Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mary Swann - Carol Shields

Mary Swann was a little-known Canadian poet. She lived on a farm in Nadeau, Ontario, wrote her poems on scraps of paper & had little contact with the outside world. On the same day that she took her poems to local publisher Frederic Cruzzi, she was murdered by her husband. The poems were published & then forgotten until academic Sarah Maloney discovered a copy of Swann's Songs on holiday & suddenly the resurrection of Mary Swann had begun. Now, twenty years after her death, she is to be the subject of a biography by the distinguished writer, Morton Jimroy, biographer of Ezra Pound & John Starman. One of the few people who actually knew Mrs Swann, Nadeau librarian & Town Clerk, Rose Hindmarch, keeps the flame alive with the Mary Swann Memorial Room in the Local History Museum. There are plans for a Symposium on the life and work of Mary Swann which will be an opportunity for the academic world to celebrate the achievements of this most mysterious woman.

Mary Swann tells the story of the poet's life through the lives & perspectives of these four people, all with their own slant on the woman & the work. Sarah Maloney is a young woman who writes beautiful, engaging letters, is in a relationship with Brownie, a rare book dealer, & sees Mary Swann as her own discovery. Sarah is in correspondence with Morton Jimroy & has visited Nadeau, spoken to Rose & visited the farm, eager to soak up the atmosphere & learn as much as possible about her poet. She possesses Mary Swann's notebook which unfortunately contains little more than shopping lists & comments on the weather, no matter how often she pores over it, hoping for a revelation into the mind of the woman & the poetry.

Rose Hindmarch structures her day between her work as Town Clerk & Librarian. She knew Mary Swann as well as anyone as Mrs Swann frequently visited the library to borrow the two books her husband allowed her. Unfortunately for the academics, Mrs Swann's tastes ran to Edna Ferber rather than T S Eliot. Rose also feels slightly guilty that she encouraged Mrs Swann to take her poetry to Frederic Cruzzi, one-time Editor of the Kingston Banner, famous for its Poet's Corner & owner of the Peregrine Press. Could Mary Swann's husband have become so enraged by her visit to Cruzzi, my her late return, by her reading & writing, that this is why he murdered her & then sat at the kitchen table & killed himself?

Frederic Cruzzi, now an elderly widower, remembers the day that Mary Swann knocked on his door with a paper bag full of scraps of paper. It was freezing weather, his wife Hildë was out ice fishing, & Mrs Swann arrived, inadequately dressed, timid & apologetic. Expecting nothing more than the usual odes to spring & nature that any small press specializing in poetry attracts, Cruzzi was overwhelmed by the quality of the work & eager to publish. Hildë returns to find Frederic overwhelmed by the poetry although they can have no idea that, by the time they sit down to read the work together, Mary Swann is probably already dead.

Morton Jimroy is on a year's sabbatical in California, working on his biography of Mary Swann, such a change from his previous work on male poets. He's ill at ease on campus, where he is a Distinguished Visitor, disconcerted by the weather, his clothes (bought in haste when the airline lost his luggage) & increasingly obsessed by his research into Mary Swann. He interviews her daughter, Frances, but she doesn't remember her mother reading or writing. Her mother read her The Bobbsey Twins & Five Little Peppers, but there was nothing remarkable about her childhood. How is he going to write the life of this very ordinary woman? His correspondence with Sarah Maloney relieves his loneliness, feeds his fantasies, both personal & professional, as he dreams of meeting Sarah in person & gaining access to Mary Swann's notebook.

The four protagonists meet at the Swann Symposium, a section of the book structured as a screenplay, where the academic world collides with reality. It becomes apparent that Mary Swann, or at least her work, is disappearing. Jimroy's notes for his book were lost with his luggage & his briefcase is stolen during a power cut at the Symposium; Sarah's only copy of Swann's Songs, was loaned to a friend & not returned & the precious notebook, as well as the copy in the archives, have been lost. One of only two photographs of the poet is missing from the Mary Swann Memorial Room & Frederic Cruzzi's house was burgled on Christmas Eve - all that is missing are the last four copies of Swann's Songs from his print run. Mary Swann the woman has been engulfed by the needs of other people; what will be left?

This is a poignant, very funny book. It's not just about academia, although there are some wickedly funny scenes about academics & their obsessions. Morton Jimroy interviews Rose about Mary Swann's religious beliefs,

"Why do you think she stayed away from church so religiously? - if you'll pardon my little joke."
"Clothes probably," Rose said this boldly. She was conscious of a noisy brimming of happiness. She had only once before in her life been taken to dinner by a man, and that had been Homer Hart, years ago, before he married Daisy.
"Clothes?" His pencil moved busily.
"Well, she probably didn't have the right clothes. For church, you know." ...
"You don't suppose," Jimroy said, "that Swann felt her spirituality was, well, less explicit than it was for regular churchgoers in the area. That it was outside the bounds, as it were, of church doctrine?" He regarded Rose closely. "If you see what I mean."
"I see what you mean, Mr Jimroy. Morton. But I really think, well, it was probably a question of not having the right kind of clothes."

As the academics get hold of Mary Swann's work, her poetry becomes loaded with meanings that only academics can see. They remake her in the image of their own current fashion or enthusiasm. Any little scrap of information is seized on as proof of their own pet theory. As Frederic tells Sarah at the Symposium,

He (Jimroy) wants Mrs Swann's life. Every minute of it if he could have it. Every cup of tea that poor woman imbibed. Every thought in her tormented head. And what's more, he wants her death. Or some clue to it.

Carol Shields writes about the personal & the domestic life better than almost anyone else. In the four chapters of the book focusing on Sarah, Morton, Rose & Frederic, we witness their whole lives, not only the parts of their lives that intersect with Mary Swann. I first read Mary Swann in the 1980s, not long after it was first published & I'd forgotten how movingly she describes loneliness & regret, even as she also reveals the absurdities & mistakes in every life. Mary Swann is much more than an academic comedy, poking fun at the pretensions & ambitions of those who make their living from the work of others. It's a moving examination of life & the different ways that events & facts can be interpreted. We learn a lot about these four lives, even if the person we know the least about at the end, is the one thing they have in common, Mary Swann.


  1. I read this book about a year ago and found it quite enjoyable-different than my normal reads.

    1. I read all of Carol Shields' books in the 80s & 90s so it was lovely to revisit this one.