To grow up as a girl with ambitions in a Canadian small town meant facing the sneer, “Who do you think you are?”
That was the title of Alice Munro’s 1978 short story collection about Rose, a woman who grew up in a poor family in the fictional town of Hanratty, Ontario. The phrase is so distinctly Canadian — the expression of what’s sometimes called “The Tall Poppy Syndrome,” where Canadians cut down anyone who dares to poke up tall above the general field — that when the book was published in other countries, it was re-titled The Beggar Maid. No-one but Canadians understood Munro’s original title.
When it came time to chose a thesis topic when I was enrolled in a Master of Arts degree at Dalhousie University, one of my potential supervisors was a specialist in Canadian novelists, particularly Manitoba writer Margaret Laurence, whose major works — The Stone Angel, Jest of God, and The Diviners — were written in the 1960s and 1970s. In academic circles, she most often was grouped and discussed with another Canadian Prairie writer, Sinclair Ross, who only wrote four novels between 1941 and 1974, including his first and best-known, As For Me and My House.
At that time, Alice Munro had published five of her short-story collections and had already won two Governor General Awards for fiction writing; she went on to write another eight collections and, in 2013, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature as a “master of the contemporary short story.” She is the only Canadian so honoured.
But in my university days, while Munro was winning awards and finding a loyal audience of readers, she was not yet the subject of much academic scrutiny: what little I could find, in my preliminary research, often compared Munro to American writer Eudora Welty, whose six novels and all but one of her 10 short story collections, mostly set in the rural American South, had been written by that time. It was true both women were drawn to the short story form, Munro exclusively, but I wanted to explore where Munro fit within the Canadian literature. The term “Southern Ontario Gothic” had been coined by author Timothy Findley to describe the similarities between some of his work and “Gothic” style writing from the American South. Was that it?
I kept coming back to one passage from “Accident” in The Moons of Jupiter, about a high-school music teacher, Frances, who, as the story begins, has momentarily stepped out of her classroom on the pretext of going to the teachers’ washroom. She does that, but then goes to another floor in the school and stands for a moment outside the science room, where Ted teaches.
“Frances goes back to her classroom and sits on the desk, smiling into the singing faces … She never thinks that they will notice her smile and mention it afterward, sure she has been out to meet Ted in the hall. It is in imagining her affair to be secret that Frances shows, most clearly, a lack of small-town instincts, a trust and recklessness she is unaware of; this is what people mean when they say of her that it sure shows that she has been away. She was only four years away at the conservatory; truth was, she always lacked caution. Tall, fine-boned, with narrow shoulders, she has the outsider’s quick movements, preoccupied look, high-pitched, urgent voice, the outsider’s innocent way of supposing herself unobserved as she dashes from one place to another around town.”
That reminded me so much of Laurence’s women, who were trapped by, or chafed against, the constrictions of what it meant to be a proper “lady” within the rules of small-town life. As I continued exploring, it became clear that small towns and their dynamics were key shaping forces in 20th century Canadian culture and identity, particularly in their expectations of how women should behave, and what their goals should be.
Thus was born the thesis Hopechests and Cashmere, or, How To Be A Woman: Rebelling Against the Small Town in the Fiction of Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro.
Lawrence’s fictional town was Manawaka; Munro’s were Dalgleish and Hanratty and Jubilee, situated in the real-world Huron County along Lake Huron’s shores. When I read (and re-read) these works, the “small town” emerged as a character in its own right.
Munro’s fictional settings moved beyond Huron County, reflecting her time living in London, Ontario (as a student at University of Western Ontario), and British Columbia, where she moved after her first marriage; in 2006, she published The View From Castle Rock, a series of fiction stories, some set in Scotland, inspired by Munro’s Laidlaw family, which came to Canada from Scotland in 1818.
Huron County, however, continued to have an enormous pull for her. She had grown up in Wingham and later in her life when she married geographer Gerald Fremlin, who she first met in her Western student days, they settled in a farm near Clinton, Ontario.
While I never pursued my academic research further, I have continued to read and be amazed by Munro’s work, and was so pleased when she was recognized as among the world’s best. To leave you with the Nobel Prize committee’s words: ” She grew up in a small Canadian town; the kind of environment that often provides the backdrops for her stories. These often accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages … With subtle means, she is able to demonstrate the impact that seemingly trivial events can have on a person’s life.”
Main photo: Kelley Teahen