Rediscovering Carol Shields’s “Small Ceremonies”

Carol Shields

The American-born Canadian writer Carol Shields became popular in the U.S. after her novel The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer Prize.  (It also won the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award.)  

And this quiet novel created a mild sensation among suburban readers in the early 1990s, when book clubs were becoming popular.  Picture these women, ladylike in slacks and sweaters, balancing cups of teas and paperbacks as they lauded Shields’s poignant portrayal of the ordinary life of Daisy Goodwill Flett.  

The other day, I came across Shields’s books while reorganizing my bookshelves. And  so I picked up her first novel, Small Ceremonies, and sat down and reread it. I marveled at her clarity and humor. This beautifully-written domestic novel is of a kind that was popular in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  Shields goes beyond domesticity.  The narrator, Judith Gill, a critically-acclaimed biographer, is the wife of Martin, a university professor, and the mother of two children, Meredith  and Richard.  While her husband and children are at school, Judith is working on a biography of Susanna Moodie.  (Shields also wrote a biography of Susanna Moodie.)

Judith is a natural snoop:  she loves private papers, letters, and journals.  She does a lot of reading between the lines to try to pin down Susanna Moodie’s personality.  Had Susanna loved her husband, whom she called by his surname? And why did she became so cranky and judgmental in old age?   The frustration is that no biographer can ever figure out the puzzle of another person’s life. 

Judith extends her snooping to family and friends.  During Martin’s  sabbatical in England, where they lived in the “cold, filthy flat” of Professor John Spalding, also on sabbatical with his family, Judith reads  his seven unpublished novels (all badly-written, but one has an original plot).  Back in Winnipeg, Judith plagiarizes the plot for her own novels. And she realizes she does not have any talent for fiction.  She must stick to biography, which, if not the truth, is the product of her own research.

There are many writers in this novel, and writerly problems at the center. Indeed, the difficulties of writing well are just as important as the domesticity.  Judith’s sister is a poet:  both girls come from a home where no one could tell a story.  And then there is Judith’s creative writing professor, Furlong Eberhart, a family friend and the author of successful novels of the “loam and love-child” variety.  Judith mocks his melodramatic writing, but he is her daughter Meredith’s favorite writer. 

So what makes a good writer? And what is good writing?

Let me share one of Judith’s many comic observations about women’s lives.  She hears on the radio that a group of women are organizing a “glass blitz.” The idea is to sort the bottles by color, and take them to stations which will send them to a recycling center.  (Ah, yes, the days before the recycling was picked up by the garbage men!)

Imagine, I thought, sitting with friends one day, with Gwen, Sue, Pat and so on, and someone suddenly bursting out with, “I know what.  Let’s have a glass blitz.”  And then rolling into action, setting to work phoning the newspapers, the radio stations.  Having circulars printed, arranging trucks.  A multiplication of committees, akin to putting on a war.  Not that I was unsympathetic to the cause, for who dares spoof ecology these days, but what I can never understand is the impulse that actually gets these women, Gwen, Sue, Pat and so on, moving.

All of us  know Gwen, Sue, Pat and so on, and wish we had the energy to join them in such exhausting organizations!  A fabulous novel!