Friendships between schoolgirls like Jessie and MaryBeth — for that is how their names are properly spelled, although they like to pretend to be Jesse and Meribeth — are complicated.
It’s not the first time Alice Munro has grappled with the subject. The intricacies of relationships between schoolchildren also feature in “The Day of the Butterfly’ and “Half a Grapefruit” (Dance of the Happy Shades and Who Do You Think You Are?).
And female friendships are more specifically considered via Del’s relationship with Naomi in The Lives of Girls and Women and Rose’s relationship with Jocelyn in Who Do You Think You Are? across these linked collections.
But complicated, yes.
Though it’s not like that in books, as Jessie explains:
“In the books I had read all through my childhood, girls were bound two by two in fast friendship, in exquisite devotion. They promised never to tell each other’s secrets or keep anything hidden from each other, or form a deep and lasting friendship with any other girl.”
The “code” that Jessie describes is pulled directly from the L.M. Montgomery stories that Munro has openly professed to adoring, particularly the Emily stories. But Emily’s friendship with Ilsa, though it does follow the rules that Jessie discusses, had its roots in Anne’s friendship with Diana.
Anne and Diana met in Anne of Green Gables and from the moment of their meeting, wherein they recognized each other to be kindred spirits, they were exquisitely devoted, indeed.
They followed all the rules that Jessie describes (and the passage goes on at some length), marrying, yes, but always preserving their devotion to their friendship, even naming their daughters after one another.
And in the books, although sometimes Anne is a little disappointed with Diana (and, to be fair, Diana sometimes a tiny bit frustrated with Anne), they remain bosom friends without serious incident. As do Emily and Ilse, with a single hiccup in each friendship, which is resolved and only intensifies their lifelong bond.
In real life, however, the relationships which served as a composite model for these friendships in L.M. Montgomery’s fiction were less satisfying. (This is discussed in her journals, which were published by Oxford University Press.)
They were, yes, complicated.
Jessie seems disposed towards putting a hearty portion of the responsibility for her troubled relationship with her friend on MaryBeth, who “was adept at small fibs, gentle refusals”.
But only two pages earlier, Jessie mentions that she wasn’t always truthful. “That wasn’t true, but I believed it,” she says.
(Quite possibly, the reader thinks, MaryBeth believed her “small fibs” too. Or, at least, believed that a gentle refusal was the kinder of two choices.)
“Beside MaryBeth, I felt that I was a crude piece of work altogether, with my strong legs and hefty bosom – robust and sweaty and ill-clad, undeserving, grateful. And at the same time, deeply, naturally, unspeakably, unthinkably – I could not speak or think about it – superior.”
Nonetheless, the girls are united in many respects, against the teacher, for instance, who refuses to address Jessie as Jesse (it is a boy’s name, she declares, and as readers of “Boys and Girls” in Dance of the Happy Shades will recall, that might as well be another dimension, socially).
“Neither MaryBeth nor I expected anything but the most artificial, painful, formal contact with the world of adults.”
Yet, ironically, the strain on their friendship is rooted in just that, contact with the world of adults.
Some of that contact is real, but much of it is manufactured. And not by our practiced teller of small fibs, but by Jessie, who spins a web of lies about her relationship with a man who is vaguely known to both girls. (There is, however, a real relationship with his wife, which is quite interesting in its own right.)
“I had to keep arranging and rearranging things, then fit them into place by means of the bits of information I chose to give out. I consummated the affair but did not tell her, and was glad afterward because I decided to unconsummated it. I couldn’t adequately imagine….”
Finally, progress in love (after so many stories in which there was no love, only grudges, or in which there was love, but regression rather than progress).
But it is invented. And then revised, replaced. Is that the only kind of progress that’s possible?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the seventh in The Progress of Love, with next Thursday reserved for “Eskimo”.