Born into the back streets of a small Canadian town, Rose battled incessantly with her practical and shrewd stepmother, Flo, who cowed her with tales of her own past and warnings of the dangerous world outside. But Rose was ambitious- she won a scholarship and left for Toronto where she married Patrick. She was his Beggar Maid, 'meek and voluptuous, with her shy white feet', and he was her knight, content to sit and adore her- Alice Munro's wonderful collection of stories reads like a novel following Rose's life as she moves away from her impoverished roots and forges her own path in the world.
I love how these stories follow Rose through the course of her life - from childhood beatings through to affairs, divorce, children, and middle age. Munro is fantastic at creating plot within each story, but also on a larger scale throughout the collection. Her writing is beautiful and she is a brilliant psychologist and philosopher making so many astute statements about life and people. I love how everyday moments and details become so revealing and important in her work. I highly recommend this book.
The stories I enjoyed most were "Mischief", "Providence", "Simon's Luck", and the titular "Who Do You Think You Are?"... but that probably says more about me and my penchant for Munro's portrayals of love than about the stories' own merits. Really, it feels like this collection, like life, has something in it for everyone. Every reader would do well to pick up this book and see what they find.
Rose comes from a poor background and the book begins with her growing up in a small, ramshackle town in Canada during the 1940s and ‘50s. She has a difficult relationship with her stepmother, Flo, and they are always arguing. Flo is bold and practical and adventurous, she ran away from home when she was fourteen and worked in a factory and as a waitress in the city. As a teenager, Rose is clever and awkward and just as stubborn as Flo is. She spends her time studying and dreaming, and manages to leave her deprived background behind her by winning scholarships to the high school and then to college.
The book beautifully describes Rose’s experiences at school and in a town full of gossip, where everyone knows your business and is ready to form a judgement about it. The book captures the positive and negative sides of a small community. Some people who are vulnerable and don’t fit in suffer abuse and violence, while some eccentric and odd characters such as Milton Homer, who disrupts all the town parades with his dancing, are tolerated with affection. In later life, Rose returns to the town and it is interesting to see her conflicting feelings towards it. She has come too far ever to really fit in again, but I feel there is also a sense of sadness and nostalgia in the book for how the town has changed, modernised and become respectable, and for what has become of some of the characters over the years.
At college, Rose meets Patrick, a scholarly man from a wealthy family, who falls in love with her. The title of the book comes from a conversation between them in which Patrick says he is glad Rose is poor and that she reminds him of the painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, reflecting Patrick’s romanticised view of Rose. One of the things I liked about this book was how it precisely described Rose’s experiences of feeling like an outsider. It acknowledges her complicated feelings towards her past and the way she makes use of it, telling scandalous stories to people who find her poverty glamorous.
Although her fortunes rise and fall over the course of the book, Rose does go on to live a much more comfortable life and moves in more educated and middle-class circles than she did in her childhood. However she often feels somewhat separate from the people around her, seeing in herself ‘the weariness, suppleness, deviousness, meanness common to a class’. This book explores the alienation or sense of detachment felt by someone who can’t reconcile their past with their present very well, mainly because of Alice Munro’s writing, which is quite precise and analytical, focusing on the complexity of people’s feelings and experiences, but not at all cold as it also conveys emotions very strongly. It reminded me slightly of I’ll Take You There by Joyce Carol Oates, which is an amazing book, also about a girl’s life at college, and a similarly intense experience.
The Beggar Maid is also very much about sexual attraction, marriage and infidelity. Rose frequently treats Patrick badly and their relationship is unbalanced, especially because Patrick adores Rose so much and she takes advantage of this.
Rose does later fall in love herself and the book describes relationships and feelings of desire and obsession very powerfully. I would now really like to read more of Alice Munro’s books.
Rose and her stepmother, Flo, live in Hanratty-across the bridge from the "good" part of town. Rose, alternately fascinated and appalled by the rude energy of the people around her, grows up nursing her hope of outgrowing her humble beginnings and plotting an escape to university.
Rose makes her escape and thinks herself free. But Hanratty's question Who Do You Think You Are? rings in her ears during her days in Vancouver, mocks her attempts to make her marriage successful, and haunts her new career.
In these stories of Rose and Flo, Alice Munro explores the universal story of growing up-Rose's struggle to accept herself tells the story of our lives.
Rose grows up in hard poverty in West Hanratty. From the royal beating she receives from her father in the first story, “Royal Beatings,” to the airs and persona she takes on at school to her initial plunge into falsehood in marrying a man she knows she does not love in “The Beggar Maid,” Rose is both our focus and our challenge. Munro dotes upon her, perhaps loves her as a character, but she sees her whole, flaws and all. And that honest baring of Rose’s broken sense of self is what holds us, or at least held me, riveted through her false starts at love, her disappointments, and ultimately all the way back to Hanratty, if only as an orbital fly-by. Rose is “of” Hanratty, but not bound to it and her fate, such as it is — and this includes an acknowledgement that possibly all of her actions and choices have been wrong — her fate remains her own.
There is so much here in these ten stories. And yet, you’ll feel like you’ve only just scratched the surface of who Rose is.
This book is difficult to categorise, and is somewhere between a short story collection and a novel. I can see why the Booker jury chose to accept it as a novel, because the stories are all episodes in the life of one woman, Rose, and they are arranged in a chronological sequence, but each could equally be read as a self-contained story.
Rose's mother died when she was young, and the dominant figure in the early stories set during her childhood is her stepmother Flo, who runs a shop in a poor district of a small Canadian town. Her education allows her to escape, but the last couple of stories see her sucked back as she deals with Flo in old age.
These are quiet stories with fairly humdrum subject matter, but Munro is a master of telling detail, and the whole adds up to something universal, effective and moving.
The Beggar Maid is a collection of short stories about the same characters, Rose and Flo, and if there is one central character it would have to be Rose. It follows Rose from her working-class Canadian childhood through adulthood which includes everything from anonymous suburban marriage and motherhood to being a famous TV personality.
It's hard for me to even say why I love this book so much, except to say it's probably the most real book I have ever read.
I knew I would love this book because Alice Munro is one of my favorite authors. Her settings are of her home in rural Ontario as well as big city life in Toronto. It's a geographic area I know well, from my many wanderings there from my WNY home. These settings are familiar and comfortable. Although Munro is, perhaps, a generation older than I am the customs and mores of coming of age - shopping at Woolworth's, painting fingernail polish so as to leave a half moon at the base, fashions, school - a long forgotten, more innocent time, in some ways, and yet all too familiar. Then there the feelings and emotions that always vividly define Munro's women characters - making her way in work, marriage, motherhood; the complex emotions, the thoughts - all expressed so beautifully. Sometimes it's just a phrase, sometimes a mood. They strike a chord. Are they nostalgic? Yes, in many ways, certainly. But also, I think, universal.