but I suppose they are necessary if you can avoid taking them too seriously.”

University of Ottawa, 1995

University of Ottawa, 1995

He does supervise her thesis-writing, and a chunk of the letters in Dear Marian, Dear Hugh: The MacLennan-Engel Correspondence (Ed. Christl Verduyn) are devoted to those years of study and the related exchanges.

The tone is, as this short excerpt suggests, rather formal, but with an occasional note of irony, and often, as the years pass, sincere affection.

Beyond the reading-someone-else’s-mail phenomenon, the letters (those included are from MacLennan’s side only) are of considerable interest to Canlit readers and writers.

Not all readers of either Engel or MacLennan’s fiction will be interested in talk of Morley Callaghan and Gwethalyn Graham, Toronto and Montreal, the BNA Act and the Canada Council: without a serious interest in Canlit, this volume might seem rather dull.

But for those with an avid interest, this slim volume is of interest for its consideration of the writing life, of the relationships (epistolary and otherwise) which develop between writers, the banter about literary awards, the process of writing specific works from the ’50s through the early ’80s, and the development of a body of Canadian literature.

Given the age difference, and the circumstances under which they met, the relationship is clearly advisor-advisee throughout, and most often it is overtly writing-related.

“Actually, in writing, the best bet for a younger person is to publish a novel or produce a play. After that the magazines come to him.”

But while the advice is rooted in the writing life, it sometimes sprawls into more personal subjects.

“But factually I’m fifty, even though my economic status is no more secure than than of the average McGill engineering graduate. But time, the ability at last to become accustomed to it, to measure its power and effects – there’s no doubt of it, a novelist needs that. A woman novelist, oddly, needs it much less than a man. That is because a woman of 20, if she’s intelligent, is basically more mature than an intelligent man of 30.” (1957)

From a more intimate perspective, there is little evidence of the strength of the attachment between the two writers, partly because there are very few letters from Marian Engel, partly because it takes nearly 30 years for a ‘Sincerely’ signoff to transform into an ‘Affectionately’ signoff. (Most often the letters are simply signed with the writers’ names, Marian Engel and Hugh.)

University of Manitoba Press, 2004

University of Manitoba Press, 2004

In that sense, I particularly enjoyed the  openly affectionate and supportive relationship between Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy chronicled in Intimate Strangers: The Letters of Margaret Laurence & Gabrielle Roy (Ed. Paul G. Socken).

Both women were born and raised in small-town Manitoba, Margaret Laurence in Neepawa in 1926 and Gabrielle Roy in 1909 in St. Boniface.

When Margaret Laurence wrote to Gabrielle Roy in 1976, about Roy’s The Road Past Altamont, she said: “I shared something of that Manitoba background and could understand it and feel it so well.”

The introduction to this slim volume is written in an accessible style, offering enough context for those who are not familiar with either writer’s works specifically, to understand the importance this relationship would have had to these solitary souls.

“The two writers shared their mutual admiration for each other’s work, but, more than that, discovered the elements and issues they held in common as Canadian, prairie, women writers who cared passionately about their work and political and cultural world.”

Across a period of seven years, the women exchanged thirty-two letters and, after some time, began speaking on the telephone as well. They only met once, in 1978, at a conference to which both had been invited.

“These letters express hope, frustration, caring, daily trivia, joy, and fear. They are a remarkable glimpse into the private lives of two of Canada’s greatest writers who had experienced great success in their work and were not struggling with their capacity to continue.”

The first letter, sent by Margaret Laurence, begins formally: “Dear Gabrielle Roy — Joyce Marshall gave me your address, so I’m venturing to write to you.” She had just published The Diviners, for which she received her second Governor General’s Award.

She begins, however, by discussing Gabrielle Roy’s works, first The Tin Flute and, next, The Road Past Altamont.

Postal Reading Challenge

Links to Challenge

She later refers to her own work, indicating that she has written “virtually nothing” since she finished The Diviners. “No real writing.” And the letter closes with: “If ever you have time, I would so much like to hear from you. Don’t, however, feel any obligation. I really just wanted to write and send you my greetings ad my thanks for your work.”

It is not unfriendly, but it is a world apart from the final letter in the collection, which begins “Dear dear Gabrielle” and is signed with “Love and blessings for the new year. Margaret”

In between, a growing affection is evident. Each of the women speaks of the challenges and doubts she faces, and each encourages the other (either with thoughtful commentary on literary works or with outright support.

“Let us not lose heart and let us continue, each according to his way, toward one another, even under dark skies.” (GR writes to ML in July 1977)

In this sense, the collection reminds me of Carol Shields’ and Blanche Howard’s A Memoir of Friendship (but there are many more letters therein) and Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952-1964 The Story of a Remarkable Friendship.

These volumes nestle together (with the longer collection of Margaret Laurence’s letters, A Very Large Soul, Jack McClelland’s letters in Imagining Canadian Literature, and L.M. Montgomery’s letters) and were perfect CanCon for Melwyk’s Postal Reading Challenge this summer.

Have you been reading other people’s letters lately?