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A Double Life
By Catherine Sheldrick Ross
ECW PRESSCopyright © 1992 ECW Press
All rights reserved.
"The Twin Choices of My Life"
Where Alice grew up, admitting that you wanted fame would be just asking for trouble. "Who do you think you are?" people would say to take you down a peg. In Huron County, the minute you revealed ambition, Munro recalls, the response was "to [slap] down your confidence at every possible point that it emerge[d]" ("Name" 69). As Del Jordan explains in Lives of Girls and Women: "to be ambitious was to court failure and to risk making a fool of oneself. The worst thing, I gathered, the worst thing that could happen in this life was to have people laughing at you" (32). For Scots Presbyterians, wanting to be remarkable would certainly seem to be an imprudent challenge to fate — those "supernatural powers always on the lookout for greed" (71). So Alice learned early to keep her ambition to herself, and to put on a mask of ordinariness: "I always did value myself terribly, but I had to pretend I didn't for purposes of disguise in a world that we all have to cope with" ("Name" 72).
Thus developed what would become a lifelong split between ordinary life and the secret life of the imagination. In a 1984 interview with Thomas Tausky, Munro suggested that this split was the theme of her first, unfinished novel:
The novel that I had all planned in my teens I still think about. I can see how clearly it relates ... I can now see some significance in it. It's very dark; it's very imitative and very Gothic ... It's about a girl called Charlotte Muir, and [her name] is the title of the book. And Charlotte is living in a lonely place off by herself — very Wuthering Heightsy. And she doesn't go to school. She's reputed by the villagers and farm people to be a witch, or weird and witchlike. And she hooks in a farm boy and decides to make him fall in love with her. They become engaged, and this is her way of redeeming herself and getting herself into ordinary life. I think she is living alone. He's kind of freckle-faced; he's not a romantic hero. There's lots of Gothic stuff in here!
Along comes a preacher [laughter] who is probably the Scarlet Letter man — the dark, powerful, Puritanical, sexually attractive preacher who immediately establishes himself as the enemy of the heroine in the community and breaks up her engagement. I hadn't read The Scarlet Letter by this time but all these strains were getting to me. He breaks up her relationship and takes away her hope of normal life by forbidding this fellow to marry her. Then I think she gets mad and puts a curse on the preacher, because she really has powers. The preacher is dying. She now realizes that she is in love with him or, at least, she wants the curse to be removed from him ... Then, then, the only way she can remove the curse from the preacher is to take it on herself, which she does. So she saves his life by condemning herself. She then dies. The only parts I think I wrote are deathbed scenes. She dies and then I think the preacher realizes he's in love with her after she's dead. It's Wuthering Heightsy then — it's united in death. But I can see what was going on. I can see that these were the twin choices of my life, which were marriage and motherhood or the black life of the artist. I was aware of that and I was working with it fictionally before I had any idea of it. (9-10) In conventional depictions of women's lives, at least until recently, women have husbands and children or they can be artists; they can't have both love and art. Norma Shearer, in The Red Shoes, might want to dance and wear entrancing red ballet slippers and also be married to a handsome orchestra conductor, but she has to choose. Alice Laidlaw wanted both. Her subsequent career has been a balancing act of responding to these contradictory claims of art and of marriage and motherhood. As she remarked to John Metcalf, "there is probably a contradiction in many women writers in the woman herself. ... Between the woman who is ambitious and the woman who ... is passive, who wants to be dominated, who wants to have someone between her and the world. And I know I'm like this. I have the two women" ("Conversation" 59).CHAPTER 2
"A Very Deceptive Life"
In many interviews conducted over a span of decades, Munro has talked about her strategy of holding onto "the two women" by leading parallel and separate lives. Unlike Charlotte Muir, whose dark powers are known and feared, Alice Laidlaw prudently tried to keep her powers and ambitions to herself. In childhood, what did these powers consist of? A love of language and a sensuous appreciation for words, a watchful, observing, noticing nature, and a vivid memory for the details of how things looked, smelled, sounded, and felt. And her ambition? "From the age of 11, art was my religion ... Nothing in my life seemed more important to me" (qtd. in Timson 67). This vocation was secret. As she told Eleanor Wachtel in 1990, "I very early on got the notion that my real life had to be hidden, had to be protected. I didn't think you could go to your teacher or your parents, and tell them what you really thought about anything. ... I just, I suppose, lived a very deceptive life" ("Interview" 48). Telling her own life story to interviewers, she consistently uses the motifs of the spy story: deception, disguises, the role of the detached watcher, and the contrast between the life of appearance and the real, secret life. In 1973, she told Barbara Frum how she used to placate the outside world in order to avoid ridicule and gain time for work.
And so I began very early to behave in a disguised way. I wanted to be a writer from the time I was 12 yet I never told anybody. The work was always a very private thing that I felt I had to protect. And then when I got married quite young and started having kids and lived in the suburbs, I went on protecting it and living two completely different lives — the real and absolutely solitary life and the life of appearances. I worked out a way of living by pretending to be what people wanted me to be. ... I wouldn't tell anyone I was writing. ("Great Dames" 32)
Living a secret life was not, in the beginning, so much of a problem. Alice was a buoyant child with a desire to be noticed and a lot of confidence in her own powers: "I think as a child I always felt separate, but pretty happy to be so — and manipulating people and events pretty satisfactorily" (unpublished interview [Tausky]). Later, in high school, Munro recalls that writing still gave her the sense that she could cope with anything: "I really felt so buoyed up, so excited by this writing thing that I had latched on to. It gave me in those years the most enormous happiness. More than it ever did after I began to grasp what it really was all about. I was quite stunned by what I was able to do at 15 or 16" (unpublished interview [Tausky]). However, during high school, which is also a time for the serious business of discovering adult roles, Alice wanted desperately to be the kind of girl who gets asked to dances. She told Tausky about her later years in high school:
I began to feel terribly out of things and superficially very unhappy about that, because I wanted to be an ordinary girl. I wanted to be very attractive to boys and I wanted to go out. I wanted to get married, to get a diamond — those things — more or less as signs of being a fully okay kind of woman. And then ... the plan to write got crystallized about puberty too. I was actually doing it at age 14 or 15. 1 was doing it all the time. (unpublished interview)
The high-school girl who wanted to be attractive to boys went on to experience those other proofs of normal womanhood: university, marriage, children, married turbulence, new relationships, and remarriage. Shadowing this life, however, was always the watcher who stands outside it to observe and to turn it into art. The relationship between these two women is complex, because one woman's life is the subject matter of the other's writing. Unlike another of Canada's celebrated short story writers, Mavis Gallant, who deliberately avoided marriage and children so that she would be able to write, Alice Munro has used her life as daughter, wife, suburban homemaker, and mother as raw material. Like Del in Lives of Girls and Women, she subversively takes the unsuspecting world, to "turn it into black fable and tie it up in my novel" (206). She sees herself as a spy, leading a double life, only pretending to be like everyone else. The idea of a hidden identity appears in many early stories in the form of a watchful child observer, where watching is associated with shame, betrayal, and exposure. In later books, the idea of a hidden identity appears as a fascination with the theme of adultery and the "double life it creates, especially for a married wife and mother who is expected to live her life for other people. Instead, she can be living this secret, exploratory life" (qtd. in Timson 67).CHAPTER 3
Alice Munro Country
The area of Huron County around Wingham is known internationally as Alice Munro country. With its horror of disclosure, this is the last place to want to celebrate itself or have its secrets exposed. Nevertheless, as the setting for many Munro stories, and variously called Jubilee, Hanratty, and Dalgleish, the town of Wingham has passed into art along with some other Ontario towns: Sara Jeaimette Duncan's Elgin, Stephen Leacock's Mariposa, James Reaney's Stratford, and Robertson Davies's Deptford. Robert Thacker calls Munro's Huron County "a place remembered, recovered, revised, and, at times, renounced" (214). This small town of about 3,000 people is only approximately 125 miles from Toronto, 70 miles from London, and 25 miles from the lake-port town of Goderich. Despite being at the junction of two highways and having its own CBC radio station, Wingham seems somehow remote. As the narrator put it in Munro's "The Peace of Utrecht," "there is no easy way to get to Jubilee from anywhere on earth" (Dance 196).
This is the town in which Alice was born on 10 July 1931, as announced in the Wingham Advance-Times (16 July 1931): "Born. Laidlaw. In Wingham General Hospital on Friday, July 10th, to Mr. and Mrs. R.E. Laidlaw, a daughter Alice Ann." The weekly Wingham Advance-Times, published each Thursday, has recorded the life of this community for more than a century — conservative, conscious of decorum, yet apparently prone to violent injury and sudden death. In the week of Alice's birth, the paper reports road building ("The connecting link in the Provincial pavement from Clinton to London was opened a week ago"), a wedding ("An exceeding pretty July wedding was solemnified"), an accident ("Fall down Cellar Stairway"), obituaries ("It was with deep regret that the community learned of the sudden death ..."), and agricultural news ("Turkey breeding is not the difficult undertaking that is generally supposed" [9 July 1931]). This is the community in which Alice grew up, the community she knows in her bones and has made her own in her fiction. The map of Wingham, from a fire-insurance plan created in 1904 and revised in 1928 (fig. 2), shows local landmarks described in various Munro stories: the town hall on Josephine Street, with its great bell ready "to be rung in the event of some mythical disaster" (Dance 196); the United, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches described in "Age of Faith" (Lives); the CNR station from which Rose takes the train to Toronto in "Wild Swans" (Who Do You Think You Are?); the skating rink described in "The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink" (The Progress of Love); Alice's public school, which has an annual March concert like the one depicted in Lives; and the foundry, described in "Working for a Living," where Robert Laidlaw worked in the late 1940s.CHAPTER 4
"Whatever Myths You Want"
The Laidlaw family didn't live in Wingham itself, but a mile or so west, in a "legendary non-part of town called Lower Town (pronounced Loretown)" ("Everything"). Until around1873, Lower Town was more important than Wingham. Then Wingham got the railway and expanded, while Lower Town went downhill to become a rural slum. As Munro told Alan Twigg (and was forthwith sternly taken to task for the following disclosures by the Wingham paper), "We lived outside the whole social structure ... We lived in this kind of little ghetto where all the bootleggers and prostitutes and hangers-on lived. Those were the people I knew. It was a community of outcasts. I had that feeling about myself" ("What Is" 18). The Laidlaws lived in a red-brick Ontario farmhouse on a nine-acre farm. A photograph taken at the side of this house in the fall of 1931 shows a smiling Alice, about three months old, held in her mother's lap (fig. 3). This house is described, as remembered from childhood, in the uncollected story "Home": "All the rooms are small. ... The wallpaper in the front rooms was palely splotched by a leaky chimney. The floors were of wide boards which my mother painted green or brown or yellow every spring; in the middle was a square of linoleum ..."(135). When the leaves were off the trees, the view eastward included church spires and the square, brick tower of the Wingham town hall. The area behind the farmhouse is now filled with wrecked cars — the house has been sold, and the current owners have rented it to people with a wrecking business. But when Alice was growing up, the view behind the house was of a wide field and flats that sloped down to the curve of the river.
This river flowed past the foot of the Laidlaw property on its way from Wingham to Lake Huron at Goderich. Indians had called it Meneseteung before it was renamed the Maitland. With its spring floods, the river took on a legendary quality for Alice as she grew up. This little stretch of river, she says, "will provide whatever myths you want, whatever adventures. ... This ordinary place is sufficient, everything here touchable and mysterious" ("Everything").
Downstream to the west, and visible from our place, a wide curve of the river had broadened the flats, and to the north, it had undercut a high steep bank covered with trees. ... To the south ... the village of Zetland once thrived — remembered my father, but in my time utterly vanished. ... This scene ... was my first access to the countryside of southern Ontario, which was and has remained magical. ("Walk" 38)
The farm, the mile or so of river, Wingham, and the nearby towns of Goderich and Blyth provided the geography of Alice's childhood world, later celebrated in her stories. Munro has summed up the culture of her area of Huron County as a rural culture with strong Scots-Irish background. ... that has become fairly stagnant. With a big sense of righteousness. But with big bustings-out and grotesque crime. And ferocious sexual humour and the habit of getting drunk and killing each other off on the roads. ... I always think the country I was born and brought up in is full of event and emotions and amazing things going on all the time. ("Interview" [Hancock] 93)
Some writers might find this landscape raw and unpromising. But when Munro looks at Huron County, she sees a whole geology and archaeology of meaning. Like the teacher Mr. Cleaver in the uncollected story "Characters," she is very aware of "the landscape under the one you see" — "the lakes of former times, the old abandoned shores" (73, 72). She has an archaeological sense of layers of human history. In "Names," a piece now held in the Alice Munro Papers at the University of Calgary, and originally written to accompany Peter d'Angelo's unpublished "Ontario Photo Album," Munro notes:
Somebody tried to write a history of the town and the townships around. It was all names, crowding over one another. Names of buildings, names of people. Industries, businesses, railways. ... Things pile on top, and who cares? History seems a gentle avocation, orderly and consoling, until you get further into it. Then you see the shambles, the prodigal, dizzying, discouraging confusion. Just here, just on this one patch of the earth's surface where things have not been piling up for very long; so what does that say about the rest? Nevertheless some people will continue, some people are fired with the lasting hope of getting things straight.
Obviously one of these people who wants to get things straight, Munro has spent her writing career recording the lives of Huron county saints, including her own family, going back several generations.
Excerpted from Alice Munro by Catherine Sheldrick Ross. Copyright © 1992 ECW Press. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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