“The Beggar Maid” is the fifth in a series of ten stories about Flo and Rose. It appears in a collection with their names as a subtitle, and is the title story in the American edition (1979) and the British edition (1980). The original Canadian edition (1978) takes its equally suggestive title from the last story, “Who Do You Think You Are?” Alice Munro uses this technique of interconnected stories in other volumes, moving more than one reviewer to wonder whether she is writing novels rather than story collections. Each of her stories stands perfectly well on its own, but all belong to the larger fictional world of Hanratty, Ontario—much as William Faulkner’s stories are about the people in a fictional Mississippi county. “The Beggar Maid” first appeared on its own in The New Yorker, but it has definite connections to the stories that come before and after it in Munro’s collection. In “White Swans,” Rose makes her first trip to Toronto after winning an essay competition, with Flo’s warnings about white slavers ringing in her ears and the new surroundings being defined in contrast to the old. In “Mischief,” Rose falls in love with a married man while she is still married to Patrick.
The whole cycle of stories, as one might call it, extends from Hanratty into the world at large and back again in Rose’s memories. The first story gets its title from Flo’s curiously poetic threats to Rose: “Royal Beatings.” The last gets its title from Flo’s nagging question: “Who Do You Think You Are?” Rose narrates all these stories, but she has learned the art of storytelling from Flo and, in telling stories to her friends and lovers, she comes to realize how much her life has been shaped by her small town origins. Munro is a provincial writer in the best sense. She finds God in the details of everyday life. The details are North American, to be sure, and Canadian even more so, but they come from the place where Munro grew up. Hanratty is a “ratty” little town of Munro’s own creation, but it bears much in common with Wingham, Ontario, where she was born and raised. Her fictional university town is not named, but it is just as clearly modeled on London, Ontario, where she attended Western University for three terms before marrying a Vancouver man in 1951. Rose’s story is not straight autobiography. Unlike Rose, Munro was not orphaned, and her marriage lasted a decade longer than Rose’s. The parallels between Rose’s life and her own, however, are unmistakable.
Fascination with details often pushes writers into longer works of fiction. Such fascination makes Margaret Atwood, a Canadian writer of Munro’s generation, want to know what kind of appliances her characters have in their kitchens, and the answers make her best known fiction run to some length. Munro has found a way to give details associated with special moments in a life, and to remind the reader of those details in other stories. When Rose thinks about...
(The entire section contains 743 words.)
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