Angle of Repose is Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer prize winning novel from 1971.
Stegner created a part fact/part fiction story of life in 1880’s America based on the real letters and journals of Mary Hallock Foote. After his book was published, a controversy brewed with some of Foote’s descendants about how Stegner went about this merging of fact and fiction and his use of Foote’s letters.
My edition of Angle of Repose carried Stegner’s brief note explaining that,
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 utilises selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.
To my mind then, it was pretty clear, as I read the book, that this would be a kind of fictionalised biography.
Stegner combined real life people with fictional characters. His fictional characters spoke the words of real life people and the letters written by the real life Foote were liberally used (with minor changes) to tell the story of her fictional counterpart – Susan Ward.
Real and imaginary events existed side by side.
As the fictional Lyman Ward re-imagined his grandmother’s life to suit the needs of his own personal narrative, so too, did Stegner, re-imagine this amazing story of a New York artist living life in the wild, wild, West with her adventurous, engineering husband.
|The Irrigation Ditch, 1889, Mary Hallock Foote|
Past and present informed each other as the fictional Lyman looked for lessons or clues to help him come to terms with his own life and failed marriage.
It was also very clear that Stegner (and his character Lyman Ward) had a great deal of affection and respect for Mary Foote/Susan Ward.
The time spent in Boise, Idaho, planning the building of a new dam, that could transform the barren desert, was particularly evocative – you could taste the dust and heat and feel Susan’s growing isolation.
|The Foote home, 1885, Idaho|
The Angle of Repose is also a story about marriage.
The choices we make for love and for security and the courage required to see it through.
Stegner explores loyalty, hope, frustration and how to maintain a sense of self and independence.
We see the importance of open communication, but also how to turn a blind eye and hold your tongue at times. He delves into the daily negotiations and the battles of will. He shows how the small discontents can build into seemingly insurmountable mountains over time, so that guilt and forgiveness become the thing that keeps a couple together.
It felt like this book has taken me ages to read. But it was only 3 weeks in the end.
Angle of Repose was a book to savour slowly. At 557 pages with small font and minimum line spacing, it wasn’t a small undertaking, however it was worth every minute, every page, every letter. In fact, for me, it was Mary’s many original letters that made this story such an absorbing gem.
9/20 Books of Summer (winter)
57/110 Classics Club
Addendum, or the dangers of writing a review too soon.
Reading this brief bio about the Foote’s made me realise just how much of Mary’s life was actually in Angle of Repose.
The main facts and figures and people are straight from Mary’s real life. Stegner imagined conversations, motives and feelings to suit his literary purposes. When questioned afterwards, Stegner never denied his use of Foote’s diaries and letters but it is curious that he didn’t chronicle this properly at the time as one would expect of such a well-regarded academic.
The Newsletter above states at the end in it’s bibliography that Angle of Repose is “A fictionalized telling of Mary Hallock Foote’s life, Angle of Repose is a great book, but don’t look to it for historical accuracy“.
In the reviews and articles I’ve now read, I’ve come across a lot of literary regard for the character of Lyman. To my mind, as a character, he was nowhere near as interesting as his grandparents were. And I’ve now been wondering about the patriarchal attitudes that were still alive and kicking in the 70’s, that not only saw Lyman’s story as more relevant than Mary’s, but also allowed Stegner to claim and bend a little known female writer’s life to his own purpose, without any consequence.
I’m surprised that new editions of the book haven’t rectified this oversight. Stegner clearly held his female characters in high regard and he wrote about them with warmth and affection. Yet, the more I read, the more it feels like something a little dishonest has happened here.
Should I have left my initial enjoyment of Angle of Repose alone?
Or does my new found knowledge, although tinged with shadows, allow me to view the book and the author(s) and the controversy in a more correct context?