Marianne Brandis was born in the Netherlands and came to Canada with her family in 1947; they lived in British Columbia and Nova Scotia before moving to Ontario. She received a BA and MA from McMaster University in Hamilton. During her middle years, in addition to writing in her spare time, she worked as a writer at private radio stations and the CBC, and from 1967 to 1989 she taught writing and English literature at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (Ryerson University) in Toronto. She is now a full-time writer and lives in Stratford, Ontario.
She began writing in her teens and experimented with short stories, plays, and poetry before concentrating on novels and creative non-fiction. This Spring's Sowing, her first novel to be published, appeared in 1970. It and a later one, Special Nests, are both set in modern-day Canada.
In 1977 Marianne began writing historical fiction, and since then most of her work has had a strong historical element. The Tinderbox, The Quarter-Pie Window, The Sign of the Scales, Fire Ship, and Rebellion are set in Ontario in the early nineteenth century and have been used in schools to help teach history. Elizabeth, Duchess of Somerset is the fictionalized biography of a duchess who lived in England in the time of the Stuart Restoration and Queen Anne.
In this historical fiction, Marianne’s main aim is to bring the past to life. She is interested in the texture and rhythm of ordinary people’s lives, and when dealing with public events and historical characters she often looks at the underside of events and the private lives of prominent figures. It is her goal to give the reader as vivid and true a picture as possible of what it would have been like to live in a particular historical place and time.
The process of reconstructing the life of Elizabeth, Duchess of Somerset, led to an interest in non-fiction biography and autobiography – life-writing, which is also history. Finding Words: A Writer’s Memoir appeared in 2000. It was followed by a biography of Marianne’s mother, Frontiers and Sanctuaries: A Woman’s Life in Holland and Canada, and by a professional biography of her brother Gerard titled “Artist at Work: Gerard Brender à Brandis, Wood Engraver and Bookwright.” What she learned about wood engraving in connection with writing about Gerard proved to be useful for the writing of “Drawing with Light: Rosemary Kilbourn, wood engraver”, an article (also published as a chapbook) about the Canadian wood engraver Rosemary Kilbourn.
Pursuing her interest in the relations between people and their surroundings, she has researched and written about Toronto’s ravines, about environmental and social issues in Malawi, and about urban design and planning projects in her current hometown of Stratford. Related to this is Thinking Big, Building Small: Low-tech Solutions for Food, Water, and Energy, a book about the work of her youngest brother, Jock Brandis, a social entrepreneur and inventor of food-production and food-processing tools for farmers in the developing world.
The relation between people and their surroundings is also an important strand in Swan Flying, which is set in Stratford, Ontario – one element in a multifaceted novel.
In a category by itself is Marianne’s latest publication, This Faithful Book: A Diary from World War Two in the Netherlands. The writer of the diary is Madzy Brender à Brandis, Marianne’s mother; Marianne translated and edited it, providing enriching notes and background material.
An important area of Marianne’s work is her collaboration with her brother Gerard Brender à Brandis, the wood engraver and creator of handmade, limited-edition books. Although much of their work is done independently, they have created more than a dozen books together, including some of Gerard’s handmade books as well as trade publications. Gerard’s wood engravings appear in most of Marianne’s historical fiction, and the siblings have collaborated on several chapbooks. The Grand River / Dundalk to Lake Erie is a recent joint project, and the latest one is Under This Roof . In their creation of these books, the integration of images and text is built into the initial conception and continues throughout the process. This interweaving of words and images contributes to a rich artistic experience. Marianne’s biography of Gerard, “Artist at Work”, gives more information about a number of these projects.
(Please note that Marianne’s full surname is “Brender à Brandis”: “Brandis” is the form she uses as a nom de plume and for everyday purposes.)