Temples and Tabernacles: Alternative Religions in the Fictional Microcosms of Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, and Alice Munro

Nora Foster Stovel, University of Alberta

Some of the greatest Canadian novelists are regionalists who convey Canadian identity through developing fictional microcosms. Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, and Alice Munro follow in the tradition of novelists such as Walter Scott, Thomas Hardy, and William Faulkner, who created their fictional kingdoms of Waverley, Wessex, and Yoknapatawpha County. Laurence, Davies, and Munro each create a fictional microcosm in Manawaka, Deptford, and Jubileebased on their actual hometowns of Neepawa, Manitoba, and Thamesville and Wingham, Ontario, respectivelythat encapsulates in miniature what they see as defining features of a typical Canadian community.

Davies, Laurence, and Munro all convey the social stratifications of their microcosms through a delineation of their respective town's religious denominations: in Davies's Deptford TrilogyFifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975)and Laurence's Manawaka cycleThe Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), The Fire-Dwellers (1960), A Bird in the House (1970), and The Diviners (1974)as well as in Munro's novel Lives of Girls and Women (1971), in which Munro develops the microcosm of Jubilee introduced in "The Peace of Utrecht," first published in 1960 and collected in Dance of the Happy Shades (1968).1 Interestingly, all these texts were published within the decade of 1964 to 1975 that roughly frames the Manawaka cycle, when Canadian writers were intent on defining a national identity.

These three authorswho were all awarded the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction for one of these novelsfocus on their communities' Christian churches in order to identify their cultural conditions. While there have been valuable studies of religion, especially in the works of Davies and Laurence, by critics such as Dave Little2 and Elizabeth Potvin,3 to name just a few, no one has yet addressed the parallels in the use of churchesboth the architecture and décor of the buildings and the cultural composition of the congregationby these three authors to characterize Canadian identity.4

To begin with Davies's Deptford Trilogy, in Fifth Business (1970), Dunstan Ramsay delineates the denominational demographics of Deptford succinctly: "We had five churches: the Anglican, poor but believed to have some mysterious social supremacy; the Presbyterian, solvent and thoughtchiefly by itselfto be intellectual; the Methodist, insolvent and fervent; the Baptist, insolvent and saved; the Roman Catholic, mysterious to most of us but clearly solvent, as it was frequently and, so we thought, quite needlessly repainted."5 This skeleton outline of the ecclesiastical, social, and financial stratifications of the society of the town provides a prelude to Ramsay's fascination with saints and miracles, investigation of hagiography, and acquaintance with the Jesuit Bollandists of Europe, in whose journal, Analecta Bollandiana, he publishes his researcha crucial fact that "that ineffable jackass Lorne Packer" (FB 6) neglects to mention in his "idiotic piece" published "in all its inanity" in Colborne's College Chronicle with the fatuous title "farewell to the cork" (FB 5).

Initially, Dunstable's determination never again to be his mother's "own dear laddie" (FB 30)after she is transformed by his wit and experiments in prestidigitation into a "screeching fury" (FB 30) who flogs him with a pony whipinspires his escape from Deptford by enlisting in the Canadian Army during the First World War. His miraculous salvation by the Little Madonna with the face of his Fool-Saint Mary Dempster at Passchendaeleand his renaming as "Dunstan," after the saint who twisted the Devil's nose, by Diana Marfleet, whose devoted nursing facilitates his "rebirth" from his comainspires his study of hagiography, which, in turn, provides an opportunity to pursue the "mysterious," seductive forbidden faith of "the Scarlet Woman of Rome" (FB 36) in the company of Jesuit Bollandists, like the intriguing Padre Blazon, on the Continent. The glamorous alternative offered by Roman Catholicism allows Ramsay to escape the Protestant conservatism of Deptford.

The Manticore (1972) spans a religious spectrum from primitive to modern in a Jungian analysis (religion reborn as psychoanalysis) that David Staunton undergoes in Zurich to his psychic rebirth in the cave of the bear worshippers. His introduction by Dr. Johanna von Haller to that "Comedy Company of the Psyche,"6 conceived by what Dunstan Ramsay in Fifth Business refers to as "that old fantastical duke of dark corners, C.G. Jung" (FB 182), and his initiation by the "demon in the cave" (M 267), Liselotte Vitzliputzli, named for a devil in Goethe's Faust, into the primitive faith of our ancestors result in his "rebirth" (M 260)"re-entry and return from the womb of mankind" (M 261)as a full, passional being, instead of a rational but emotionally stunted person.

In World of Wonders (1975), Davies illustrates Spengler's "Magian World View"7 through the example of Paul Dempsterwhom Dunstan Ramsay first initiated into the world of magic and illusion through playing cards, called "the Devil's picture-book" (WofW 35) by the Reverend Amasa Dempster, a fanatical Baptist parson and Paul's fatherin his metamorphosis from Cass Fletcher, Willard's "bumboy" (WofW 117) and the voice of Abdullah in "Wanless' World of Wonders" (WofW 42), in "A Bottle in the Smoke," and Mungo Fetch, Sir John Tresize's doppelgänger, in "Merlin's Laugh," through magician Faustus LeGrand to the arch-conjurer and master illusionist Magnus Eisengrim in "Le Lit de Justice." Liesl defines the Magian World View as "a sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible ... a readiness to see demons where nowadays we see neuroses, and to see the hand of a guardian angel in what we are apt to shrug off ungratefully as a stroke of luck" (WofW 297)in short, a worldview antipathetic to the conservative Protestant Canadian conscience of the period.

Thus, in his Deptford Trilogy, Davies explores alternatives to the Canadian conditionwhat he termed "the bizarre and passionate life of the Canadian people"8perhaps implying that Canadians could cultivate a Magian view of a world of wonder. All these alternative religionsRoman Catholic saints and miracles, Jungian archetypes, and primitive bear-worshippersare set in the Old World, however. Clearly, the New World offers Davies no alternative.

In Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Munro employs church denominations to delineate the social hierarchy of Jubilee and to paint her protagonist/narrator Del Jordan's psychic landscape. The Jordan family, originally Presbyterian before Church Union, patronizes the United Church, although rarelyDel's agnostic mother looking around skeptically, "like an anthropologist taking note of the behavior of a primitive tribe."9 Her mother's rebellion against religion is tinged with irony, however, since she merely replaces the Bibles her own mother distributed throughout the neighborhood with the encyclopedias that she hawks around the country. Del, in turn, rebels against her atheistic mother by attending the United Church with their boarder, Fern Doherty.

In "Age of Faith," Del tours the churches of Jubilee in search of God, but she discovers social stratification instead. She delineates the denominations succinctly, employing materialistic criteria: "The United Church was the most modern, the largest, the most prosperous church in Jubilee. It had taken in all the former Methodists and Congregationalists and a good chunk of Presbyterians ... at the time of Church Union. There were four other churches in town but they were all small, all relatively poor, and all, by United Church standards, went to extremes" (LofG 78). Del is intrigued by extremes: "The Catholic church was the most extreme ... [it] dispensed peculiar services to Catholics, who seemed bizarre and secretive as Hindus, with their idols and confessions" (LofG 78). At school, the Catholics, "a small but unintimidated tribe, mostly Irish" (LofG 78), are excused from Religious Education and spend the period in the basement, banging on the pipes. Del has difficulty reconciling "their simple rowdiness with their exotic dangerous faith" (LofG 78). She also has difficulty reconciling their simple mission cross with "such voluptuousness and scandal" as she finds in her aunt's stories of "babies' skeletons, and strangled nuns under the convent floors, yes, fat priests and fancy women and the black old popes" (LofG 78). Del, with her staid Protestant background, is fascinated by these exotic legends with their suggestions of forbidden sexuality and original sins.

But the Roman Catholics are not the only extremist denomination in Jubilee. Del considers that "The Baptists were extreme as well, but in a completely unsinister, slightly comic way.... Baptists could not dance or go to movies; Baptist ladies could not wear lipstick. But their hymns were loud, rollicking and optimistic, and in spite of the austerity of their lives their religion had more vulgar cheerfulness about it than anybody else's" (LofG 79). Del is attracted by their boisterous energy, but she is repelled by their stringent restrictions and Spartan deprivations. This attraction-repulsion element is illustrated by Del's relationship with Garnet French, whom she meets at a revival in "Baptizing." His religious conversion, like his family background on a farm in Jericho Valley and his time in prison, has all the appeal of the alien Other, a "solid intrusion of the legendary into the real world" (LofG 178).

Del characterizes denominations in terms of their social status, rather than their religious faith: "As for the Presbyterians, they were leftovers, people who had refused to become United. They were mostly elderly, and campaigned against hockey practice on Sundays, and sang psalms" (LofG 79). While in other Canadian towns, such as Davies's Deptford, the Anglican Church represents the social establishment, Del explains why, in Jubilee, the Anglican Church represents the marginalized: "The people who settled Wawanash County and built up Jubilee were Scotch Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists from the north of England. To be Anglican was therefore not fashionable as it was in some places, and it was not so interesting as being Catholic or Baptist, not even proof of stubborn conviction like being Presbyterian" (LofG 79). Thus, it has little to recommend it to the curious, but status-conscious, adolescent Della Jordan.

Nevertheless, when Del reaches "The Age of Faith" and desires "to settle the question of God" (LofG 80), it is to the Anglican Church that she goes, summoned by the bellthe only one in Jubilee. While doctors, lawyers, and merchants pass the plate in the United Church, the Anglican Church is patronized by eccentrics like old Mrs. Sherriff, whose black-turbaned, wolfish profile reminds Del of the profile of "a Crusader's effigy" (LofG 82), and whose tragic progeny"One brother had died an alcoholic, one was in the asylum at Tupperton, and Marion had walked into the Wawanash River" (LofG 202)inspires Del's Gothic novel, The Photographer (LofG 205).

Del, an anthropologist like her mother, is impressed by the differences between the portraits of Jesus in the Anglican Church and those in the United Church, where "The stained-glass windows showed Christ performing useful miracles ... or else they illustrated parables" (LofG 79), whereas the Anglican Church has a reproduction of the Holman Hunt painting of Christ knocking at the door. Del notes, "The Christ in it differed in some small but important way from the Christ performing miracles in the United Church window. He looked more regal and more tragic, and the background against which he appeared was glossier and richer, more pagan somehow, or at least Mediterranean. I was used to seeing him limp and shepherdly in Sunday-school pastels" (LofG 82). These two portraits contrast the romantic appeal of the Anglican Church with the utilitarian staidness of the United.

The Anglican Church represents an appealing alternative because it embodies "the theatrical in religion" (LofG 83)a crucial concept for Del, who conceives of the population of Jubilee "as nothing but a large audience, for me" (LofG 80)whereas Dunstan Ramsay realizes he plays fifth business to Boy Staunton's lead: "This is one of the cruelties of the theatre of life: we all think of ourselves as stars and rarely recognize it when we are indeed mere supporting characters or even super-numeraries" (FB 2122). Del expects God to stage a miracle for her sake alone to spare her from having to thread the sewing machine in Household Sciencea faith she transmits to her young brother Owen, who prays fervently that their sheep-killer dog Major not be shot at the climax of "Age of Faith" (LofG 97).

Whereas Del desires to be saved by faith alone, "by some great grab of the soul" (LofG 84), the Reverend McLaughlin of the United Church never discusses religious faith, but only decorum: "The question of whether God existed or not never came up in Church. It was only a matter of what He approved of, or usually of what He did not approve of" (LofG 81). The minister of the Anglican Church (who has an English accent and wears snow boots under his robes because he also preaches in Porterfield and Blue River), however, delights Del with his recitation of the litany, contrasting "The richness of the words against the poverty of the place" (LofG 83). Del hears in these rituals echoes of ancient rites: "If I could not quite get a scent of God then at least I could get the scent of His old times of power, real power, not what He enjoyed in the United Church today" (LofG 83). The Anglican Book of Common Prayer, with God's "fabled hierarchy, [and] calendar of feasts and saints," inspires Del with visions of new horizons. "Saints' days made me think of something so different from Jubilee" (LofG 83): "the Angelus and candles, a procession of nuns in the snow, cloister walks, all quiet, a world of tapestry, secure in faith" (LofG 84)a medieval image that recalls Dunstan Ramsay's infatuation with hagiography. Thus, for Del, Jubilee's Anglican Church furnishes the allure that Roman Catholicism offers Ramsay, while Laurence's characters look elsewhere for alternatives to conventional religion.

Margaret Laurence's family attended the United Church in Neepawa, Manitoba, where she was both baptized and married, and she returned to the United Church in her last years in Lakefield. Her protagonists are Protestants, attending either the United or the Presbyterian Church. In her first Manawaka novel, The Stone Angel (1964), Hagar Shipley's father, Jason Currie, allows Hagar to attend the Presbyterian Church instead of Sunday school for the first time so that she can hear the Reverend Dougall MacCulloch thank members of the congregationincluding himself and the town lawyer and bankerfor their generous contributions to the building of a new church, where he, like other prosperous parishioners, has purchased a private pew furnished with velvet cushions, "so our few favored bottoms would not be bothered by hard oak and a lengthy sermon."10 He whispers to Hagar, "I and Luke McVitie must've given the most, as he called our names the first" (SA 16). Hagar hopes for applause, because she has new white lace gloves and could show them off well, clapping.

Later, Hagar rebels against her father by marrying the disreputable Brampton Shipley and refusing to go to church because being seen with Bram in public is too humiliating. In Hagar's last years, her daughter-in-law Doris brings her own minister, Mr. Troy, to visit her mother-in-law in an attempt to "wreak salvation" (SA 293) upon her, as Hagar puts it. Hagar is contemptuous of "God's little man" (SA 40), rejoicing in discomfiting him. But it is Hagar who is upset when, expecting to embarrass Mr. Troy, she asks him to sing "All people that on earth do dwell" (SA 291), thus prompting her epiphany: "Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear" (SA 292). Hagar experiences a religious revival in her mock-eucharistic communion with her father-confessor figure, life insurance salesman Murray Ferney Lees, in the abandoned cannery at Shadow Point.

Laurence develops her comparative portrait of religion in her next Manawaka novel, A Jest of God (1966),11 which won the Governor General's Award for Fiction in 1967four years before it was awarded to Munro's Lives of Girls and Women and five years before it was awarded to Davies's The Manticore. Although Neepawa boasts a complete complement of Christian establishmentsincluding the Roman Catholic Church, an Orthodox Church, the United Church attended by Laurence's family, the Presbyterian Church (which held out against Church Union), and the Anglican Church (which still displays a sign warning "Drive carefully. The person you hit might be an Anglican")Laurence nevertheless concentrates on two churches in A Jest of God: the conservative Presbyterian Church and the colorful Tabernacle of the Risen and Reborn, representing established and alternative religions.

Rachel Cameron, the protagonist/narrator, describes the Presbyterian Church that her mother attends, contrasting it with the Tabernacle of the Risen and Reborn. The two are separated socially as surely as the proverbial railroad tracks divide the "good part of town" from the part of the town said to be on "the other side of the tracks" (Jest 17). Faith, like death, is banished from the right side of the tracks: "No one in Manawaka ever dies, at least not on this side of the tracks" (Jest 19), Rachel, who lives above the Manawaka funeral parlor where her father worked as undertaker, observes wryly.

Rachel's mother, May Cameron, insists that Rachel accompany her to church, although Rachel's father, Niall Cameron, the town undertaker (and town drunk), long dead, refused. Attending church, where the new spring hats are like "a forest of tulips" (Jest 47), is a social occasion for her, rather than a religious rite, Rachel realizes. But May Cameron is safe, for the minister, Mr. MacElfrish, would never shock his decorous congregation by preaching about God with anguish or joy or praying with fierce humility. Instead, his sermon deals with gratitude for their blessings, a safely social subject.

Rachel (like Del, a bit of an anthropologist, with an interest in comparative religion) observes, "The wood in this church is beautifully finished. Nothing ornateheaven forbid. The congregation has good taste" (Jest 47)unlike the congregation of the Tabernacle: "The Tabernacle has too much gaudiness and zeal, and this has too little" (Jest 47), Rachel carps. Hearing the chimes on the way to church, she recalls, "They used to have a solitary bell there, summoning the faithful in plain clarity, but recently they have acquired a carillon that tinkles The Church's One Foundation" (Jest 4647). The hymns sung at the Presbyterian Church, including "Jerusalem the golden, / with milk and honey blest," are also in good tasteagain, unlike those of the Tabernacle. The only disturbing element of the former is the fact that it is sung in the trembling tuneless voice of Tom Gillanders, looking like an emaciated crow in his black choir gown, leading Rachel to reflect, "If I believed, I would have to detest God for the brutal joker He would be if He existed" (Jest 48).

The Tabernacle of the Risen and Reborn, however, is another kettle of fish entirely, resembling the proverbial haunted house, with its turrets versus its crimson neon sign advertising resurrection. Rachel's friend Calla invites her to visit the Tabernacle, where members of the congregation have been vouchsafed glossalalia"the gift of tongues or ecstatic utterances" (Jest 33). Perhaps as a form of rebellion against her mother, who would consider "anyone speaking in a clarion voice about their beliefs" (Jest 32) positively indecent, Rachel accompanies Callajust as Del Jordan rebels against her agnostic mother by accompanying Fern Doherty to Jubilee's United Church. The interior of the Tabernacle is gaudy, contrasting with the conservative "good taste" of the Presbyterian Church: the Bible is "not jacketed severely in black but covered with some faintly glittering cloth or substance impersonating gold, and probably if the room were dark it would glowor give off sparks" (Jest 36).

The colorful decor of the Tabernacle reflects its religious zeal, compared to the conservative decor of the United Church, which reflects its conventional attitude to religion. The contrast in the religious attitudes of the two churches is encapsulated by the portraits of Jesus Christ.12 In the United Church, Rachel reports, "a stained-glass window shows a pretty and clean-cut Jesus expiring gently and with absolutely no inconvenience, no gore, no pain, just this nice and slightly effeminate insurance salesman who, somewhat incongruously, happens to be clad in a toga, holding his arms languidly up to something which might in other circumstances have been a cross" (Jest 47), while, in the Tabernacle, "two large pictures are hanging, both Jesus, bearded and bleeding, his heart exposed and bristling with thorns like a scarlet pincushion" (Jest 36), suggesting a human, suffering Christ.

The Tabernacle's hymns are passionate, celebrating vengeance and violence"Day of wrath! O day of mourning! / See fulfilled the prophet's warning! / Heaven and earth in ashes burning!" (Jest 38)unlike the saccharine hymns of the Presbyterian Church with its tinkling carillon. The preacher, unlike Mr. MacElfrish, is fervent, speaking with arms outstretched, making ecstatic utterances. A member of the congregation, his eyes closed, "like a blind seer, a younger Tiresias" (Jest 41), speaks in tongues, inspiring her inner voice to surface in an uncontrolled eulalia, "The voice of Rachel" (Jest 43): "Chattering, crying, ululating, the forbidden transformed cryptically to nonsense, dragged from the crypt, stolen and shouted, the shuddering of it, the fear, the breaking, the release, the grieving" (Jest 42). The repressed Rachel dismisses her eulalia as "Hysteria" (Jest 44), however, rejecting her spiritual surfacingjust as she rejects Calla's kiss, interpreting it, perhaps correctly, as a lesbian overture.13

The jest of God is the fact that Rachelwho believes she is pregnant, and who finally emerges from her extended adolescence into adulthood when she accepts responsibility for another lifeis incubating not a baby but a tumor. Only after she gives birth to death in the form of a "benign" (Jest 191), not a malignant, tumor in this doubly ironic jest does Rachel free herself from the shackles of her mortician father, whining mother, and stifling past, freed at last from "that fool of a fear, that poor fear of fools" (Jest 188). She quotes the psalm "Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which Thou has broken may rejoice" (Jest 208). The alternative offered by evangelism, while initially frightening, is ultimately liberating, as Rachel embarks on the future in a spirit of acceptance and affirmation: "Anything may happen, where I'm going" (Jest 209).14

Rachel's sister Stacey Cameron MacAindra talks continually to "God, Sir,"15 calls the burns on her palms "stigmata" (Fire 130), and experiences an epiphany in response to the psalm "Save me, O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul" (Fire 152) in Laurence's next novel, The Fire-Dwellers (1969), but, even though her father-in-law, Matthew MacAindra, is a retired United Church minister, she does not actually attend church in the course of the narrative.16 In her final Manawaka novel, The Diviners (1974), Laurence presents Morag Gunn's religious experience in "Memorybank Movie: How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds."17 Morag attends Sunday school, whereas her stepmother, Prin, attends service at the United Church. Her stepfather, Christie Logan, the town garbage collector, although a believer, refuses to go to church altogether because he dislikes the minister, the Reverend Mr. McKee. Morag is impressed by the portraits of biblical parables in the church basementThe Good Samaritan, The Loaves and Fishes, The Mothers of Salem Bringing their Children to Jesusthat portray Jesus as "friendly and not stuck up" (D 8889). The orphaned Morag "does not love God" because "God is the one who decides which people have got to die, and when," but "Morag loves Jesus. And how" (D 88). She composes a Nativity poem, "The Wise Men" (D 89), but, when the Sunday school teacher, Mrs. McKee, criticizes it, she is deflated. When Mrs. McKee reads aloud a poem by Hilaire Belloc (D 9192), Morag burns her own creation. Still, she hopes to be selected to sing the solo at the Christmas Eve concert, but, when Vanessa MacLeod, daughter of the town doctor, is chosen, Morag is too disillusioned to try another church. She wishes something bad would befall Vanessa, but when she later learns that Vanessa's father has died, Morag is chagrined.

Laurence had already returned to her contrast between the conventional United Church and the dramatic Evangelist alternative in the title story of A Bird in the House (1970), the pivotal story in which Dr. Ewen MacLeod dies. Vanessa says her parents attend the United Church with her Grandmother MacLeod, the termagant of "To Set Our House In Order," while she attends Sunday school in the basement, where "pictures of Jesus wearing a white sheet and surrounded by a whole lot of well-dressed kids whose mothers obviously had not suffered them to come unto Him until every face and ear was properly scrubbed"18 recall the portrait of Jesus as an "effeminate insurance salesman" at the United Church in A Jest of God. Noreen, the MacLeods' hired girl, attends the Tabernacle of the Risen and Reborn, where she belts out hymns at the top of her lungs and often gets up to testify, voluntarily making a public spectacle of herself and profoundly shocking Vanessa's mother, who, like Rachel Cameron's mother, approves of decency and decorum in religion.

While the adult MacLeods consider that Noreen's life is dull, Vanessa "knew the truth": "Noreen's life had not been drab at all, for she dwelt in a world of violent splendours, a world filled with angels whose wings of delicate light bore real feathers, and saints shining like the dawn, and prophets who spoke in ancient tongues, and the ecstatic souls of the saved, as well as denizens of the lower regionsmean-eyed imps and crooked cloven-hoofed monsters and beasts with the bodies of swine and the human heads of murderers, and lovely depraved jezebels torn by dogs through all eternity" (B 97). Vanessa reports that "Noreen believed strongly in the visitation of ghosts and the communication with spirits" (B 97), and she entertains Vanessa with her Ouija board and table talk. Vanessa, if skeptical, is impressed by Noreen's confident knowledge of spiritual matters. When Vanessa inadvertently lets a sparrow trapped between the windowpanes into her room, it is Noreen who utters, not the complacent platitude, "God sees the little sparrow fall," but the fateful proverb, "A bird in the house means a death in the house" (B 86), before setting the bird free. When Vanessa's father dies of pneumonia, Vanessa feels guilty for letting the bird into the house and vents her fury and frustration on Noreen, whom she views as a "sorceress" (B 84). Much later, however, when the seventeen-year-old Vanessa, in love with an airman in the Second World War, finds a letter and photograph from a French girl from the First World War in a secret drawer in her father's desk, she burns them. In the unpublished conclusion to this story, Vanessa says, "All I know was that I understood at last what the bird in the house had really been."19

Laurence's emphasis on evangelical religion in her Manawaka fiction proved extremely ironic when she was attacked by evangelists in her own county of Peterborough. "In 1976, to my total horror and surprise," she writes in Dance on the Earth: A Memoir (1989), "The Diviners was attacked as being pornographic, blasphemous.... My books were attacked again in 1985 ... not only was The Diviners vilified but also A Jest of God and, for the first time, The Stone Angel, which was called demeaning to human nature."20 The Peterborough Committee for Citizens on Decency petitioned to ban The Diviners from the Grade 13 curriculum; the Reverend Sam Buick opened his Dublin Street Pentecostal Church in Peterborough so people could sign the petition in 1976.21 "We know that Margaret Laurence's aim in life is to destroy the home and the family," said one letter to the editor in the Peterborough Examiner. Laurence believed that the fundamentalist Christians who attacked her books were not preaching Christian love, but "hatred, authoritarianism and a suppression of humankind's thoughts, queries, and aspirations" (Dance 216). Material on "the Controversy" was collected and sold to the York University Archives, and the proceeds were used in 1986 to fund a big bash for Margaret's sixtieth birthdaya divining party (Dance 217).

It seemed likely that Laurence, who was so wounded by the fundamentalist Christian attack on her books in her own county of Peterborough, would try to write about this literary assassination. It also seemed likely that Laurence, who always wanted to view her characters from within, and who portrayed her protagonists as wishing to see even their enemies from behind their eyes, would try to write a novel portraying such prejudiced people. And she didin her novel fragment "Dance on the Earth."22 On 29 January 1979, she wrote to Hugh MacLennan: "I would like some day to deal with some of this in a novel, but although I've been thinking of it for over a year, it's too close: I can't do it yet. Maybe it will not ever be given to me to explore that region. I can only wait and try to understand, as a novelist, the very people whom I am battling in my role as citizen."23 She also wrote to Adele Wiseman, on 20 January 1979, stating, "I want to do something, sometime, with the evangelist thing, but I wonder if at this point in my life it would come out sounding like a desire for revenge."24 "Dance on the Earth" was to be that evangelist novel, and she made several attempts to write it as a fiction, as her numerous drafts and copious notes at McMaster University demonstrate, long before she finally composed Dance on the Earth as an autobiography.

The occasion for the novel and catalyst for protagonist Allie Pryce Chorniuk's narrative is an attack by fundamentalists led by the Reverend Jake Flood, preacher of the Tabernacle of the Risen and Reborn, modeled on the Reverend Sam Buick of Peterborough's Pentecostal Church. Allie teaches English at the Jordan's Landing High School, where Paradise Lost is on the Grade 13 curriculum. Allie teaches Milton's epic poem about the cosmic war between the forces of good and evil with great enthusiasm. She emphasizes Satan's "heroic energy" and "the seductive power of evil," arguing that Satan is the true hero of Paradise Lost, and declaring to her students, "I tend towards the so-called Satanist school of literary thought." Unluckily, the Reverend Flood's twin son and daughter Debbie and Donno are in Allie's class, and when Allie suggests that Milton portrays Satan sympathetically, they accuse her of blasphemy, conclude that she is a Satanist, and report her heresy to their father. They disapprove of Allie for questioning Milton's views of women, for they think women should be submissive and inferior: "The Fall was woman's fault." They interpret her views, reflecting Laurence's own, on the female principle in the Holy Spirit as blasphemous. "And they approve the Elect (as long as it is them!)."

Jake Flood has his own television talk show titled, ironically, "Paradise Path," which he uses to promulgate his propaganda. An innocent incident fuels the flames of bigotry. In a passage entitled "Closing the Cottage," Allie and her sister Stella dance beside the lake, observed by Flood's spies: "That day, Allie and Stella danced. Two old women, dancing on the earth [my italics]"recalling the circle dance of the old crones in Laurence's poem "Old Women's Song," which frames her memoir (Dance 18, 225). Easter brings redemption in Laurence's draft: in a section titled "Portion of Grace," the two sisters comfort themselves by considering "women in the past" and "the female principle," two concepts so central to Laurence's published Dance on the Earth: A Memoir.

Outraged, the Pentecostals accuse the women of everything from lesbianism to communism. Eventually, the entire community of Jordan's Landing becomes involved in the controversy. The attack escalates over the winter until the school board is obliged to request Allie's retirementin a parallel to Robert Buchanan, head of Lakefield Collegiate's English Department, who opposed the book-banning by school trustees led by James Telford, labeled "Philistines" by Laurence.25 The parallels between Allie's anguish at being attacked by Pentecostals in her own town and Laurence's own anguish over her literary assassination by fundamentalists from her own county of Peterborough are striking: she was accused of communism and lesbianism too, and her reactions also evolved from hurt to humor. Essentially, however, she was too hurt to complete her novel.

It is unfortunate that Laurence was unable to finish this novel, for "Dance on the Earth," if completed, would have formed a fitting conclusion to the Manawaka cycle. A self-styled "Method writer"26 who identifies with her characters, Laurence was unable to empathize with characters who are as bigoted as Jake Flood (or Sam Buick). Not that Laurence was opposed to evangelical religion, as we know from her Manawaka fiction, but she was opposed to censorship, as we know from her essay on "The Greater Evil," where she writes, "As a writer, my response to censorship of any kind is that I am totally opposed to it" (Dance 265). She was appalled by the bigotry of people who condemned her books as blasphemous and pornographic without actually reading them. Ultimately, she wrote her "Dance on the Earth" text as a memoir, and in it she offers her own alternative religion, but it is an inclusive, rather than an exclusive, version that involves "the recognition of the female principle in faith, in art, in all of life" (Dance 15) and considers "the female principle as being part of the Holy Spirit" (Dance 14).

The delineation of religious establishments is integral to the creation of a mythical microcosm based on their own hometowns for all three Canadian authors. While Davies locates alternative religionsJesuitical hagiography, Jungian archetypes, and the Magian World Viewin Europe, Munro discovers mystery in the very heart of established Protestant religion, and Laurence finds it in the evangelical movement that attacked her novels and may have finished her career in fiction.


1. Alice Munro, Dance of the Happy Shades (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1968).
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2. Catching the Wind in a Net: The Religious Vision of Robertson Davies (Toronto: ECW Press, 1996).
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3. "'A Mystery at the Core of Life': Margaret Laurence and Women's Spirituality," Canadian Literature 128 (Spring 1991): 2538.
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4. For a history of Canada's Protestant denominations, see A Concise History of Christianity in Canada (Toronto and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), ed. Terence Murphy.
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5. Robertson Davies, Fifth Business (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1970) 16. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation FB.
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6. Robertson Davies, The Manticore (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1972) 209. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation M.
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7. Robertson Davies, World of Wonders (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1975) 297. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation WofW.
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8. In Donald Cameron, "Robertson Davies: The Bizarre and Passionate Life of the Canadian People," Conversations with Canadian Novelists (Toronto: Macmillan, 1973) 38.
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9. Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1971) 80. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation LofG.
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10. Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964) 16. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation SA.
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11. Margaret Laurence, A Jest of God (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966). Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation Jest.
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12. The similarity in the comparative portraits of Jesus Christ in Laurence's A Jest of God and Munro's Lives of Girls and Women makes it necessary to note that Laurence's novel preceded Munro's by five years.
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13. See Aritha van Herk's "The Eulalias of Spinsters and Undertakers" (13345), in Crossing the River: Essays in Honour of Margaret Laurence, ed. Kristjana Gunnars (Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1988).
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14. For a fuller discussion of Rachel's development, see my Rachel's Children: Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God (1992).
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15. Margaret Laurence, The Fire-Dwellers (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969) 63. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation Fire.
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16. For a fuller discussion of Stacey's development, see my Stacey's Children: Margaret Laurence's The Fire-Dwellers (1993).
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17. Margaret Laurence, The Diviners (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974) 8793. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation D.
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18. Margaret Laurence, A Bird in the House (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970) 95. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation B.
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19. Laurence's typescript for A Bird in the House and her notes on corrections and revisions are in the 1997 accession of Laurence Archives at McMaster University.
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20. Margaret Laurence, Dance on the Earth (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989) 21415. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation Dance.
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21. James King, The Life of Margaret Laurence (Toronto: Knopf, 1997) 342.
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22. Laurence's notes and drafts for her planned novel "Dance on the Earth" are in the McMaster University 1997 accession of Laurence Archives. All subsequent quotations from "Dance on the Earth" will be from this source. For a fuller account of this work, see my article "Mourning Becomes Margaret: Laurence's Farewell to Fiction," in the Journal of Canadian Studies: Myth and Ideology: Contributions of Canadian Thinkers 34.4 (19992000): 10520.
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23. J. A. Wainwright, A Very Large Soul: Selected Letters from Margaret Laurence to Canadian Writers (Dunvegan, Ontario: Cormorant, 1995) 117.
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24. John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky, eds., Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997) 353.
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25. King 341.
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26. Margaret Laurence, "Time and the Narrative Voice," A Place to Stand On: Essays by and about Margaret Laurence, ed. George Woodcock (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1983) 156.
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