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.
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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