Now I am rampant with memory. I don’t often indulge this, or not so very often, anyway. Some people will tell you the old live in the past—that’s nonsense. Each day, so worthless really, has rarity for me lately. I could put it in a vase and admire it, like the first dandelions, and we would forget their weediness and marvel that they were there at all.
Meet Hagar Shipley. A woman nurtured and fueled by a stubborn pride and determination for ninety years, staring down death and, if refusing to live in the past, pulled to make some reluctant peace with it all the same. This singular, unforgettable character whose internal monologue—by turns funny, caustic, indomitable and confused—is the very soul (though she might dispute that designation) of Margaret Laurence’s classic 1964 novel, The Stone Angel. In person, it’s easy to imagine that Hagar would have been a difficult person to like, but as she chafes against the physical and familial restrictions of her current circumstances, and her thoughts drift back to revisit the lost relationships that continue to haunt her, it is impossible not to hope that she will find a way to go gentle into that good night. For once.
The daughter of a Scottish immigrant, Hagar was born in Manawaka, Manitoba, a town inspired by the author’s own hometown of Neepawa, sometime midway through the second half of the nineteenth century. Her mother does not survive her birth, so she and her two older brothers are raised by their father, a prominent local businessman, and Auntie Doll, the family’s housekeeper. Hagar is every bit her father’s daughter, hardworking, hard-headed and proud. But her gender limits the possibilities available to her. She is sent off to finishing school in Toronto and returns armed with skills of a proper lady, expected to accept one of the many suitable matches her father parades before her. But she is having none of them. In her typical spirit of defiance, she chooses Bram Shipley, a local farmer and widower fourteen years her senior who is uncouth, uneducated and unambitious. Her bed is made—a bed that will produce two sons over the next two decades before she finally gets it in her mind to leave.
Meanwhile, in the present day, Hagar is living in a city on the coast, with her eldest son Marvin, and his wife Doris. The house they live in is hers—or it was, she can’t remember if she really did sign over ownership somewhere along the way—and now that her grandchildren are grown and gone, it becomes clear to her that her son and daughter-in-law have plans to send her packing too. They have even selected a lovely nursing home: Silverthreads.
“If you make me go there, you’re only signing my death warrant, I hope it’s clear to you. I’d not last a month, not a week. I tell you—”
They stand transfixed by my thundering voice. And then, just when I’ve gained this ground, I falter. My whole hulk shakes, the blubber prancing up and down upon my rib cage, and I betray myself in shameful tears.
So far as she is concerned, there is no debate. She will not go, even if she has to take matters into her own hands. And Hagar, being Hagar, will attempt to do just that in the most unlikely, ill-advised, fashion.
Moving between the present and the memories that keep flooding back, Hagar’s monologue begins with a confident, frequently condescending tone that slowly grows less self-assured and more introspective over time. She clings to her desire to appear in control against the physical insults of an aging body, while questioning her life-long inability to speak from the heart when needed or silence the mind’s impulse when diplomacy is called for—“I can’t keep my mouth shut. I never could,” she says. As the distance of the past comes into better, if pained focus, especially as she seeks to come to terms with the loss of her beloved younger son John, her contemporary existence becomes slipperier, more difficult for her to hold on to. At times she returns from her reveries uncertain if she has simply been lost in her own thoughts or has been speaking them aloud. And then, of course, her indefatigable pride leads to shame. In Hagar Shipley we have a complicated, painfully human woman unpacking a life time of tightly packed baggage as the end nears.
Of course, her story is also one that spans ninety years of Western Canadian history, from the tough pioneer spirit of the early settlers, through wars, financial collapse, and rapid modernization. However, as this history unfolds through Hagar’s memories, shaped by the personal experiences most significant to her now, it never becomes forced or unwieldy. In fact, her story never stands still for a moment; her recollections instantly bring a forgotten time to life again and again. As in this description of her return to the Shipley place during the drought years of the 1930s:
The prairie had a hushed look. Rippled dust lay across the fields. The square frame houses squatted exposed, drabber than before, and some of the windows were boarded over like bandaged eyes. Barbed wire fences had tippled flimsily and had not been set to rights. The Russian thistle flourished, emblem of want, and farmers cut it and fed it to their lean cattle. The crows still cawed, and overhead the telephone wires still twanged all up and down the washboard roads. Yet nothing was the same at all.
At each turn, across every page, The Stone Angel is a brilliantly realized novel. Hagar is such a wonderful character that it is perhaps best to come to know her as she comes to know and understand herself, but as one reads it is impossible not to marvel at Margaret Laurence’s achievement. In the Afterword, her friend, the writer Adele Wiseman, shares excerpts from letters Laurence sent her during the agonizing process of writing this novel, fretting about its possible appeal, temporarily abandoning, briefly rewriting and finally returning to her original manuscript. Only in her thirties at the time, she wanted to give a meaningful voice to an old woman:
Old age is something which interests me more and more – the myriad ways people meet it, some pretending it doesn’t exist, some terrified by every physical deterioration because that final appointment is something they cannot face, some trying to balance the demands and routines of this life with an increasing need to gather together the threads of the spirit so that when the thing comes they will be ready – whether it turns out to be death or only another birth.
In the end, Laurence wisely allowed the voice of the character who had so captivated her to guide the story she would tell. The Stone Angel truly is Hagar’s story—fiction but somehow so true. For a book I have been meaning to read forever (my copy was purchased more than thirty years ago), I only wish I hadn’t waited so long.
The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, originally published by McClelland and Stewart, is currently published by Penguin/Random House.