Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery / Karen Savage

Here is a comfort book which, for once, I actually have read fairly recently. I believe I read it within the past twelvemonth – but not via the Librivox recording by, yes, Karen Savage. (I’m a fan. Sue me. I accidentally downloaded a different version from Librivox, which was fine until chapter 3 turned out to be read by the same person who read the unfortunate Pride and Prejudice of earlier last year. Couldn’t do it.) Here her British accent is gone, replaced with a more North American one – and, indeed, at times her Anne sounded like Megan Follows. Well done indeed.

I don’t think I trust anyone who doesn’t love Anne. Female, at least; males have the innate can’t-read-a-book-about-a-girl block that sort of excuses them. The males I just feel sorry for, having been thus deprived.

Mine

I don’t remember exactly when I first read Anne of Green Gables. My original copy is a lovely jacketless hardcover with an olive green cover (I somehow used to blank on the actual descriptions of the house, and always pictured Green Gables as that color) with an oval photograph of a quite good Anne stand-in, inscribed by my two favorite aunts, Jean (my mother’s twin) and Rita (youngest of the family), and dated 1977. (It took quite a while to find the cover online. I could, of course, just have scanned mine, but that would have been easy.) I don’t know if I tried it when I was eight; I doubt I was in the habit of letting books sit about at that stage in my life. I do remember setting myself up in the living room with Anne in my lap and a dictionary beside me, with the belief that it was full of big words (as indeed it is, at least to an eight-to-ten year old). I remember the dictionary being completely forgotten within a chapter or so; anything I didn’t figure out through context remained a mystery for the time being, or became for me something like Anne’s concept of diamonds (“I do not think it means what you think it means”). It didn’t matter.

I also remember being completely knocked out of the book by the surprise that Matthew and Marilla were brother and sister, not husband and wife. There is very little textual evidence to that, and I assumed the usual. In Chapter 1: “‘It seems uncanny to think of a child at Green Gables somehow; there’s never been one there, for Matthew and Marilla were grown up when the new house was built–if they ever were children, which is hard to believe when one looks at them.'” This could (if one tries, or isn’t paying attention) (or is eight years old) be overlooked or mistranslated; it isn’t specific. The first time Marilla is referred to as “Miss Cuthbert” is in Chapter 6, and by then my assumptions were pretty deep-set; I just figured it was a colloquialism, not that I knew the word then. Then, later in the chapter: “‘And mind, Matthew, you’re not to go interfering with my methods. Perhaps an old maid doesn’t know much about bringing up a child, but I guess she knows more than an old bachelor.'” I don’t know if that’s when I surfaced sputtering “Huh-wha?”, but I remember experiencing the feeling. Funnily enough, paying attention to the matter for possibly the first time ever, at no point in AOGG is either Matthew or Marilla referred to as a sibling of the other. I wonder why.

Somehow, it’s taken an umpteenth read-through, and that in a different format than I’m used to, to bring out some depths I don’t know that I’ve ever really experienced before. Reading, I have been known to skim, my eye glancing over a line without capturing every word. Not an indication of boredom, that, just an eagerness to be getting on and a familiarity with the book which breeds – not contempt but casualness. Listening to the book being read aloud, I don’t miss a word. And Anne’s circumstances at the beginning of the book – as described as she rides to Green Gables with Matthew, and then to Bright River with Marilla the following day – moved me as they don’t seem to have ever done before. She has been starved for her entire brief life. Her parents are dead: perhaps this isn’t a source of sharp grief, as she never knew them; she can more mourn for the idea of them than for the mother and father she has never experienced. She has been shuttled from place to place, with never anything that could be called a home in all her eleven years, being forced to learn to cope with drunkards and terrible neglect and far too much responsibility even in that time of responsible children. No one has ever wanted her as anything but a workhorse from the time she was but months old – and she knows it. This would be an evil thing for any child, but for one of the intelligence and quick sensitivity of Anne it’s stunning that she came out of it still bright and funny and capable of love and trust.

The ride to Green Gables: happier than she has ever been, excited, finally for the first time since she was three months old actually wanted by someone, filled with love she wants only to give to something, someplace, someone, the deep thirst for some sign of affection from someone else, and to put the hell she’s gone through for eleven years behind her once and for all … and all the while unbeknownst to her Matthew and the reader are aware that this flight of happiness is going to come dropping from the sky like a bow-shot swan. “When he thought of that rapt light being quenched in her eyes he had an uncomfortable feeling that he was going to assist at murdering something – much the same feeling that came over him when he had to kill a lamb or calf or any other innocent little creature.” This is where not only the reader’s loyalty to Anne is built – for a child to be still so open and willing to love after all she’s been through is remarkable – but also the reader’s loyalty to Matthew and Marilla both.

Marilla, I think, took longer to gain my absolute affection; I love her much more now than when I was Anne’s age, I think. Now I can enjoy watching her sense of humor brought back to life like the Tin Man, one creaky joint at a time receiving oil, until finally Anne has had at least as much of an impact on her as she has on Anne.

Matthew won me over fast and hard, from the first time I read this – the shy, silent man who finds Anne an “interesting” creature, and who recognized in her something shining that he cannot identify but cannot bear to destroy.

“What good would she be to us?”
“We might be some good to her,” said Matthew suddenly and unexpectedly.

“There, there, Marilla, you can have your own way,” said Matthew reassuringly. “Only be as good and kind to her as you can without spoiling her. I kind of think she’s one of the sort you can do anything with if you only get her to love you.”

My adoration for Matthew is second only to Anne’s own, I think. I came very, very close to skipping over Chapter 37. I knew what it would do to me. And it did. But it was not a bad thing. My heart broke, yes, but there was no unfairness to it, no need to rail against an unjust world. It was sad, sorrowful, and yet sweet.

Ah, now, see, that word – “sweet” – it’s so ill-used now. The Doctor had it right, in one of my favorite lines: “Sweet, maybe. Passionate, I suppose. But don’t ever mistake me for nice.” Sweet, nowadays, almost automatically makes the jaded world roll its eyes and mentally substitute “saccharine” –

– overly or sickishly sweet
– ingratiatingly or affectedly agreeable or friendly
– overly sentimental: mawkish

I object. I can’t help feeling that if this book makes you sick with its sweetness the problem lies more in you than the writing. I read with a much more critical eye than when I was eight, and I still see nothing “affected” or “mawkish” about L.M. Montgomery. There was a piece in one of the Emily books which I’ll need to paste here about types of books and what they do to you. For me it’s like how I feel after eating a salad for lunch as compared with having gone to McDonald’s: the latter might taste pretty good with all its wonderful fat and salt, but afterward I will not be happy with myself, physically, emotionally, or mentally.

“Sweet” should mean the sight or scent of a wild rose, or the taste or scent of a strawberry. It should mean the feeling of being told you’re loved or wanted, or the feeling of loving. There’s nothing artificial about the sweetness encompassed in Anne. It saddens me that Anne is seen as on a par with those pink-dripping big-eyed round-featured squeaky-voiced …things that romp through what much of what passes for cartoons in the past couple of decades. This is a gentle book, even in its pain; it prefers to linger on loveliness, and heal with it. It tries to show that it might not be impossible to live a life colored with optimism and enthusiasm, and to resist the temptations of cynicism or uncharitable impulses. Anne isn’t perfect. She’s not the embodiment of original sin she’s led to think she is (I’ll come back to that), but – for one thing – she does like a good gossip. When friendship with the minister’s wife underscores for her how wicked gossip is, she therefore tries to avoid it. This isn’t saccharine – this is a girl trying to be a decent human being.

Cover of

Here again word meaning has become degraded: “wicked” is much more trivial than it once was. Now it feels closer to something like “naughty” (another old-fashioned word). What it means is “evil or morally bad in principle or practice; sinful; iniquitous”. Gossip is usually malicious, can cause horrible pain and damage, can destroy lives, and is never something most people want to be the subject of. Sin didn’t used to be something to take lightly; blood-and-thunder-fire-and-brimstone preachers were more common and better tolerated a hundred years ago, and everyone in a community like Avonlea would know for certain that sinning led to hell and hell was unthinkably awful. It’s unfashionable nowadays to be a good Christian, and so perhaps that’s why Anne’s teeth-gritted determination to avoid uncharitable remarks even about the Pyes might be seen as saccharine. I think it’s rather heroic.

Something else that makes a mockery of the idea of this story being saccharine is the humor, which – especially from Marilla – is not infrequently sarcastic. (“I’ll risk it.”) Marilla single-handedly could rescue AoGG from saccharine; her commentary on the causes of Diana’s episode of drunkenness are acerbic (and dead on).

This time through I was surprised, and dismayed, at how often Anne is labeled a bad child, and how thoroughly everyone allows her to agree with the label. She is accident-prone, and makes mistakes, and is the very definition of flighty as a child – but none of what she does is done out of badness. Intent is everything, and while
First Page of Anne of Green Gables, published 1908 it’s not desirable to wander off into a dream and forget to cover the sauce for the pudding, it wasn’t as if she put the mouse in herself – or as if she refrained from saying anything and just said “No, thank you, I don’t want any sauce” when it was passed around. She was as horrified as Marilla – more, because no one of any intelligence enjoys making mistakes. Especially silly ones.
One of my favorite pieces:

“Mrs. Spencer says–oh, Mr. Cuthbert! Oh, Mr. Cuthbert!! Oh, Mr. Cuthbert!!!”
That was not what Mrs. Spencer had said; neither had the child tumbled out of the buggy nor had Matthew done anything astonishing. They had simply rounded a curve in the road and found themselves in the “Avenue.”

– And then she was silent for three more miles. I have a peculiar tendency to use this …
I’m a reader, a book addict. I read everything from history (not as much as I ought) to cozy mysteries (though I hate that category name), from epic to urban fantasy, memoir and pop science and writing and art and Shakespeare and all points in between. I own an idiotic number of books of all genres. Out of all of them, when I need something to ease my soul or refresh my spirit, it is Anne I turn to.

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6 Responses to Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery / Karen Savage

  1. I too love Anne sooooooooo very much…love this post!

  2. I absolutely love Anne of Green Gables sweetness and all, I watch the miniseries from Canada often. Anne is my favorite and then Marilla and then Gilbert Blythe…he alone raised my expectations for men to such a high level! :D I’m going to now go read your post about Emily…love those books too, and finally found all of them, so I’ll be reading them again this year! PS. I found your blog through that post on the GGBC!

  3. I absolutely love Anne of Green Gables sweetness and all, I watch the miniseries from Canada often. Anne is my favorite and then Marilla and then Gilbert Blythe…he alone raised my expectations for men to such a high level! :D I’m going to now go read your post about Emily…love those books too, and finally found all of them, so I’ll be reading them again this year!

  4. stewartry says:

    Thanks for leaving a comment! You’re right – that’s another thing to “blame” Anne for: we’re all looking for Gilbert! :D

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