Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland, Letters shows the growing friendship between the writer and her publisher. The book, edited by Laura K. Davis and Linda M. Morra, is full of interesting exchanges between Laurence and McClelland, which shed light on writing and publishing before the digital age, and at a time when there was a growing interest in Canadian writing and an explosion of new writers on the Canadian literary scene. In a selection of letters below, Laurence and the title of Laurence’s breakthrough book, The Stone Angel (1964). She had tentatively titled the book Hagar, the name of its protagonist. But McClelland and the U.S. and U.K. publishers were not happy with the title, and so Laurence spent weeks brooding over a new one. This exchange tells that story, and how she finally came to settle on the title for the book that would become her masterpiece.
21 August 1963
…They [Knopf] are not too enthusiastic about the title Hagar. I agree with them completely and wish I had thought of suggesting a change myself. They “don’t think it suits the book,” and I must agree. I think it is an eminently suitable name for the old lady, but as a book title—to one who hasn’t read the book—it seems to evoke the wrong image. Will you give this matter your best thought and see if you can suggest some alternative?
26 August 1963
Many thanks for your letters of August 12 and August 21.
Seriously, I was very glad to have your reactions to Hagar at last….
Re: the question of title—I do hope you will not feel that I am becoming awkward and difficult to deal with in editorial questions. I don’t want to be difficult—quite the contrary. But the fact is that when Macmillan took the novel here, the question of title arose, as some people at Macmillan also had the feeling that Hagar gave the impression of a historical or a Biblical kind of novel. At that time, I knocked my brains out for about a fortnight, trying to dream up another title. …I then began re-reading all the Psalms, as a great deal of the spirit of Presbyterianism and in a way of Hagar herself, is to be found there. I came up with Sword in My Bones—“As with a sword in my bones, mine enemies reproach me, while they say daily unto me, Where is thy God? Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me?” Etcetera…but after a few days this title seemed to me to suggest either a who-dun-it by Mickey Spillane or some kind of blood-and-thunder story, piracy on the high seas or something. At this point, it became clear to me that the title of the book was really Hagar, and that I couldn’t think of it any other way, try as I might. And I did try, Jack, honestly. My feeling was that most people do not know who the hell Hagar in the Bible was, anyway, and that the kind of title I wanted was something exceedingly sparse, plain, un-fancy, kind of Canadian gothic, if you know what I mean. I also felt that the book was in a sense a one-character novel—I mean, she is the story…Personally, I think the “image” of the book would depend… to a large extent upon the jacket design—i.e. if it were clear from the jacket that it was not a Biblical or historical tale, then people would not get the wrong idea. At least Hagar is simple and easy to remember. Also, I think I am getting kind of tired of these 24-word titles—“Stretch My Soul Upon A Rack Of Clouds” and that sort of nonsense…I’m really sorry, Jack, as I feel I have been so much trouble to you of late. Maybe someday it will all be seen to have been worth it—I hope so.
16 September 1963
… I have now heard from Knopf, via Willis Wing, about the question of the title of Hagar. They have made two suggestions for titles, neither of which seem suitable at all to me. These are Mrs. Shipley, which seems merely dull, and Old Lady Shipley, which seems out of character for Hagar. However, do not despair. As I was brooding about this question, another title occurred to me, and now it seems to me that it was so clearly meant to be the title of this novel that I am astonished I did not think about it before. It is The Stone Angel. I wonder what you think of it? I have written to Willis Wing, asking him to contact Knopf and see if they will agree to the use of this title. I have been in touch with Macmillan here, and they all agree that this is a good title…I wonder if you would let me know as soon as possible your opinion about this title?
Perhaps I should explain some of my reasons for liking The Stone Angel as a title. The figure of the stone angel recurs throughout the novel, and Hagar associates it with her father’s stern pride and devotion to outward appearances. It also has associations with her ineffectual mother and hence with Hagar’s own locked-in womanhood. Only gradually does she come to see the figure of the stone angel as herself, dogmatically pointing what she feels to be the proper way to her family, without really knowing who they are at all. In the end, she sees her son Marvin as Jacob, demanding the angel’s blessing. She has been a figure of rigid authority in the lives of her family. Her adherence to the conventional proprieties and her withholding of love have damaged all the people most closely associated with her. She has always wanted for herself an independence, which she has been unwilling to grant to others. The stone angel, as Hagar ultimately sees, will someday topple entirely and no one will set her upright again. But Hagar’s strength and tenacity, as well as being damaging, have also been admirable. She is a fighter right to the end, and in this way she is, as Marvin says of her, “a holy terror.” This, in very brief terms, is why I think The Stone Angel would make a good title. In strictly practical terms, also, I think it is interesting and would lend itself to a good jacket design. Please let me know what you think. I could kick myself for not having thought of this title six months ago, especially as it was there, staring me in the face all along. All this difficulty might have been avoided, but I suppose there is no use in thinking about that now.
…If Knopf and yourself are not keen on this title, I would like this title to remain Hagar, or else to be Hagar Shipley, which at least relates to the title of the English edition. But if you think The Stone Angel is okay, I would feel happier about the book appearing under this title in all three countries. I am sorry about all this business.
24 September 1963
Thanks for your very good letter of the 16th regarding the title. I rather like The Stone Angel. I think it’s a bit of an inspiration and I hope that Knopf will react the same way. I’ve sent your letter on to them…
Excerpt from Margaret Laurence & Jack McClelland, Letters, edited and with an introduction by Laura K. Davis & Linda M. Morra. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2018.