Carol Shields

Prize-winning novelist with a feeling for the detail in everyday lives

Carol Ann Warner, writer and poet: born Oak Park, Illinois 2 June 1935; Lecturer, University of Ottawa 1977-88; Lecturer, University of British Columbia 1978-79; Professor of English, University of Manitoba 1980-2000 (Emerita); Chancellor, University of Winnipeg 1996-2000 (Emerita); OC 1998; married 1957 Don Shields (one son, four daughters); died Victoria, British Columbia 16 July 2003.

The success of Carol Shields' novels lies in the immaculate style of her writing and her feeling for the detail in everyday lives, together with a darker undercurrent that acknowledges how provisional is life itself.

Shields herself had to face the arbitrary nature of tragedy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, soon after winning the Orange Prize for her novel Larry's Party. After undergoing a mastectomy, she embarked on several courses of chemotherapy, knowing that this was a palliative measure to prolong her life rather than a means of recovery. While fighting the illness, she wrote a biography, Jane Austen (2001), and a final novel, Unless (2002), about a woman writer immersed in a family crisis when her beloved daughter inexplicably becomes a vagrant. The first sentence - "It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now" - mirrors Shields' own reaction on learning her cancer was incurable. Unless was shortlisted both for the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and for the Orange Prize earlier this year. Shields was too ill to be present at the awards ceremonies.

Her first novel, Small Ceremonies, was published in Canada in 1976 when she was 40, followed by The Box Garden (1977), Happenstance (1980), Mary Swann (1987) and The Republic of Love (1992). Mary Swann, an exploration of a poet's life, her murder and posthumous mythologisation, launched Shields internationally. In 1990 it was picked up by Christopher Potter, then a commissioning editor at the independent publisher Fourth Estate. Until then, Shields had been overlooked outside Canada, but Potter said he knew instantly that here was an unusual and major voice. He bought all her other novels for publication in Britain.

In 1994 The Stone Diaries, an 80-year chronicle of a woman's unfulfilled life, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and won the Pulitzer Prize a year later. Shields was heralded as a feminist writer and authority on the condition of women. In her next novel, Larry's Party, she applied her perceptive skill to the condition of men, winning the 1997 Orange Prize for women's fiction. Her early novels had been written in a chronological form but in The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party she worked within a carefully devised structure. Larry's life was approached from different aspects, occasionally doubling-back in chronology, as if imitating Larry's art as a maze-designer.

A source of irritation to Shields was the tendency by some reviewers to classify her novels as "women's fiction" and to patronise the characters as "ordinary". She said,

Most novels are about ordinary people. There is a gender prejudice here. When men write about "ordinary people" they are thought to be subtle and sensitive. When women do so, their novels are classified as domestic.

Her novels suggest that the pattern of people's lives is in the detail, which they are inclined to disregard as being not sufficiently important to count as living, while they wait for a dramatic event, which when it arrives is often arbitrary and unwelcome.

She was born Carol Ann Warner in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, in 1935, the third child of a sweet- factory manager and a schoolteacher. It was an ordered childhood, with church on Sundays and family meals, but she was saddened by the lack of conversation with her parents, who never talked to their children. "Ours was a quiet house, reserved . . . I do not come from a storytelling family," she said later. It is significant, perhaps, that many of the characters in her novels have a frustrated longing to communicate.

She became a student at Hanover College, Indiana. Her course took her on a study-abroad programme to Exeter University, where she met a Canadian engineering student, Don Shields. They married in 1957 soon after her graduation, and went back to Canada. They lived first in Ottawa, where her husband taught civil engineering at the university, and later moved to Winnipeg. It was an era when couples married early, through the social and moral pressures of the time. Their marriage was, she said, happy through good luck, in that she and Don were lucky enough to have a "fit" with each other.

For most of the first 18 years of her marriage, Carol Shields occupied herself with raising their five children. She saw herself as "a typical woman, a typical housewife, a living statistic". She was of the last generation where domesticity was seen as the sole fulfilling purpose of a woman's life. But underneath the contentment, a need for another form of expression was making itself felt. At the age of 33, Shields returned to college to study for an MA.

She taught English literature, and wrote poetry and fiction while the children were at school. She published two volumes of poetry, Others (1972) and Intersect (1974), a study of the 19th-century Canadian writer Susanna Moodie (Susanna Moodie: voice and vision, 1977), and began to work on a novel, partly to see if she could do it and also because no one seemed to be writing novels she wanted to read. This became Small Ceremonies, published in 1976.

Domestic and academic life featured largely in Shields' novels because it was part of her own life. She spent 20 years as Professor of English at the University of Manitoba, and her last post was as Chancellor of Winnipeg University; she saw academia through an acerbic eye in some of the short stories in her collection Dressing Up for the Carnival, published in 2000.

Her last novel, Unless, appeared on the surface to have an autobiographical heroine - Reta Winters, a writer and mother, who is working on a novel about a female writer, and worrying about "being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing". In that theme, it echoed the subject of Small Ceremonies and Mary Swann, both of which involved the search for the truth about the life of a woman writer.

To meet Carol Shields was to be charmed by her warmth and goodwill. Small and delicate, with a soft voice and an unassuming manner, she gathered around her a large and devoted band of friends, in whose lives she took an active interest. When she and her husband retired from their academic posts, they moved to Victoria in British Columbia, as the climate was milder than the harsh winters of Winnipeg. The house was large enough to provide ample room for her five children and 10 grandchildren. Until near the end, she continued to write because she loved "having one foot in one world and another in the real world".

At the end of The Stone Diaries, the heroine makes a list of things she missed out on during her life. For herself, Shields said she was unable to think of anything she regretted. "I don't feel I've missed out at all - I've got my friends, my family, my writing . . . I think I've done pretty well."

Clare Colvin

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