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The Beggar Maid is the first book by Alice Munro that I’ve read and I chose it on a whim from the library. It is a series of short stories, originally published separately but all following the lives of one central character, Rose, and her stepmother, Flo.

Rose comes from a poor background and the book begins with her growing up in a small, ramshackle town in Canada during the 1940s and ‘50s. She has a difficult relationship with her stepmother, Flo, and they are always arguing. Flo is bold and practical and adventurous, she ran away from home when she was fourteen and worked in a factory and as a waitress in the city. As a teenager, Rose is clever and awkward and just as stubborn as Flo is. She spends her time studying and dreaming, and manages to leave her deprived background behind her by winning scholarships to the high school and then to college.

The book beautifully describes Rose’s experiences at school and in a town full of gossip, where everyone knows your business and is ready to form a judgement about it. The book captures the positive and negative sides of a small community. Some people who are vulnerable and don’t fit in suffer abuse and violence, while some eccentric and odd characters such as Milton Homer, who disrupts all the town parades with his dancing, are tolerated with affection. In later life, Rose returns to the town and it is interesting to see her conflicting feelings towards it. She has come too far ever to really fit in again, but I feel there is also a sense of sadness and nostalgia in the book for how the town has changed, modernised and become respectable, and for what has become of some of the characters over the years.

At college, Rose meets Patrick, a scholarly man from a wealthy family, who falls in love with her. The title of the book comes from a conversation between them in which Patrick says he is glad Rose is poor and that she reminds him of the painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. I looked online and found it is this beautiful painting by Edward Burne-Jones, which perhaps reflects Patrick’s romanticised view of Rose. One of the things I liked about this book was how it precisely described Rose’s experiences of feeling like an outsider. It acknowledges her complicated feelings towards her past and the way she makes use of it, telling scandalous stories to people who find her poverty glamorous.

“Of course that’s not your real mother,” Patrick said. “Your real parents can’t have been like that.” Rose did not like his saying that either, although it was what she believed, herself. She saw that he was trying to provide for her a more genteel background, perhaps something like the homes of his poor friends: a few books about, a tea tray and mended linen, worn good taste, proud, tired, educated people. What a coward he was, she thought angrily, but she knew that she herself was the coward, not knowing any way to be comfortable with her own people or the kitchen or any of it.

Although her fortunes rise and fall over the course of the book, Rose does go on to live a much more comfortable life and moves in more educated and middle-class circles than she did in her childhood. However she often feels somewhat separate from the people around her, seeing in herself ‘the weariness, suppleness, deviousness, meanness common to a class’. I am often interested in books that explore the alienation or sense of detachment felt by someone who can’t reconcile their past with their present; I just find it a very rich and fascinating subject. I think this book describes this situation very well, mainly because of Alice Munro’s writing, which is quite precise and analytical, focusing on the complexity of people’s feelings and experiences, but not at all cold as it also conveys emotions very strongly. It reminded me slightly of I’ll Take You There by Joyce Carol Oates, which is an amazing book, also about a girl’s life at college, and a similarly intense experience.

The Beggar Maid is also very much about sexual attraction, marriage and infidelity. Rose frequently treats Patrick badly and their relationship is unbalanced, especially because Patrick adores Rose so much and she takes advantage of this.

Her own appetite…was not for wealth but for worship. The size, the weight, the shine, of what he said was love (and she did not doubt him) had to impress her, even though she had never asked for it. It did not seem likely such an offering would come her way again. Patrick himself, though worshipful, did in some oblique way acknowledge her luck.

Rose does later fall in love herself and the book describes relationships and feelings of desire and obsession very powerfully. It show how relationships can be disastrous and how people can make eachother suffer. However I think it also gives a sense of how these feelings can make life so vivid and intense (please accept this as my tribute to Valentine’s Day 🙂 ).

I would now really like to read more of Alice Munro’s books. She mainly writes short stories, so I might try one of the collections that are available, or (I think) her only novel, Lives of Girls and Women.

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Set in Oxford during the 1930s, Crampton Hodnet is for me one of Barbara Pym’s funniest books. Pym finished it during the war but, as she was becoming increasingly involved in her war work, did not send the manuscript to publishers immediately. She later considered it too dated so it remained unpublished during her lifetime. However, I am glad it’s now available to readers as I enjoyed it very much.

The book opens by introducing two characters who also appear in Jane and Prudence: the formidable Miss Doggett and her long-suffering companion, Jessie Morrow, who are giving a tea-party for students on a gloomy Sunday in respectable north Oxford. It was difficult for me to believe that, even in the 1930s, undergraduates would willingly go to the rather stuffy and middle-aged tea-parties described in this novel, but it seems to have been a major part of student social life (perhaps because of the free tea and cake), and it does result in some of the most hilarious scenes in the novel. I particularly liked Michael and Gabriel, a foppish Brideshead-esque pair of students, who often appear to speak in unison and inexplicably worship Miss Doggett. They provide many funny moments – I would love to read more about them.

Miss Morrow is a slightly melancholy figure, who has to endure Miss Doggett’s inconsiderate demands and tactless remarks as part of her job. She listens to gramophone records on wet afternoons, dreaming that she is somewhere else. However, she has an unexpected strength of character which emerges in her occasionally cynical comments on the action going on around her and results in her friendship with Miss Doggett’s new lodger, the curate Stephen Latimer.

Miss Morrow’s life forms only one aspect of the plot, as there is a large cast of characters, mainly students, academics and their families, and the ‘excellent women’ of north Oxford. Another subplot involves professor Francis Cleveland’s affair with one of his students, Barbara Bird. Francis is married but his wife Margaret seems to have grown tired of him long ago. She practically encourages him to spend long hours in his study working on the book he has been writing for the past 28 years (‘it was not yet finished, and there seemed no prospect that it would ever be’) or to go to the Bodleian on the pretext of doing some research, in the hope that he might ‘find a nice young woman working there and take her out to tea’. This casts an unexpected light on Francis’ attraction to Barbara, since, although it causes great outrage among Miss Doggett’s social circle, Margaret is quite unperturbed by the whole matter. As usual, although she writes about people with mainly conventional opinions, Barbara Pym is not quite so conventional herself.

I found the character of Barbara interesting. She is intelligent and attractive, so it’s not difficult to see why Francis becomes smitten with her, but although she is equally drawn to him, she is not really interested in having an affair with anyone. She doesn’t like being kissed by any of her many admirers and feels that ‘there was no need even for their beautiful friendship to be turned into a sordid intrigue’. She is interested in a more idealised, non-sexual kind of love. Barbara is a romantic dreamer but her passion is really more directed towards poetry and history than towards Francis; when he declares his love to her in the British Museum, she is more interested in ‘going into raptures over Milton’s commonplace book’ in the glass case nearby. When I finished the novel, I wondered what would happen to Barbara in the future and whether she would find happiness.

Miss Morrow is another character who has romantic dreams but is equivocal about whether she wants her life to change. There is something sad about how she buys herself beautiful clothes such as the ‘dress of tender leaf green…in her wardrobe among her old, drab things, where it might have to wait many weeks before she had the courage to wear it’. But she does not really make any efforts to escape her life with Miss Doggett and seems to feel a secret contentment with her unobtrusive place as an lady’s companion. Although there is certainly a fair amount of action in Barbara Pym’s novels, at least in terms of people’s relationships, there is also the feeling that some things stay the same and that, in the end, her novels seem to come full circle. She often writes about narrow, mostly uneventful worlds whose characters derive comfort from routine and quiet. The repeating cycle of the academic year and the unchanging social background of Oxford in the 1930s are perfect for this kind of story, even though very soon of course there would be huge change with the coming of the second world war.

Personally I loved reading a novel set in the city I live in, full of details of the Bodleian, the cafes and the Botanical Gardens, but what really makes the setting come to life are the many humorous minor characters, types probably still recognisable among Oxford residents even today. As Miss Morrow strolls through the park on a sunny spring day, she sees:

Dons striding along with walking sticks, wives in Fair Isle jumpers coming low over their hips, nurses with prams, and governesses with intelligent children asking ceaseless questions in their clear, fluty voices. And then there were the clergymen, solitary bearded ones reading books, young earnest ones, like chickens just out of the egg, discussing problems which had nothing to do with the sunshine or the yellow-green leaves uncurling on the trees. There were undergraduates too, and young women with Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader or lecture notebooks under their arms, and lovers, clasping each other’s fingers and trying to find secluded paths where they might kiss. But for Miss Morrow the lovers were only a minor element; the north Oxford and clerical elements were stronger and gave more character to the ballet. She felt that even she and Miss Doggett could be principals in it…