1648 Henfryn Street and 363 Carlisle Street: “Wenlock Edge” feels so vivid that one can hardly resist keying in the significant addresses to see what appears on the digital map.
These addresses do not actually exist in London, Ontario. But there is a Henfryn Line which runs north-south, just east of Clinton, Ontario. And there is a town called Carlisle, which is halfway between London and the shore of Lake Huron (directly south of Clinton).
It seems almost-nearly-practically possible to map the details, given Alice Munro’s attendance at the University of Western Ontario, which figures so prominently in this story and her familiarity with the countryside surrounding it, particularly Huron County (her home for many years).
But readers are left to imagine the residences of Mr. Purvis and Ernie Botts, the homes which served as university residences, and the old Chelsea restaurant on Dundas Street.
“The house looked just as it had when I had come here once or twice with my mother. A brick bungalow with a tiny front yard, an arched living-room window with an upper pane of coloured glass. Cramped and genteel.”
The public buildings which feature in the story are more readily identifiable. The girls probably would have attended their arts classes in University College, in the heart of the UWO campus, atop a large hill.
Here is a building that comes up immediately when one searches online. How deliberately the author has identified public spaces (we can imagine our narrator moving through the halls of this building, walking the tunnels which run between it and other campus buildings). And, yet, how imprecisely the private spaces are defined.
But there is a gap, too, between a woman’s public life and her private dreams, between what she aspires to and what she expects to achieve and, for our narrator, between her expectations of other womens sophistication and their quotidien lives.
“Kay and Beverly were a disappointment to me. They worked hard at Modern Languages, but their conversation and preoccupations seemed hardly different from those of girls who might work in banks or offices. They did their hair up in pin curls and painted their fingernails on Saturdays, because that was the night they had dates with their boyfriends. On Sundays they had to soothe their faces with lotion because of the whisker-burns the boyfriends had inflicted on them. I didn’t find either boyfriend in the least desirable, and I wondered how they could.
They said that they had once had some crazy idea of being translators at the United Nations, but now they figured they would teach high school, and with any luck get married.”
The daily lives of these young women are at best predictable and at worst disappointing. The experiences of the girls’ landlady, Beth, who inhabits the first floor, also offers little hope of escape.
“Wet laundry—diapers and smelly baby woollens—was hanging from some ceiling-racks, bottles in a sterilizer bubbled and rattled on the stove.”
I imagine that the homes which served as residences for the university were down the hill, below University College, and across the bridge; there are plenty of older homes there, yet, on the side-streets bordering the campus, with two full stories topped with an attic with eaves.
But perhaps we cannot exactly identify them because any one of those buildings could house such secrets.
(The building pictured to the right was once a private residence but is now a key campus building in King’s College, which is also part of the UWO campus, a few blocks from the modern residences for the university’s students. Although I do not believe Mr. Purvis’ residence was half as grand as this, and it is described as being a modern dwelling, our narrator’s reference to travelling east and passing brick and mock-Tudor houses brings this kind of structure to mind.)
At first our narrator is not entirely pleased to share her space with Nina, but it is, nonetheless, a formative and influential relationship in her young life.
“Her life made me feel like a simpleton.
I asked her what was Mr. Purvis’s first name.
‘Why don’t you call him that?’
‘It wouldn’t sound natural.'”
The relationship(s) with Mr. Purvis contain(s) echoes of the tension that other heroines have experienced in other relationships with men in other stories. I can imagine Mr. Montjoy, for instance, in “Hired Girl”, making this kind of arrangement (if he could find a way to occupy Mrs. Montjoy elsewhere).
“’It would be very kind if you would read to me. My eyes are tired in the evenings. You know this book?’
[A Shropshire Lad]
I knew it. In fact I knew many of the poems by heart.
I said that I would read.
‘And may I ask you please—may I ask you please—not to cross your legs?’”
But ultimately the relationships between women (yes, Mrs. Montjoy, here too!) more sharply draw the lines of hierarchy and status.
Our narrator is not entirely certain whether she will respond to Mr. Purvis’ requests, but Mrs. Winner’s presence influences her decision.
“It was partly her contempt that made me stay. Partly. That and my pride.”
Innocence and experience are expressed in ordinary and uncommon ways in “Wenlock Edge”.
Pantyhose are hung to dry in a bathroom. There are peculiarly intimate readings of the works of English Country Poets. (Public readings, too, as it turns out.)
Nina’s unpredictable agency and compliance, her independent spirit and her desire to please, stand in contrast to our narrator’s approach, at first ambivalent, but then boldly determined.
Early in the girls’ story, when Nina seeks an escape out the back door of the city public library, our narrator follows.
(And, indeed, a side door of the library did open directly near the back of the building onto the parking lot, which backed onto an alley-way running parallel to Dundas Street, so it is conceivable that the girls could indeed have foiled Mrs. Winner, who saw them arrive by bus and would have naturally expected them to leave the same way.)
And, for much of the story, our narrator seems to react rather than act.
But, later in the story, she plots her own path. What motivates her actions is complicated, but she acts boldly.
“Better not to expect too much. Some things I guess you’re just not meant to have.”
The intersection between determination and resignation: familiar territory indeed.
And this is a landscape Alice Munro readers know intimately.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the third story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Deep-Holes”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.