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Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, oil on canvas, 1884
(Tate Britain, London)

Alice Munro’s collection of short stories entitled in Canada “Who Do You Think You Are?” and in other countries, “The Beggar Maid”, was published in 1977. It begins with her first story published in “The New Yorker”, “Royal Beatings”. It is a famous story of hers. The first two paragraphs are gems.

“Royal Beating. That was Flo’s promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating.

The word Royal lolled on Flo’s tongue, took on trappings. Rose had a need to picture things, to pursue absurdities, that was stronger than the need to stay out of trouble, and instead of taking this threat to heart she pondered: how is a beating royal? She came up with a tree-lined avenue, a crowd of formal spectators, some white horses and black slaves. Someone knelt, and the blood came leaping out like banners. An occasion both savage and splendid. In real life they didn’t approach such dignity, and it was only Flo who tried to supply the event with some high air of necessity and regret. Rose and her father soon got beyond anything presentable.”

I am not the first to ponder the derivation of the phrase “royal beating”. It may be a beating writ large. Alternatively it could have a historical connotation. In the Tudor and Stuart monarchies of the 15th and 16th century there was a member of court who was tasked as the whipping boy. The word scapegoat in part derives from this unfortunate station. In order to render psychological pain to the crown prince a young member of the court was charge to be the whipping boy; absorbing the physical pain of beatings for the crown prince’s wrongs. Whether this analogous role was intended for Rose, the aggrieved insecure step-daughter of the ill-tempered Flo, I am not certain. For her generation “wait  to your father gets home” was a role meted out with both guilt and enthusiasm by parents and etched in the lifelong memories of their children.

Ms. Munro uses the unabashed Flo to turn a phrase and to play with the innocent

“Shortie McGill is fucking Fanny McGill. Brother and sister. Relations performing. That was Flo’s word for it: perform. Back in the country, back on the hill farms she came from, Flo said people had gone dotty, been known to eat boiled hay, and perform with their too-close relations. Before Rose understood what she meant she used to imagine some makeshift stage, some rickety old barn stage, where members of a family got up and gave silly songs and recitations. What a performance! Flo would say in disgust, blowing out smoke, referring not to any single act but to everything along that line, past and present and future, going on anywhere in the world. People’s diversions, like pretensions, could not stop astounding her.”

This book has been described as intertwining short stories; neither novel nor novella. It is a distinction perhaps relevant only to publishers and the benefactors of literary awards. Rose is the book’s principal character. The arc of time spans from teenage hostage of Flo in a petty poor rural Canadian town, until Flo’s exit to a nursing home. “Who Do You Think You Are?” is the last story. It is a testament to the epigenetics of smothering mediocrity that lingers in those more intelligent but insecure who think they have escaped. Flo is a petulant, distrustful, curmudgeon whose ephemeral distaste for airs is carved with her barbed tongue. Rose whose relationships and career as an actress has bobbed. At its apex Flo attends an award ceremony at which she will be an honoree. Subliminally, without expectation, she hopes for life’s one complement or acknowledgment from Flo, who surprisingly has shown up.

“She had always been decently, soberly, cheaply, dressed, but now it seemed she spent some money and asked advice. She was wearing a mauve and purple checked pants suit, and beads like strings of white and yellow popcorn. Her hair was covered by a thick gray-blue wig, pulled low on her forehead like a woollen cap. From the vee of the jacket, and its too-short sleeves, her neck and wrists stuck out brown and warty as if covered with bark. When she saw Rose she stood still. She seemed to be waiting– not just for Rose to go over to her but for her feelings about the scene in front of her to crystallize.

Soon they did.

‘Look at that nigger! said Flo in a loud voice, before Rose was anywhere near her. Her tone was one of simple, gratified astonishment, as if she had been peering down the Grand Canyon or seen oranges growing on a tree.

She meant George, who was getting one of the awards.”

A war of the Roses, her heralds are the scars from a life-time of self-inflicted beatings. Like Flo the genetic disposition to poor upbringing impails her. She continuously replenishes failed affairs.

Alice Munro’s “The Beggar Maid” turns the legend of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” on its head. In the legend, memorialized by Lord Alfred Tennyson, an African king indifferent to women, falls in love with a beggar maid. Transcending practical considerations and social class she becomes his queen.

“Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say:
Bare-footed came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua.
In robe and crown the king stept down,
To meet and greet her on her way;
“It is no wonder,” said the lords,
“She is more beautiful than day”.

As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her poor attire was seen:
One praised her ancles, one her eyes,
One her dark hair and lovesome mien:
So sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been:
Cophetua sware a royal oath:
“This beggar maid shall be my queen!”

The Beggar Maid (written 1833, published 1842) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Rose becomes the object of affection of a fellow student, a self-absorbed “intellectual” at a mediocre small college, rebelling against becoming heir to a prosperous Canadian mercantile business. He thinks of Rose from poverty as the beggar in the Edward Burnes-Jones painting. She is his bird of prey. As an object of desire she holds sway over Patrick until reluctantly she entraps herself in a loveless marriage  that is economically convenient.  He reverts to the family business and the pretensions of his nouveau riche class. She embarks on a failed affair, divorce, and the freedom to return to her class. She knows dreams are not meant to be lived. As an actress she gets to play bit parts.

Be they chapters or stories, there are excellent ones: failed relationships; end of life transition to nursing homes. As in many of Ms Munro’s works, the stories are from a woman’s perspective. Ms. Munro is a great observer, who can translate the visual into language. This is small town literature. I thought of Richard Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool” as its U.S. equal in this regard. Each story embeds digressions with new characters, subplots and subtexts that all flow together. Writers who want to hone their craft should read this book.

It ends with Ralph Gillespie. Rose’s childhood classmate. Like Rose he was an outcast. His talent was to mimic the town’s fool who had the literary name Milton Homer. Ralph continued his act long after the original was forgotten. The mimicry transformed him into the fool. On his death Rose realizes that he may have been the only man with whom she had a quiet understanding and a sense of comfort and completeness.