According to her Paris Review interview (here), Alice Munro began writing “Princess Ida” on a Sunday in January, and it was the start of what would become Lives of Girls and Women. It is about her mother and came first because “material about my mother is my central material in life, and it always comes the most readily to me. If I just relax, that’s what will come up. So, once I started to write that, I was off.”
It’s true that many of Munro’s stories go back to her mother or her relationship with her mother. Indeed, I believe Alice Munro became the author she is today (probably I feel that way because Munro herself has expressed something similar) when she wrote “The Peace of Utrecht,” an early story in which Munro confronts her mother’s death by Parkinson’s Disease in 1959 (see here our post about “The Peace of Utrect”).
In “Princess Ida,” Munro steps back a bit further to present a picture of a disappointed, middle-aged mother who is watching the promise of her life slip away. Del, an adolescent in this story, is writing this story from later in life, probably about the time she realizes just how sad her mother was.
Del and her mother — who is named, we find out here, Addie — have moved away from the house on Flats Road to rent a house in town. It’s not necessarily Addie’s attempt to get away from her husband, who has stayed on at the Flats Road and who, unless there’s snow, comes to town each night; rather, it’s that she had to get away from that house on the fringe, and her husband simply wasn’t enough to keep her there any longer.
It’s not Addie’s only attempt to get out and try to get ahead. She now goes out on the road selling encyclopedias — well, trying to. At first Del was fine going along with her mother. She loved that her mother could use Del’s own love for learning as a selling point. Del learns quickly, though, that showing her love for learning is strange: “I saw that to some people, maybe to most people, knowledge was just oddity; it stuck out like warts.” In fact, Del realizes something she’s always felt: her mother is a strange woman. At this early point in Del’s life, she doesn’t want to admit how much she’s like her mother.
I felt the weight of my mother’s eccentricities, of something absurd and embarrassing about her — the aunts would just show me a little at a time — land on my own coward’s shoulders. I did want to repudiate her, crawl into favor, orphaned, abandoned in wrinkled sleeves. At the same time I wanted to shield her.
On the surface, this is a story about a woman’s attempts, born of desperation, to take some control of her life that is running out of possibilities. But it’s so much more than that.
I truly feel that most writers would stop there, and I’d probably like it just fine, especially in a novel about a young girl’s coming of age. But in “Princess Ida” Munro shows her own struggle to bring to life the very life that seems to have been wasted, mostly through the writer’s imagination.
At first, we see that Del’s perception of her mother’s youth is naive. Like most of us, she is simply unable to comprehend all of the seconds her mother has spent alive and developing, suffering.
And my mother, just a little girl then named Addie Morrison, spindly I should think, with cropped hair because her mother guarded her against vanity, would walk home from school up the long anxious lane, banging against her legs the lard pail that had held her lunch. Wasn’t it always November, the ground hard, ice splintered on the puddles, dead grass floating from the wires? Yes, and the bush near and spooky, with the curious unconnected winds that lift the branches one by one. She would go into the house and find the fire out, the stove cold, the grease from the men’s dinner thickened on the plates and pans.
Del realizes that this is, in some way, false. It also leaves holes that will never be filled in, like this:
She became engaged to a young man who remained a shadow — no clear-cut villain, certainly, like her brother, or Grandma Seeley’s nephew, but not luminous and loved, either, not like Miss Rush.
“Princess Ida” is a story of intimations, of the glimpses we get into someone’s secrets, of the realization that we cannot comprehend the life of another.
Much of this comes to the forefront when we meet one of the “clear-cut villains,” Addie’s brother Billy. Successful now, Billy comes to visit, and Del’s sense of embarrassment of her mother and her desire to shield her mother couldn’t be stronger. Del does not remember ever meeting Billy, though she has heard about him for years. What she’s heard is disturbing.
It was the younger brother she hated. What did he do? Her answers were not wholly satisfactory. He was evil, bloated, cruel. A cruel fat boy. He fed firecrackers to cats. He tied up a toad and chopped it to pieces. He drowned my mother’s kitten, named Misty, in the cow trough, though he afterwards denied it. Also he caught my mother and tied her up in the barn and tormented her. Tormented her? He tortured her.
What with? But my mother would never go beyond that — that word, tortured, which she spat out like blood.
Del has her own suspicions, childish at first — “I was left to imagine her tied up in the barn, as at a stake, while her brother, a fat Indian, yelped and pranced about her” — but much darker when she grew up:
Nothing really accounted for her darkened face at this point in the story, for her way of saying tortured. I had not yet learned to recognize the gloom that overcame her in the vicinity of sex.
Munro’s story remains elusive. Any additional glimpse we get to Addie’s past is still just a glimpse. What we are stuck with is a disappointed woman, completely foreign to herself:
Had all her stories, after all, to end up with just her, the way she was now, just my mother in Jubilee?
“Princess Ida” begins with Del admitting:
I felt the weight of my mother’s eccentricities, of something absurd and embarrassing about her [. . .]. I did want to repudiate her [. . .]. At the same time I wanted to shield her.
What Del does in the end is write about her mother, the person whom other people seemed to think of as a “wild-woman.” What matters, of course, is that gradually Del realizes she is much the same. “Princess Ida” is also about how stories provide an education about the people we know, especially when we can run several different stories from several different people or several different times up against each other.
Munro describes her mother’s (Addie’s) eccentricities: the way she bucketed around Wawanash County in a thirty-seven Chevy selling encyclopedias; the way she wrote letters to the editor about women’s rights and education; the way she wrote flowery essays with “long decorative descriptions” and published them in the newspaper under the nom de plume of “Princess Ida.”
Del says: “I hated her selling encyclopedias and making speeches and wearing that hat. I hated her writing letters to the newspapers.” But in the course of time, as she learns more, Del moves from humiliation to curiosity to empathy.
Del’s aunts made fun of her mother, made fun of the mud on her boots, of the “beetles she had on her dress” the letters she wrote to the editor. The aunts and all the others in town who did not get her mother were part of Del’s repudiation. Addie insisted on joining the Great Books discussion group, and when that disappointed, she took a correspondence course on the Great Thinkers. With her husband’s support, Addie rented a place in town and took in a boarder so her children could go to school in town. There’s a satisfying congruence in the arc of Addie’s difficult life. Poverty or not, university or not, Addie is determined to learn. No matter what, Del and her brother would go to school.
In the second section of the story, Del reflects on Addie’s stories of childhood. Addie grew up in a house that was “like one where a murder had been committed.” Both Del and the reader learn it was a house where hopes, especially the hopes of girls and women, were ground to bits. Neglected by her parents, abused and maybe raped by her brother, and forbidden to go to high school, Addie dreamed of school. In an act of startling bravery, Addie ran away and worked in a boarding house to make school possible. Her zealously religious mother, being “in the last demented stages of Christianity”, had given away a bequest of $300 that could have sent Addie to college. The woman had bought Bibles instead, to distribute to the poor. Although Addie says this cured her of religion, what really matters is the way Addie’s wisecrack covers up her deep, deep disappointment.
All that Del knows about Addie’s youth comes from Addie. Del says: “In the beginning of her story was dark captivity, suffering, then daring and defiance and escape.” But Del comments on noticing the way her mother’s stories always seemed to have something missing.
The adult Del admits: “I myself was not so different from my mother, but concealed it, knowing what dangers there were.”
We have a premonition here of what is to come for Del. Del is for Munro what Rabbit is for Updike – what might have been. Munro has said that she was able to “prevail” over her circumstances. In this story, it is not clear, despite the brilliance of her writing, whether Del has the moxie or pointed ambition she is going to need to “prevail.”
In the third and final section of the story, Addie’s abusive (but quite successful) older brother makes a surprise visit from the States. No one is happy to see him. Long absent, his visit is another assault. He re-writes the past, making the neglectful mother a saint, making the farm a sylvan idyll, making the barn where he “tortured” Addie non-existent. He re-writes himself to be a benevolent man, and he makes a peculiar $300 bequest to the sister he abused in the barn, as in half-hearted atonement and sideways recognition of what the money might have originally meant to Addie. Bill insists to Addie: “you got your education”. Not really, given that she never got to go to college, and not really, given that some of her education was at his hands in the barn. In forcing Del to listen to his version of things, Bill’s storytelling is nothing but revision, nothing but a mask. He re-enacts his assaults with his assaults on the truth. His story-telling is a kind of rape of consciousness.
Del puts it all together. When her mother remarks she could use the bequest to “send away for a box of bibles” we hear what hurts the most. While Del knows that the uncle was cruel, while she knows the “gloom that overcame [Addie] in the vicinity of sex,” she also knows that the sharpest assault of Addie’s youth was losing the chance at university. Del sees her mother in that instant: “Just before Fern came in one door and Owen came in the other, there was something in the room like the downflash of a wing or knife, a sense of hurt so strong, but quick and isolated, vanishing.”
And then Addie resumes her crossword puzzle, searching her mind for the “Egyptian god with four letters”. Seth is the god of storms, disorder, and war. But Addie fights to keep chaos at bay, even if what she has to do is forget it. At Addie’s center is terrible disappointment, neglect and abuse interwoven with a rocklike unwillingness to give in and a life-long defiance of being denied.
Addie may embarrass her children, but she doesn’t destroy them, the way Amanda Wingfield does in “The Glass Menagerie”. There remains in Addie always some of the “priestess” that Del knew her to be as a child. Addie is no Amanda Wingfield, and Munro means us to notice it.
The paradoxical co-existence of opposites within one person or one relationship or one reality is key to Munro’s belief system. That Addie (or any parent) might first seem a hero, then seem ridiculous, and then finally seem familiar and empathetic is the paradox of learning about our parents. Another example of Munro’s co-existence of opposites is that education might be a university classroom, it might be the studied, untutored observation of consciousness, and in addition, education might be the experience of making sense of all the differences, inconsistencies, and incongruities in all the stories you hear.
After the abusive brother leaves, Del is with her mother and she senses something “in the room like the downflash of a wing or knife”. The feeling is of both the beneficence and threat, simultaneously. With her brother’s departure, Addie feels both the chaos he threatens, and the power she has to deny him houseroom. Addie was capable of not so much re-writing her life as editing what didn’t serve.
Del talks about being a child: “By getting to a certain spot in the mirror I could make my mother and Fern Dougherty pull out like rubber bands, all wavering and hysterical, and I could make my own face droop disastrously down one side, as if I had had a stroke.” Writing can distort things. Part of what the Munro stories charge you to do is this: do not distort; always look at what you at from every angle.
I like Addie a lot. She believes in education, and she’s willing to move to town, rent an apartment, and take on a boarder to make sure her children can go to a good school. My grandmother did that, too. In this story, Del calls Addie ridiculous, different, eccentric, reckless, powerful, guileless, absurd, stately, innocent, and unassailable. Munro also has Del call her a wild-woman, a priestess, and a princess, while also accusing her of being humiliating. In other words, Addie’s a person of paradox and complexity, just like the rest of us. The story sutures the comic into the tragic, the philosophic into the intensely personal. This is a sprawling story about heroism, women’s rights, education, and the childishness of children, as well as the nature of storytelling, all held together by Addie’s courage and Del’s daring to write about her, provincial, homely, and female though she is.