Stoner by John Willams
published 1965 Chapter 7 Events in 1930
[Edith is the wife of the protagonist, William Stoner. She has been away because her father has died] She returned without warning on an afternoon train and walked through the living room into the study where her husband and her daughter quietly sat. She had meant to shock them both by her sudden presence and by her changed appearance…
Edith had bobbed her hair and wore over it one of the those hats that hugged her head so tightly that the cropped hair lay close to her face like an irregular frame; her lips were painted a bright orange-red, and two small spots of rouge sharpened her cheekbones. She wore one of those short dresses that had become fashionable among the younger women during the past few years; it hung straight down from her shoulders and ended just above her knees…
Grace kissed her mother on the cheek and looked at her solemnly. “You look different” she said.
Edith laughed and… whirled around, holding her hands above her head. “I have a new dress and new shoes and a new hair-do. Do you like them?... I am different, I believe... I really believe I am.”
William Stoner knew that… beyond her intention or understanding, uknown to herself, Edith was trying to announce to him a new declaration of war…
This is an extraordinary book, but it is almost impossible to describe what makes it so great. William Stoner is from a farm family in Missouri: he gets the chance to study agriculture at university, switches to English literature, and spends the rest of his life teaching at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He has an unhappy marriage, and his career stalls. All this, taking place in the first half of the 20th century, is described in plain prose: 40 years' history in under 300 pages. From the opening words it is clear that Stoner is held in ‘no particular esteem’, that nothing big happens to him, and that he will be quickly forgotten by his students and colleagues. It should be a depressing read, and while it is not exactly full of jokes, it is a wonderful book, and almost unputdownable. It is a true work of art: a picture of a man’s life. John Williams says of Stoner: “I think he’s a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to…” This is all somewhat reminsicient of the closing lines of George Eliot's Middlemarch (or 'long plod' as it is known to a close associate of Clothes in Books.)
The one really sad part of his life is his marriage: it is a complete and horrible battleground, and their competition for the life and affection of their daughter is particularly vivid and awful. In fact, one might venture (hesitantly) that Edith is not a convincing character because she is so dreadful, as seen through Stoner’s eyes: there is surely room here for a Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys’s version of the first Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre) – the marriage seen from Edith’s point of view could make equally riveting reading.
The picture is of the ballerina Anna Pavlova in 1929: it is from the state library of New South Wales, via Flickr.