“Connection,” which is, as the larger title suggests, the first part of a larger (albeit still short) story, was, for me, a refreshing return to Munro’s wheelhouse, a favorite place of mine which I felt was abandoned to disappointing effect in the last half of The Beggar Maid. Here Munro exercises incredible control. The entire story is 18 pages. In the first ten pages, Munro gives us the nuanced (though never confusing) family history of our narrator, a history which at various moments grant our narrator a sense of pride or shame. This is followed by a couple of pages in which the narrator intermingles this history, and the time in her youth when it mattered, with her devastating current marriage. The final few pages give us a scene where all of the connections we’ve been talking about collide and begin to sever.
The story begins with a lovely memory. The narrator’s mother is a Chaddeley, and once when the narrator was young her mother’s four female cousins came to visit them. These women were single and, to the narrator, accomplished. They were her connection to the larger and alluring world she could only imagine from her home in the Canadian countryside. Her family was too poor to do any visiting, which is why the cousins came to them.
These women are wonderfully drawn. They’re quick to laugh at silly things, obviously enjoying this time together, themselves harboring a host of memories that grants them a closeness even if for years they’ve been so far apart.
They are also bonded by family heritage, even if that heritage is murky. The cousins’ grandfather, the Chaddeley of the title, was an Englishman. This set them apart from many of their neighbors, and it allowed them to enjoy a degree of self-satisfaction:
It is a fact that Canadians of Scottish — which in Huron County we called Scotch — and Irish descent will tell you quite freely that their ancestors came out during the potato famine, with only the rags on their backs, or that they were shepherds, agricultural laborers, poor landless people. But anyone whose ancestors came from England will have some sotry of black sheep or younger sons, financial reverses, lost inheritances, elopements with unsuitable partners. There may be some amount of truth in this; conditions in Scotland and Ireland were such as to force wholesale emigration, while Englishmen may have chosen to leave home for more colorful, personal reasons.
The mystery about the Chaddeley heritage, the potential for intrigue and maybe even some lost wealth and claim to noble stock, offers a tenuous sense of pride to the descendants. It isn’t long, though, before the narrator realizes that it is all misguided, just wishful thinking, simply a source of false pride. Her father’s ancestors, the Fleming side of the title, come from Scotland. There were not pretensions to wealth or a noble past from his side of the family. As the narrator realizes later, the Chaddeley claims to a noble past are embarrassing, and she wondered “if my father and I didn’t harbor in our hearts, intact and unassailable notions of superiority, which my mother and her cousins with their innocent snobbishness could never match.”
It’s that sentiment the narrator takes into adulthood. She finds out her great-grandpa, the one who came from England, maybe after getting kicked out of Oxford, maybe because he married the servant girl, was a butcher’s apprentice in England . . . so, probably not as noble as the stories someone told long ago had suggested. If her Fleming heritage led her to an impoverished childhood household, the Chaddeley heritage stunk of pretensions that only highlighted just how impoverished that heritage was as well.
Years later the narrator finds herself in an awful marriage to Richard, a wealthy man with his own family connections and sense of pride, who, she feels (and she’s right), wants to amputate “that past which seemed to him such shabby baggage; he was on the lookout for signs that the amputation was not complete; and of course it wasn’t.” The narrator finds herself constantly trying to distance herself from her past while simultaneously playing up any positive aspect of it, hoping he will find something to respect. It’s at this time that her Aunt Iris, one of the remaining cousins, calls up to visit. Iris was a nurse in America, and the narrator hopes that will be something for her husband to admire.
When Iris arrives, she is tired from a hike up the hill to the narrator’s home. The narrator, see, did not want to ask Richard to pick up Iris: “I would not say I was afraid to ask him; I simply wanted to keep things from starting off on the wrong foot, by making him do what he hadn’t offered to do.” She offers excuses, saying she doesn’t drive and that Richard was busy. Iris responds by saying it’s okay; “I’m all out of puff just now but I’ll be all right in a minute. It’s carrying the lard that does it. Serves me right.”
It’s the first moment of the visit, and it’s a moment of horror:
As soon as she said all out of puff, and carrying the lard, I knew how things were going to go, with Richard. It hadn’t even taken that. I knew as soon as I saw her on my doorstep, her hair, which I remembered as gray-brown, now gilt and sprayed into a foamy pile, her sumptuous peacock-blue dress decorated at one shoulder with a sort of fountain of gold spray. Now that I think of it, she looked splendid.
But at the time, the narrator could only fear how this visit would affect her relationship with Richard, not necessarily because she valued her marital relationship with Richard. On the contrary, by this time Richard is a foe. The narrator is seeking some higher ground. She hopes he will stop bullying her past out of her. She recognizes, when Iris arrives, that she’ll be losing ground.
The visit is a fascinating battle scene, and it isn’t just the narrator and her husband marshaling forces on the field. Iris brings up that visit the cousins made to their “small-town” cousin those years ago.
Whatever the reason, her tone when she spoke of Dalgleish and my parents was condescending. I don’t think she wanted to remind me of home, and put me in my place; I think she wanted to establish herself, to let me know that she belonged here, more than there.
As the evening wears on, history rewrites itself yet again. A beautiful memory shows its true colors. Maybe.
I had to wonder if this was all it amounted to, the gaiety I remembered; the gaiety and generosity, the worldliness. It would be better to think that time had soured and thinned and made commonplace a brew that used to sparkle, that difficulties had altered us both, and not for the better.
“Connection” ends with something akin to horror. The narrator remembers lying in bed next to her sister, listening to the aunts sing “Row Your Boat” in a round in another room. The confusion of the rounds, of the various voices, not exactly complementing each other, and then one by one dying out to “Life is but a dream.” It’s a fascinating take on identity, how it is formed and deformed by the connections in our life, the ones we long for, the ones we fear, the ones that betray us, the ones that turned out to be a mocking forgery. It’s a masterful start to this collection of stories and to a new decade of Munro’s work.
“Chaddeleys and Flemings” is actually two separate short stories: “Connection” and “The Stone in the Field.” But the stories make a pair: they tell about a woman writer’s family of origin, the aunts on both sides, and the sense of connection she has to her father and mother and her mother’s sisters. Brutality is a theme: the brutality of life in the Canadian bush, and the brutality of the young woman’s wealthy, self-entitled husband.
“Connection” tells how Cousin Iris, “stouter than ever,” came to visit, and with her visit come many vivid memories of the young wife’s childhood. “Connection” is actually the story, however, of the rupture of a marriage, the last awakening from the last marital “dream.”
The cousins, Iris, Isabel, Flora, and Winifred, were “maiden ladies,” a nurse, a shop-owner, a teacher, and an accountant. Munro doesn’t explain, but these women were determined. They had blasted an independent life for themselves out of sheer will power, given that it wasn’t so easy for women to make a go of it then as it might be now. They were all heavy, but they tried to be stylish, they were undaunted, and they smoked.
The cousins trailed brave worldliness: presents of stockings and scarves, and a five pound box of chocolates. The little girl who is the grown-up telling this story enjoys the visit; later the following winter she would open the empty chocolate box and “[inhale] their smell of artifice and luxury.” The cousins have left their mark. The little girl treasured the names of the chocolates: “hazelnut, creamy nougat, Turkish delight, golden toffee, peppermint cream.”
The cousins giggled, they sang, they shushed, and “they imitated things they had heard on the street.” Every day they had an activity: berry picking, fishing, dress-up, and even a variety show. They sound like fun, and they said things like they were “prostrated.” And they told stories about the things they had learned about people.
Connection. That was what it was all about. The cousins were a show in themselves, but they also provided a connection. A connection with the real, and prodigal, and dangerous, world. They knew how to get on in it, they had made it take notice.
The cousins also provided a connection to a mysteriously grander past, to a grandfather who had left England and lorded it over other people even though he was just a postal clerk. Mostly, though, the cousins were so full of life that they gave the little girl a sense of clan, though Munro doesn’t precisely say so. The mother is so taken with their visit she stands on her head at one point. They were fun to have around.
The story emphasizes the way people romanticize their forebears, and the way the truth is something else again. Their grandfather, for instance, had not attended Oxford, as he had hinted, but was in fact a butcher’s apprentice.
So now, years later, Cousin Iris comes to visit and has dinner with the grown-up girl and her husband. .
We learn that Richard, the young wife’s husband, can only say the name of her hometown “as if it were a clot of something unpleasant.” The couple, it turns out, “had reached a point in [their] marriage where no advantage was given up easily.” There is a lot of conflict in the marriage over Richard’s wealth and the wife’s poverty. Richard wanted his wife “amputated from [her] past.”
Regardless of the fairness with which the wife recounts the situation, she admits that she often makes things worse, almost on purpose. But what I hear is one of the signal traits of an abusive husband: the one where the husband actively prevents his wife from seeing her family. This is closely associated with the secondary trait of the classic abusive husband: he makes a habit of humiliation in his exchanges with his wife.
With that, Cousin Iris comes to visit, her hair sprayed into a “foamy pile” and her dress “a sumptuous peacock-blue.” Goaded by Richard’s surliness, the wife can hardly enjoy the visit of this woman who “was in favor of movement, noise, change, flashiness, hilarity and courage.”
Richard makes sure to neither pick the cousin up at her hotel or drive her back; he lets her take the bus. Bullied by her husband, the wife gives in and allows all this to happen. When the cousin is gone, ever the lout, Richard comments, “What a pathetic old tart.”
The wife “threw a pyrex plate at his head.” The plate missed him, but he did catch a little of the pie. The event was a “shocking verdict.” The narrator has already told us that she eventually divorced Richard, but this is the story of the night she realized she was done.
Munro makes a point of comparing the event to a Lucille Ball stunt, and in fact says it was none of that at all. After all, a pyrex pie plate is large and heavy, and had it connected with Richard’s nose, for instance, it would have broken it, or even knocked him out. This was an incredibly violent act.
But the reader was ready for it. The wife had loved the cousins, had loved how they made her mother feel, and had loved their adventurous spirit. As I write this I feel short of breath. When Richard insisted on the worthlessness of the wife’s family, he insists as well on her worthlessness, and he changes her into someone who would mistreat a relative in order to keep order in her house.
Munro says that when the girl-wife throws the heavy glass pie plate at her husband, it was shocking, because it was a “verdict.” What was the verdict? That the wife was at her wit’s end? That the husband was abusive? That the wife could finally see it? That the wife had finally summoned up her courage to break the spell?
This story was first published in 1979 in Saturday Night, a Canadian magazine probably like the Saturday Evening Post. The audience probably enjoyed the nostalgic nature of the story, and women may have enjoyed the poignant portrayal of the housewife who knows she is mistreating a relative because she has no choice.
But the ending of the story allows no such comfort. The wife commits a violent act, and, in so doing, forfeits the wealth she had probably always craved and shatters the reader’s assumption that the wife lacks all backbone. The ending is a shocker and very satisfying. Most women put up and shut up, and are corrupted (Munro makes sure to point out) by the man’s continual demands, but this woman breaks out. It’s not exactly casual reading. Connections to the past are severed, as are connections to wealth, and most of all, the connection to an abusive husband. Once again, a Munro woman breaks out, even if it’s a mess and a hopeless situation all around. It’s the breaking out that counts.