Geraldine Brennan is Books Editor of the Times Educational Supplement. She has judged several literary awards including most recently the Costa Children's Book of the Year and the Booktrust Teenage Prize. Here she writes about a collection of short stories by Alice Munro.
Geraldine Brennan on The Beggar Maid (or Who Do You Think You Are?) by Alice Munro
Alice Munro's recent semi-fictionalized memoir, The View from Castle Rock, explained that her Scottish Borders ancestors were noted for 'the refusal to feel any need to turn your life into a story, for other people or yourself'. Their values travelled to her own childhood in 1930s Huron County, Ontario, and to the world of many of her characters in her 10 volumes of short stories. Any kind of storytelling, embellishment of fact or even unnecessary detail was frowned upon, and too much interest in picturesque elements of your community's past was thought likely to lead to social crimes connected with noseyness or self-importance.
Munro's 10 collections of short stories (the latest, Runaway, in 2004) contain much to upset the ancestors. The autobiographical material is subtly spread, but to such effect that Huron County is now known as Alice Munro Country, which will have set some of the ancestors spinning in their graves.
Her fourth collection, published in the UK as The Beggar Maid, can be read as a novel in which the central character Rose grows up and gets out of West Hanratty, a drab township where the civic motto is probably 'nobody likes a know-it-all'. Rose gets a scholarship to college, marries money unhappily, moves to Vancouver, gets divorced, becomes a journalist and actress, is terminally unlucky in love and finds that you can't take West Hanratty out of the girl.
Who Do You Think You Are? (the original Canadian title) is not an invitation to anything so self-indulgent as tracing your ancestors on TV or, worse, pondering your identity. It's the slapping-down, shutting-up question-expecting-the-answer-nobody traditionally hurled at upstart youth. It's what Rose's high-school teacher says to her when she is found to have learnt a poem by heart straight from the blackboard rather than obeying the instruction to copy it out first. It could have been West Hanratty's other civic motto and at key moments in Rose's life it comes back to haunt her.
This is also the story of Rose's stepmother Flo, who is driven by caustic wit and aggressive ill will. She keeps the family store and bullies Rose's mild, ailing, intellectually frustrated father into beating the girl for dreaminess or answering back. Flo despises Rose's brains, so Rose tries to earn approval for attending high school by entertaining Flo with tales of other students' sexual intrigue and social gaffes.
I keep returning to this collection because it captures so exquisitely the embarrassment that follows trying too hard or getting it wrong, and the even more acute and guilt-ridden embarrassment felt on behalf of others. Rose, being vain and upwardly mobile, is a martyr to embarrassment; Flo has taught her the meaning of the word, being malevolently obsessed with others' hopeless pretensions and fake status. The teacher who humiliates Rose over learning the poem suffers the same fate when she and her missionary sister lose control of the church community, and Flo is eager to chart her downfall.
Rose is constantly trying and failing to please and to fit in (with the gaudy playground queen Cora, or the cultured college landlady, or her moneyed and sporty in-laws, or her bohemian Vancouver friends). She is also constantly being embarrassed by others, especially Flo and the butcher she takes up with after Rose's father dies. Each step is taken with one eye on the exit, but each exit creates its own problems. She is uncomfortably aware of using scenes from her childhood to entertain smart friends, but most of the discomfort comes from her poverty being not quite picturesque enough.
Flo is a superlative character. She does not appear in every story but her bizarre pronouncements hang in the air in her absence. Rose learns that not many of Flo's dire warnings about the outside world are true (except, to Rose's delighted amazement, the one about ministers of the church being prone to seducing young women on trains), but she rarely feels Flo-free in her innermost thoughts. The penultimate story, 'Spelling', in which Flo's ingrained cantankerousness is absorbed into dementia and Rose again tries to please by making her a trifle, is the most moving.
These stories were first published in 1978 when even the terms of Rose's rebellion were starting to sound dated. Flo's world has been turned upside down several times over since then but the unwilling bond of daughter and stepmother and their spiky, scratchy encounters have a contemporary ring, as do Rose's ambivalent feelings about her roots. In an age where there is very little left to be embarrassed about, these stories show us the allure and the folly of reinventing ourselves.