15 December, 2003Issue 3.1FictionLiterature

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The Extraordinary Carol Shields

Felicity James

Carol Shields
Random House Canada, 2002
321 pages

Late in Carol Shields’s novel Unless (2002), Reta Winters, her main character, gets into a misunderstanding with her new editor. The serious-minded Arthur, trained ‘at Yale, originally’, persists in reading her novel as a parable of human yearning, of the ‘central moral position of the contemporary world’. Just a little tweaking, he tells Reta, and ‘your manuscript could become a monument’. But Reta was writing a comic fiction, a light jokey novel involving a trombonist and a fashion editor, in her search for an escape from her struggle to understand her eldest daughter, Norah. For reasons which are constantly speculated upon – teenage perversity? martyrdom? – Norah has dropped out of university to sit on a Toronto street corner, holding up a sign which reads, simply, ‘GOODNESS’. Those reasons are eventually divulged, but by the end of the novel each character has had to consider their own reading of the word, and the narratives by which they construct their own lives.

This is the familiar subject of Carol Shields’s writing: how people tell their own stories, and how those stories are interpreted by others. It’s impossible not to see Unless, her last novel, as a backward, playful look at her own passion for writing and how her own life has been read. As she was working on Unless, Shields knew that she was in the final stages of cancer. Since her diagnosis in 1998, she had also written a book of short stories, Dressing Up for the Carnival (2000), and a biography of Jane Austen (2001). When she died in July this year, she was in the middle of writing another book. She saw her preoccupation with story-telling as a form of ‘narrative hunger’, a constant search for symbols and messages in the smallest of things.

Although she began her literary career with a collection of poems, Others, in 1972, Carol Shields was best known for the sensual, glowing prose of her ten novels, seven plays, and three books of short stories which in recent years finally achieved widespread critical recognition. Unless, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2002, was voted into the top ten list of Britain’s best-loved books written by women. Larry’s Party (1997) won the Orange Prize. Her work became known in Britain in 1990 when Christopher Potter, a commissioning editor from Fourth Estate, read Swann by chance, and immediately began publishing her novels in the UK (‘Thank God,’ she once commented, ‘for Christopher’). It was her 1993 novel The Stone Diaries which firmly established her reputation. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it received the Canadian Governor General’s Award and won her the Pulitzer Prize. ‘The Stone Diaries,’ commented The New York Times Book Review, ‘reminds us again why literature matters’.

Shields herself had strong views on how literature matters. In a speech in 1996 she recalled someone asking her what she did when not reading and writing. She replied:

I walk around and think about narrative, about the telling of stories, what they mean, these stories – and why we need them.

John Barth tells us that the central question of the modern novel is not ‘What happens?’ but ‘Who am I?’1 Shields echoes and expands on this insight, pointing out that narratives available in the public domain also ask ‘Who are we?’ From her earliest novels, she has contemplated the ‘stories that sustain our culture’, the ways in which narratives of conversation, advice, or dispute bind our lives together. ‘I depend on eavesdropping,’ she wrote, ‘to fill my narrative litter bag’.

Her writing has that immediate, compelling feel of something overheard or suddenly glimpsed. The Stone Diaries uses random narrative scraps – shopping lists, diary entries, recipes, newspaper hints – to compile the story of Daisy Flett, housewife and mother. Daisy’s unremarkable life, from her birth on a kitchen floor to her death in a Florida retirement home, is pieced together from minutely observed details, but it is up to the reader to determine the connections and to construct her biography. This kind of reciprocity, a mutual reading, is emphasized by the way in which exchanges of letters feature so strongly in Shields’s work. In Small Ceremonies (1976) and The Box Garden (1977) we see the same family through the letters and anecdotes of two sisters, Judith and Charleen. Happenstance (1980), a marriage from a wife’s perspective, can be turned around and read from the husband’s point of view. The epistolary novel A Celibate Season (1991), which deals with collaborations and compromises in a marriage, is a collaborative writing effort itself, with Blanche Howard.

Shields is excellent at capturing the ‘small ceremonies’, the special languages, of friendship and marriage. In Larry’s Party, Larry, feeling his way through the labyrinths of relationships, learns that ‘a happy marriage, whether it’s long or short, gathers a kind of density around it’. Shields evokes that density very well. Like John Updike, who has a similar mastery of the everyday, she has a knack for noting down the dialect, ‘the musical pattern’, of marriage. But most of Shields’s marriages, unlike those Updike describes, are happy, or on their way to happiness. This reflects the importance of the family bond to Shields (in interviews, her husband Don, whom Shields married in 1957, is a constant background figure). ‘I don’t think I would have become a writer if I hadn’t been a mother’, she once commented – a world away from Cyril Connolly’s condemnation of the ‘pram in the hall’ as the writer’s enemy. She often returned to the point that contemporary writing seeks to ‘record what separates us rather than what brings us together’. Why don’t novels, she asked, instead admit that ‘a long relationship…can be as complex, as potentially dynamic, and as open to catharsis as the most shattering divorce’?

Perhaps those long marriages, those close friendships, account for her dismissal by a reviewer who commented that she did not do ‘sadness well’. Unless, a novel of ‘great unhappiness and loss’, seems to be a typically shrewd answer to such criticism. Reta is well aware that she may be seen as a writer of ‘whimsy’, confined to a limited literary sphere. She is fearful ‘of being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing’. Set against this is her anger at the ‘callous lack of curiosity about great women’s minds’, ‘those who are routinely overlooked, that is to say half the world’s population’. Reta’s anger works as a forceful vindication of Shields’s beliefs. In her novels, her plays, and her biographies, Shields set out to redress what she saw as a neglect of ‘ordinary life’ in fiction, which she linked to the ‘casual dismissal of women’ by the literary establishment. She vividly remembered listening to a lecture by George Steiner, and asking him about the women writers he had not mentioned. There weren’t any, he replied, unless you counted a couple from the nineteenth century. A talk by Martin Amis yielded much the same idea: ‘I didn’t bother asking any questions that time’, Shields recalled.

Running alongside this dismissal of Shields as a ‘women’s writer’, another reading brackets her as a ‘Canadian’ author. It’s certainly tempting to compare her to novelists such as Margaret Laurence, with her careful evocations of Manitoba domesticity, or Margaret Atwood, whom Shields playfully mentions in Unless. There are obvious parallels between her graceful explorations of family relationships and those of Alice Munro, with her luminous short stories. But to place her firmly in this tradition is to circumscribe her writing. In her study Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (1977), Shields argues that Moodie has suffered from critics who want to force her into being a ‘shorthand symbol’ for Canadian national character. She is keen to point out that Moodie’s work forms part of a larger literary dialogue, a dialogue in which Shields’ own writing constantly participates.

Her sense of a far-reaching community of readers and writers emerges strongly in her biography of Austen, where she shows how Austen’s reading shaped her treatment of ‘reflective men and women’. Her own novels show traces of her love for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writing, for George Eliot and Henry James. Unless takes its epigraph from Middlemarch, and it is in part shaped both by Eliot’s attention to the microscopic and by her vivid symbolism. ‘Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head’, thinks Reta in the opening paragraph of the novel. ‘It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life’. Reta’s voice is companionable, immediate, lively – but behind Shields’ transparent prose lie layers of allusion. In a moment of self-mockery Reta describes one of her own short stories as ‘rather Jamesian’, but as we read further we realise this is a knowing comment. Shields herself plays with Jamesian ideas of language and perception, with what she terms ‘the crippling limitations that language imposes’. That ‘pane of glass’ is also a deliberate echo of James’ golden bowl, a fragile symbol of marital happiness which turns out to be ‘glass – and cracked under the gilt’. There’s also a whisper of Eliot’s description of Lydgate contemplating his growing marital unhappiness: ‘it was as if a fracture in delicate crystal had begun’.

Shields was well aware of the literary weight behind her prose. Her genius lies in balancing the symbolic weight of her writing with a lightness of touch, a capacity for illuminating the ordinary from the inside. ‘I could easily have been a Daisy Flett,’ she once said, marvelling that she had discovered her gift for story-telling. ‘One of those women who erases herself, who somehow slips out of her generation’. A poem by Daisy Flett’s fictional granddaughter, placed at the beginning of The Stone Diaries, celebrates how, despite its ordinariness, ‘her life could be called a monument’. Carol Shields’s ‘monument’, appropriately, is that her novels will continue, with undiminished power, to tell the stories of her extraordinary ‘ordinary’ characters.

Felicity James is a final-year DPhil student at Christ Church, Oxford, where she is working on Charles Lamb and concepts of friendship in the 1790s.


  1. Quoted in Carol Shields, ‘Narrative Hunger and the Overflowing Cupboard’. In Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger and the Possibilities of Fiction. Ed. Edward Eden (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003). p. 29.