The Stone Angel is Margaret Laurence's most well-known book. Compulsory reading in most high schools, it is undeniably part of the CanLit canon. It was also one of the first books I fell in love with. I still remember being deeply affected by the proud, stubborn character of Hagar Shipley and in reading about the dying seagull, recognizing that this poignant metaphor of the desperate struggle for life.
I love my copy of The Stone Angel - well-loved and worn. It's shown in the photo beside a postcard I have of a real stone angel in the graveyard of Margaret Laurence's home town of Neepawa, Manitoba (where she was born in 1926).
The Stone Angel is one of the five books that Laurence set in the fictional prairie town of Manawaka. It was the first book she wrote about Canada - her previous works being about Africa.
When she began working on the novel in the early 1960s, Laurence seemed almost surprised by the story and unsure of how to manage it. "This daft old lady came along," she wrote to her friend, Adele Wiseman, "and I will say about her that she is one hell of an old lady, a real tartar. She's crabby, snobbish, difficult, proud as lucifer for no reason, a trial to her family, etc. She's also - I forgot to mention - dying."
But while Laurence was very sure of the character, she was not so sure about the novel. "The whole thing is nuts," she went on to Wiseman. "I should have my head examined... Sometimes I feel so depressed about this, I think I will take up ceramics."
Unlike her other books, in which she invested a lot of time and revision in crafting stories and descriptions about colonial relations and such issues, she seemed take aback that this book was "written almost entirely without conscious thought... I simply put down the story as the old lady told it to me."
Yet this book, and the voice she found as a writer through it, marked a profound change in in Laurence's career. It also marked a very personal transition for her. For her African books, Laurence had relied a great deal on her husband - for his editing and his approval. When she showed him her draft of the Stone Angel, he didn't like it. She tried to re-write it to suit him, but realized in the end that she had to be true to her original voice. Though not the only factor, this decision was part of the ending of her marriage.
Reading The Stone Angel again for me is like meeting an old friend again - I'm filled with memories, yet struck with new insights. I never cease to marvel at Laurence's rich language and brilliant character portrayals - just as I never cease to feel a strong mix of frustration and affection for the character of Hagar.
As an interesting side note, the book was almost called 'Old Lady Shipley' and it was only just before it went to press, as both Laurence and her publishers were fretting over the title, that Laurence re-opened the book and recognized the image that is in the first sentence and which occurs throughout the book - the stone angel.