My friend Mary gave me Angle of Repose for my birthday nearly six years ago. While I’m embarrassed that it’s taken me so very long to read it, I’m so very happy that I did. It’s both brilliant and controversial, and I can’t stop mulling it over.
Distinguished historian Lyman Ward suffers from an ossifying disease that’s cost him a leg, most of his mobility, and his wife. Ostensibly retired, he retreats to his grandparents’ former home to write a book—part novel, part biography—about the life of his accomplished and unusual grandmother, Susan Burling Ward. “My grandparents are a deep vein that has never been dug. They were people,” he says (22).
In the 1870s, Susan is an in-demand illustrator in New York, enjoying a life of cultured society and the companionship of her best friend, Augusta. When she meets Oliver Ward, a taciturn mining engineer, her life is turned upside-down. After a few years exchanging letters, she decides, for several reasons, to marry him, expecting that after he achieves success out West in the mining business, they’ll return to the comfort and civility of life in the East.
Success eludes them, first for one year, then two, and then on and on. Oliver is talented, fair, hardworking, and honest—too honest, sometimes. As the years go on, Susan learns to love the West’s vistas, its sense of freedom, and the circle of friends they bring together, but never lets go of her disappointments. There’s no triumphant return to the East, no grand house, no lively and varied intellectual culture at her fingertips. For his part, Oliver resents her disappointment, and feels his own missteps keenly.
Lyman’s book—he’s dictating it, and he often interrupts the narrative—follows them from town to camp to mesa, and begins to sputter out only when a true tragedy strikes.
Angle of Repose is controversial because Stegner based Susan Ward on a real woman, the prolific author and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, and used her personal letters and papers (as well as details from her biography) to construct his novel. A conservative estimate is that ten percent of the book was lifted directly from her writing. As this informative piece by Susan Salter Reynolds explains, he had the permission of at least one of Mary Hallock Foote’s heirs to use her work, but he did not reveal the extent of that use in the novel’s preface; his note is quite short and reads:
My thanks to J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors. Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.
Despite the disclaimer, many of Mary Hallock Foote’s descendants resented the use of her biographical details (especially since Susan Ward’s conduct differs materially from what is known about Mary Hallock Foote’s), and her words.
I encourage you to read the article if you’re interested to learn more. If you’d like to read Mary Hallock Foote in her own words, look for A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, which is out of print but available on Amazon, and perhaps at your library.
If I were an author in a similar situation, I do not believe I would have felt comfortable, or ethical, for that matter, using another writer’s work without specifically acknowledging where in the book I had done so, and what changes I had made. Writers of historical fiction frequently note how their novels depart from the historical record, or mention a particularly helpful source of material, and I see no reason why Stegner could not have done so here. Angle of Repose is gorgeous, but it is not his work alone; it is also the work of Mary Hallock Foote, and Stegner was, as far as I can tell, too quick to write off her accomplishments.
I will say, however, that while I found the sections on Susan and Oliver Ward affecting, and found it difficult to read about their many disappointments and hardships, I think the best of the novel lies in Stegner’s creation of Lyman Ward.
Irascible, difficult, precise, honest, proud, and mostly unflinching, Lyman Ward is a wonderful narrator. His interruptions and disquisitions on the relation of the Victorian period to his own time are illuminating and often funny; his interactions with the people who care for him and help him are touching, but not pitiful. And the way he distrusts his family is fascinating.
I loved the way he conflates present and past, without ever wholly realizing that immersing himself in his grandmother’s life is a way for him to confront his present.
This present of 1970 is no more an extension of my grandparents’ world, this West is no more a development of the West they helped build, than the sea over Santorin is an extension of that once-island of rock and olives. My wife turns out after a quarter of a century to be someone I never knew, my son starts all fresh from his own premises. (18)
Sometimes he addresses his grandmother directly.
Thanks partly to your success in art, and more to the influence of Augusta and Thomas Hudson, you had gentility in your eye like a cinder, and there would be a lot of rubbing, reddening, and irritation before your tears flooded it out. (95)
This mannerism lessens as the novel goes on, perhaps because Lyman hires a young woman, an old friend’s daughter, to transcribe his tapes and help him with filing. Shelley makes him uncomfortable, especially when she asks his opinions on communal living and free love, which he gives honestly.
Stegner is revered as lion of Western literature—he taught everyone from Wendell Berry to Larry McMurtry—and he was also an important environmental activist. However, for all the Western beauty extolled, neither Lyman nor Susan nor Oliver seems particularly concerned about what the forces of modernization and progress did to the people who lived in the West before those forces’ arrival. And to a feminist reading in 2014, Lyman has his faults as a narrator; things I’d very much like to know about Susan, such as how she handled a miscarriage or how exactly she managed a continuing career (she often kept the family afloat financially) with childcare or what books she wanted her children to read, he tends to gloss over (though with the occasional joke that shows Stegner peeking through).
I have heard publishers, lamenting their hard life over Scotch and soda, complain that they must read a hundred bad manuscripts to find one good one. Having practiced the trade of history, I feel no stir of sympathy. A historian scans a thousand documents to find one fact that he can use. If he is working with correspondence, as I am, and with the correspondence of a woman to boot, he will wade toward his little islands of information through a dismal swamp of recipes, housekeeping details, children’s diseases, insignificant visitors, inconclusive conversations with people unknown to the historian, and recitation of what the writer did yesterday. (379)
Lyman Ward, in other words, is no Jane Austen or A. S. Byatt.
He is a near-perfectly realized character,, though, and in his own reflections on his grandparents’ marriage, he asks the questions all of us, readers and writers, ask ourselves, in one form or another, when we open a book:
Why then am I spending all this effort trying to understand my grandparents’ lives? [. . . ] Why do I drive my drifts and tunnels toward the hidden lode of Susan Ward’s woe? Is it love and sympathy that makes me think myself capable of reconstructing these lives, or am I, Nemesis in a wheelchair, bent on proving something—perhaps that not even gentility and integrity are proof against the corrosion of human weakness, human treachery, human inability to forget? (439-40)
The answer to his last question is yes.