The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro

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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