Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, and "That Moodie Bitch"
Hammill, Faye, American Review of Canadian Studies
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four times: in a poem sequence, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970); a television play, The Servant Girl (1974); an unpublished stage play, "Grace," written in 1978-1979, and her most recent novel, Alias Grace (1996).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.... This is my favourite book of Margaret Atwood's. I think she went right into the mind of Susanna Moodie and saw what Susanna Moodie didn't even see.... Atwood knew just how alone she was (Enigma). The relationship between the three authors is very complex: Atwood and Shields disagree about Moodie in many ways, but they have both evolved in their fascination with their predecessor and have, undoubtedly, influenced one another's readings of Moodie.
The Journals of Margaret Atwood
"Critics, in their secret hearts, love continuities," writes Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence, "but he who lives with continuity alone cannot be a poet" (78). In her role as critic, Atwood is in the business of tracing continuities within the body of Canadian literature; and her creative writing is similarly inscribed with a consciousness of its own position in a Canadian tradition. In the 1970s she was particularly concerned to emphasize the existence of that tradition, and she remarks in the much-quoted Afterword to the Journals of Susanna Moodie: "what struck me most about [Moodie's] personality was the way it reflects many of the obsessions still with us" (62). Several critics have concluded that Atwood felt an affinity between Moodie's split-minded vision of Canada and her own (see Howells 23; Purdy 80-81). But the poems are not, of course, a simple reproduction of the earlier writer's perspective; they are necessarily a reinvention of it and of her. It is possible to argue that Atwood's Moodie, who is the only Moodie known to many readers, is a seriously distorted version of the historical woman (Johnston 1). Atwood herself points out that the Journals emerged from the gaps in Moodie's own writing, from the things she left unsaid,(2) which suggests that the poems are largely founded on speculation and invention.
According to Harold Bloom, this is both inevitable and desirable. He contends that: "Fresh metaphor ... depends upon at least partial turning away from or rejection of prior figuration" (Canon 9), and that "strong poets make [poetic] history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves" (Anxiety 5). In the Journals, Margaret Atwood may be said to misread--or "read against"--her source texts, in order to foreground what she believes Moodie herself was trying to hide (see McCombs 35). Atwood's focus on the darker side of Moodie's personality provoked a strong reaction in the Canadian poet Al Purdy. In his review of the Journals, he quotes from the poem "The Wereman":
My husband walks in the frosted field
an X, a concept
defined against a blank;
he swerves, enters the forest
and is blotted out (JSM 85)
Following this, Purdy comments: "Why, that Moodie bitch! I say. There isn't a scintilla ... of affection for anyone but herself in the poem.... Moodie should have rushed after her husband into the dark forest, at least she should have if she gave a single damn" (83). Obviously this does not accord with the historical Moodie's self-image as a dutiful wife, and Purdy's response highlights Atwood's strategy of reading between the lines of the antecedent texts and exploring their gaps and slippages:
I felt I ought to love
I said I loved it
and my mind saw double.
I began to forget myself
in the middle
of sentences. Events
were split apart. ("Thoughts From Underground," JSM 111)
There are two distinct levels of vision within the Susanna Moodie persona, and a third in the superimposed consciousness of a modern poet, as Purdy somewhat clumsily indicates: "The Journals of Susanna Moodie has many of the qualities of fictional biography: the reader knows very well (the Canadian reader, anyhow) that Moodie was a real person, and reading the poems both the Moodie and Atwood personae are inescapable" (81). It is important that Purdy adds the caveat "the Canadian reader, anyhow." The use of Moodie as a sign of a shared cultural heritage has limited reference: most non-Canadian readers would not recognize her status as national literary icon even today, let alone in 1970. Nevertheless, by invoking Susanna Moodie, Atwood is raising the possibility of Canadian literary ancestry even as she activates the process of misreading that questions the status of the earlier poet.
Atwood writes Moodie's "journals" in a modern register, thus transposing her into a new aesthetic. The words she gives her to describe her forest surroundings are charged for the modern reader with a whole range of significances that the historical Moodie knew nothing about. Moodie's pre-emigration diet of English Romantic literature ,would have acquainted her with the gothic overtones of "wilderness," but in the twentieth century this term has been politicized, gendered, and widely used in literature as a shorthand for Canada. By putting this word in Susanna Moodie's mouth, Atwood positions her at the head of a supposed national tradition of wilderness writing which culminates …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, and "That Moodie Bitch". Contributors: Hammill, Faye - Author. Journal title: American Review of Canadian Studies. Volume: 29. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 1999. Page number: 67+. © 2008 Association for Canadian Studies in the United States. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.