Carol’s Canon

A new collection explores Carol Shields’s literary legacy.

On a wintry weekend in 1991, I attended a meeting of Janeites at the Château Laurier Hotel in Ottawa. Janeites are Jane Austen enthusiasts; this was the annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, when several hundred devotees of Austen assemble in a different city every year. They listen to readings, admire displays of quilts and artifacts, attend lectures by scholars, and assemble on the Saturday evening for a banquet and musical entertainment, many of them dressed in “Regency finery” or a facsimile thereof. I saw one woman with a crocheted doily on her head, others clutching shawls over patently homemade long dresses.

Carol Shields delivered a paper at this particular meeting, the theme of which was Austen’s novel Emma. Her paper was on body parts in the works of Austen, where there are neither fingers or toes:

Nor are there any hips, thighs, shins, buttocks, kidneys, intestines, wombs or navels … There is, in Jane Austen’s collective work, one chin, ten ankles mostly sprained, and one liver … There are two bones (but neither one a human bone), seven elbows, five shoulders, just two noses, ten ears, only eleven legs, two wrists, six knees, two eyebrows and four eyelashes … The word breast is mentioned seven times, but five of these singular breasts belong to men and represent not flesh and nipple, but the centre of feeling. (There are no plural breasts.)

It must be acknowledged in passing that there are many body parts in the work of Carol Shields.

I mention this particular conference, also referenced in the warmly personal piece by Eleanor Wachtel in this collection edited by David Staines, The Worlds of Carol Shields, because it speaks to the impish place that Shields herself occupied in one of her worlds, which was indeed academe. Shields taught in universities, earned her master’s degree from the University of Ottawa, and regularly received honorary degrees and took part in academic conferences. Several of her books reside in this academic/literary world, notably Small Ceremonies and Swann and, to a degree, Unless. The protagonist of The Stone Diaries, Daisy Goodwill Flett, attended the same American women’s college that Shields had attended. Shields’s MA thesis was on Susanna Moodie, and one of her last books was a fine, short literary biography of Jane Austen.

Most of the 23 pieces in this collection were presented at a conference celebrating the work of Shields at the University of Ottawa in 2012. An obituary by Margaret Atwood was previously published at the time of Shields’s death in 2003, and pieces by Eleanor Wachtel, Wayson Choy, Jane Urquhart, Joan Clark and Martin Levin appear to have been commissioned for the book; these pieces wrap the collection in a quilt of affectionate memory of Carol Shields as a person, teacher and friend that will be a necessary comfort for the non-academic reader of the book, for whom the exploration and dissection of Shields’s postmodern metafictional oeuvre may be dauntingly pedantic.

These essays speak a language with which Shields herself was comfortable; perhaps she revelled in such discourse, but she also mocked and gently satirized that world. In an essay titled Narrative Hunger and the Overflowing Cupboard, published in another collection, Shields quotes Roland Barthes, Georg Lukács and George Steiner and writes disparagingly about “inhaling the pollen of contemporary literary theory,” which “tends to alter our thinking about what stories are admissible to our culture.” She makes the argument for fiction, especially that of women, which “has begun to dismantle the rigidities of genre … and to replace that oppressive narrative arc we’ve lived with so long, the line of rising action—tumescence, detumescence.”

The readers who simply love to read Shields relish her intimate and full engagement with real characters trapped in ordinary lives, in a time and place that they recognize and identify deeply with—in spite of Shields’s sometimes radical storytelling techniques. Her most successful novel, The Stone Diaries, winner of both a Pulitzer and a Governor General’s Award, is a masterpiece of non-linear narrative; it seems simply to tell the life story of an ordinary North American woman but this is no ordinary novel. Try to answer the question—who is actually telling the story of the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett? And what is the function of that clutch of authentic-looking photographs of entirely fictional characters in the middle of the book? And why is the actual death date of Daisy not spelled out?

But what a reader takes away from that novel, and others, is the experience of exuberant immersion into the lives of women, especially, and men. The opening chapter of The Stone Diaries is a brilliant depiction of one short hot day in July, 1905—“in the middle of Manitoba, in the middle of the Dominion of Canada”—that begins with the making of a pudding and ends with the birth of a child. It contains miniature portraits of two marriages, one overflowing with ardour and hunger, the other a cold, dry husk. It deftly sketches the nightly sex enacted upon (there is no other phrase for it) two very different women; here is the experience of Clarentine Flett:

“If you’re willing, Mother,” he says in the darkness of their back bedroom, one hand working up her nightdress. A thousand times, five thousand times—“If you’re willing, Mother.” The words have worn a groove in her consciousness, she hardly hears them. And afterwards there’s silence, like falling down a hole, or a kind of grunt that she takes to be satisfaction.

Shields did not shy from virtuoso turns—an autobiography of a character in a single, 600-word sentence … in Swann, the final chapter in Larry’s Party written entirely in dialogue. But her artistry is generally more subtle—a poignant observation, the sharp twist of a phrase, sly humour, as in the chapter on his penis in Larry’s Party. Her eye is especially good when focused on intimacy of two people confined, often in an old-fashioned double bed, even without sex. Here she is in Swann, when the Austenish country librarian, Rose, offers to share her bed with Jean, her distraught, downstairs neighbour seeking temporary respite from a boorish husband:

So this was what it was like to feel another human being so close. Inches away, so close she could feel the minute vibrations that were the sounds of Jean’s inhaling and exhaling. Dear God. At almost fifty years old she at last divined that a body was more than a hinged apparatus for getting around, for ingesting and processing food, for sustaining queasy cyclical assaults. The same body that needed to be washed and trimmed and tended, and sometimes put to sleep with the help of a wet finger, also yearned to be close to another. How could she have failed to know something as simple as this?

Scholars will be grateful for the essays in this collection. Readers are advised to treat the book as a companion to a rereading of Shields’s oeuvre—some two dozen books, including poetry, drama and essays and the essential Collected Stories published just after her death. Shields is far too fine a writer to be forgotten or revered only by academics, or mounted on a slowly eroding pedestal in the misty garden of Once-Famous Canadian Writers.