“Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” can be demented love story, a murder mystery, or simply a family drama with gothic roots, but it is certainly a story about secrets. Et, one of the most terrifying characters we’ve met in an Alice Munro story, is a bitter, deeply envious outsider of her sister’s love life. Even at the end, even her sister is dead and gone, she can barely resist the urge to do some final damage by sharing a secret. As I alluded to above, in a perverse way, “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” is Et’s love story, only we know it’s dark because Et considers “lovers” to be “not a soft word, as people thought, but cruel and tearing.”
For at least half a century, Et harbors a great deal of resentment for her beautiful older sister, Char. When the story begins, sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, Et and Char are older, Char “like a ghost now, with her hair gone white.” Yet the third-person narration, closely following Et’s perspective says Char is still beautiful, “should couldn’t lose it,” as if beauty were an act of will that Et finds repugnant. It may well be.
After a thirty year absence Blaikie Noble has returned to town. Char and Blaikie were once “lovers,” though Et never knows just how far they went. At the end of their summer together — the summer of 1918 — Blaikie married someone else, a woman who was at least forty years old. He’s come back to town single after being widowed twice over. He doesn’t have much to show for the years he’s been gone.
The story goes back and forth quite a bit, from the present summer when Blaikie has reappeared to the 1910s when Char and Et were young. We learn, somewhat digressively, that Char and Et had a younger brother who drowned when he was just seven. We learn this as Et “remembered the first time she understood that Char was beautiful”:
She was looking at a picture taken of them, of Char and herself and their brother who was drowned. Et was ten in the picture, Char was fourteen and Sandy seven, just a couple of weeks short of all he would ever be.
Even at this early date, when Et is ten and throughout her early teens, Et resents Char, whose beauty is otherworldly, statuesque. We are not entirely certain why she resents her sister so early in life. Perhaps it stems from Sandy’s death, which is somehow attached to Et. Perhaps it’s more to do with the fact that Et is four years younger than Char, never knows what kind of relationship Char and Blaikie have, and feels left out of this side of life entirely, she herself never having a relationship with anyone.
All she knows is that one night she saw Char outside with Blaikie. She doesn’t know what state they were in, only that she had seen her sister “when she lost her powers, abdicated.” As she thinks about this moment, she thinks a seemingly random thought: “Sandy drowned, with green stuff clogging his nostrils, couldn’t look more lost than that.”
When Blaikie leaves and marries, Char swallows what she hopes will be poison but what actually just makes her sick. Somehow, they move on in life. Char marries Et’s highschool history teacher, Arthur. It seems that Et may be in love with him, or at least it’s some kind of competition to win some of his affections from her sister, especially since Char does not love Arthur. At first all three live together, but Et finally leaves to start her own life:
“Why do you have to go off and live by yourself anyway?” [Arthur] scolded her. “You ought to come back and live with us.”
“Three’s a crowd.”
“It wouldn’t be for long. Some man is going to come along some day and fall hard.”
“If he was such a fool as to do that I’d never fall for him, so we’d be back where we started.”
“I was a fool that fell for Char, and she ended up having me.”
Just the way he said her name indicated that Char was above, outside, all ordinary considerations — a marvel, a mystery. No one could hope to solve her, they were lucky just being allowed to contemplate her.
Et continues to foster a desire to usurp her sister, to challenge her sister. She knows her sister is not perfect (she saw the way she looked when she was with Blaikie).
There is a lot going on here as Alice Munro explores the idea of image and reality. Under the surface, Char is a mess. She maintains her figure by regurgitating her food — and she is still in love with Blaikie, the man she almost killed herself for decades earlier.
And though I think Et is a terrifying character, maybe Char is the more terrifying of the two. We just don’t get a clear picture of her, just as Et never can pin her down. When we first meet Arthur he’s old and ill. Blaikie has just returned to town and comes over to keep company and play games. Later that summer, Et finds a bottle of rat poison in the cupboard. She doesn’t know why it’s there. It doesn’t look like it’s been used. And yet . . . there is a strong implication that Char is poisoning Arthur, hoping to get back with Blaikie. Et obviously suspects this, though she doesn’t come out and say it:
All those battles, and wars, and terrible things, what did Arthur know about such affairs, why was he so interested? He knew nothing. He did not know why things happened, why people could not behave sensibly. He was too good. He knew about history but not about what went on, in front of his eyes, in his house, anywhere. Et differed from Arthur in knowing that something went on, even if she could not understand why; she differed from him in knowing there were those you could not trust.
But maybe nothing is happening. Et checks the bottle every time she visits and there is no indication its contents are diminishing. And yet . . .
Et cruelly sees her opportunity. When Blaikie leaves at the end of the summer, Et implies that he has hooked up with another woman. Why”
Only to throw things into confusion, for she believed then that somebody had to, before it was too late.
Char leaves the room, and soon she is dead. The rat poison is gone. Arthur “lived on and on.” Et moves back in to take care of him and herself, her “eyesight not as good as it used to be.”
What on earth has happened? We have ideas, of course. Perhaps Char committed suicide. Perhaps she simply died; the means she has used to “take care of her body” are not healthy. In any case, the story makes us think back to another death Et may have had a hand in. It’s never resolved. And why did Et think of Sandy after she saw Char kissing Blaikie all those years ago? Does Arthur have any idea of what’s gone on in these women’s hearts? Was it Arthur?
If the story is a bit too loose, I forgive it. Munro will tighten things up in later stories, and this is a dark start to the complexities of the heart that Munro will continue to explore in this collection. It also has a brilliant final paragraph:
Sometimes Et had it on the tip of her tongue to say to Arthur, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” She didn’t believe she was going to let him die without knowing. He shouldn’t be allowed. He kept a picture of Char on his bureau. It was the one taken of her in her costume for that play, where she played the statue-girl. But Et let it go, day to day. She and Arthur still played rummy and kept up a bit of garden, along with raspberry canes. If they had been married, people would have said they were very happy.
“Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” is the title story of a book Alice Munro published in 1974. The decade that preceded 1974 marked the height of the women’s movement, often referred to as “Women’s Liberation.” The contraceptive pill became available in 1960; Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed; the National Organization for Women was founded in 1966; Our Bodies, Our Selves was published in 1971; and Ms. magazine burst into print in 1973. Alice Munro’s own life mirrored the tumult: at about the time she was finishing and publishing Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You she became divorced from her husband of twenty years, moved a half a continent away to take up a new life not far from her hometown, and settled into producing stories steadily for the next 40 years.
Given the time and milieu within which this book came into being, the title story has, on the surface, nothing to do with women’s liberation. The story begins in about 1912, when the two sisters, Et and Char, are about 10 and 14, the year their little seven-year-old brother drowns. It ends almost fifty years later, when the younger sister has been retired for a while. The story is told within the moral compass of the younger sister Et, and, given that she is a spinster who has made her living as a seamstress, she is not a candidate, as are some of the other women in the book, to illuminate the tumbling rush and conflict of the 1960s.
The title alone, however, speaks to the time: “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You.” Thousands of women writers wrote all kinds of essays, manifestos, polemics, articles, books, novels, and poetry saying “something” to “someone” that had been on their minds for quite a while.
It’s Et who has something to say, and yet she has held off saying it for years, even though the man to whom she wants to say it is nearing the end of his life and would probably be grievously and undeservedly hurt by it. She still holds this wish dear — that she will tell him what he needs to know — that “he shouldn’t be allowed.” She means, he shouldn’t be allowed to be deceived, even if knowing the truth will kill him.
The trouble is, Et is “a terror.” There is the slightest possibility that she is responsible for her brother’s drowning, and there is the definite fact that she is responsible for the sexual appropriation of her sister’s husband, albeit with her sister’s tacit consent. There is the possibility that she wants to destroy Arthur’s confident faith in Char’s beauty, and there is the fact that a lie she tells appears to result in Char’s suicide.
So how does this story fit into the consciousness of the time?
Starting with the sister’s odd names, there is a pattern of brokenness and unfinished promise: Char for Charlotte, Et for Harriet, perhaps. Char for burned, Et for eating or eaten. These sisters are shadows of what they could have been, both of them sexually unsatisfied, both denied, one an idle, beautiful parasite, and the other as mean as a snake. One of them tries to poison herself, not once, but twice, and the other is casually poisonous to other people. What happened? Was it that one of them or one of their parents was responsible for their little brother’s drowning? Was it that the drowning was something from which their mother never recovered, essentially leaving them motherless? Or was it that 14-year-old Et, one night when she couldn’t sleep, saw her older sister Char out in the dark yard having sex with Blaikie under the lilac?
If, in fact, Et was somehow responsible for the little brother’s death, or thought she was responsible — having this hold over her sister, this knowledge of her liaison — evens the score.
I think that the truth that Munro is trying to get at is that liberation is a complex affair. One can be imprisoned by a sister’s jealousy, as much as by a wicked patriarch. In fact, the father hardly figures in the sorrows of these two sisters. In the course of the story, Munro alludes to ghost stories, murder, death by poison and mystery, suggesting that imprisonment can have complicated origins.
Munro closes the story by saying of the fraternal pair, the brother- and sister-in-law, Arthur and Et, that “If they had been married, people would have said they were very happy.” They are neither married nor very happy. They have half selves, but for reasons far darker than those the women’s movement intended to address. It’s not just male chauvinists, it’s not just inequality, it’s not just reproductive rights. Some people, like Et, do evil things, and it is difficult to survive when you are bound to such a person.
What is interesting, especially in relation to the explosion of writing that was occurring at the time, is that Et is someone who makes up things, says things that aren’t true. In a way, she is a writer and a story-teller, but her stories contain lies that have very bad effects. At one point she thinks, “She never knew where she got the inspiration to say what she said, where it came from. She had not planned it at all, yet it came so easily, believably.” So when Et thinks, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” the reader doesn’t trust her at all.
Placing this story where she does, as the title story and as the first story, at the height of the women’s movement, Munro highlights her concern about the writer’s responsibilities: that what is written might not always be true.
This title story, this introductory story, sets the stage of the book: you must assume that what you hear may be only a partial iteration, like the girls’ names, and in effect, a dangerous lie.
“Even as I most feverishly, desperately practise it,” Alice Munro has written, “I am a little afraid that the work with words may turn out to be a questionable trick, an evasion (and never more so than when it is most dazzling, apt and striking) an unavoidable lie.” *
It’s not that Alice Munro is not a feminist, it’s that she is first a humanist. I think the stories yet to come will demonstrate a fine interest in the way the feminist movement played out, but, always, Munro is most interested in the way people lie unavoidably, and the way one person’s point of view is inescapably blindered and broken — like the girls’ names.
* from Alice Munro’s essay, “The Colonel’s Hash Resettled,” which was published in The Narrative Voice, edited by John Metcalf and published in Toronto by McGraw-Hill Ryerson in 1972, on page 182 (here).