Sunny side up

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
    Fourth Estate, 361 pp, £12.99, September 1993, ISBN 1 85702 154 1

‘The Stone Diaries’ (though there are in fact no diaries, they are said to have been lost) because everyone raised in the Orphans’ Home in Stonewall Township, Manitoba is given the name of Stone, because Mercy Stone’s husband, Cuyler Goodwill, works in the limestone quarries, because her neighbour, the dour Magnus Flett, comes from the stony Orkneys, because Mrs Flett is killed when she falls against the sharp stone corner of the Bank, because for all of us the living cells will be replaced in death by ‘the insentience of mineral deposition’. A train of imagery, then, which recalls the mermaid metaphors, ‘giving off the fishy perfume of ambiguity’ in Shields’s last novel, The Republic of Love. The present book is just as readable, but more disconcerting.

The section headings – Birth, 1905; Child-hood, 1916; Marriage, 1927; Love, 1936; Motherhood, 1947; Work, 1955-64; Sorrow, 1965; Ease, 1977; Illness and Decline, 1985; Death – cover all the grand old topics of McCall’s, Good Housekeeping and the Canadian Home Companion which for so many decades gave social and moral counsel and explained how to turn out a jellied veal loaf. The protagonist is Daisy Goodwill. Her mother, Mercy Stone, dies in childbirth. Clarentine Flett, the next-door neighbour’s fed-up wife, takes the baby and flees to Winnipeg ‘with a dollar bill taken the night before from her husband’s collar-box’. Reclaimed by her father, Daisy goes to Bloomington, Indiana, where in the Twenties stone-carvers are still needed. She marries a rich young gold-hatted lover who throws himself out of a window; in 1936 she becomes the wife of Barker Flett, 22 years older than herself, an expert on hybrid grains. When her three children are grown she launches for the first time on a career – ‘working outside the home’, as people said in those days; she becomes Mrs Green Thumb, the gardening consultant on the Ottawa Recorder. But the editor – who has taken fright at the idea that he might be expected to marry Daisy – gives her column back to a staffer. She takes a while to get over the resultant depression, but emerges in old age as a ‘wearer of turquoise pants suits’ in a condo in Sarasota, Florida. During her terminal illness she is moved to the Canary Palms Care Facility. Her last words (unspoken) are ‘I am not at peace.’

I have summarised this plot to show how faultlessly Carol Shields has devised Daisy’s story. It would in fact have been readily accepted, with a trivial change of ending, by the dear old Canadian Home Companion. Daisy is precisely what her son Warren calls her, ‘a middle-class woman, a woman of moderate intelligence and medium-sized ego and average good luck’, and Shields herself has said: ‘I am interested in reality, in the texture of ordinary life, and the way people appear and relate.’ The Stone Diaries could only have been written by an expert in sensuous detail, from the blood-drenched kitchen sofa where poor Mercy dies to Daisy’s longing, as she recovers her nerve, for ‘the feel of a new toothbrush against her gums, for instance. Such a little thing.’ Shields also likes, she says, to write about survivors. Daisy Goodwill Flett surely survives for eighty years thanks to the over-whelming force of her ordinariness.

This, however, brings us to the most interesting though perhaps not the most successful element in the book. Daisy, member of the Mother’s Union, the Arrowroots, Ottawa Horticultural Society, Bay Ladies’ Craft Group (she even has a diploma in Liberal Arts somewhere, but can’t remember which drawer she put it in), is also a closet Post-Modernist. Aware that her life is drifting harmlessly past her, she is determined to acquire power over it by standing apart and reporting on it as an independent witness. She begins with her birth. ‘Why am I unable to look at it calmly? Because I long to bring symmetry to the various discordant elements, though I know before I begin that my efforts will seem a form of pleading.’ She is aware, too, that ‘the recording of life is a cheat’ and that she will never be able to recount the whole truth. ‘She understood that if she was going to hold onto her life at all, she would have to rescue it by a primary act of imagination, supplementing, modifying, summoning up the necessary connections, conjuring the pastoral or heroic or whatever ... getting the details wrong occasionally, exaggerating or lying outright, inventing letters or conversations of impossible generality, or casting conjecture in a pretty light.’ Very well, then, Daisy knows that she will have to do this, but now a narrator appears, in corrective mode, to tell us that she is often wider of the mark than she thinks. She has translated (for instance) her uncle’s ‘long brooding sexual state’ into an attack of indigestion. Later, this same narrator tells us that Daisy’s is the only account there is, ‘written on air, written with imagination’s invisible ink’. But we cannot trust her, since she insists on showing herself in a sunny light, ‘hardly ever giving us a glimpse of those dark premonitions we all experience’. Indeed, after the loss of her gardening column Daisy’s consciousness seems to disintegrate altogether, for a time leaving her friends and family to interpret the situation as best they can. (This is reminiscent of the method of Shields’s brilliant literary mystery story, Mary Swann.)

The Stone Diaries, it seems, is a novel, among other things, about the limitations of autobiography. As far as Daisy is concerned, it never gets away from them, even when the narration changes from the first person in 1905 (‘My mother’s name was Mercy Stone Goodman. She was only 30 years old when she took sick’) to the third person in 1916 (‘the infant – a little girl of placid disposition – was clothed in a white tucked nainsook day slip’). All the change really does is to mark the last point when she can truly establish her identity, before her mother dies and she herself, new-hatched, begins to live. This failure to find a language – as she realises at the very end – frustrates heaven knows how many. Her eyes ‘stare icy as marbles, wide open but seeing nothing, nothing, that is, but the deep, shared, common distress of men and women, and how little, finally, they are allowed to say’. Carol Shields, however, believes that women have been much harder done by, in this matter of silence, than men. It is of their limitations that she is thinking.

Daisy has something important in common with Mrs Morel in Sons and Lovers. ‘Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, accomplishes one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves oneself as it were slurred over.’ Mrs Morel sets herself to live through her sons, but Daisy does not even contemplate doing this. She makes her own sortie into the world of earning money and respect, is unkindly rejected, recovers, and maintains a certain dignity without asking help from anybody, ‘and yet a kind of rancour underlies her existence still: the recognition that she belongs to no one.’ Her children are moderately fond of her, her great-niece Victoria very fond. Victoria, in fact, bids fair to bring the whole book to a happy resolution. She is the daughter of a gone-astray niece whom Daisy has taken in, with her baby, out of pure good nature, and this baby has grown up to become a paleobotanist, classifying traces of fossil plants in the rock. In other words, Victoria combines Shields’s stone and her plant imagery, just as Daisy Stone does when she becomes the well-liked gardening correspondent, Mrs Green Thumb. But here Daisy does not deceive herself. She is certain that none of her descendants will do more than look back on her with forbearance. This gives her a frightening feeling of inauthenticity.

In the process of growing up of becoming a middle-aged woman and an old woman, Daisy has failed either to understand or to explain herself. If you were to ask her the story of her life, says the narrator, and one can hear the exasperated sigh, ‘she would stutter out an edited hybrid version, handing it to you somewhat shyly, but without apology, without equivocation that is: this is what happened, she would say from the unreachable recesses of her 72 years, and this is what happened next.’ She is accustomed to her own version, and so, sadly enough, are we, all of us, accustomed to ours.

An exception, of course, is the witty, cautious, sometimes lyrical narrator, who knows all the words, all the versions and all the weak places. For fear we might doubt the reality of her characters, convincing though they are, Shields supplies a section of attractive-looking, faded photographs of five generations. Daisy herself, as might be expected, doesn’t appear, but by comparing the family snaps with the portrait on the back dust-jacket we can make out that Carol Shields must be the mother of Alice, the most difficult of Daisy’s children. (Alice becomes an academic, whose first novel is everywhere unfavourably reviewed. But she is able to rise above this, because she knows she is making up her own life as she goes along.)

Talking recently at Edinburgh about her books and her motivation for writing them, Carol Shields spoke of her care to establish the narrator’s credentials and said that Daisy’s inability to express herself was the true subject of The Stone Diaries. This would make it the tragedy of someone incapable of being tragic. But the novel as it stands suggests something more complex. The publishers tell us that Daisy’s signal achievement is to write herself out of her own story. ‘Somewhere along the line she made the decision in live outside of events’ – that is, to accept her own insignificance. But the reader is also asked to decide whether this is ‘a triumphant act of resistance or a surrendering to circumstances’. In novelist’s terms, did she do right or wrong? Daisy is described as summoning up her ‘stone self’ so that even her brain becomes transparent – ‘you can hold it up to the window and the light shines through. Empty, though, there’s the catch.’ She is shown as breathing her own death and contriving it, taking charge of it, in fact, as though in exasperation with what has so far been suppressed in her. It she is capable of this, there was no need, perhaps, for the narrator to pity her quite so much.

Carol Shields is asking us to play a game – a game for adults – but she is also playing it against herself. The epigraph, attributed to Alice’s daughter, says that nothing Grandma Daisy did was quite what she meant to do.

but still her life
could be called a monument

and that, in the end, is what the novel makes her.