Margaret Laurence was born Jean Margaret Wemyss on July 18, 1926 in the prairie town of Neepawa, Manitoba, Canada. Both of her parents passed away in her childhood, and Laurence was raised by her aunt and maternal grandfather.
Laurence decided in childhood that she wanted to be a writer, and began writing stories in elementary school. Her professional writing career began in 1943 with a job at the town newspaper, and continued in 1944 when she entered the Honours English program at Winnipeg's United College (now the University of Winnipeg.) After graduating in 1947, she was hired as a reporter for The Winnipeg Citizen. That same year, she married Jack Laurence, a civil engineer.
Jack Laurence's profession took the couple to England, Somalia, and eventually Ghana, where Laurence gained an appreciation for Africa and the storytelling traditions of its peoples. It was during the couple's time in Africa that their two children, Jocelyn and David, were born, and when Laurence began to work seriously on her writing. Her book of essays about and translations of Somali poetry and prose was published in 1954 as A Tree for Poverty. A collection of short stories, The Tomorrow-Tamer, as well as a novel, This Side Jordan (both focusing on African subjects) were published after Laurence returned home to Canada. Laurence's fiction was thereafter concerned with Canadian subjects, but she maintained her interest in African literature and in 1968 published a critical analysis of Nigerian literature, Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952-1966. Present in her African works is a concern with the ethical dilemma of being a white colonialist living in colonial Africa.
Laurence and her family returned to Canada in 1957. They moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where they stayed for five years. In 1962 Laurence and her husband separated, and she moved to London, England for a year, followed by a move to a cottage in Buckinghamshire for ten years, although she visited Canada often.
During this period, Laurence wrote her first works with Canadian subject matter. The Stone Angel was published in 1964, and was the first of Laurence's group of "Manawaka novels", so called because they each take place in the fictional prairie town of Manawaka, a community modelled after Laurence's hometown of Neepawa, Manitoba. The Stone Angel was followed by A Jest of God in 1966 (for which she won her first Governor General's Award,) The Fire-Dwellers in 1969, and A Bird in the House in 1970. Laurence received a great deal of critical and commercial acclaim in Canada, and in 1971 was honoured by being named a Companion to the Order of Canada.
In the early 1970s, Laurence returned to Canada and settled in Lakefield, Ontario. During this time she continued to write and held positions as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario, and Trent University. In 1974, Laurence completed her final novel, The Diviners, for which she received the Governor General's Award and the Molson Prize. The Diviners was followed by a book of essays, Heart of a Stranger, published in 1976, and several children's books: Jason's Quest, The Olden-Days Coat, Six Darn Cows, and The Christmas Birthday Story. Her memoir, Dance on the Earth was published posthumously in 1987.
Margaret Laurence committed suicide on January 5, 1987 at her home in Lakefield after learning that her recently diagnosed lung cancer was terminal. She is buried in Neepawa Cemetery, a few metres away from the stone angel which inspired her novel of the same name.