It’s a terrible title, really, The Beggar Maid. I much prefer the original Canadian title, Who Do You Think You Are? with its double sense of the phrase. There’s the familiar, small-town accusation put to anyone who dares to show off, parade herself about as they say, and the simple, thoughtful question: Who are you? Who do you think you might be, underneath the skin?
The first sense is the one which appears throughout Alice Munro’s early work – what do you think you’re doing, getting above yourself? You think you’re better than us? You think you have some special rights and privileges? You can imagine Munro growing up in Wingham, struggling to keep a lid on things, not wanting to be caught out “showing off”.
Which is ironic, given her chosen career path. As Douglas Gibson, her long-time publisher and friend, puts it, writers are indeed in the business of “showing off”: “They’re all saying, ‘Look at me! Here’s what I’ve written, I think you should pay attention to it!'”
This collection of short stories cum novel, like the earlier Lives of Girls and Women, follows a young girl growing up in a small town in southwestern Ontario. But whereas Lives leaves our heroine, Del Jordan, balancing on the edge of womanhood, Who Do You Think You Are? goes further. And what you really notice is the way the sexual tension moves from the background to take a front row seat.
The young woman’s name is Rose. She lives with her father and her step-mother, Flo, in the town of Hanratty. West Hanratty, actually, which is distinct from the main town and occupies a lower rung on the social ladder. As we’re told in the first story, “Royal Beatings”, “In Hanratty the social structure ran from doctors and dentists and lawyers down to foundry workers and draymen; in West Hanratty it ran from factory workers and foundry workers down to large improvident families of casual bootleggers and prostitutes and unsuccessful thieves.”
So Rose, like Del before her, is something of an outsider. Not just because she has no money, although that is part of it. But more because of her aspirations. In towns like Hanratty, as in all small towns, there are rules – acceptable ways of behaving. You are not above the rules and if you think you are, it pretty much goes without saying that you will be punished. For hubris. “Pride goeth before a fall” might be the motto of every small town in the country – and many of the larger ones as well.
It is this that sets Rose apart. She wants to get away, she wants to go on to other things, she wants to be somebody different. Hearing about a woman Flo once knew who went on holiday and pretended to be an actress, Rose is envious: “She thought it would be an especially fine thing, to manage a transformation like that. To dare it; to get away with it, to enter on preposterous adventures in your own, but newly named, skin.”
Managing transformation is not easy and is seldom straightforward. It requires a willingness to allow some invasion of your person. In one of the short stories, “Wild Swans”, Rose is on the train heading to Toronto, having previously been warned by Flo to beware of White Slavers who drug you and smuggle you away to someplace where they keep you and use you and then throw you out on the street when you’re degraded beyond repair. This, Flo says, generally takes about three years. Flo has worked in Toronto, when she was younger, so she knows these things.
On the train, Rose, who is still in high school, has an encounter with a middle-aged man who takes the seat beside her; after some initial small talk, he pretends to fall asleep while slipping his hand under her skirt. The account of the pressure of that hand, hidden under his newspaper, progressing slowly but surely up her leg, past her stocking, arriving finally at its destination while she sits immobilized, both victim and accomplice – this is Munro at her best: “This was disgrace, this was beggary.” But Rose allows it, welcomes the invasion in spite of herself, partly because it is so absolutely disgraceful, so completely not how she would be expected to react. Which is precisely what makes it desirable.
Rose does leave Hanratty. She goes to university on a scholarship, marries young, stays unhappily married for a decade, divorces, and has affairs. She goes to bed with men, as many of us do, who seem to offer something exogenous – something outside ourselves that can be incorporated into who we are…who we want to be. Knowing that most men, especially those who are married or determined to stay single, don’t want to commit themselves this way, she tries to avoid the “familiar twinges, tidal promises” that will ultimately let her down: “The most mortifying thing of all was simply hope, which burrows so deceitfully at first, masks itself cunningly, but not for long.”
The final story, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, takes us back to Rose’s childhood. Back to Flo and her half-brother, Brian. Back particularly to a town character called Milton Homer who commits outrageous acts like marching, uninvited, in the Orange Day parade, and hammering on people’s doors, demanding admittance. The story seems like an afterthought, at first, coming at the end, out of place in the chronology. But in it we get a summing up of sorts – some resolution on Rose’s part to the ongoing conflict within her: “That peculiar shame which she carried around with her seemed to have been eased.” Rose has forgiven herself for “showing off”. And so should we all.