Carol Shields | Critical Essay by Malcolm Page

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Carol Shields.
This section contains 2,823 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Malcolm Page

Critical Essay by Malcolm Page

SOURCE: "Small Ceremonies and the Art of the Novel," in Journal of Canadian Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 29, 1980, pp. 172-78.

In the essay below, Page discusses Shields's observations about fiction, biography, and sources in Small Ceremonies.

Carol Shields' first novel, Small Ceremonies (1976), is short, light and readable, a first-person study of nine months in the life of a woman of forty, scrutinizing herself and her circle. Thus reviewer John Parr appropriately describes it as "a familiar enough life story of quiet desperation except that Judith Gill, who tells her own tale of woe, enlivens it with many satiric flourishes." Another reviewer, Robert A. Lecker, says the book is "a reasonably entertaining story about the significant trivialities of everyday suburban existence," in which "nothing particularly exciting happens," and DuBarry Campau terms it "a pleasant, unpretentious book" with "wit, delicacy, and deft, realistic perceptions."

However, one should not think that the subject is merely suburbia and the everyday—though illnesses, parties, and so on do occupy considerable space. Judith, the central character, is a writer of biographies who has made one unsuccessful attempt at a novel, and Martin, her husband, is a Milton expert seeking more creative ways of expressing his scholarly insights. The other characters include Furlong Eberhardt, an admired Canadian author of ten novels, and the Englishman, John Spalding, who has produced seven unpublished novels before his eighth is accepted. These people discuss and write about many of the problems of being authors—or would-be authors.

Shields, in fact, poses and examines a range of issues about the nature of fiction and of biography. Where do novelists find their ideas? How important is plot? What is originality, and does it matter? What are novelists like? Do they differ from biographers in their perceptions of life? What is the place of fact in fiction? When does biographical speculation become biographical fiction?

Judith has published two biographies: of the first barrister in Upper Canada and of a prairie suffragette of the nineties—both modest and manageable subjects. She turns next to Susanna Moodie, writing the book during the nine months covered in Small Ceremonies. She struggles to understand Moodie—can she really never have told her husband that she was responsible for the Lieutenant-Governor offering him a job? What can a relationship in which she always called her husband by his surname have been like? How did she come to change "from a rather priggish faintly bluestockinged but ardent young girl into a heavy, conventional, distressed, perpetually disapproving and sorrowing woman?" Moodie leaves a few clues of "unconscious self-betrayal," mainly in her novels, particularly in Flora Lindsay, where "by watching Flora. I am able to see Susanna as a young woman. But, of course, it isn't really Susanna; it's only a projection, a view of herself." After the book is completed, Judith tells Furlong she still does not know whether she succeeded in finding and expressing the truth about Moodie:

"And did you do it this time, Judith? Did you really wrap it up?"

I sense his genuine interest. And am oddly grateful for it. "No, not really," I admit. "I have a few hunches. About the real Susanna. But I can't quite pin it all down."

"You mean she never came right out and admitted much that was personal?"

"Hardly ever. I had to look at her through layers and layers of affection."

Shields' novel contains a selection of the kind of documents with which the biographer has to work, and which could—just possibly—provide inspiration to the novelist. Scattered through Small Ceremonies are the letter left by a 9-year-old girl in her room when her apartment is rented out; samples of the lists left by her father; excerpts from Spalding's journal; Judith's sketchy "Notes for Novel"; a snatch of Martin's lecture-notes; itemized biographical sketches of Martin and Furlong; four letters exchanged between Judith and Spalding when he plans a visit to Canada; a newspaper clipping; and even a party invitation. These are really all observed and interpreted for the reader by Judith. She comments on the difficulty of giving life—and true life—to such papers: "There is never never enough material…. Characters from the past, heroic as they may have been, lie coldly on the page. They are inert, having no details of person to make them fidget or scratch; they are toneless, simplified, stylized, myths distilled from letters; they are bloodless. There is nothing to do but rely on available data, on diaries, bills, clippings, always something on paper."

Judith is the perennial observer, slightly aside from life, which she regrets but cannot change: "I became a full-time voyeur. On trains I watched people, lusting to know their destinations, their middle names, their marital status and always and especially whether or not they were happy. I stared to see the titles of the books they were reading or the brand of cigarette they smoked. I strained to hear snatches of conversations." On the last page, she accepts this destiny: "I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I'm stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards." Perhaps "watchers" make better biographers than do novelists.

Judith's curiosity extends to Furlong when she discovers that his real first-name is Rudyard, and she secretly researches his past. Eventually she finds that he is American-born, though purporting to express a uniquely Canadian consciousness—then she playfully threatens to write his biography. She also enjoys speculating about the unseen Spalding in England, placing him as a "silly, silly, silly little man. Paranoiac, inept, ridiculous." At the end of the book, Spalding turns up, and Martin and Judith discuss their impressions:

"He seems okay," Martin says. "Not quite the nut I expected."

"Me either. Where did I get the idea he was going to be short?"

"And fat! Christ, he's actually obese. Cheerful guy though…."

"He certainly is different than what I expected. It's a good thing we had him paged at the airport or we'd never have found him."

"Funny, but he said the same thing about us."

"What?"

"That he wouldn't have recognized us in a thousand years. He had us pictured differently."

Judith may be as wrong about Susanna Moodie as she was about Spalding. The difference is the product of Judith's imagination. She resists speculation in her biographies: "If one does enlarge on data, there is the danger of trespassing into that whorish field of biographical fiction." Fiction she finds fascinating but difficult: "Unlike biography, where a profusion of material makes it possible and even necessary to be selective, novel writing requires a complex mesh of details which has to be spun out of simple air…. The most obvious fact about fiction struck me afresh: it all had to be made up." Furlong tells her that basically she mistrusts fiction: "It's your old Scarborough puritanism, as I've frequently told you. Judith Gill, my girl, basically you believe fiction is wicked and timewasting. The devil's work. A web of lies."

Judith likes true stories about people; "my children," she observes, "are like me in their lust after other people's stories." This reflection leads her to look back to her childhood and to realise, "unlike Martin, whose family tree came well stocked with family tales, I am from a bleak non-storytelling family" with just three anecdotes: "That was all we had: my father's adventures in the stairwell, which never developed beyond the scientific rationale for fainting, my mother's teapot and rash and her near-brush with fame." These three are true stories: Shields enjoys the ambiguity in the word "story."

Judith's three family anecdotes were fact, though handed down in polished, practised form. She had facts on Moodie and Furlong, clues and speculations eventually checked against fact for Spalding. What, Shields wonders, are the true, actual, real sources of what is described as fiction? Is fiction "made up," as Judith thinks, or are its origins more truly in life?

Four novels are described within the novel Small Ceremonies. Poor Spalding has written no less than seven novels, all rejected, which Judith finds and reads when she comes to occupy their flat. While she finds them all "totally and climactically boring," she judges the one most likely written first to have "a plot of fairly breathless originality." Judith does not outline the plot, and she can only guess whether it originated in Spalding's experience or imagination: "Had he lived this plot himself or simply dreamed it up? The rest of the books were so helplessly conventional that it was difficult for me to credit him with creativity at any level. Still, it seemed reasonable, since the least of us are visited occasionally by genius, that this book might have been his one good idea." Or, as Judith wonders later, might Spalding have taken the idea from someone else? Or may the plot blend living and dreaming?

Judith reads Spalding's manuscript at a moment when she is dissatisfied with the limitations of biography and is toying with writing a novel. She tells Martin, "I'm tired of being boxed in by facts all the time. Fiction might be an out for me. And it might be entertaining too." But he replies: "You're too organized for full-time fantasy." All she has are nine short notes, one or two of which might be the germ of short stories, the rest at best paragraphs. And at once she faces writer's block.

A year later, back in Canada, she is still considering writing a novel and audits the Creative Writing seminar taught by Furlong, where in ten weeks she is expected to produce a novel. Having drafted a good first chapter, she is stuck for some weeks, then, desperate, suddenly remembers Spalding's good plot and uses it. At the time she has no difficulty in rationalizing "borrowing" another's plot: "A good idea should never be orphaned…. I thought of the Renaissance painters, and happily, gleefully, drew parallels; the master painter often doing nothing but tracing in the lines, while his worthy but less gifted artisans filled in the colours. It had been a less arrogant age in which creativity had been shared; surely that was an ennobling precedent. For I didn't intend anything as crude as stealing John Spalding's plot outright … All I needed to borrow was the underlying plot structure." The moral point raised is a difficult one: to what extent can the use of the plot of an unpublished book, for another book not intended for publication, be considered stolen? No sooner has Judith finished the book and given it to Furlong than she regrets it, because "the bones of my stolen plot stuck out everywhere like great evil-gleaming knobs, accusing me, charging me." So she directs Furlong to destroy it.

Furlong, however, takes over the plot and uses it in his next novel, the third novel we read of, the highly praised Graven Images. Judith is furious when she discovers this: "I had been used. Used by a friend. Taken advantage of. Furlong who had been trusted (although not always loved) had stolen something from me and that act made him both thief and enemy." A month later she manages to confront Furlong who, in his usual bland way, denies her charge: "Writers don't steal ideas. They abstract them from wherever they can. I never stole your idea…. Writers can't stake out territories. It's open season. A free range. One uses what one can find. One takes an idea and brings to it his own individual touch." And so on, ending by invoking Shakespeare as a borrower of plots. Sceptical though the reader is about anything Furlong says, perhaps what distinguishes this third treatment of the plot is precisely Furlong's "individual touch." Earlier, in a television interview, Furlong has given a public answer to the question of where he found the plot: "A writer's sources are never simple. Always composite. The idea for Graven Images came to me in pieces. True, I may have had one generous burst of inspiration, for which I can only thank whichever deity it is who presides over creative imagination." In fact, if there ever were a "burst of inspiration," it was Spalding's. In a neat tailpiece, however, Spalding reads the novel and does not recognize his own plot, though he found it "a ripping good yarn." Have Judith and Furlong actually changed it so much as to make it unrecognizable? Judith's 16-year-old daughter greatly admires Graven Images and makes her own distinction between fact and fiction when she defends the novel to her mother: "It's not supposed to be real life. It's not biography. It's sort of a symbol of the country. You have to look at it as a kind of extended image."

When Spalding finally writes a novel which a publisher accepts, his source is Judith and her family, their names thinly disguised, staying their year in England. Spalding has few facts, though he says that "one can tell something about people simply by the fact that they have occupied the same quarters." He has also drawn on the weekly letters from Judith's son to his daughter. Asked about the precise use he has made of them, he is evasive: "I didn't exactly base the novel on it. Just got a general idea of the sort of people you were, how you responded to things. That sort of thing." He explains this to them, guiltily, "so that when you read it, if you read it, you won't think I've—well—plagiarized from real life. If such a thing is possible." Spalding is clear about his source for this, his first accepted novel, yet he was obviously short of information. Judith, with her experience of the problems of using facts, guesses they may all be unrecognizable: "I have seen how facts are transmuted as they travel through a series of hands; our family situation seen through the eyes of pre-adolescent Richard and translated into his awkward letter-writing prose, then crossing cultures and read by a child we have never seen, to a family we have never met, then mixed with the neurotic creative juices of John Spalding and filtered through a publisher—surely by the time it reaches print, the least dram of truth will be drained away."

Finally, there is the novel we actually have, Small Ceremonies. This takes the form of a journal, divided into nine sections for the months September to May (in 1973–74, from the reference to Princess Anne's wedding), each made up of five or six separate entries. We are asked to infer that this is Judith's diary (presumably extracts from it)—at a time when most of her energies are going into the Moodie biography. She does, however, at times explain things to the reader (notably at the start of the November section, introducing her friends) in a manner not quite within the journal convention. The novel purports to be more nonfiction, Judith still unable to write a novel—even the kind of shapeless snatches from life that someone lacking creative gifts might come up with. One could even see this as Spalding's novel, guessing about the unseen Canadians, and a few passages (such as the description of their house) can easily be seen as drawing heavily on the son's letters to the girl. This view must fail, though, if the description of Spalding's novel as about the Gills' year in England is taken as the truth.

Judith judges Graven Images Furlong's best novel because "it was the first book he had ever written which contained anything like a structure." As biographer and novelist, she knows the central importance of form: "It's the arrangement of events which makes the stories. It's throwing away, compressing, underlining. Hindsight can give structure to anything, but you have to be able to see it." Her husband Martin strengthens this thread in the novel's pattern. He breaks from the grind of writing scholarly articles to weave a tapestry to illustrate the themes of Paradise Lost, how they enter and disappear, blend then separate. Judith is angry when she is told of this, ostensibly because Martin will look ridiculous, more importantly because he has not told her and because he has surprised her when she had placed him as incapable of surprising her. Martin succeeds not only in producing a teaching aid and impressing a conference but also in creating a work of art, which art galleries bid for and which he sells profitably to a collector. Martin has understood and expressed Milton's "arrangement," and has accomplished the leap from words to another medium.

Small Ceremonies does not, of course, solve the mysteries of the art of the novelist, of form, plot, the use of fact, and the workings of the creative imagination. Shields has shown how various and obscure the sources may be, the complexities of the inevitable association between fact and fiction. And, in so doing, she has left us the conundrum of the association between her own life and work—for, in real life, her next book touches on biography; its subject, a critical study of the work of Susanna Moodie [Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision].

(read more)

This section contains 2,823 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Malcolm Page
Follow Us on Facebook