Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Anne is ours

One of the most vivid memories I have is my mother telling me all about the Anne of Green Gables books. While we did dishes, I would sit on the counter, cross-legged, and she would tell me the plot lines of the stories. I was only about eight at the time, and she didn't have all of the copies. Once she retrieved them from her mother when I was ten, I began reading them.  My fourth grade teacher read the first two of the series to us out loud. When I was in fifth grade, and we had to act out a dramatic presentation, I did the scene from Anne of Green Gables where Anne breaks a slate over Gilbert Blythe's head. My mother stayed up late making a "wig" out of the leg of pantyhose and orange yarn. Needless to say, I loved Anne.

I wanted to have Anne's sunny disposition, her  ability to turn a bad situation into a good one. And I wanted the happy ending, too. All over the world, girls loved Anne, but she belongs to us here in Canada. Even writers as prestigious as Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro read about Anne.

I recently finished L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture. For people who relegate the Anne books to simple children's stories, think again. The writers of this volume discuss far deeper issues than what appeals to a child. Montgomery wrote what she knew, and she reflected the cultural norms where she grew up. Her stories -- and not just Anne; she wrote of other girls, too -- reveal young ladies seeking their identities in a conventional, and often suffocating, societies. Her novels after World War I change in tone, reflecting the huge effect the war had everywhere in the world. One can learn a lot about history from reading her novels.

One of the more interesting essays in the volume was about the Hollywood production of the movie, made in 1934. The author revealed how the picture, while entertaining, failed to reflect the true focus of the book, instead turning it into a romance. The predominance of maternal influence in the persons of Marilla Cuthbert, Miss Stacy, and Rachel Lynde, crucial to the story, were downplayed, and the relation with Gilbert Blythe extrapolated upon. I found that quite intriguing, given my usual skepticism for movies that attempt to adapt classic books.

The most interesting essay was Margaret Atwood's, where she identified the enduring love for Anne. Sure, I loved the books as a child, but I continue to read them even as an adult, and as I learn more about Montgomery (I have been reading her select journals for a while now), at the age of 49, I still love them. Atwood comments in her typically astute manner:
The only character who goes through any sort of essential transformation is Marilla. Anne of Green Gables is not about Anne becoming a good little girl; it is about Marilla Cuthbert becoming a good -- and more complete -- woman.
It may be the ludicrous escapades of Anne that render the book so attractive to children, but it is the struggles of Marilla that give it resonance for adults.
I tend to agree with Atwood.

This is a blog for history. Literature is a reflection of history, and in the days ahead, I hope to share some snippets from a book I am beginning which discusses in depth Montgomery's heroines. Evaluating these heroines is a way to see what was in the mind and heart of this fascinating historical figure.