#178 Sheila Munro
March 28th, 2016
LOCATION: Munro’s Books, 1108 Government Street, Victoria
In a National Geographic book called Destinations of a Lifetime (2016), Munro’s Books of Victoria was listed third in a Top Ten list of bookstores around the world. The entry reads, “In 1963, exactly a half century before she won the Nobel Prize in literature, Alice Munro co-founded a bookstore with her then husband, Jim. Munro’s has since moved into a magnificent, neoclassical former bank, decorated with gorgeous fabrics, in Old Town, Victoria, British Columbia.” The couple’s daughter Sheila Munro, also an author, worked in the family’s store.
The former Royal Bank building on Government Street is the third location for Munro’s Books. Fifth on the National Geographic list was Powell’s Books in Portland. Other countries with bookstores on the list were Greece, Mexico, Argentina, France, Australia, China and Belgium.
After her divorce in 1972, Alice Munro married former university friend, Gerald Fremlin, a geographer/cartographer, in 1976. Jim Munro married textile artist Carole Sabiston in 1977, and they remained in the Munro family’s Rockland house in Victoria. Gerald Fremlin died on April 17, 2013. Jim Munro was appointed to the Order of Canada soon after Alice Munro won her Nobel Prize in 2013.
Sheila Munro was raised in West Vancouver and Victoria. With her mother’s encouragement and consent, Sheila Munro, while mainly living in Powell River, published an astute study of their family dynamics and her mother’s books, Lives of Mothers and Daughters (2001).
Joan Givner provided the following review of Lives of Mothers and Daughters in B.C. BookWorld when it was published.
Sheila Munro’s memoir Lives of Mothers & Daughters (M&S $34.95) is not without intimate revelations.
Alice Munro had a child that lived 14 hours. Jim Munro, now owner of Munro’s Books in Victoria, first saw his bride-to-be as an ‘apple-cheeked country girl.’ “I have an excellent figure,” she once told her eldest daughter, “but don’t tell anyone I told you that.” During the 1950s Alice Munro loathed Vancouver, had panic attacks, feared she would stop breathing and had to see every movie that Elizabeth Taylor was in.
Sheila Munro suggests her mother was a ‘a watcher’ rather than ‘a keeper.’ “She didn’t want to be a regular mother,” says Jim Munro. She once told an interviewer, “I’m just so terribly glad that I had my children when I did. I’m terribly grateful that I had them. Yet, I have to realize, I probably wouldn’t have had them if I had the choice.”
For literati, there are literary insights galore. Alice Munro wrote Lives of Girls and Women in a laundry room; she once tried to write a novel called The Norwegian or Death of a White Fox; and Jim Munro was the one who urged her to take a West Vancouver writing space—and found it for her—resulting in ‘The Office’ in which a husband is portrayed as being less than supportive.
But this stuff is secondary. In her Daughter-Nearest-not-Mommie-Dearest memoir, Sheila Munro of Powell River has finally escaped from her brilliant mother’s shadow. In Lives of Mothers and Daughters Sheila Munro has turned the tables, she has made her mother into a character in her own story.
“She is the gold standard by which everything else is measured, “ writes Sheila Munro “… So unassailable is the truth of her fiction that sometimes I even feel as though I’m living inside an Alice Munro story… There was something a little shameful about it, as if for her I wanted to be the perfect audience and the ideal friend.”
As a mother of two and an exquisite, fair-minded writer in her own right, Sheila Munro has escaped that feeling of inferiority that chronically undercut her confidence. She has done so with her mother’s co-operation, and even her mother’s babysitting. And she’s done it none too soon.
Alice Munro is one of Canada’s best loved writers with an expertise in the short story that has been compared to Chekhov’s. Lives Of Mothers & Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro is a hybrid form—part memoir and part biography—in which her daughter, Sheila Munro, gives the family history, explains the genesis of many stories, and describes Alice Munro in her roles as daughter, mother, and author.
Sheila Munro refers to Virginia Woolf’s famous comment that killing “The Angel in the House” is a prerequisite of women’s writing. Woolf, speaking metaphorically, was counseling the woman writer to reject the culturally endorsed model of femininity that includes being charming, nurturing, and ready to put her family’s needs before her own. Woolf’s own mother embodied that ideal, and it was not lost on critics that her phrase implied the repudiation of the person along with the ideal.
As a teenager, Alice Munro reached the same conclusion as Woolf, but for different reasons. Her mother was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, which both exacerbated her difficult temperament and imposed the heavy burden of housekeeping on her daughter. Munro learned an early lesson in distancing herself emotionally and physically in order to survive. To have remained close would have denied her a life of her own.
Munro’s marriage took her from Ontario to Vancouver and her return visits were infrequent, even when her mother was dying. The fiction shows such distancing came at a painful cost, for she grapples time after time with the phantom of the mother.
If marriage brought certain freedoms, it also presented new emotional and physical demands. These included trying to balance writing with the needs of small children, a husband (even a supportive one) and social commitments. Although a newspaper headline at the time brightly proclaimed “Housewife Finds Time to Write Stories,” the truth was otherwise. Munro’s frustrations were so acute that she developed alarming physical symptoms:
“After a time she stopped writing altogether and then she developed an ulcer…She started having panic attacks, and she began suffering from a bizarre anxiety disorder where she was actually afraid she would stop breathing, she literally couldn’t trust that one breath would lead to another, and she was prescribed tranquillizers.”
Nevertheless, the early conditioning in self-preservation served her well. Even with her children, Munro maintained a remoteness that safeguarded that inner core—the writing self. She has described her self-protectiveness quite harshly as the secretiveness of someone leading a “double life.” Yet the phenomenon is not unusual. Katherine Anne Porter, encumbered neither by mother nor children, spoke of needing to develop a severity of rejection she did not know she was capable of.
Munro eventually regained both her health and her creativity, buoyed by the steady success of her work. In the 60s nationalism affected literary criteria, and Munro’s fidelity in depicting rural Ontario found favour with Robert Weaver of the CBC’s Anthology. At the sophisticated New Yorker magazine, that same world was valued for different reasons. It had the exotic appeal of Eudora Welty’s rural Mississippi or Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Krochmalna Street.
With growing acceptance, however, came more complications. As Porter observed “There is a trap lying just ahead and all short story writers know what it is—The Novel.” Munro resisted publishers’ efforts to draw her into that trap. She also resisted the temptation to squander herself on book tours and other public appearances:
“…she said the danger was not that she would do badly in all the interviews and performances, what was distressing was how easy it was to become good at it, to become glib, and to cease to have any authentic feeling to write about.”
In this, her resolve was strengthened not only by her instincts for self-preservation, but by the austere Presbyterian culture of her youth with its disapproval of public display. An inner voice always censored her by whispering: “Who does she think she is?” The same voice still prevents her from volunteering, even to her own daughter, that she has received an award or published a story.
As a consequence, she won international acclaim without any self-advertisement and without incurring hostility or envy. Even those (of both sexes) who tend to dump on women writers, interpreted her “severity of rejection” as the cherished female virtue of modesty. They sometimes used her as a club with which to reproach her less charming, more vocal and assertive sisters. At a recent short story conference she was proclaimed
“A National Treasure.”
And therein lies the paradox at the centre of this book. Alice Munro, who successfully fought off Woolf’s bogey, reconfigured herself as the Angel in the House of Canadian literature. As such, she became a formidable figure as a literary foremother and as an actual mother.
The biographical portrait of Alice Munro alternates with another story—the narrator’s need to come to terms with such a figure. Because Sheila Munro herself is the mother of small children, she writes with retrospective sympathy of the maternal remoteness she experienced as a child. She understands both the reason for it and the cost. Moreover, the withholding mother of her childhood evolved into the dearest of friends:
“More than anything else in my life I looked forward to those meetings with her…I’d see her coming up the street in her leather pants, maybe some tight turtleneck, something dramatic…and I’d be in a state of breathless anticipation…Our conversations were intense, intimate, far-ranging. We shared everything, our love lives, our friendships, the books we were reading, the movies we’d seen, clothes, hair, face lifts, literary gossip, witnesses to the follies, vanities and self-deceptions of other people’s lives.”
Yet the daughter is perceptive enough to acknowledge the sinister aspect of this relationship. As an aspiring writer, following in the footsteps of Alice Munro is a complex fate.
For example, the response of one friend to whom Sheila showed her work was to say to her mother, “Oh Alice, you should be the one writing this. Imagine what YOU could do with it.” Such invidious comparisons whether felt internally or expressed openly, were crushing.
Her reaction was considerably more complicated when she recognized herself in her mother’s fictional characters, depicted with such skill that she felt defined by those characters. At times she seemed to be living in a story by Alice Munro.
In her mid-forties, Woolf tried to exorcise her mother by making her a character in the fictional masterpiece, To The Lighthouse. Sheila Munro, also in her forties, has produced a portrait of her mother that will be valuable both to writers and students of literature. One can only hope that it will be equally valuable to Sheila Munro’s self-definition as a writer.
Lives Of Mothers & Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro (M&S 2001; Union Square Press, 2008)
”A photograph is a secret about a secret,” Diane Arbus famously said. ”The more it tells you, the less you know.”
Readers of Sheila Munro’s ”Lives of Mothers & Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro” might be tempted to adjust that observation so it applies to narrative. The more Sheila Munro reads — and reads into — her mother’s short stories and interviews, and the more of her family’s history she discovers and shares, the less we know of what must necessarily remain mysterious: the relationship of a writer to her subject, and how her artistic focus might sometimes align with, sometimes diverge from — or even eclipse — the work of raising three daughters.
In a hybrid work of biography, memoir and literary criticism (whose title alludes to Alice Munro’s coming-of-age novel, ”Lives of Girls and Women”), Sheila Munro examines the writing life and bears witness to what her mother’s readers have always assumed: that her fiction is autobiographical, that her brand of realism, at once affectionate and clinical, owes a debt to . . . reality.
”Lives of Mothers & Daughters” opens with the engagement of Alice Laidlaw and Jim Munro. Sheila Munro’s parents met in 1950 in college, where Alice — like Rose in the story ”The Beggar Maid” — was a scholarship student. Sheila follows her mother’s life and career from this point until 1963, when Sheila herself was 10. Then she jumps back in time to examine her mother’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as Alice Munro’s early life.
If the book doesn’t make strict chronological sense, it does obey emotional logic. Sheila Munro begins — as children tend to begin accounts of their parents’ lives — with the meeting that ultimately produced her, and then, as a kind of intermission between Sheila’s earlier, presexual and preconscious life and her subsequent adolescent awakenings, inserts her mother’s artistic formation, which both prefigures and inhibits her own. The device that allows the jumps backward is travel: Sheila’s journeys to the Ontario towns where Alice Munro and her forebears lived. Sheila’s burden, it emerges, is to find perspective, a way of seeing emotional landscapes that her mother has mastered: ”As an artist she cultivated a huge detachment; she was looking at everything from a distance . . . trying to get a larger vision.”
The Alice Munro revealed by her eldest daughter was determined and diligent. But it wasn’t until 1968, nearly 20 years after her debut in Folio (the University of Western Ontario’s literary magazine), that her first collection of stories, ”Dance of the Happy Shades,” was published. In between were years of apprenticeship, of learning her craft by working around and among the many obligations of a housewife and mother, a double life that Sheila judges useful, since ”the predictable routines of household tasks” gave her mother ”respite from the immensity of the real work, allowing for a shallower, more ordinary state of mind.” Indeed, at this very moment, dirty floors and laundry are rescuing countless women writers from what Alice Munro has described as a ”series of impossible leaps” — writing.
What saves ”Lives of Mothers & Daughters” from being of interest only to those familiar with Alice Munro’s body of work are the questions it asks about being the child of an artist, a child who is seen through art, used by art. ”I can’t unravel the truth of my mother’s fiction from the reality of what actually happened,” Sheila observes of her own childhood. It’s a judgment, but a gentle, even hesitant, one. As a writer with two young sons, Sheila understands that she is inherently complicit: to admit she suffered as the child of a writer is to confess that she might subject her own children to the same exploitation. But that would depend on her being sufficiently ruthless.
”When I first read the story,” Sheila writes of ”Miles City, Montana,” ”I marveled at my mother’s ability to capture my character. . . . How could she know I was like that, ‘too eager to be what we in fact depended on her to be,’ and so terribly sensitive to criticism, and how could she not want to change that?” The question is of vocation. To be fair, had Alice Munro felt what she apparently did not — a call to adjust the nature of her child — she might have proved a destructive mother, no matter how honorable her motive. Perhaps writing, absorbing Alice as it did, offered her daughters a protection, a gift. They were not her work, so they were freed from her manipulation. The problem for Sheila is the idea that her development might be watched and recorded for a purpose unrelated to her welfare: used by the voracious and amoral writer who exists in the same person as her mother.
”I always talked back. I wasn’t a nice child,” Alice Munro tells her daughter. ”Being nice meant such a terrible abdication of self.” ”I don’t want her to say this,” Sheila admits, afraid of what it might mean, especially in contrast to herself, a daughter who is ”compliant, eager to please, good.” ”I was nice. . . . Did I abdicate my self?” she worries. Is Sheila, a writer struggling under the long shadow of her mother, lacking that essential selfish self, the artistic self who insists on her own needs before any other’s? This anxious question is the subtext of her book.
”She has spoken often of her art for dissembling, for concealment, which, for a writer, can be very advantageous, allowing her to remain free and detached, almost without a self,” Sheila reports of her mother. Writing, Alice Munro has suggested, was a means of ”leapfrogging” over the issue of self, presumably creating elaborate fictional counterparts as a means of camouflage. But perhaps this is disingenuous, an instance of the admitted dissembling?
Art is a process of revelation, of making the self naked, and the children of artists are forced, if they read or look, to see their parents’ nakedness. As with other taboos, breaking this one exacts a price. Reading her mother’s work, Sheila sees a woman — her mother? — who is hungry, sexual, human: both smaller and larger than the iconic Mother, necessarily lost. ”Want to love you, want to love you!” Sheila Munro would cry to Alice, when, as a little girl, she expected a punishment. Her cry echoes through this book, the cry of every child who sees too much — too little? — of the mother she desires.
by Kathryn Harrison