“The Beggar Maid”
by Alice Munro
from The Beggar Maid

The-Beggar-MaidTrevor

In the United States, “The Beggar Maid,” the sad story in which Rose goes to college and meets and courts, and then marries and divorces the wealthy Patrick, had its title taken to represent the book of linked stories as a whole. Outside of the United States, though, this book is not called The Beggar Maid; rather, the book takes its title from the final story: Who Do You Think You Are? At this point in the book, about halfway through, I think it makes sense to stop and look at each title as they work with this particular story and then with the book as a whole.

Let’s start with “The Beggar Maid,” as it’s the title of the very piece we’re reading in the book of the same title. The appellation refers to the African King Cophetua, who fell in love with a beggar named Penelophon. The tale goes back to at least Elizabethan times, coming up as it does in several of Shakespeare’s plays. In the Victorian era, Tennyson wrote a poem inspired by the tale, two painters portrayed it on canvas, and Lewis Carroll took a famous and now scandalous picture which he called “Alice as ‘Beggar-Maid.'” In the tale, the King scatters coins in the street to attract Penelophon, and it works. She comes, he tells her they are to wed, and they do. She becomes regal and her past is washed away. That tale ends happily, the couple happy together in life and buried together in death. It’s a story that, because it is told to Rose, begins to shape Rose.

As we’ve been reading so far in The Beggar Maid, our protagonist Rose comes from the poor side of Hanratty. She gets herself in a pickle often when she tries to suggest she is better than her roots, as she does in “Half a Grapefruit.” And yet she exceeds expectations. She does well in school, gets a scholarship, and now we see her in college.

Still, she’s poor. This fact is emphasized again and again in this story because Rose meets Patrick, a wealthy young man — very wealthy, it turns out — and their courtship causes many uncomfortable confrontations. Rose is deeply uncomfortable when she visits his family, knowing that her clothing shows just how fake her pretensions are. Patrick is also uncomfortable with Rose’s home, noting that she must be so glad to get away from there. It’s Patrick, even, who compares Rose to The Beggar Maid: he sees himself as a generous man who can provide for this beautiful though poor girl. That’s his story. She finds a place for herself within it.

And yet it isn’t, for either of them, all about the money (though we cannot deny that money plays a role). Rose makes this clear time and time again. She didn’t know how wealthy he was. Her reason for dating and eventually marrying Patrick, then, are a bit more mysterious than simple financial security. Perhaps it’s because with him she can finally be the person she sees herself as being. Wealth is an aspect of that, but it is not the heart of the matter: the heart of the matter is the story she tells to herself and to others. Stories, again, influence the actual life she’s living.

Which brings me to the other title: “Who Do You Think You Are?” While the phrase is commonly thrown at someone who seems to be reaching above their station, the word “think” is important when it comes to Rose because it is integral to her own idea of her identity. Her step-mother shouts this phrase at her just before Rose is going to receive one of the royal beatings from the first story, “Royal Beatings.” Rose is constantly testing her “place,” and is often thrown into a space delineated by someone else. With Patrick, then, it isn’t about his money; it’s about the role he’s given Rose. In his story, she is lovely and loved — she is able to wash away the shameful aspects of her past.

All because of a story she tells herself and others.

I bring that up again because it’s with stories that Rose manages to shape and define the story of her failed marriage to Patrick as “The Beggar Maid” comes to a close. At the end, she tells those around her stories of her poverty and rise to wealth, managing to tame this shame a bit through a mixture of humor and “raw truth.” She tells stories about the failed marriage.

But as in so many of the other stories in The Beggar Maid, these stories hide as much as — no, more than — they tell. These stories allow Rose to make her story both exciting and conventional. She can share the frustration without sharing the tender heartache, for example, that she must feel when she remembers the twinge of happiness. She tells no one about the twinge of happiness.

When Betsy sent me an email about our trek through this book, she noted that Munro is harder on Rose than she was on Del, the protagonist in Lives of Girls and Women. I agree, and I think each is a fascinating exploration into the confines of the lives of girls and women. We cheered Del on, thrilled to see her go experience life outside of the parameters placed around her by her upbringing and sex. We want the best for Rose, too, but Rose is, it seems to me, much more interested in “story” than in “truth.” That way she can really think who she is without considering the rhetorical question inherent in “Who do you think you are?”


Betsy

The divorce rate in the United States suddenly doubled between 1965 and 1979 and peaked in 1981. This period mirrors the widespread availability of the pill as a contraceptive, the publication in 1966 of The Human Sexual Response by Masters and Johnson, and the concomitant sexual revolution. These startling developments paralleled very closely the rise and fall of second wave feminism, in which women began to feel they no longer had to be “the second sex” as defined by Simone de Beauvoir. It was a volcanic period when women were giddy with the possibilities for power and equality.

It was an especially rocky time for marriage in America.

It would not be surprising to read any number of stories from that period in which men were cast as the bad guy in a marriage and the reason for the marriage’s failure; if the specific man was not at fault, another popular cultural storyline would have been that the patriarchal culture was at fault, blocking not only women’s satisfaction within a marriage but also their participation in the culture at large.

One of the keys to Munro’s greatness is that while she is keenly interested in describing the 60s, she is not interested in simplistic political explanations. She is particularly interested in complexity, especially in situations where women are deeply unhappy. She is as willing to hold women to task as men — perhaps more so, even — as her stories usually see the world from a woman’s point of view. As for seductive economic and feminist theories, she is, in the end, agnostic.

“The Beggar Maid,” published in 1977, is a great story of a disastrous marriage between a rich, idealistic, and somewhat old-fashioned young man and a poor, ambitious, but somewhat aimless young woman. The story’s greatness derives from Munro’s determination to hold both husband and wife accountable, as well as from Munro’s consistently understated style. The issues in this marriage do not follow a conventional feminist party-line, and although the story explores the class difference between Patrick and Rose, it, in the end, refuses to use class as a can-opener. The story’s real inquiry is into self-delusion.

Patrick Blatchford was a history graduate student with “many chivalric notions,” and “it was clear that he [wished] to operate in a world of knights and ladies’ outrages; devotions.” He was not above using phrases such as “the fair sex” or “damsel in distress” in a kind of “pretended irony,” and when he fell violently in love with Rose, he made remarks like “I’m glad you’re poor. You’re so lovely. You’re like The Beggar Maid.”

The Beggar MaidPatrick was referring to a famous painting done in 1884 by Edward Burne Jones that depicts the legendary King Cophetua, who falls violently in love with a beggar and who lures her out into the open by scattering golden coins in the street. Patrick needed his wife to be grateful to him; he needed to be the master of the marriage situation. His family had no interest whatsoever in him marrying down; something in him and in him alone required that he have a wife at a disadvantage.

Patrick and Rose probably met in the fifties, when young women may have had ambitions, but most likely had no idea how to pursue them. Rose actually had the rare advantage and luxury of having a mentor. Dr. Henshawe had been in the habit of taking on one scholarship student a year as a resident in her home. Despite her encouragement, or because of her ineptitude as a mentor, most of the young women did not bite — that is, they didn’t go in for becoming spinster scholars.

Rose was no exception. In spite of her academic success, Rose’s ambitions were particularly unformed and naïve:

She wanted to perform in public. She thought she wanted to be an actress but she never tried to act, was afraid to go near the college drama productions. She knew she couldn’t sing or dance. She would have really liked to play the harp, but she had no ear for music. She wanted to be known and envied, slim and clever.

Unfortunately for Patrick, Rose’s ambitions played right into his myth: she loved the idea of being worshipped, and she enjoyed being envied. So when he proposed, she accepted. This was exceptionally unfortunate for Patrick, because no matter how idealistic and patronizing his love for her, at least he adored Rose. Rose, however, had almost no admiration or affection for Patrick, except that she adored being adored.

Munro is at her very best when a story places the conflict squarely within the main character. Rose, thinking about her choice to become Patrick’s fiancée, muses:

It was a miracle; it was a mistake. It was what she had dreamed of; it was not what she wanted.

She did not love Patrick, after all. And when the marriage devolved into a series of fights: “Sometimes she flew at him; sometimes he beat her.” Notice that Munro holds neither of them more responsible for the disaster that their marriage is, regardless that some people would hold the man more culpable than the woman, given that he had resorted to violence.

Rose had tried to back out before the wedding: she had told Patrick she did not love him and that she did not want to marry him. Patrick had said, “Let’s give it two weeks, let’s not see each other for two weeks.” Somehow, Rose was still wearing his ring, an emblem, perhaps, of what she would be giving up when she gave him up: the adoration, the envy, the social position, the big house. Suddenly, during this cooling off period, Rose saw her future revealed — a college drop-out in a dead-end job. Just at the moment she saw her future, she ran into Patrick, looking forlorn and vulnerable, and she “wanted to give him something, some surprising bounty [. . . .] This was a violent temptation for her; it was barely resistable.”

The backstory throughout is Patrick’s wealth and Rose’s poverty. We already know why Rose would be tempted to marry a rich man; she has always wanted to not be from West Hanratty. And then there’s the problem of Rose not being clear, minus a good marriage, how to actually escape from West Hanratty on her own. A twin back story is Patrick’s wealth and Rose’s beauty.

Perhaps we get a glimpse of why Patrick would want to marry a pauper and have dominance over her when Rose goes to visit his family. Rose observed the family as they “railed,” “jeered,” “complained,” “and wrangled” with one another. “She had never imagined so much true malevolence collected in one place.”

But Rose’s big mistake was this: the question of love aside, Rose married Patrick when she hardly respected him. What a fool Patrick was for love. What a fool Rose was for adulation.

The story is brutal; the “deceits and stratagems” took their toll.

They could not separate until enough damage had been done, until nearly mortal damage had been done.

Eventually, a wife throws a “gravy-boat through a dining room window.” Eventually a husband’s adoration is reduced to “disgust and loathing.”

Munro’s habitual use of multiple stories to reveal the complexity within the situation is not missing here. This time, however, the disparate stories are those Rose herself tells. In the tell-all seventies, after their divorce, she dines out on their marriage. At first, she tells stories that are in “economic terms” and that emphasize poverty and class, elitism and privilege. And yet, she doesn’t tell all. A story she tells just herself is this:

What she never said to anybody, never confided, was that she sometimes thought it had not been pity or greed or cowardice or vanity [that impelled them to stay in their marriage] but something quite different, like a vision of happiness [. . .] that sometimes, without reason or warning, happiness, the possibility of happiness, would surprise them.

Finally, she tries to tell us they could have been friends, except that Patrick loathed her. “How could anybody hate Rose so much,” asks Rose, “at the very moment she was ready to come forward with her good will [. . .]?” In this version, Rose is being generous and Patrick is being the bad guy, and yet the reader doesn’t buy it.

Tucked into the narrative is a confession that Rose tosses out and yet hardly seems to pay any mind. When given the opportunity to bestow herself on Patrick before their marriage, regardless of the truth of their relationship, “She could not resist such a test of power.”

Power negotiations between people are extremely important to Munro; as for Rose, she is blind to the fact, long after their marriage is over, that she is still trying to exercise power over Patrick — still trying to bestow herself on him. The story ends on a sardonic note: rather than admit the truth of the whole affair — that she never loved him — Rose once again could not “resist such a test of power,” that if she bestowed herself on him, he would capitulate to her. No dice. He’d had enough.

This is a great story about lying to yourself — and others. It’s a very inflammatory topic that Munro addresses with great understatement. Very revealing lines are tucked here and there which the characters take hardly any notice of. For instance, there is the fact the marriage was so bad, or Rose’s loss of her ambitions was so keen, that Rose would occasionally “beat her head against the bedpost.” Have you ever heard that sound? (Once, in college, I did; it is ghastly and terrifying. Soon, my classmate was rescued, sort of.) Who heard Rose when that hollow thunking was reverberating throughout the house? Her child?

Munro does not lecture or highlight. She leaves that for the reader to do or not. This reader thinks the crux of the matter was that Rose chose the wrong test of power: used her beauty to get a husband she didn’t love, rather than take her time to learn how to rely on herself. But the story is so suggestive it could accommodate any number of readings. Munro’s greatness lies in her rejection of simple answers.

What goes unstated is as important as what is understated: the one power which Rose possessed in volume — intellectual power — is cultivated carelessly. Rose resorts, instead, to seizing power through her beauty and sexuality, when more satisfaction might have been possible if she had had the opportunity, or made her own opportunity, to exercise or develop her own intellectual power.

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