Sunday, November 22, 2009

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

From the favourer: "The Anne novels cheer me up when I'm feeling generally depressed about life. Nothing bizarre happens in Anne's life: she grows up, marries a doctor, has SEVEN children, she grows old, she has a garden bed, and a home she loves. All her happiness comes from inside her. I think maybe it reminds me that ordinary life is full of adventures and things to be happy about."

I think I first read the Anne books at around the same time as the favourer, as I recall much discussion of Daisy and Dora (from the later books). Were we about 12? Something like that. We then sallied forth to hunt down every book by Lucy Montgomery that the Corangamite Regional Library Service could provide. What a joyous few months! We must have come out the other end having experienced the word 'purple' far more often than your average reader.

But I'm pretty sure I hadn't read it again since then, though I've re-read the Emily books many times. I think with Montgomery's novels you end up being an Anne Person or an Emily Person (it's possible there's a Pat of Silver Bush Person out there, but they'd be a rarity). It's a bit like being a Dog Person or a Cat Person. So I'd quite forgotten a lot of the detail of Anne of Green Gables. But I can honestly say I re-read it with unabashed, whole-hearted, unembarrassed delight.

While it's probably unnecessary, I should give a bit of a synopsis. I suppose there may be 1 person left in the world who hasn't either read the book, seen a movie adaptation, or had someone tell them what the book is about. But I suspect most people are born knowing the basic plot - the knowledge passes from mother to child with the amniotic fluid.

Siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert decide to adopt an orphan child - a boy - to help with the farm work at Green Gables. Their neighbour, Mrs Rachel Lynde (who knows everybody's business and is happy to give advice about it), cautions against it:

"'Only don't say I didn't warn you if he burns Green Gables down or puts strychnine in the well -I heard of a case over in New Brunswick where an orphan asylum child did that, and the whole family died in fearful agonies. Only, it was a girl in that instance.'
'Well, we're not getting a girl,' said Marilla, as if poisoning wells were a purely feminine accomplishment and not to be dreaded in the case of a boy."

But when Matthew goes to collect their orphan boy, he discovers that they have been sent a very talkative, very red-headed, very female girl:

"A child of about eleven, garbed in a very short, very tight, very ugly dress of yellowish white wincey. She wore a faded brown sailor hat and beneath the hat, extending down her back, were two braids of very thick, decidedly red hair. Her face was small, white and thin, also much freckled; her mouth was large and so were her eyes, that looked green in some lights and moods and grey in others. So far, the ordinary observer; an extraordinary observer might have seen that the chin was very pointed and pronounced; that the big eyes were full of spirit and vivacity; that the mouth was sweet-lipped and expressive; that the forehead was broad and full; in short, our discerning extraordinary observer might have concluded that no commonplace soul inhabited the body of this stray woman-child..."

He can't exactly leave her there at the train station, so Matthew takes her home to Green Gables. Marilla is horrified, and resolves to rectify the situation as soon as possible. But on learning of Anne's probable fate she has a change of heart, and the girl is allowed to stay at Green Gables.

Marilla intends to bring her up properly, but Anne is not like any other child she's met before: Anne has an imagination. She talks a mile a minute, uses big words, and forgets to do her chores because she was making friends with the fir trees. Marilla can't understand her, and Anne is equally bamboozled by Marilla's attitude to life:

"'Do you never imagine things different from what they really are?' asked Anne wide-eyed.
'Oh!' Anne drew a long breath. 'Oh, Miss - Marilla, how much you miss!'"

What follows is Anne's youth at Green Gables - mostly full of scrapes: accidentally dying her hair green, flavouring a cake for the new minister with liniment, and the notorious breaking of a slate over the head of Gilbert Blythe (it's at about the 1min40sec mark for the watchers). But it's also full of joys: finding 'scope for the imagination' in the small town of Avonlea, and 'bosom friends'. Anne and her friends even have their own version of NaNoWriMo called "The Story Club", where each member has to produce one story a week. They are thrilling tales, of course, with lots of murders and romance: "Aunt Josephine wrote back that we were to send her some of our stories. So we copied out four of our very best and sent them. Aunt Josephine wrote back that she had never read anything so amusing in her life. That kind of puzzled us because the stories were all very pathetic and nearly everybody died."

It's funny, touching, beautiful and just a delightful read - Montgomery's descriptive prose is quite purple (often literally so - sometimes even 'empurpled'), but it's in the spirit of how the romantic Anne sees the world. Reading this book also seems to have had an effect on my dress sense - I've found myself wearing many more frilly things than usual. And don't talk to me about puffed sleeves.

I think you can learn a lot from Anne. When forced to do something humiliating (such as apologise to Mrs Lynde as punishment for a justifiably angry outburst), Anne turns the humiliation into something pleasurable by performing the most dramatic, sincere and flowery apology she can muster. The "Good Mrs Lynde, not being overburdened with perception", is quite touched and accepts her apology immediately, but Marilla is left with the faint sense that Anne hasn't been punished at all. Moral of the story: If you can't avoid having to do something unpleasant (or 'tragical', as Anne would say), you can at least enjoy the very drama of the unpleasantness. Mrs Lynde would whole-heartedly disapprove of this 'lesson', which makes it all the more appealing.

But despite her swings between delight and despair, Anne has a general talent for happiness. It comes, as the favourer notes, from inside her. She takes enormous joy in small moments (flowers, weather, gifts), and is full to the brim with dreams and ideas. She's irrepressible, and her joy rubs off on others. She's no Pollyanna though: "There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting." Indeed. I can think of nothing more boring than a perfect Anne.

I finished reading Anne of Green Gables while Luka slept and the long, hot week of 30+ degree November days broke into a drench of steady rain. I sat on the shared balcony above our flat with a mug of tea and watched the lovely downpour cool the trees, while Anne watched the sun set in Avonlea:

" 'Dear old world,' she murmured, 'you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.' "


Anonymous said...

From Tammy via FB: Yah! I have the same version and I think ended up buying them due to their lack of availability through the library. Think we were competing for library books as I was also a Western district girl and was also part of the Corangamite Library Corporation. :) Just thinking about Anne of Green Gables also makes me want to wear more frills and pastels... lol

Anonymous said...

From Justine via FB: Anna, I loved reading your blog post about Anne of Green Gables! I'll admit I was an Anne girl (puffy sleeves and all) from a very impressionable age. Tragical but true.

Anonymous said...

From Nil via FB: A couple of years ago I read Anne of Green Gables aloud to Joel - and he loved it! Not just for girls... Loved your blog post, Anna.

Anna said...

Puffy sleeves are for everyone, not just for tragical girls :)

Quadelle said...

You are making me all nostalgic for Anne, and curious about Emily. I shall have to do some LM Montgomery reading.

Anna said...

Emily is great - she's kind of a non-slapstick Anne. She's the poet where Anne is the performer.

mademoiselle délicieuse said...

Guess what? I'm one of the few people who have never read might've been whilst I was living overseas and had limited access to books in English. And I may have seen bits of one or multiple screen adaptations but I'm not sure - I'm notoriously bad at remembering movies!

Anna said...

You'll have to remedy that!

Anonymous said...

Anna, are you an Emily girl yourself? Despite all the Teddy stuff she seemed to have more autonomy.

Anonymous said...

I found it quite depressing that Anne had so much academic potetial and that she ended up getting married and having kids, becoming a sort of hausfrau.

Anna said...

Hmm, I don't know. Not everyone WANTS to fulfill their academic potential. Some of us prefer to quit Honours, get married, have kids and become happy librarians...whoops think I got off track there.

And yes, I am an Emily Person. But more because of her less-extroverted-than-Anne nature, than her autonomy.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I didn't mean anything personal there.

I was just thinking that, considering Anne's potential I would have preferred to see her with a husband, children and some kind of work (as a librarian, writer, anything else you could imagine..) rather than fading out in the later books, especially considering that she was such a vivid character in the early books.

But I can see that seven children at the turn of the century would dominate any woman's energy, even if some kind of work for women had been considered appropriate at that time.

Sorry again if you thought I was implying that motherhood and marriage are less important and demanding than any other choice in life. Ultimately it was only my personal reaction to the Anne books.

Anna said...

No worries, I wasn't offended :)

I can see your point too, though Anne does eventually go to Redmond, get her BA, and teach for some time (I think she's a principal for a while somewhere?), so her life isn't solely marriage and children either.


Nice blog!

Natalie Christensen said...

I really like your blog!!! I am writing about books I am reading too. I am currently reading Flannery O'Connor's Complete Short Stories and The Shack. I like the way you are reviewing books.