Sunday, October 27, 2019

"The Beggar Maid" (1977)

Alice Munro's story, complete with a well-chosen 19th-century cultural allusion (the painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones), patiently observes a failed relationship, focusing on its doomed origins before hastily following up on the aftermath. I hadn't known it, but Wikipedia reports that King Cophetua represents "a man who falls in love with a woman instantly and proposes marriage immediately." I know the type anyway. Patrick Blatchford is the smitten (as he explains it to himself) and Rose the pursued. The main point about them, made early and often (even by subtracting Rose's last name), is the class difference. She is "poor" and he is "rich." She is attending the college where they meet on a scholarship. She lives with Dr. Henshawe, a donor who takes girls like Rose under her wing ("she liked poor girls, bright girls, but they had to be fairly good-looking girls"). Dr. Henshawe is overbearing and judgmental, projecting her sense of her own superiority and Rose's inferiority. Blatchford is 24 and studying to be a historian. He is a serious graduate student and rejects the crass business success of his family, which owns a chain of department stores in British Columbia. He believes he is fiercely in love with Rose but signs are it's more about rejecting his family. He doesn't seem to understand anything about Rose, who has little affection for him. But she realizes it's an advantageous opportunity. Everyone encourages her because they think Patrick is such a good catch. But he is not. Blatchford and his wonderfully ugly name see Rose as a kind of rescue job, as a "damsel in distress." He obviously believes he is doing her a great favor and she will owe him gratitude even as he proceeds remaking her for the position of his wife. Later he will give up his studies to work in the family business. Rose senses his attachment has nothing to do with her, that he doesn't really love her, and feels more and more repulsed by him. All these problems are seen clearly—by them, by us—on first visits to their respective families, which are nicely drawn disasters. Rose rejects Patrick cruelly. Then she reneges and marries him. Most of the story is spent on the half-sickening courtship, the disaster unfolding. While the characters are distinct enough, they are also carefully calibrated types, and their social-realism situation so typical as to be practically exaggerated for effect. It's a good story, but Munro would get much better.

In case it's not at the library.

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