Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel
McClelland & Stewart, 1964
Virago Modern Classic No. 251

The Afterword in my McClelland & Stewart edition is written by Adele Wiseman, long-time friend of Margaret Laurence, and it contains several long excerpts from the letters exchanged between the writing friends (Adele Wiseman’s The Sacrifice and Crackpot are brilliant novels too) dating to the time in which The Stone Angel was written. If you have an interest in The Writing Life, you’ll find them very interesting.

The earliest reference is this one:

“And someday I would like to write a novel about an old woman. […] I picture a very old woman who knows she is dying, and who despises her family’s sympathy and solicitude and also pities it, because she knows they think her mind has partly gone and they will never realize that she is moving with tremendous excitement — part fear and part eagerness — towards a great and inevitable happening, just as years before she experienced birth.”

This letter is dated March 17, 1957, but it was not until later in 1961 that the author had a full draft with which to work. The end result is much as Margaret Laurence described its conception.

The Stone Angel‘s Hagar Shipley is over ninety, living with her son Marvin and his wife Doris. “I have lived with Marvin and Doris — or they have lived in my house, whichever way one cares to phrase it — for seventeen years. Seventeen — it weighs like centuries. How have I borne it? How have they?”

Marvin and Doris have reached a point of critical mass where Doris can no longer carry the responsibility of caring for Hagar and Marvin can no longer bear the brunt of Doris’s complaints about the work involved in caregiving; they are planning to move from their four-bedroom home into a smaller apartment just for themselves, and they are planning on finding a nursing home for Hagar.

As you might guess, Hagar is horrified by the prospect, which seems to threaten her very existence:

“My shreds and remnants of years are scattered through it visibly in lamps and vases, the needle-point fire bench, the heavy oak chair from the Shipley place, the china cabinet and walnut sideboard from my father’s house. […] I couldn’t leave them. If I am not somehow contained in them and in this house, something of all change caught and fixed here, eternal enough for my purposes, then I do not know where I am to be found at all.”

Hagar scoffs at those who believe she spends much of her time lost in memory but, in fact, much of the book is devoted to those periods in which she does, indeed, recall the past. She is an intelligent woman, who is aware of her age and her resulting changed position in society, but she is also, at times, surprised to find herself appearing so old.

“I give a sideways glance at the mirror, and see a puffed face purpled with veins as though someone had scribbled over the skin with an indelible pencil. The skin itself is the silverish white of the creatures one fancies must live under the sea where the sun never reaches. Below the eyes the shadows bloom as though two soft black petals had been stuck there. The hair which should be rights be black is yellowed white, like damask stored too long in a damp basement.
Well, Hagar Shipley, you are a sight for sore eyes all right.”

When she was a young woman, Hagar was not beautiful (she is forthright about such things, the same forthrightness which so often sets off Doris’s nerves); but she was considered handsome and, as she says, handsomeness lasts (though, as she admits, not forever). When Doris compliments her, she seems, at first, to have slipped into another time, and then she is reminded: she is an old woman, a woman both like and unlike the woman she once was.

“‘Your flowered dress looks nice.’
I will not be appeased. Yet I glance down at myself all the same, thinking she may be right, and see with surprise and unfamiliarity the great swathed hips. My waist was twenty inches when I wed.”

When I studied this novel in high school, I recall my teacher drawing attention to passages like this as evidence of Hagar’s pride. But while I can see that (and certainly, in some instances, Hagar’s pride loomed large and swallowed opportunities for happiness, as readers learn through her memories of family life), I also think that Margaret Laurence brings an authenticity to Hagar’s identity in permitting her to think about such things.

It’s not necessarily pride or vanity that causes her to observe these differences: don’t we all marvel at the way that we change outwardly over the years, as evidence of years passing? In your mind, you can feel ageless, but your body tracks the time, stands (or hunches) as evidence of the process. I think these observations are all part of Hagar’s attempt to reconcile the passage of time. I wonder if my teacher wasn’t simply reacting to a sense that a woman considering her appearance “must” have been doing so out of purely superficial vanity whereas perhaps, had a male character contemplated these changes, he might have been accorded another motivation entirely.

Nonetheless, some parts of Hagar are holding up better than others. “My eyes are still quite strong. The eyes change least of all.” However, ultimately Hagar is debilitated in fundamental ways, forced to accept undignified situations as commonplace, forced to appear complacent in doing so, else risk interventions which even further reduce her dignity.

In the early pages of the novel, she laments the loss of privacy, the fact that Doris walks into her room the way that she would walk into a child’s room, that the door does not even have a lock on it anymore. And this intensifies as the story progresses.

“Marvin goes. She helps me into her nightdress. How it irks me to have to take her hand, allow her to pull my dress over my head, undo my corsets and strip them off me, and have her see my blue-veined swollen flesh and the hairy triangle that still proclaims with lunatic insistence a non-existent womanhood.”

But all of this is Hagar in the present. It both is, and is not, Hagar as she lived in the past. The Dylan Thomas quote that serves as the epigraph warns that Hagar will “not go gently into that good night”: she will rage. And the incidents from her past reconstruct, for the reader, the development of her strong-willed and spirited temper from her early years.

Margaret Laurence’s depiction of old age is brilliant, but it would not have had the same resonance had it not been built on such solid character development. At least half of the novel resides in memory, and the experiences that Hagar had as a daughter and a sister, a student and a young working woman, a wife and a mother, have all contributed to the situation she finds herself in today.

The experiences she had as a married woman, and the complex relationship that developed with her and her two sons, are riveting, and I could as easily have chatted as much about each of those. Yet, by the same token, I would rather that Hagar has a chance to explain for herself. She deserves an audience. And she’s not dead yet.

Have you read this classic novel? Or, are you planning to? Have you seen the film that I’ll be chatting about tomorrow?