Tuesday, May 20, 2008
"....the dearest, and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice."-Mark Twain
2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables. As you can imagine, Anne fans (who can rival Jane Austen fans in their intense devotion and knowledge of the literature and life of Lucy Maud Montgomery) and Prince Edward Island are celebrating in a big way. Not only is the L.M. Montgomery Institute honoring the occasion at their annual conference, but Prince Edward Island is hosting an enviable array of events and activities.
Like many girls, I read the series. I reread the first two or three books in the series, but until several months ago, I had not reread them since middle school. Upon finding out that this year marked the centennial of the books, I decided to reread the entire series. With the increased attention and respect given in recent decades to scholarly study of children's literature, exemplary biographical and literary analysis of L.M. Montgomery has been published. These books give fantastic insight into Montgomery's life and personality, and enhance the experience of reading her literature. With that in mind, and bringing an adult critique of the books (versus a middle schooler's understanding and appreciation), I made the following observations while reading the series:
1) Sequels are problematic, particularly if the first novel is enormously popular. If the author is personally interested and invested in continuing the series on her/his own volition, the books have a much better chance of succeeding in terms of maturity and depth. Not that J.K. Rowling is the be all to end all of series authors, but she definitely wanted to continue Harry's story beyond the first and second books.
L.M. Montgomery continued Anne's story in subsequent sequels not because she was interested in maturing the character, but because she was under major pressure to do so from fans and publishers. She was also financially strapped, and keeping the Anne story, in addition to creating other series, generated much needed income (her husband, a minister, suffered from mental illness and was not always able to work). Although the first novel, Anne of Green Gables, is a tremendous work, the other books in the series fail to match up to that book's humor, pathos, and humanity.
2) I was disappointed and rather surprised to discover the enormous difference between Anne's childhood friendships and her children's friendships. Anne has a faithful, but occasional rocky (due to outside influences), friendship with Diana. Anne's relationships with other Avonlea children are also mostly positive, save for the spiteful Josie Pye. When Anne leaves Avonlea (and Diana) to go to college, she forms fast and faithful friendships with several classmates.
None of Anne's children, in contrast, form positive and lasting friendships. Their friendships ultimately end in betrayal. Children outside the family are not to be trusted. By the time Montgomery created the books that feature Anne's children, she had suffered the loss of a child, her husband's mental breakdowns, a lengthy lawsuit with a publisher, and her own depression. It's not far-fetched to assume that her personal tragedies affected her later writing.
3) Thankfully, Montgomery tapered off the excessive use of poetry quotations that are very proficient in the first two Anne books. Of course, poetry was much more popular in the Victorian/Edwardian era than it is now. Who knows-perhaps Victorian/Edwardian Canadians were wont to quote poetry at the drop of a hat in normal conversations. It's a bit twee and annoying, and happily taken down a notch in the later novels.
(And by the way, congrats to anyone who continues reading beyond the first sentence of Anne of Green Gables. There's much to love about the book beyond that sentence, but a sentence that runs several paragraphs is enough to deter quite a few readers!)
4) The lack of care and concern during Anne's first eleven years is startling (but not uncommon for orphans at that time). Children may not realize, as I definitely didn't, that Anne was basically an indentured servant during that time, and passed from family to family as someone would pass down unwanted clothing. Anne's arrival at Green Gables was a mistake; the Cuthberts had sent for a boy orphan. They knew someone who was picking up an orphan and asked her to pick out an orphan for them, pretty much in the same way you might ask someone to pick up a sandwich if you find out that they're going to the deli and you don't want to bother going yourself. Anne's future-to either return her to the orphan asylum or to pass her along to a vicious woman with an enormous family-is causally discussed in front of her. Of course, the Cuthberts later can't imagine their lives without Anne, but it's just another cruel instance in Anne's life.
It's disappointing that the later Anne books did not match up to the humanity of the first novel, but they are still, with all their faults, worthwhile reads and insights into turn of the century Canadian life (one aspect of Canadian life, since it is such a huge country). Montgomery's other books, particularly her favorite, The Story Girl, are lovely "comfort" reads, much in the same manner that Louisa May Alcott's fiction beyond Little Women are lovely comfort reads for some (not for me; I cannot abide Alcott's other fiction!).
If you're an Anne fan and looking for similar "old fashioned" books, try these on for size:
-read Montgomery's other writings
-read Louisa May Alcott's books beyond Little Women
-Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
-anything by Maud Hart Lovelace
-anything by Noel Streatfeild
-anything by Sydney Taylor
-anything by Frances Hodgson Burnett
-Heidi by Johanna Spyri (can be a bit tricky to get through)
-Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter (quite different from the Hayley Mills movie, which I love! Don't get me started on those who say it's sickly sweet; it's a beautiful movie featuring one of the best and most natural child actors ever)
-The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom
-anything by Dodie Smith