How to Be Good

Elaine Showalter

  • Unless by Carol Shields
    Fourth Estate, 213 pp, £16.99, May 2002, ISBN 0 00 713770 2

The debate about women’s writing – is it too restricted, domestic and love-obsessed, in contrast to the more sweeping, historical, socially aware and experimental novels of men? – has been going on since Jane Austen’s day. Charlotte Brontë was one who rejected Austen’s plot, which she called ‘a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden’. Recently Gillian Beer even announced the death of the traditional women’s novel: instead of the masochistic themes of unrequited love, she said at the Hay Festival, ‘women have freed themselves to write more forcefully about much larger networks, wars, families, communities, national change, terrorism and history.’

Not all women novelists would agree that such transformations are a liberation, however. In her recent biography of Austen, Carol Shields was also writing about her own credo as a woman novelist whose subjects have been domestic, whose endings have been happy, and whose literary ambitions have been trivialised. First, she insists, ‘Austen’s short life may have been lived in relative privacy, but her novels show her to be a citizen, and certainly a spectator, of a far wider world.’ Second, and more controversially, she argues that ‘the true subject of serious fiction is not “current events”, ongoing wars or political issues, but the search of an individual for his or her true home.’

Shields’s first point is easy to understand. Not only has Austen’s relation to history been explored by feminist and post-colonial critics, but Shields herself has been belittled as a novelist of private and narrow themes. Kirkus Reviews backhandedly described The Stone Diaries (1993) as the work of ‘a miniaturist who has come into full bloom’. ‘It’s a subtle put-down,’ Shields told an interviewer, ‘like calling someone “Jane Austenesque”. It means that whoever is being talked about isn’t very good or hasn’t attempted very much. You never hear about men being called miniaturists, but you certainly hear it about women.’ In fact, the miniaturist charge has also been used against men’s anti-epic writing. ‘It’s the British novelist’s disease,’ Adrian Mitchell wrote, ‘to stay small, to create perfect miniatures, to take no major risks.’ On the other hand, you could say, as John Gross has done, that the fault is in the eye of the beholder: ‘While Americans think we’re miniaturists, English people tend to think Americans suffer from gigantism.’

Shields responds to such charges more indignantly in her latest novel, Unless, set a few miles north of Toronto in 2000. Her novelist heroine, Reta Winters, suffering ‘a period of great unhappiness and loss’, writes an angry letter to a female critic who has called women writers ‘the miniaturists of fiction’, trying to find ‘universal verities in small individual lives’ rather than ‘taking a broad canvas of society’ like Don DeLillo or Philip Roth. Well, Winters retorts:

way back in high school we learned that the major themes of literature were birth, love, understanding, work, loneliness, connection and death. We believed that the readers of novels were themselves ‘small individual lives’, and so were their writers. They did not suffer, as you intimate, from a lack of range in their subject matter. These lives apprehended the whole world in which they swam.

Such dismissive and obtuse criticism, Winters goes on, dooms women to ‘miniaturism’ as human beings.

Shields’s second point, that the serious novel is about the search for a true home, is harder to understand. In Unless, Reta’s eldest daughter, Norah, has abruptly dropped out of university and started begging on a Toronto street corner wearing a sign that says ‘Goodness’. What her true spiritual home may be, or what the genesis of her behaviour may have been, is one of the subplots of the novel. But Shields is also suggesting that the search for a true home is the novelist’s search for a true voice, for a tradition and a style. Unless is formally less complex than her earlier novels, notably the brilliant and inventive Mary Swann (1987). It had a difficult and interrupted process of composition, because of the author’s treatment for cancer. ‘Carol didn’t know whether she was going to live to finish it,’ Christopher Potter, her editor, told a journalist. ‘As soon as she had a few chapters she sent them to me and they were quite rough compared to what I was used to.’ He and Shields worked together on smoothing out the manuscript.

But Unless takes large aesthetic and imaginative risks. The title had been in Shields’s mind for twenty years, since a colleague who taught philosophy at the University of Manitoba told her that ‘his favourite lecture was called “Unless”, a concept meaning nothing is absolute.’ In the novel, Reta Winters calls ‘unless’ the ‘worry word of the English language’. It is one of 37 ‘little chips of grammar (mostly adverbs or prepositions)’ that Shields uses as chapter titles – among them, nearly, once, thus, yet, hence, despite, hardly, since, hitherto and not yet – which provide continuity and coherence in a narrative fraught with the dread of accident and unexpected disruption.

Shields has written repeatedly of the fragility and historical contingency of women’s lives, even when those lives seem placid and safe. ‘They say you write the same novel over and over,’ she has remarked, ‘and the idea of women being fully human has always been a preoccupation.’ One of her favourite techniques is to juxtapose a contemporary middle-class woman writer or academic with a mythic or marginal female figure from the past. These doublings help her to go beneath the surface plots, the day-to-day events, of her heroines’ lives, and to engage the problem of the female psyche and female destiny, at deeper and darker levels. In Small Ceremonies (1976), the heroine is writing about the Canadian frontier poet Susanna Moodie; in Mary Swann (published in the UK the same year as A.S. Byatt’s Possession), Shields invents, and writes the cryptic verses of, a lonely Dickinson-like poet who becomes an academic cult-figure after she is murdered by her husband. In The Republic of Love (1992), the heroine is a folklorist writing about the double imagery of mermaids: ‘The mermaid’s abundant hair gestures toward sexual potential. In one of her hands is a comb, representing love and entanglement. The other hand, which is uplifted (waving or perhaps beckoning), symbolises a deep longing for completion, the wish for rapturous union, a hunger for the food of love.’

In Unless, the heroine’s double is Danielle Westerman, a Beauvoir-like sage and Holocaust survivor whose essays, memoirs and poems, with such titles as ‘Pour Vivre’, ‘Les Femmes’, ‘Le Pouvoir’ and ‘Eros’, Reta has translated. A European feminist intellectual, Westerman is uncompromising in her rejection of marriage and men, her philosophical darkness, her emotional isolation. Reta’s name is an anagram of ‘tear’, and she is lachrymose, but she writes light comic fiction. Her maiden name is ‘Summers’ and her first ‘jokey novel . . . a novel for summertime’, called My Thyme Is Up, sold well, but was reviewed as ‘very much for the moment, though certainly not for the ages’. She has won the Offenden Prize, which ‘recognises literary quality and honours accessibility’ – almost more of a booby prize than a compliment. Now she is trying to write a sequel, ‘Thyme in Bloom’, ‘about lost children, about goodness, and going home, and being happy and trying to keep the poison of the printed page in perspective’.

She meditates on the rules of the light novel, its need for ‘tidy conclusions’, unglamorous and flawed heroes and heroines, family and genealogy, a network of friends: ‘I like to sketch in a few friends, in the hope that they will provide a release from a profound novelistic isolation that might otherwise ring hollow and smell suspicious.’ But Danielle Westerman distrusts fiction, and Reta confesses that ‘she is such a persuasive force that I often find myself agreeing with her; what really is the point of novel-writing when the unjust world howls and writhes?’ Reta has so far been protected from tragedy and injustice: now she suddenly finds her placid world destroyed by her daughter’s mysterious desertion.

As she sees it, ‘an intelligent and beautiful girl from a loving family, grows up in Orangetown, Ontario, her mother’s a writer, her father’s a doctor, and then she goes off the track. There’s nothing natural about her efflorescence of goodness, it’s abrupt and brutal. It’s killing us.’ Reta’s women’s writing group believes that Norah is going through a phase, having a breakdown, or suffering from a hormonal disturbance. They variously advise kidnapping or deprogramming, counselling or non-interference. But Westerman, the alter ego, sees Norah in terms of her namesake, protesting women’s powerlessness through ‘total passivity, a kind of impotent piety’. According to Westerman, ‘subversion of society is possible for a mere few; inversion is more commonly the tactic for the powerless, a retreat from society that borders on the catatonic.’ Norah’s effort at martyrdom, she argues, signifies women’s exclusion from culture, their condemnation to ‘goodness but not greatness’.

Here Shields brings together her longtime obsession with critical condescension to women and her spiritual interest in the meanings of ‘goodness’ as both a term of value and a moral condition. In Larry’s Party (1997), she told the Atlantic Monthly, she was trying to ‘write about a man who wasn’t heroic, but who was good. A man who had some sense of wanting to be good. I’m interested in this idea of goodness. What is that all about? What is it for?’ Her protagonist, the allegorically-named Larry Weller, is married to a scholar interested in the question of

feminine goodness, that baffling contradiction. Why, in the centuries when women were denied, ignored, oppressed and tortured, did they continue to fashion themselves into vessels of virtue? . . . Was it . . . that their smaller, more vulnerable body size drove them into wily strategies, so that arming themselves with holy rectitude they were able to solicit the protection of men? . . . Or maybe . . . women simply long to be good for the sake of goodness; maybe they’re predisposed by evolutionary mapping to commit acts of charity so that the race commanded by men might not implode.

By the end of the novel, Reta and her family have solved the problem of Norah’s search for goodness: it is a form of post-traumatic shock that occurred after she tried to prevent the self-immolation of a Muslim woman on a Toronto street corner. But this historical or political twist does not displace the novel’s fundamental debate about women’s art and its reception. Reta’s first novel is praised for its ‘subversive insight’ by a noted critic who is both male and Yale; she is planning a new book that will combine the Reta and Danielle sides of her persona, which will have both ‘stillness and power, sadness and resignation, contradictions and irrationality. Almost, you might say, the materials of a serious book.’