Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, and "That Moodie Bitch"

Article excerpt

Susanna Moodie, Victorian gentlewoman, unwilling emigrant to the Ontario backwoods and author of Roughing It in the Bush (1832), has long been established in the canon of Canadian literature. Her status owes much to the efforts of a number of critics, notably Michael Peterman, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Carl Ballstadt. It is to their research, criticism, and editions of her work that we should look for the most accurate and complete picture of Susanna Moodie on her own terms. But her fame has received still greater impetus from the Canadian poets, dramatists, and novelists who have revisited her and offered a series of creative projections of her character. Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Beth Hopkins, Carol Shields, Donna Smyth, and Timothy Findley, Anne Joyce, and Thomas King have all incorporated a "Susanna Moodie" figure into their work.(1) From their diverse figurations of her, Moodie emerges as a highly unstable quantity, which perhaps suggests that her perceived contradictions and enigmatic qualities are an important source of her enduring appeal. There are, however, several external factors governing successive rereadings of Moodie, not least the changing contours of the Canadian canon and the shifting priorities of individual critics and readers. The contrasts between Margaret Atwood's evaluation of Susanna Moodie and Carol Shields's are particularly interesting, and this essay will compare their attitudes to their predecessor and, by implication, to the Canadian literary past in general. Since both authors have engaged with Moodie over some long period of time, the development of their respective visions merits attention. There is not space for any detailed assessment of the fidelity of modern-day Moodie figures to the original, but the importance attached by Shields and Atwood to historical accuracy will be a consideration here.

Margaret Atwood has reimagined Susanna Moodie four times: in a poem sequence, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970); a television play, The Servant Girl (1974); an unpublished stage play, "Grace," written in 1978-1979, and her most recent novel, Alias Grace (1996). Carol Shields completed her M.A. thesis on Moodie in 1975 and, the following year, gave her a major role in her novel Small Ceremonies. Shields's Mary Swann, the dead poet of her novel Swann: A Mystery (1987), also has certain affinities with Moodie. Atwood wrote the introduction to the 1986 Virago edition of Roughing It In The Bush, Shields the Afterword to Moodie's second Canadian book, Life in the Clearings, in its most recent McClelland and Stewart edition (1989).

In a 1997 film, The Enduring Enigma of Susanna Moodie, Shields, Atwood, and Timothy Findley appear as talking heads to comment on Moodie; there, the two women offer strikingly contrasted accounts. Atwood emphasizes the way each generation creates a new Moodie, almost denying the value of searching for the historical reality. She argues that Moodie's significance lies primarily in "what has become of her in our hands" (Enigma). Atwood also outlines what she sees as the typically Canadian aspects of Moodie's mentality and writing, particularly her perception of the wilderness as hostile and her efforts to love Canada despite her revulsion at so many aspects of her life there. Shields, for her part, speaks of Moodie's Victorian gentility and her cherished English identity and Romantic literary ideals. She says of Moodie: "I think she genuinely embraced nature as her friend ... it was what gave light to her life" (Enigma). Shields insists on the unknowability of Moodie's character, and focuses on the way women today respond to her, rather than attempting to fit her into a national tradition or archetypal role. Yet Shields, like many other readers, was introduced to Moodie through Margaret Atwood's poem cycle. Although her thesis offers some criticisms of Atwood's interpretation of Moodie, Shields's statements in The Enduring Enigma reveal her admiration for the Journals: "It was after I read those poems [that] I went to read [Moodie's] Canadian books. …