“Just a love story, people say about a book they happen to be reading, to be caught reading. They smirk or roll their eyes at the mention of love…. It’s possible to speak ironically about romance, but no adult with any sense talks about love’s richness and transcendence, that it actually happens, that it’s happening right now, in the last years of our long, hard, lean, bitter, and promiscuous century. Even here it’s happening, in this flat, midcontinental city with its half million people and its traffic and weather and asphalt parking lots and languishing flower borders and yellow-leafed trees—right here, the miracle of it.” This passage is from The Republic of Love, by Carol Shields, and I expect it probably sounds somewhat familiar to readers of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey:
“Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.—“It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
“Just a love story”; “only a novel!” The Republic of Love is one of my favourite Carol Shields novels, partly because of the Austen connection, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit the Project Bookmark Canada marker for the novel when my family and I spent a day in Winnipeg, Manitoba this past summer (during our road trip “From Halifax to Vancouver and Home Again”). My book club is reading The Republic of Love this month, so I decided this would be a good time to share these photos in a blog post.
The Bookmark is at the corner of River and Osborne, where the heroine, Fay McLeod, often waits in the bus shelter. One of the things Fay loves about Winnipeg is that “You were always running into someone you’d gone to school with or someone whose uncle worked with someone else’s father…. Fay again and again is reassured and comforted to be part of a knowable network.” (Read more about The Republic of Love Bookmark on the Project Bookmark Canada website.)
I love the idea of a “literary TransCanada highway,” as Kristen Den Hartog has described these Bookmarks that stretch from Vancouver, BC to Woody Point, Newfoundland.
We now have one in Nova Scotia: the Bookmark honouring Alistair MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief was unveiled just over a year ago, in Port Hastings, Cape Breton, and it features a passage from the end of the novel, including the famous last line: “All of us are better when we’re loved.”
I haven’t been to see the No Great Mischief Bookmark yet, even though I live in Nova Scotia—but I’ll get there! That day in Winnipeg, we also visited the Carol Shields Memorial Labyrinth.
Thinking about connections between The Republic of Love and Northanger Abbey prompted me to revisit Shields’s biography of Jane Austen this past weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a description of the 1996 Jane Austen Society of North America AGM on the first page. I read the book when it was published in 2001, and while I remember liking the way Shields defends Austen against the charge that she ignored history and politics in her work and the way she analyzes what it meant for Austen to have “a public self after a life that had been austerely private,” I had forgotten many details, including the descriptions of JASNA and, for example, the fact that she refers to Austen’s Mr. Knightley as a “cold potato.” I wonder if that assessment of him has anything to do with the fact that she gave the name “Peter Knightly” to the man her heroine Fay McLeod no longer loves.
If you read last week’s blog post, you’ll know I attended this year’s JASNA AGM in Washington, DC. I started going to JASNA AGMs in 1999, so I wasn’t in Richmond, Virginia to hear the paper Carol Shields and Anne Giardini gave at the 1996 conference. But I think Shields’s description would apply equally to this year’s AGM: she says there is “no attempt to trivialize Jane Austen’s pronouncements and mockingly bring her into our contemporary midst. The gatherings are both gentle in approach and rigorous in scholarship.”
Back in May, I read Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing, edited by Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini, and I was thinking of that book as well as The Republic of Love while I walked the paths of the labyrinth in the summer. “I saw that I could become a writer if I paid attention, if I was careful, if I observed the rules, and then, just as carefully, broke them,” Shields says. I like that advice a lot, and I like what she says about ignoring trends: “Think instead of the stories you like to read, or better yet, the story you would like to read but can’t find.”
I’ve been working on a novel for several years now, writing a story that I’d like to read but couldn’t find, and for the next month or so I’m planning to take a break from social media and blogging so I can focus on revisions. The manuscript is at about 125,000 words right now—I need to write some more and then cut quite a bit. For inspiration, I’m going to turn to Jane Austen, who gave her niece Anna this advice about revising her novel: “I hope when you have written a great deal more you will be equal to scratching out some of the past” (9 September 1814).
I’ll also be thinking of Shields’s words about how “creativity flourishes in tranquil settings,” and of advice from another Canadian novelist I admire, Christy Ann Conlin, who wrote a guest post here a few weeks ago about “The Sweet Exhilaration of Solitude” and the value of “slipp[ing] away from screens and social media.” I hear November is a good month for writing novels. See you again in December.