- Marian Engel: Life in Letters
Marian Engel is popularly remembered as the author of one novel, Bear (1976), a succès de scandale in its day, which won the Governor-General's Award for Fiction. However, her significance on the literary scene in the heyday of post-centennial Canadian cultural nationalism is much wider: as novelist, short-story writer, book reviewer, journalist, and literary activist who was the first chair of the Writers' Union of Canada and successful lobbyist on Public Lending Rights in the 1970s and 1980s. This fascinating selection of letters by two respected Engel scholars fills in details of this broader picture of a woman writer's life and of her professional milieu. Designed as an epistolary narrative in five chronologically arranged sections, it covers the period from 1960 when Marian Passmore left Canada on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship for 'Yurp' (as Sarah Porlock calls it), up till a month before her death from cancer in 1985. There is also a chronology and excellent contextualizing introductions to every section. The focus throughout is on Marian Engel as a writer - an aspiring novelist in the 1960s, then a prominent Toronto literary personality in the 1970s and 1980s, a persona which with the support of her friends she maintained up until the end.
The first section, 'Woman Travelling, 1960-1965,' consists of the kind of letters home that any lively young woman visiting Europe for the first time might write. They are full of excitement at self-discovery, at French food and ancient buildings, added to which is her marriage in London in 1962 to Howard Engel, an old friend from McMaster and now 'my miracle man.' The joys of a nomadic existence continued in the two years the couple spent in Cyprus, though something extraordinary breathes through these letters, and that is a strong sense of writerly vocation. The Engels returned to Toronto in 1964; their twins were born in 1965 and Marian's first novel was published in New York in 1968. Not surprisingly, there are fewer letters from this period, for she was looking after babies and revising The Honeyman Festival, published by the newly founded Toronto Anansi Press in 1970. [End Page 399]
'Growing Up at Forty, 1971-1975,' the longest section in the book, is the record of Engel's entry as an important figure on Toronto's volatile literary and cultural scene, evidenced in her enormously expanded professional acquaintance and the huge increase in her public letter writing. Occasionally her distinctive voice comes through: 'The Union stuff has convinced me that there isn't a goddam reason in the world why anyone should write books anymore,' though of course she did. Her marriage was also breaking down. Not much is said about this, and the best comment on the divorce comes from Timothy Findley: 'None of us men are perfect ladies.' Bear was published in 1976 and The Glassy Sea in 1978. At this point Engel knew everybody on the Canadian literary scene, judging from the correspondence in the 1976-80 section. Curiously, there are more letters to Engel than from her here, giving the impression that half the dialogue is missing, but balance is restored in the final section, 'A Woman among Friends, 1981- 1985,' when Engel's sprightliness as a letter writer contradicts her failing health: 'I'm in fantastic shape except of course for being seriously ill.'
There is however something very odd about this collection: the letters record the life of a professional writer, but they shed no light on Engel's writing activity. There is a lot of talk about the mechanics of production - typewriters, endless writing projects, publishers' negotiations - but very little about her creative process or even how she felt on finishing a novel or how she greeted its publication. Far more is said about Engel's writing by other writers, particularly in correspondence with MacLennan, Laurence, or Findley. Her letters are like gaily painted closed doors, and - perhaps rightly - we must return to Engel's fiction, reading through her heroines...