My project for April, to read eight (or more) books by or about very old women is off to a roaring start with The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. I am ashamed to say that while I have read a few Canadian authors, Carol Shields, Robertson Davies, Emily St John Mandel and Margaret Atwood, I had not heard of Margaret Laurence. I now discover she is a superb writer, up there with the truly greats, awarded honours in Canada with university departments named after her, and an essential early member of an emerging Canadian literature tradition.
She was first published as a teenager, but after graduation from United College in Winnipeg she married and lived in Africa where she explored the oral literature of the Somali people and translated a range of works which she published in 1953 in a book called A Tree for Poverty. She moved to Ghana and wrote a novel set there, but on her return to Canada she wrote the five works of the Manawaka Cycle of which The Stone Angel is the first.
The Stone Angel Tells the story of Hagar Currie, who becomes Shipley when she marries. It is a marvel to me how Margaret Laurance, who was thirty-eight when she published this book in 1964, managed to get into the mind and heart of an obstinate angry old woman of ninety.
The only female child of Jason Currie, a self-made man who regarded himself as having noble origins, Hagar was brought up to regard herself as better than others. Her father subjected she and her brothers to physical punishment, but she knew he was easier on her than on her brothers. She grew up scorning lower classes, people who were fat, people who used bad grammar, and all people who weren’t up to the standard her father set. But still, she determines to marry Brampton Shipley a widower fourteen years older than her, a big dark robust man. Her father had a low opinion of him
‘Lazy as a pet pig’, my father said of him. ‘ No get -up-and-go.‘
Hagar had seen him in her father’s store and he always seemed to be laughing. She had looked down on his dead wife
She was as inarticulate as a stabled beast, and when she mustered voice it had been as gruff as a man’s, pebbled with impermissables, ‘I seen’ and ‘I ain’t’, even worse coming from a woman than from a man, the Lord knows why.
It becomes clear that even though Hagar chooses her husband, and is cut off by her father, she cannot rise above his indoctrination. Although she is physically drawn to her husband, she never allows herself to show it, and she despises him for his grammar and his poor business skills. When she has her sons, she looks down on the mild loving Marvin and dotes on the impulsive John who resembles the Curry family.
Hagar’s story emerges through her thoughts and day-dreams. When her story opens, she is ninety years old, very fat, and unsteady on her feet. She is living with Marvin and his wife Doris, who she mocks for her bad grammar and devotion to religion. Through the subtle writing we feel the complex emotions of all three. Hagar is angry and ungrateful, Doris and Marvin are concerned about her, but are coming to the end of being able to care for her.
One day Hagar realises what is coming. She sees an advertisement circled in the newspaper. Silverthreads Nursing Home
My fingers straighten the newspapers, folding each section, tidily the habit of a lifetime, nothing strewn about the house. Then I see the ink mark and the word in heavy print. Mother.
She is enraged. She is determined not to be put away. It is clear she has no idea how much care she needs, or even how her consciousness drifts in and out, but when Doris tells her she has to change her sheets every night because Hagar wets the bed, she does not disbelieve her.
Hagar rationalises most things in her life; the fate of her sons, her own size and ill-health. She will not go quietly.
After a visit to inspect the nursing home, she makes her plans. She will leave and she has a place in mind. As readers we don’t really know what she is up to until she sets out.
It proves to be an arduous journey but one that gives her insight into another life and the capacity to find some compassion within herself. Here she is almost at her destination having hitched a ride for the last few miles.
The truck bounces away, and I’m standing among trees that extend all the way down the steep slopes to the sea. How quiet this forest is, only its own voices, no human noises at all. A bird exclaims piercingly, once, and the ensuing silence is magnified by the memory of that single cry. Leaves stir, touch one another, make faint fitful sounds. A branch rasps against another branch like a boat scraping against a pier. enormous leaves glow like green glass, the sunlight illuminating them. Cedar boughs hold their dark and intricate tracery like gates against the sky. Sun and shadow mingle here, making the forest mottled, changing, dark and light.
A wonderful novel about a difficult woman. It does not hold back on the horrors of old age and loss of independence, but it also celebrates the capacity of the human spirit to learn. Funny, poetic, heart breaking. An absolute gem. Not to be missed.