31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 31: “The Beggar Maid” by Alice Munro
From Who Do You Think You Are?
When people say Alice Munro is capable of more depth, nuance, and character development in a single forty-page story than most authors can pull off in a 500-page novel, it’s stories like “The Beggar Maid” they are talking about. The centrepiece of Munro’s 1978 Governor General’s Literary Award–winning collection is so thematically dense, so emotionally resonant, so linguistically inventive it’s almost difficult to countenance. “The Beggar Maid” is the story of Rose, a young woman from a working-class family in the small Ontario town of Hanratty, who goes off to university on a scholarship and ends up in a romance with Patrick Blatchford, the wealthy scion of a family that owns a chain of British Columbia department stores. Munro’s story addresses heavy themes – class, sex, identity – but does so in a seemingly effortless manner.
After a chance meeting in the university library where Rose works, she and Patrick fall into a love affair, which proves troublesome because, although they are both loath to admit it, their differing economic and social backgrounds are a locus of conflict. The first indication of friction occurs in the story’s opening paragraph: Rose admits to being nervous about Patrick’s sophistication after he becomes agitated when one of her friends mispronounces the name Metternich. When the couple visits Patrick’s family on Vancouver Island, Rose feels utterly inadequate. She buys a “fuzzy angora sweater, peach-colored,” which she thinks is elegant enough, but concludes that it resembles “a small-town girl’s idea of dressing up.” Patrick’s mother displays “affront, disapproval, dismay” in Rose’s presence, and his sisters evince a haughty insouciance:
At an earlier meal they had questioned Rose.
“Do you ride?”
“Do you sail?”
“Play tennis? Play golf? Play badminton?”
“No. No. No.”
“Perhaps she is an intellectual genius, like Patrick.”
The Blatchford house is a sprawling Tudor mansion on a half-acre of land, a stark contrast to Rose’s own humble origins. She takes Patrick home to Hanratty to meet her stepmother, Flo, and the experience is “just as bad as she thought it would be”:
Flo had gone to great trouble, and cooked a meal of scalloped potatoes, turnips, big country sausages which were a special present from Billy Pope, from the butcher shop. Patrick detested coarse-textured food, and made no pretense of eating it. The table was spread with a plastic cloth, they ate under the tube of fluorescent light. The centerpiece was new and especially for the occasion. A plastic swan, lime green in color, with slits in the wings, in which were stuck folded, colored paper napkins.
The juxtaposition of the Blatchfords’ supercilious politesse with Flo’s small-town kitsch lends the story a mordantly humorous aspect, but also highlights the degree to which Rose is caught between conflicting ideas of what she should be. Rose clings to Patrick because he represents something greater than even the highest of Hanratty’s aspirations: “She could not realize what a coup she had made because it would have been a coup for her if the butcher’s son had fallen for her, or the jeweler’s; people would say she had done well.” And yet Rose has difficulty admitting to herself that Patrick’s lack of humour and sexual reticence fail to enthrall her.
She is further troubled by her landlady, Dr. Henshawe, a university professor who feels that Rose should be devoting herself to her studies rather than setting herself up for the traditional female roles of wife and mother:
“The future will be wide open, for women. You must concentrate on languages. You must take courses in political science. And economics. Perhaps you could get a job on the paper for the summer. I have friends there.”
Rose was frightened at the idea of working on a paper, and she hated the introductory economics course; she was looking for a way of dropping it. It was dangerous to mention things to Dr. Henshawe.
What the citizens of Hanratty have in common with Patrick and Dr. Henshawe is a desire to make Rose over in their own image, to force her to conform to the role they feel she should play, rather than allow her the freedom to chart her own path. Patrick compares Rose to the Beggar Maid in Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s painting, with all the chivalric romance that association entails. But this is not the conception Rose has of herself. She is a much more active agent than the other characters in the story will give her credit for being.
The American and U.K. editions of Munro’s book are called “The Beggar Maid: Stories of Rose and Flo,” which is more romantic and lyrical than the frankly acerbic Canadian title. But it is also less resonant. “The Beggar Maid” is an ironic title for this story, because Rose implicitly disavows the association with the painting when Patrick brings it up. The Canadian title, by contrast, allows for a greater field of implication as Rose is buffeted between various characters with competing interests and conflicting ideas about what is best for her. There are critics who suggest that this collection of linked stories is actually one of only two novels Munro has written (the other being Lives of Girls and Women). I prefer to think of “The Beggar Maid” as a story that is novelistic in its structure and execution, but fully able to stand on its own as a case study of a woman faced with the persistent and troubling question, Who do you think you are?