The Books of My Numberless Dreams

A holy terror

Posted on: February 29, 2008

For more discussion on this book check out the Slaves of Golconda blog and forum.

Rereading The Stone Angel was a repetitive experience. My reactions moved along a similar trajectory to the first time when I knew nothing about the novel. The beginning, I thought, was nice enough but it did not promise much excitement. Doubt lingered as to whether this Canadian classic would prove to be much more than a decent read. Over time I became more aware of how the Hagar Shipley character had completely won me over. As I turned the last page my stomach was tense and filled with awe, anxiety, painful pleasure and the knowledge that I had reached another personal literary touchstone. My last had been William Blake and Ayi Kwei Armah in 6th form.

My other rereading experiences last year, for pleasure, held a wholly different quality, in part because they were 3rd or 4th rereads unlike The Stone Angel, my first. Lines in Jane Eyre and The Lord of the Rings echoed like old friends as I read along; and though my LOTR reread corrected me on or reminded me of several story details obscured by repeated viewings of the extended DVD editions, my sojourn was a comfortable one of familiarity. With the Laurence novel it was as though I had opened a new book.

That impression can also be explained by the fact that I am a different reader now, post-blog, compared to the early ’00s. I was not such an actively critical reader, keenly aware of the possibility of patterns and connections, or noticing prose style.

One response that carried over from the first read was my intense reaction to Hagar’s vulnerability as an elderly person dependent on others. She is 90 years old at the start of the novel. As the first person narrator, we are privy to each painful humiliation when her mind or body fails her — she who is a human realisation of her Scottish ancestor’s family motto “Gainsay who dare” — and she is forced to depend on her daughter-in-law Doris to dress her for bed, to take her to the bathroom, sometimes to remind her of where they are. When she accidentally falls it takes both Doris and Marvin, Hagar’s son, to lift her up, and then they speak in front of her, about her, “as though I weren’t here, as though it were a full gunnysack they dragged from the floor”. I don’t often come across such old protagonists in fiction, especially one whose elderly life the author gives as much attention to as the earlier past.

What struck me as new were the notable moments in the novel when Hagar recalls a hymn. They provoke the reader to consider how she lived her life in strict opposition to the reverent sentiments the hymns conveyed, the novel’s overall tragic irony.

The first came in Hagar’s first long recollection about her childhood. She was 8 and at church with her father who just heard his name called out in a list of major church donors. He remarked to Hagar “with modestly bowed head” that he, Jason Currie, and the lawyer Luck McVitie (called out first) must have given the highest amounts. Then they sang a hymn adapted from Psalm 121:

Unto the hills around do I lift up
My longing eyes.
O when for me shall my salvation come,
From when arise?
From GOD the LORD doth come my certain aid,
From GOD the LORD, who heaven and earth hath made.

Currie was one of the many Scots who travelled to Canada in the 19th century to make a new life for themselves and family in the prairies. He stressed his success in the merchant business as a self-made one to his family both to buttress his ego and to pass on that pioneering spirit to his children. He coached Hagar and her two older brothers, Matt and Dan, in their family history and exhorted them to expect no one but themselves to help achieve their own success. In any case, as one of the prominent town families in Manawaka, Manitoba, there weren’t that many others around who were fit company. Whatever religious ritual he indulged in was for tradition and public appearances. In childish trust Hagar described her father thusly:

Auntie Doll was always telling us that Father was a God-fearing man. I never for a moment believed it, of course. I couldn’t imagine Father fearing anyone, God included, especially when he didn’t even owe his existence to the Almighty. God might have created heaven and earth and the majority of people, but Father was a self-made man, as he himself had told us often enough.

Hagar took to that stubborn, ambitious egotism wholesale and in some moments it is clear that her father regrets that the two older sons were less dynamic and outgoing or that she had the misfortune of being born a girl. Her mother died in childbirth and, curiously, Hagar fixated on her as symbol of everything she did not want to be — passive, meek, weak and amenable — for look how she ended up. Instead, Hagar was haughty, proud, and loathed to humble herself to anyone whether it was to apologize for a mistake, for impulsively inflicted pain, to admit to a fear or to face such a weakness in others. Her constant refrain throughout the novel is “I never could.” She said it as if, for her, it was physically impossible.

Her older brothers, in physique and manner, were more similar to her mother. Dan, especially, was a sickly child but Hagar believed he faked illness more often than not in order to be pampered. It took unfortunately drastic circumstances to convince her otherwise. One day while playing with friends out on the ice Dan falls into an unseen hole and catches pneumonia. Hagar and Matt, conscious of their father’s acute sensitivity to public exposure, never think of taking Dan to the nearest house but bundle him straight home. Their father lectures and Auntie Doll tends to him and all seems well until the next day when his fever gets much worse and he becomes delirious. No adult is there with them so Hagar runs to get the doctor but he is out of town and, due to the weather, won’t be back soon. Their father is working late. Matt, probably recognising how serious things are, does not send for their father, for that isn’t who Dan wants. Apparently Dan had been calling out for his mother, who died when he was four. He still kept one of her old plaid shawls. Matt asks Hagar if she could wear it and pretend for a while that she’s their mother for Dan’s comfort. But she could not bring herself to do it. To even imagine herself as that frail, weak spectre, everything she rejected as wrong, to someone who had “inherited” that frailty “was beyond me”. She cried but she refused.

Matt does it for Dan and holds him as he dies. Through that and other hardships Hagar learned that there was no indomitable God keeping her and her family “preserv[ing] you from all evil”. And even if he was offering a helping hand she would refuse it for that would place her in submission.

In many scenes she rejects God and his expectations in favour of her own will. When, in old age, Doris called over Reverend Troy to talk with Hagar, her thoughts are dismissive and condescending, with the odd moment of pity for the intimidated minister.

“Sometimes, you know, Mrs. Shipley, when we accept the things which we can’t change in this life, we find they’re not half as bad as we thought.”

“It’s easy enough for you to say.”

“Oh yes, indeed.” His smooth face goes pink as a Mother’s Day carnation.


“Have you tried asking God’s help? Prayer can do wonders, sometimes, in easing the mind.”

So wistful is his voice that I’m on the verge of promising I’ll try. Then the lie seems not inexpensive but merely cheap.

“I’ve never had much use for prayer, Mr. Troy. Nothing I prayed for ever came to anything.”

“Perhaps you didn’t pray for the right things.”

“Well who’s to know? If God’s a crossword puzzle, or a secret code, it’s hardly worth the bother, it seems to me.”

“I only meant we should pray for strength,” he says, “not for our own wishes.”

“Oh well, I’ve prayed for that too, in my time, but I never thought it made much difference…I prayed like sixty when trouble came, as every person does…But nothing ever came of it.”

As her name suggested she is not counted among the tribe of Israel, God’s chosen.

The second hymn occurred later in the novel, this time in her old age, and she is the one who sang it. She learned, after noting the meaningful glances Doris and Marvin exchanged, and subtle hints from Doris’ pastor, that she was to be sent to a nursing home. To regain a moment of freedom she plans and successfully executes an escape to a beach where she spends two nights in two different abandoned buildings with only a small bag of provisions and a bucket of rain water. During this time she slips in and out of lucidity, mentally chiding Doris for keeping the heater too low. When she is cognizant she reproves Marvin for his tardiness in locating her. In an awkward, unsure moment at sunset she looks at how the sun’s rays hit the abandoned fishing equipment that surrounds her “filled with shadows” and sings a verse of “Abide with me”. (Full lyrics here.)

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

She gains no comfort from it, in fact, is bit embarrassed that she bothered at all. “I might as well be singing the directions from a knitting book, for all the good it’s doing me.” Hagar is no longer that “czarina” young girl secure in her place in the world and of her future. The hymn moves away from the triumphalism of Psalm 121’s “My help comes from the LORD/Who made heaven and earth” for the anxious plea behind “O Thou who changest not abide with me”. J.R. Watson’s commentary on the hymn that he wrote in The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study highlights almost too perfectly how it related to Hagar’s last days and how she and Henry Francis Lyte, the hymn writer, approached the circumstances in different ways.

Lyte was Scottish too and lived without a mother, in his case because his father separated from her and moved to Ireland with his son. Lyte never saw her again. His father also enacted a sort of separation from his son, only visiting him occasionally, and eventually presenting himself as his uncle and his new wife as Henry’s aunt. Watson asserts that this influenced Lyte’s work, coming through in his sensitive use of parental imagery with tender, protective overtones. “The Spirit of the Psalms” is considered Lyte’s best work, a collection which includes “Abide with me”. On that hymn Watson writes that

¹It is a reminder of the coming of darkness, of human loneliness and helplessness. In this situation, human beings become dependent on God, as a child looks to its mother or father when faced with the coming dark….The first lines signal to the reader that this is more than an evening hymn: it is a meditation on life, on its transience and its anxieties.

The bitter irony is that, even “with the coming dark”, Hagar strove to remain as independent as she could from everyone around her. And during her life she tried to wrangle those in whom she invested her affection into her ideas of them rather than make much effort to see who they truly were and wanted to be. She separated from her husband, Brampton Shirley, after about two decades and whisked her favourite son Johnny away to the coast in pursuit of the better life she thought he deserved, a move she never considered doing for her obedient, manageable Marvin who did all that she asked but was passed over. Johnny grew and went his own path which led him right back home to the old farm, wiped out by drought and depression, and his father. When Bram is near death Johnny tells her and she returns to confront an old, bowed man in whom little of Brampton Shirley remains. In a lucid moment in which he reveals feelings for her, feelings she somehow never discerned in all her years with him, she’s filled with a rage “not at anyone, at God, perhaps, for giving us eyes but almost never sight”.

What she did know and see was the “transience of life” but, although she seems to believe in heaven and hell, she fully expects to be sent to hell and one suspects that if God offered to forgive her she’d spit in his eye and reject his pity. Like Milton’s Lucifer — a comparison Laurence made in the novel — “To bow and sue for grace/With suppliant knee…/…that were low indeed,/That were an ignominy and shame beneath/This downfall”.

The last hymn occurs near the novel’s and Hagar’s end. Marvin and Doris find her and although she is relieved she cannot admit it and suggests with grim knowledge that no doubt they’re shipping her straight off to the prison of a nursing home. (A whole other essay could be done on the novel’s theme of imprisonment.) Marvin tells her that the doctor advised that it was too late for that she needed to be taken to the hospital. Hagar automatically complains about this prison change so Marvin, to end her complaints, reveals the (apparently dire) test results from the hospital that, from her reaction, are not unlike a death sentence.

In the hospital Reverend Trevor visits her for the last time while she is alive and, under pressure from her request, sings “All people that on earth do dwell”, (one of my favourites) based on Psalm 100. (Full lyrics here.)

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with joyful voice.
Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell;
Come ye before Him and rejoice.

At this moment Hagar has a kind of epiphany. She realises that, after everything, this is all that she had truly wanted “–simply to rejoice”. But because of her demonic pride it led her to a “wilderness” from which she never escaped. Her husband and favourite son Johnny had died, both of them not knowing how much she cared for them, how she was sorry, after all this time. And now she is alone.

One result of this is that she lies for the sake of her Marvin, bestowing a favour on him that she does not think, even now, that he deserves — as she likes to say, no one ever changes after any single moment of revelation — but the reader, with a clearer eye, knows is the simple truth. When he leaves the room a nurse says to him

“She’s got an amazing constitution, your mother. One of those hearts that just keeps on working, whatever else is gone.”

A pause, and then Marvin replies.

“She’s a holy terror,” he says.

For Hagar there is no better description. Even in her last moments she struggles to assert her will, her independence, her singularity, never giving, challenging everyone in so many ways to Gainsay who dare! Dylan Thomas’ famous poem that Margaret Laurence quoted at the beginning of the novel, seemed to have been written for Hagar Shipley.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

¹Watson, J.R. The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.


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