The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

Find me some more examples of strongly drawn older female characters – that was my challenge when I reviewed Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. I only had one response – Litlove suggested Hagar Shipley, from The Stone Angel by Canadian author Margaret Laurence. Hagar Shipley was an excellent response to the challenge. But I still only have two good examples.

The Stone Angel is narrated by Hagar Shipley, intended to be current when it was published in 1964. Her story is framed by her situation: an old woman, cared for by her less favourite son and his wife, and becoming increasingly ill, forgetful and always a handful. ‘A holy terror’ is her son’s description. The reader must agree. It is the picture of her decline in old age that most shocks, even now. The dilemmas for Hagar, her son and daughter-in-law, the medical staff and others who come into contact with her, they are not able to resolve them. Nor are we. It’s a powerful portrayal, not without humour affection or sharp pain.

25 Stone Angel

Hagar’s story is told through integrated flashbacks. She was born in the small town of Manawaka in Canada, and her life was hard, but not distinguished by any exceptional misfortune. Her mother died in childbirth, she married against her father’s wishes a much less refined man and bore him two sons, before leaving him and finding her own way in life with her youngest son. In this novel children frequently disappoint their parents, do not inherit their looks or skills or abilities, are rejected, not favoured or die to be much mourned.

Hagar believes that people should be private, independent and above embarrassing displays of emotion. These views prevent her from asking for help when she needs it; telling her husband that she enjoys sex (he gives her a night off as a favour); grieving at her son’s death; or accepting that she is aging. And this is where the dilemma of aging lies. Hagar wants independence but she is not able to be independent.

In fact, in many ways Hagar has created her own difficulties, as she comes to see far, far too late. Attitudes such as hers were survival strategies, as the scene of the chaplain Mr Troy’s visit to hospital so poignantly reveals. Hagar declines the invitation to pray with him, but recognising he is doing what his role requires asks him to sing All people that on earth do dwell.

‘All right then.’ He clasps and unclasps his hands. He flushes warmly, and peeks around to see if anyone might be listening, as though he’d pass out if they were. But I perceive now that there is some fibre in him. He’ll do it even if it kills him. Good for him. I can admire that.

Then he opens his mouth and sings, and I’m the one who’s taken aback now.  He should sing always, and never speak. He should chant his sermons. The fumbling of his speech is gone. His voice is firm and secure.

And while he sings, Hagar comes to see that she has never been able simply to rejoice.

Every good joy I might have held, in my man or in any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by some brake of proper appearances – oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?

Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear.

The old woman and the inadequate younger man exchange a moment of understanding, and then Doris returns and fusses and the moment has passed.

While the novel illustrates the strong gender divisions between men and women in Canada (as elsewhere) at this time, these are not the main culprits in Hagar’s final situation. We also feel sorry for poor put-upon Doris, who as Hagar’s daughter-in-law has to change her bedding at night, manage an ungrateful and bitter woman, and is herself in her sixties.

While one sympathises with Hagar’s unwillingness to accept some of the patronising attitudes she meets within the healthcare system, we are also acutely aware that she is not acting in her own best interest. Here she is at a visit to the GP

Finally I’m called. Doris comes in as well, and speaks to Dr Corby as though she’d left me at home.

‘Her bowels haven’t improved one bit. She’s not had another gallbladder attack, but the other evening she threw up. She’s fallen a lot-‘

And so on and so on. Will she never stop? My meekness of a moment ago evaporates. She’s forfeited my sympathy now, meandering on like this. Why doesn’t she let me tell him? Whose symptoms are they, anyhow?

Margaret Laurence has created a very believable character in Hagar Shipley, but one that also chills us, because we see so much of ourselves in her (according to Sara Maitland afterword in the Virago Modern Classics version I read) and I agree with this. Thanks Litlove for the recommendation.

Now I repeat my challenge – please identify more fictional strongly drawn older female characters.


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews

22 Responses to The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

  1. Catriona Troth

    Caroline, how funny! I hadn’t thought about Margaret Laurence in years. But being back in Canada by chance, I walked into the library I used to visit as a child and saw a copy of the Stone Angel as one of the staff picks.

    It made me think of another Canadian novel: The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquahart, which is essentially the story of the carving of the Canadian War Memorial in France after the First World War – but told through the eyes of a strong female main character.

    And of course, if you are looking for strong female characters, you can turn to pretty much any book by Margaret Atwood, especially the earlier ones.

    One of my favourite female characters of recent times had been Lyra in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (called the Golden Compass in North America). And then there is the extraordinary Sugar from Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White…

    • Caroline

      Hi Catriona,
      Great to make a connection in Canada about a Canadian novel just brought to your attention again. The Afterword by Sara Maitland (in The Stone Angel) suggests that Margaret Laurence has always been better respected in her own country than in the UK. I think I have borrowed the only copy of Stone Angel in the London Library system. I’m about to buy it, I know I will want to go back to it. Would you recommend her other novels?
      Thanks for these suggestions of strong female characters. Canadian writers have a good track record of this.
      Have you got some older strong women to recommend – that was my challenge. Lyra, in Northern Lights, is a lovely character, and challenges some stereotypes about being young. I’m seeking much older women characters.
      And thanks for the recommendation of the Stone Carvers, which I will definitely look up.

  2. I’m really glad you got to read The Stone Angel – it’s a well-written book if a harsh and sometimes disturbing one. I’m still thinking about old ladies in literature, and can only think of a few more: Miss Jane Marple, Agatha Christie’s wonderful sleuth, and Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver (similar but not quite as good). And Ali Smith’s latest novel There But For The is divided into four sections, each narrated by a different character and one is an elderly lady (who is a hoot). They are still pretty thin on the ground, aren’t they?

  3. Catriona Troth

    Ha! That’s what comes of reading things in a hurry and responding before you’ve taken it in properly.

    Easy to think of strong older female supporting characters – like Agnes Hamm in The Shipping News – or strong women thinking back on their lives from old age – like Iris Chase in the Blind Assassin. Harder to think of strong female characters taking centre stage in older life.

    I could share your question around a few fora I’m involved with, if you like. I bet they’d come up with some interesting responses.

    • Hi Catriona,
      Good point about being in the supporting roles (just goes on and on in life then), and I had forgotten The Blind Assassin. Another one to add to my brief list.
      Please do come back with more suggestions and examples, because I am beginning to think older women don’t exist in fiction very much.

  4. How about Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf? She’s one of my favourite MCs – someone who outwardly is a respectable, successful hostess but inwardly feels very frustrated with her life and role.

    The English novelist Mavis Cheek also writes really well-drawn, complex middle-aged female protagonists. Her books are brilliantly funny too!

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this. Several people on twitter also suggested Mrs Dalloway, and it got me wondering how old Mrs D is? Great novel, Mrs Dalloway herself is such an interesting character. I’m hoping to find more characters who are just the other side of middleaged – say 60+.
      I’ll certainly look at Mavis Cheek as well.
      Thanks come back if you think of any more! Or anyway.

  5. Catriona Troth

    Caroline, we are getting a lively discussion going on the Triskele Books FB page. Detectives are well served, it would seem (Jane Marple, Agatha Raisin, Beatrice Stubbs). But Penelope Lively’s Heatwave has been mentioned too. Do come and join us if you have time.

  6. Catriona Troth

    Caroline, I just remembered another one. Mary Wesley – who didn’t publish her first novel until she was nearly 70 – wrote books that were FULL of sexy older women.

    • Caroline

      Great Facebook/Twitter responses to my challenge. Mary Wesley is another good idea. I’ll put together a long list fairly soon. Despite the great response I am still concerned about the relative lack of strong older (55+) characacters.
      And hit upon some interesting ideas about what older might mean, which was my fault for not being specific.
      Thanks for your interest Catriona.

  7. This story seemed dry and yet I finished it. An easy read, Stone Angel’s characters kept me reading. I liked how the author used the main character’s past to tell the story rather than telling it in chronological order. Spoiler: I felt sorry for Hagar at the beginning, so when it is desribed how strong and independent she was growing up and the sacrifices she made, I was intrigued to continue. It had me wanted to know this woman and almost feeling as though I did near the end.

  8. n Margaret Laurence was born Jean Margaret Wemyss in Neepawa, Manitoba on July 18, 1926. She graduated from Manitoba’s United College in 1947 and married Jack Laurence. In 1949, the Laurences moved to England, followed in 1950 by a move to British Somaliland. In 1952, they moved to Ghana where Margaret wrote her first novel, This Side Jordan. In 1962, Margaret left Jack and moved to England. Between 1964 and 1974, she published five novels set in the fictional Manitoba town of Manawaka. The first, The Stone Angel, tells the story of Hagar Shipley, an elderly and deeply unpleasant woman who wrestles with her failing physical condition and troubling memories of the past. Laurence was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1971. On Jan. 5, 1987, terminally ill with lung cancer, Laurence took her own life.

  9. I stumbled across a copy of The Stone Angel in a used bookstore years ago. What a wonderful – if also heartbreaking – tale it is.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. We need more books about older women.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for this comment Lydia.
      More books about older women? You can see plenty on this blog by looking at the series Older Women in Fiction. There are 26 reviews in this series to date. The Stone Angel was the second of 26, so far. Next up” Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Please come back again and add more comments.

  10. Peter Leyland

    Just finished this novel. It was recommended by a Canadian woman I met who was surprised that I had read Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood but not Margaret Lawrence. Well, she put me right inside Hagar Shipley’s head and I became engrossed in the story, especially when she is in the forest and is befriended by the traveller. I was somehow reminded of Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story which I haven’t read for some time. I remember a life journey much like Hagar’s in which the protagonist meets again in her mind the trials and tribulations of her life. It is a very good book.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for these enthusiastic comments, Peter. Like you, I only came across this novel after I had begun the Older Women in Fiction series on the blog, and it was recommended by a reader. I like Hargar’s feistiness.
      I believe that Virago is having a Margaret Laurence month in August. I have not yet read any of her other novels, including those linked to the Stone Angel by being set in Manitoba. But I plan to.


      • Nat

        The Diviners is fantastic, with another strong (albeit younger) female protagonist.

        • Caroline

          Thanks for this suggestion. I must admit I have not read anything else by Margaret Laurence, so Diviners can be added to the tar list!

          Please visit again and make more suggestions.

  11. I loved this book, and I quite enjoyed the film too. I’ve piled up other Laurence books, and read none of them…

    Has anybody recommended All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West? An 88 year old woman decides to strike out on her own, away from her family, after the death of her husband.

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