Anne of Avonlea: In defense of Miss Lavendar


I mentioned in one of the other posts that Miss Lavendar has always been one of my favorite characters in the Anne oeuvre.  Now that I’m an old maid myself, I take her as something of a patron saint.  “Some are born old maids, some achieve old maidenhood, and some have old maidenhood thrust upon them.”

In the Kevin Sullivan Anne films, there was no Miss Lavendar, and in a way perhaps that’s just as well.  When I realized that the BBC version of Anne of Avonlea was including the whole Echo Lodge storyline I was excited, and, of course, nervous.  Long ago when I was posting about the Sullivan things, I mentioned how extraordinarily important casting has been to me with the Lord of the Rings films, and how it has been even more worrying to me with Anne projects.  These characters – Frodo and Sam, and Anne and Diana – have been part of me since I was eleven or twelve.  If they’re given faces and voices, they need to be the perfect faces and voices, or there’s no point to the whole thing. 

Kathleen Byron is the BBC’s Miss Lavendar.  She looks the part, if perhaps a little too old.  (to the ‘net: the mini-series was made in 1975; Kathleen Byron was born 1921 (oh, dear, and just died in 2009): she was 54 at the time of filming.  FWIW Anthony Ainley was 11 years younger.)    She sounds the part, in terms of delivery – except for the accent, though hers doesn’t seem as … quirky as others’.  She’s not, perhaps, perfect – but she’s good. 

She was a little lady with snow-white hair beautifully wavy and thick, and carefully arranged in becoming puffs and coils. Beneath it was an almost girlish face, pink cheeked and sweet lipped, with big soft brown eyes and dimples … actually dimples. She wore a very dainty gown of cream muslin with pale-hued roses on it … a gown which would have seemed ridiculously juvenile on most women of her age, but which suited Miss Lavendar so perfectly that you never thought about it at all.


Where she looks the part, and her voice is unobjectionable, what is given to her to say in that voice is … terrible.  (For one thing, it’s not “Charlotte the Fourth”.  It’s Charlotta.  Why would you even bother to do that?)  I said in the last post that it seems like while Anne of Green Gables goes smoothly (and I’m half relieved and half really sad that the BBC AoGG is lost), once the later books come into play some sort of brain rot sets in.  Miss Lavendar wasn’t so badly done by in the first disc of the miniseries – but in episode four Stephen Irving comes back to Avonlea, and back into her life. 

 OK, I’m enough of a grown-up to get over an actor’s past roles. (Except for the guy who played that pedophile in Without a Trace.  And that guy who kidnapped Scully in X-Files and called her “girly-girl”.  Those poor actors are marked for life in my brain.) Except … in Ainley’s Master’s first story, he took over the body of Nyssa’s father, wiping his brain.  After a few minutes it seems like that’s what happened here.  He tells Miss Lavendar, and I quote:

Stephen Irving: You’d be astonished how much I’ve learned about forbearance.
Miss Lavendar: Stephen, I’m glad you’ve learned forbearance – but I don’t want you to start practicing it on me. I want you to tell me the things about me that you don’t like.
SI (protesting feebly): Ohh…
ML: There must have been things.
SI: Well, there was one thing. You were just a girl then; it was a line of talk you indulged in, about flowers having souls, and stars singing hymns. That really used to shrivel me up. (Miss Lavendar is clearly shocked) Oh, I’m sorry – I’ve hurt your feelings. I shouldn’t have said that.
ML: No, no, I asked you to – but – well –
SI: Yes?
ML: If poetry ‘shrivels you up’, Stephen, then –
SI: Yes?

And here, where the poor woman should have gotten up, and put out a hand, and said “If poetry, which has helped me survive all the long years since you went away and which means more to me than anything I’ve had in all that time, ‘shrivels you up’, then – it’s been lovely to see you again.  When do you return to America?”

But instead she says this:

Then I shall keep it out of earshot of you, that’s all.  I shall talk very soberly about the price of cheese. (They both laugh) But I warn you: the moment your back is turned, I shall slip away to the book cupboard and have a little swig of Shelley or Swinburne – and nobody’s ever going to cure me of that!

Something must have taken over Miss Lavendar’s body too. Because that’s … not right.  Poetry is not something anyone needs to be “cured” of.  That’s a problem throughout the mini-series, that attitude, and the reason I can’t rate this thing too highly despite some good aspects.

I need to quote the book again:

[Stephen Irving] did not ask Anne to translate her remark into prose. Like all kindred spirits he “understood.”

See?  Paul wasn’t a total anomaly.  He had a father who understood, whom Anne considered a kindred spirit.  Anne’s not an idiot: she didn’t hand out the sobriquet “kindred spirit” to just anyone.  Obviously evil influences are at work in the film.  If poetry in the girl he was courting “shrivels” this person up, how on earth must he feel about it in his pre-teen son? 

And I just have to say – “shriveled me up”? Really? This is the best vocabulary you could come up with? Wow.

In the book, CharlottA adores her.  In the film, she humors her and talks about her behind her back:

Charlotta: She goes on like that all the time. Trees and all.
Anne: What do you mean, “trees and all?”
She talks to ’em.
Oh, well, that’s just an imaginative way of talking, like – like poetry.
We take no notice, ’cause we know her.

And Anne’s not exactly being a pillar of strength supporting her there. 

What in the world did the scriptwriter (Elaine Morgan) have against Miss Lavendar??  I keep going back over the online editions of the book, trying to see if there were seeds for the creature Miss Lavendar becomes here.  Because there’s more than just the wrong name for the girl and the willingness to give up poesy.  As if that wasn’t bad enough.  Oh, no. 

The wedding is on, and there’s ever so much to be done for it, of course. 

Charlotta flutters about the room, in a right tizzy.
Marilla: Come here!
And it turns out that there’s a tremendous amount of cleaning and cooking to be done in the next couple of days, and Charlotta is the only one to do it all.
There’s the bride, isn’t there? (Her tone of voice, as always, is priceless)
Oh, Miss Lewis – No, you can’t trust her to do a thing.  Ever since her beau
came back, she doesn’t rightly know where she is.  …

How the scene actually reads:

“Praise be to goodness you’ve come,” [Charlotta] said devoutly, “for there’s heaps of things to do. . .and the frosting on that cake WON’T harden. . .and there’s all the silver to be rubbed up yet … and the horsehair trunk to be packed. . .and the roosters for the chicken salad are running out there beyant the henhouse yet, crowing, Miss Shirley, ma’am. And Miss Lavendar ain’t to be trusted to do a thing.  I was thankful when Mr. Irving came a few minutes ago and took her off for a walk in the woods. Courting’s all right in its place, Miss Shirley, ma’am, but if you try to mix it up with cooking and scouring everything’s spoiled. That’s my opinion, Miss Shirley, ma’am.”

First of all, Anne – and Diana – went happily, having volunteered, with no coercion of any sort, no bargaining.  And Charlotta was not the little slavey the mini-series would have us believe.  In other words, Miss Lavendar would be in there cooking and cleaning, and in fact was in the trenches until Stephen came for her – and she could not keep her mind on her work.  There is nothing at all anywhere in the book to even raise the flicker of an inkling that Miss Lavendar Lewis was the indolent airhead shown in this film: quite the opposite.  I can’t fathom why the screenwriter would make the choice to show her as such.

Charlotta the Fourth: A lady like Miss Lavendar – she sees things the way she wants to see them and nobody can alter that.
Marilla: Well, Leonora – you don’t know me.
Charlotta IV: No, ma’am – but Miss Marilla ma’am – you don’t know her!

Miss Lavendar: To keep happiness alive in one corner of one’s heart – that’s the most impor –
Marilla:  Lavendar. I want to talk to you.
L: Aren’t those roses beautiful – just the color of dawn.
M: Well, you’ve got a good memory, at any rate – I’d say it was a good ten years since you last saw the dawn. … Charlotte, fiddlesticks. I’ve known women who had cats and called them after each other, but not people.
L: … I’ve offered to help, she’ll tell you herself, but she’s said I’ll only be in the way, so what can I do?
M: You could put your hand in your pocket and hire someone to help her! … It wouldn’t break you to pay the rate of a grown woman! Goodness, gracious knows there’s enough work! If it were me I couldn’t stand by and see a half-grown child like that drive herself while it was in my power to prevent it!
L: I was sure you couldn’t. That’s what I always said, Marilla was so warm-hearted, she was never one to put her own interests first, I said. (rings bell; Charlotte comes in)  Charlotte, such good news Marilla has brought us.  You remember how Anne said what fun it would be if she could come and spend the next two days and nights here? And then she could spend every minute of the time helping you with the chores for the wedding?
Charlotte: But she said she didn’t want to leave this lady alone with the children.
L: That’s right! And now Marilla has come all this way to tell us that she’d be the last person in the world to stand by and see you cope with it all by yourself!  (Marilla stares at her, watching in amazement as her words are twisted)
C: Is this true, ma’am? Oh, thank you thank you, ma’am! Anne always told us you were a lovely person!
L: I always say that inside every one in this world is a lovely person – if only we have the hope and faith to show us how to find it.

This left me speechless.  I know, it’s hard to fathom, but it did. 

The Miss Lavendar of the book knows she’s not ordinary – how could one not?  But she’s not the flaky creature this shows.  She is self-aware, and content to take herself away from society and live out her days with her echoes and her trees and her Charlottas.  She has little money, and that’s why she brings in young teen girls – she can’t “reach into her pocket”.  This might be one reason she wears inappropriately young dresses, though LMM doesn’t say that, and by the Ehren Ziegler rules (Chop Anne!) if the author didn’t say it, it didn’t happen. 

The Miss Lavendar depicted is … unspeakable, by the time they’ve done with her.  I was delighted to see her; then I was disappointed by how she reacted to “shriveled me up”.  And then I watched in horror as she manipulated Marilla into letting Anne come and skivvy.  This Miss Lavendar is either oblivious or outright Machiavellian, shamelessly taking advantage of the letter of what Marilla says and letting the rest roll right by her.  I wish the actress, the director, or the writer had let there be some kind of clue as to what was in her mind during this scene.  Was it truly supposed to be “Oh, how nice, Marilla’s removing the only obstacle to getting what we want”?  Or “I’ll show you, you interfering woman, daring to lecture me”?  Or “Ha ha!  You fell into my trap and said exactly what I wanted you to say, knew you would say!”  There’s no indication; Miss L is placid and serene. 

Oh, and this Miss Lavendar is also lazy and entitled. 

Marilla: Well, Leonora, you can tell Miss Lavendar that I want a word with her.
Charlotta: Oh, ma’am I can’t – she never comes down until she’s had her egg and toast and the place is all spic and span!  (Charlotta has nice flat North American A’s, I must say)
Marilla: I suppose she thinks the fairies wave a wand over it in the night.

I’ve skimmed, at least, through all the Miss Lavendar passages, and there is no indication of any of that.  Lingering in bed of a morning was one of the cardinal sins in a community like that; I would love to know why the screenwriter decided to make that one of Miss Lavendar’s failings.  And far from entitled – my impression of the Miss Lavendar Anne-of-the-book was dear friends with is of a woman who lives apart partly by choice and partly out of necessity, and who would do everything herself if she could. 

This is what I pulled out of the book.  Miss Lavendar:

– is reputed to be peculiar

– dresses too young, but it suits her

– is ashamed of her pretendings if found out
(“But what is the use of being an independent old maid if you can’t be silly when you want to, and when it doesn’t hurt anybody? A person must have some compensations. I don’t believe I could live at times if I didn’t pretend things. I’m not often caught at it though, and Charlotta the Fourth never tells.”)

– knows perfectly well what Charlotta (CharlottA) the Fourth’s real name is, but come on – I am called, variously, Sharon, Nicole, and Daisy – – and that’s by my mother.  If the four sisters looked alike (and “They all look so much alike there’s no telling them apart”), then there’s no insult implied in Miss Lavendar’s faulty memory.

– Marilla: “She’s lived in that out of the way place until everybody has forgotten her.”  That will have an effect on how one lives. 

And here’s the story of the Charlottas:

 “You see, it is this way. When mother died ten years ago I couldn’t stay here alone … and I couldn’t afford to pay the wages of a grown-up girl. So I got little Charlotta Bowman to come and stay with me for board and clothes. Her name really was Charlotta. . .she was Charlotta the First. She was just thirteen. She stayed with me till she was sixteen and then she went away to Boston, because she could do better there. Her sister came to stay with me then. Her name was Julietta. . .Mrs. Bowman had a weakness for fancy names I think. . .but she looked so like Charlotta that I kept calling her that all the time. . .and she didn’t mind. So I just gave up trying to remember her right name. She was Charlotta the Second, and when she went away Evelina came and she was Charlotta the Third. Now I have Charlotta the Fourth; but when she is sixteen. . .she’s fourteen now … she will want to go to Boston too, and what I shall do then I really do not know. Charlotta the Fourth is the last of the Bowman girls, and the best. The other Charlottas always let me see that they thought it silly of me to pretend things but Charlotta the Fourth never does, no matter what she may really think. I don’t care what people think about me if they don’t let me see it.”  – “I couldn’t stay here alone” – I don’t know if that means simply she couldn’t bear to, or that for propriety’s sake she needed another female presence. 

– “I was vain and coquettish and liked to tease him a little.”  She’s aware of her own faults, and knows full well what she did wrong. 

– “I’m sorry to say” … Miss Lavendar dropped her voice as if she were about to confess a predilection for murdering people, “that I am a dreadfully sulky person.  … Pride and sulkiness make a very bad combination … My relations try so hard to make an old lady of me and it has a bad effect on me.”

My conclusions are these.  As I said, Anne is not an idiot, and does not give her friendship lightly.  And Miss Lavendar Lewis is a very dear friend to her.  Anne is a decent judge of character; while she is prone to believe the best of people, I’ve always believed that she could sense insincerity.  Miss Lavendar made some mistakes when she was twenty, and has paid for them for years, and has reached a stage in her life where she is has worked out the best way to survive the life she has been dealt.  She has spent a long time regretting the past, but has had time to forgive herself for behaving in a way that cost her the life she might have had – she’s reconciled herself to live as she is, and is able to take pleasure in it.  That’s a great deal more maturity than this screenplay gives her credit for.  She acts youthfully, and thinks youthfully, but she knows full good and well she’s not youthful, and that’s one thing she does not pretend.  Before Anne comes into her life, she can see her life ahead of her: growing older, growing old – alone, scraping to find a way to cope once the last Charlotta leaves her, and clinging more and more to the echoes and the pretending and the dreams.  Forgotten.  She is a true kindred spirit to Anne, who would not tolerate anyone using her at the expense of her dear family.  She is who Anne might have become had Gilbert not won her.  She is a far cry from the character written into the BBC mini-series – and I don’t understand it.  Part of it is something I’ll expound upon more later; but part of it seems like some bizarre personal grudge, like the screenwriter Elaine Morgan (how ironic) for some reason hated Lavendar Lewis as much as I love her.  Why else would she slant the script in such a way as to change not so much her actions but the character?  From poetic and whimsical bosom friend to manipulative, lazy, entitled false friend – where did that come from? 

Unfortunately, Miss Lavendar isn’t the only one whose character is given an unpleasant slant.  It seems like “nobody’s safe, for we care for none” – the Avonlea in this mini-series is a far less pleasant place than what L.M. Montgomery created.  And it’s a deep pity.

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