Alice Munro’s hired girls like to read too.In “Sunday Afternoon”, Alva asks Mr. Gannett if she could borrow “King Lear” and, also, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.
Mr. Gannett agrees to share his books with Alva, just as Mr. Montjoy gifts the young Alice with his copy of Seven Gothic Tales at the end of the summer in “Hired Girl”, in The View from Castle Rock.
In Mavis Gallant’s “Bernadette”, Robbie Knight also loans Bernadette Le rouge et le noir, as well as L’Amant de Lady Chatterley, La porte etroite, and one of the Claudine books.
Oh, the disappointments and betrayals: love is not all what one hoped. Neither for servant girls nor married folks.
Bernadette has moved from Abitibi to work for the Knights, Robbie and Nora, who have been married for nearly 16 years. Robbie is a consulting engineer, the ‘Knight’ of Turnbull, Knight & Beardsley. In many ways, they are the establishment.
“They considered themselves solidly united. Like many people no longer in love, they cemented their relationship with opinions, pet prejudices, secret meanings, a private vocabulary that enabled them to exchange amused glances over a dinner table and made them feel a shade superior to the world outside the house.”
When readers meet her, and when the Knights meet her, Bernadette dreams of a more satisfying unity, even if she can’t really describe it. “She believed in love and in uncomplicated stories of love, even though it was something she had never experienced or seen around her.”
But the concept seems somewhat removed, not only from her daily life and experience, but from the world around her. “She did not really expect it to happen to her, or to anyone she knew.”
Bernadette carries with her, within her, not only an absence of hope, but a kind of darkness, a sense of impending loss. “Death and small children were inextricably knotted in Bernadette’s consciousness. As a child she had watched an infant brother turn blue and choke to death. She had watched two others die of diphtheria.”
Her mother had 13 children in 15 years and only six of them survived. Bernadette’s family situatin and size is significant because Mrs. Knight has begun to suspect that Bernadette is pregnant, although she has no intentions of addressing the matter.
Partly because she simply doesn’t wish to. “In spite of her own motherhood, Nora detested, with a sort of fastidious horror, any of the common references to pregnancy. But even to herself, now, she could think of Bernadette only in terms of the most vulgar expressions, the terminology her own family (long discarded, never invited here) had employed. Owing to a ‘mistake’, Bernadette was probably ‘caught’.”
Partly because it seems to imply a quiet betrayal on the part of Nora’s husband, Robbie, as well as a betrayal of the assumptions Nora had made about Bernadette. “She is so uninnocent, Nora thought, surprised and a little repelled. It occurred to her that in spite of her long marriage and her two children, she knew less than Bernadette.”
Nonetheless, Nora believes she has made both overt and unspoken agreements with Robbie, determined to build a life which satisfies them both.
“She agreed that his real life was the theatre, with the firm a practical adjunct. She was sensible: she did not ask that he sell his partnership and hurl himself into uncertainty and insecurity – a prospect that would have frightened him very much indeed. She understood that it was the firm that kept them going, that paid for the girls at St. Margaret’s and the trip to Europe every second summer. It was the firm that gave Nora leisure and scope for her tireless battles with the political and ecclesiastical authorities of Quebec.”
But Robbie remains dissatisfied. And Nora’s version is, at least, contradictory. (She is more resigned than content, and with these fresh questions about compromise, she is more angry than resigned.)
“He had decided, that winter, to reread some of the writers who had influenced him as a young man. He began this project with the rather large idea of summing himself up as a person, trying to find out what had determined the direction of his life. In college, he remembered, he had promised himself a life of action and freedom and political adventure. Perhaps everyone had then. But surely he, Robbie Knight, should have moved on to something other than a pseudo-Tudor house in a suburb of Montreal.”
So, then, it’s not so much about direction as misdirection. Somewhere, things have gone awry. And not just for Robbie. (But Robbie is seemingly most concerned about Robbie.)
At first, even the young Bernadette offers no glimpse of something more. “She stood still, uncertain, a fat dark little creature not much older than his own elder daughter. He turned a page, not reading, and at last she went away.”
Then, she does. But that’s not enough either. “He no longer liked the classic role he had set for himself, the kindly educator of young servant girls. It had taken only a glimpse of his thin, busy wife to put the picture into perspective.
Not enough when it comes to Robbie. And nor is it enough when he considers Nora.
“He allowed himself one last, uncharitable thought, savoring it: Compared with Bernadette, Nora looked exactly like a furled umbrella.”
(This observation about the umbrella is wonderful, isn’t it? So restrained, so functional: but just as an umbrella should be, possessing only two true states.)
The dissatisfaction is not limited to the Knights either. Bernadette is dissatisfied with them as well. “Nothing was too farfetched, no wisdom, no perception, for these people. Their mental leaps and guesses were as mysterious to her as those of saints, or of ghosts.”
Nobody is content. (And, if Bernadette is pregnant, imagine how the list of dissatisfaction could grow.)
“The world was ugly, Montreal was ugly, the street outside the window contained houses of surpassing ugliness. There was nothing left to discuss but television and the fluctuating dollar; that was what the world had become.”
But the story is named for Bernadette, in her second-hand imitation-seal coat and black velveteen snow boots trimmed with dyed fur and tied with tasselled cords. Listening to Edith Piaf and reading D.H. Lawrence.
Readers are meant to think of her: an unbrella, most decidedly unfurled.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second story in My Heart is Broken. It also appears in The Cost of Living. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.