“The Beggar Maid” was originally published in “The New Yorker” in June 1977.
It’s hard to imagine that chunk of glossy pages, for it’s one of the longer stories (with “Mischief”) in the collection.
It’s also hard to imagine reading “The Beggar Maid” without knowing everything about Rose that you’ve learned from reading the last four stories in Who Do You Think You Are?
(Really, I thought it was more than four short stories: it feels like I’ve known Rose for so much longer than that.)
When I first read the story, I mis-understood the first line:
“Patrick Blatchford was in love with Rose.”
I thought I was going to read a story about Rose falling in love. That was completely my mistake.
You can see it there, those seven words.
It does not read “Patrick Blatchford and Rose were in love.”
But it is a common teaching, perhaps even a common mistake.
Having someone in love with you is often equated to being in love, although you don’t have to feel an iota of love yourself.
Being worthy of someone else’s love makes you worthwhile? Perhaps it’s even better than loving? Or better than being loved for yourself?
There are lots of muddles, lots of misunderstandings surrounding such things, in the lives of girls and women, in Alice Munro’s short stories.
It’s not named, but this not-a-love-story, “The Beggar Maid”, takes place in London, Ontario. Rose is living with a professor (Dr. Henshawe) near Gibbons Park, she travels through Victoria Park to Patrick’s apartment, and she attends The University of Western Ontario.
Nancy Falls and Rose sell their blood at Victoria Hospital, for fifteen dollars each, and they spent “most of the money on evening shoes, tarty silver sandals”.
(You can hear Flo’s voice there, right? Well, you can if you’ve read the earlier stories, but not if you were reading this story in “TNY”.)
Part of the story seems to broadcast that fact, taking place in an airport, with no single setting more evocative of a transitory state.
And, actually, more of the story takes place in that airport than we realize until its final pages.
Rose has seen Patrick in the airport, after many years have passed, and the reader realizes that she has really only thought all of this, brought it all together in her mind, because of that sighting, because of their exchange.
It has fundamentally altered all that had happened before. Regardless of how she once thought of it, after this exchange, everything about her understanding of her relationship with Patrick is altered.
For readers of the collection, this is a vitally important story. Not only because of the stage-of-life shifts for Rose, but because readers now understand something of the vantage point that the narrator has.
“Sometimes when Rose was talking to someone in front of the television cameras she would sense the desire in them to make a face. She would sense it in all sorts of people, in skillful politicians and witty liberal bishops and honored humanitarians, in housewives who had witnessed natural disasters and in workmen who had performed heroic rescues or been cheated out of disability pensions.”
Perhaps Rose really was “too smart for her own good” as her father warned in “Half a Grapefruit”, but now readers have a sense of to whom Rose is speaking, when she would “queen it over them” with her stories of scandals and squalor from when she had been poor (in “Privilege”).
Rose stands in front of an audience. In front of those cameras. She is as much observed now, as she was in that classroom being questioned about her breakfast choices. And she, in turn, yet observes just as closely as she once attended to the subtle back-and-forth of her father and Flo in “Royal Beatings”. She dissects micro-expressions like she once dissected the movements of a man’s newspaper in “Wild Swans”.
Oh, it’s impossible to imagine reading this story without the others (though obviously many do, and still admire the work). And, yet, the observations on class and femininity and desperation are all-of-a-piece with the collection.
But how could you not think of all the shame and disgrace and pretense and Flo’s warnings from earlier stories when reading this bit: “They were longing to sabotage themselves, to make a face or say a dirty word. Was this the face they all wanted to make? To show somebody, to show everybody?”
Without that background, Rose, in this story, would seem alien, cruel, hysterical.
With the background, Rose is, simply, Rose. “For all that Patrick Blatchford was in love with her.”
And even with the close reading, with spending a chunk of time reading and thinking about the story, it wasn’t until now that I actually realized that — as much as I’ve tried to avoid one of the major spoilers in this discussion — with the verb tense in that sentence, it acts as a summary document.
It amazes me: what a single sentence in an Alice Munro story can hold.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s story collection Who Do You Think You Are?, which will continue on subsequent Thursdays. Please feel free to join in, for the series, or for a single story. My Alice Munro reading project began with Dance of the Happy Shades, followed by Lives of Girls and Women, and Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, and I aim to read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors.
Next week’s story is “Mischief”. Care to join in?