- 12 nov 2010 09:20
( Voor wie het Anne-verhaal niet kennen, kan dit stuk spoilers
Margaret Atwood over Anne of Green Gables.
Uit The Guardian, Saturday 29 March 2008.
'Nobody ever did want me'
The story of an orphaned, talkative, red-headed 11-year-old sent to a remote farm by mistake, Anne of Green Gables was an instant success in 1908 and, a century later, is still loved by girls from Canada to Japan. Margaret Atwood salutes a childhood classic.
Lucy Maud Montgomery's novel Anne of Green Gables is 100 years old this April, and the Annery is in full swing. Already there's a "prequel", Budge Wilson's Before Green Gables, which chronicles the life of spunky, strange, but endearing Anne Shirley before she hit Prince Edward Island's Green Gables farmhouse in a splatter of exclamation marks, apple blossoms, freckles and embarrassing faux pas. And there's yet another mutton-sleeved, button-booted, Gibson-girl-hairdo'ed television show in the offing - Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning - due in 2009, following the 1919 silent film, the 1934 talkie, the 1956 television version, the 1979 Japanese animé, the 1985 Green Gables series, the 1990-96 Road to Avonlea and the PBS Animated Series of 2000, not to mention the various parodies - Anne of Green Gut, Fran of the Fundy and its brethren - that have appeared over the years.
On top of all that, a fresh edition of the first Anne book is available from the New Canadian Library, complete with the original illustrations. These are unsettling, as everyone in them has a very small head - Marilla in particular is not only pinheaded but practically bald - leading us to wonder about the degree of inbreeding that was going on around Avonlea. There's a curiously shaped Anne - more like a sort of Mary Poppins puppet than a girl - who turns into a pretty Dresden china figurine by book's end. But Anne's original image defects have been corrected over and over in the course of the century. In the many subsequent pictorial renditions of her, Anne's head returns to normal size - sometimes it gets a little too big - and the hair becomes much more prominent.
Nor is this process at an end: from the Anne of Green Gables Licensing Authority that gives the nod to all collateral products, expect more Anne boxed sets, Anne notepaper and Anne pencils, Anne coffee mugs and Anne aprons, Anne candies and Anne straw hats, and Anne - well, what else? Anne lace-edged pantaloon underclothing? Anne cookbooks - oops, we already have those. Talking Anne dolls that say, "You mean, hateful boy! How dare you!" followed by the sharp crack of a slate being broken over a thick skull, or else, "I hate you - I hate you - I hate you! You are a rude, unfeeling woman!" I always liked those parts.
For those of you who did not read this book as a child - are there any? Yes, and they are most likely male - Anne is the story of an orphaned, red-headed, freckled, 11-year-old girl who's been sent to the Green Gables farm in Avonlea by mistake. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, the elderly brother and sister who own the place, wanted a boy orphan to help with the chores, but eager, imaginative, drama-queen Anne makes such an impression on shy old bachelor Matthew - shown in the original illustrations as a dubious cross between Santa Claus and a tramp - that he wants her to stay, and tart, stern Marilla comes around to his way of thinking.
Anne's subsequent adventures, awkward scrapes, aesthetic hyperventilations and temper tantrums are both touching and amusing, as she grows from ugly-duckling waif to talented and beautiful swan, having dyed her hair temporarily green in the meantime. Ultimately she wins the admiration and affection not only of Marilla, but of just about everyone in Avonlea except the girl we love to hate, whose name is Josie Pye. Finally, there's a bittersweet ending, wherein the wonderful Matthew dies - killed by a heart attack brought on by the shock of a failing bank that wipes out all his savings, thus giving us An Anne For Our Times - and scholarship-winning Anne renounces her larger college ambitions, at least for a while. She stays at Green Gables to help Marilla, who's at risk of going blind and would have to sell the place otherwise. This is the part where you really cry a lot.
The book was an instant success when it first appeared - Anne "is the dearest and most loveable child in fiction since the immortal Alice", growled crusty, cynical Mark Twain - and it's been going strong ever since. Anne has inspired many imitations: her more genuine literary descendents surely include Pippi Longstocking, not to mention Sailor Moon - girls who kick over the traces, but not too much. Montgomery herself wrote a string of sequels - Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne's House of Dreams and more; but the grown-up Anne is not the same, and neither is Avonlea after the outbreak of the first world war. As a child reader, I felt about these later books much as I felt about Wendy growing up at the end of Peter Pan I didn't want to know.
Anne of Green Gables was first published in 1908, a year before my mother was born, so when I first grinned and snivelled my way through it at the age of eight, it was a youthful 40. I revisited it through the eyes of my own child in the 1980s, when it was approaching 80. Then our family actually went to Prince Edward Island, and stayed in Charlottetown, and saw the sprightly, upbeat Anne of Green Gables musical that's been running there continuously since 1965. I enjoyed it a lot, but watching a show about an 11-year-old girl with some real 11-year-old girls casts a different light on things: some of that enjoyment was vicarious.
We didn't buy any Anne dolls or cookbooks, nor did we visit the "Green Gables" facsimile farmhouse, which - judging from online accounts of it - is as complete as Sherlock Holmes's digs on Baker Street, containing everything from the slate Anne broke over Gilbert Blythe's head to her wardrobe of puffed-sleeve dresses to the brooch she was accused, wrongly, of losing. There's even a pretend Matthew who gives you drives around the property, though he's not described as running to hide out in the barn at the approach of lady visitors, as the real Matthew would have done. Now I wish I'd taken in more of these sights while I had the chance, though somewhere along the way we did check out the early 20th-century one-room schoolhouse where the high double desks were just like the ones Anne would have known.
From the point of view of the Annery, we were unsatisfactory consumers, though the many Japanese tourists who'd come a very long way to see the musical were snapping up the dolls, straw hats, books and aprons with encouraging briskness. I worried about these tourists during the musical itself - wouldn't the egg-and-spoon race present an insuperable cultural barrier? - but I needn't have. Anne's popularity in Japan (and she's been extremely popular) used to be a mystery to me. Then I went to Japan, and was able to ask a Japanese audience to explain Anne's fascination for them. There were 32 answers, all duly recorded by a nice lady who wrote them down, typed them out, and sent them to me. Here are some of them.
Anne of Green Gables was first translated by a Japanese author who was very well known and well loved already. Anne was an orphan and there were a lot of orphans in Japan right after the second world war, so many readers identified with her. Anne has a passion for apple blossoms and cherry blossoms - the latter are especially dear to the hearts of the Japanese - so her brand of aesthetic sensibility was very sympathetic. Anne had red hair, which - before the past 20 years or so, when even middle-aged Japanese ladies may sometimes be spotted with blue, green, red or orange hair - was thought to be extremely exotic. Anne is not only an orphan, but a poor girl orphan - the lowest of the low on the traditional Japanese social ladder. Yet she wins over that most formidable of Japanese dragons, the bossy older matron. (In fact, she wins over two of them, since she adds overbearing, opinionated, but good-at-heart Mrs Rachel Lynde to her collection basket.)
Anne has no fear of hard work: she's forgetful because dreamy, but she's not a shirker. She displays a proper attitude when she puts others before herself, and even more praiseworthy is that these others are elders. She has an appreciation of poetry, and although she shows signs of materialism - her longing for puffed sleeves is legendary - in her deepest essence, she's spiritual. And, high on the list, Anne breaks the Japanese taboo that forbade outbursts of temper on the part of young people. She acts out spectacularly, stamping her feet and hurling insults back at those who insult her, and even resorting to physical violence, most notably in the slate-over-the-head episode. This must have afforded much vicarious pleasure to young Japanese readers; indeed, to all Anne's young readers of yesteryear, so much more repressed than the children of today. Had they thrown scenes like the ones Anne throws, they would have got what my mother referred to as What For, or, if things were particularly bad, Hail Columbia. (I myself did not get What For or Hail Columbia, but they were a feature of my mother's stories about her own upbringing in rural Nova Scotia, which - as far as the schoolhouse and the churchgoing and the attitudes towards children went - was remarkably similar to Anne's.)
"God's in his heaven, all's right with the world," Anne whispers in the very last lines of Anne of Green Gables. She's fond of Victorian poetry, so it's appropriate that she ends her story by quoting from a song sung by the optimistic heroine of Robert Browning's dramatic poem "Pippa Passes"; doubly appropriate because Anne Shirley herself acts a kind of Pippa throughout the book. Pippa is a poor Italian orphan girl who slaves away in a silk-spinning mill, yet manages to preserve a pure imagination and a love of nature despite her lowly status. Like Pippa, Anne is an unselfconscious innocent who, unbeknownst to herself, brings joy, imagination and the occasional epiphany to the citizenry of Avonlea, who are inclined to be practical but drear.
It's unlikely that Anne Shirley would have been allowed to read all of "Pippa Passes". Pippa's fellow characters are far from wholesome, and their doings are so sordid and explicitly sexual as to have caused moral outrage when the poem was first published: one of them is a mistress, and another has plans to debauch Pippa and lure her into a life of white slavery. Browning's view is the more realistic: in actual life, an orphaned girl like Anne would have had few prospects. "What a starved, unloved life she had had - a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect," thinks Marilla; and it's this starved, unloved life that Budge Wilson has explored in her "prequel". Judging from what we know about the lives of orphans at that time, including the many "London street Arabs", as Marilla calls them, that were being sent to Canada by the Barnardo homes, a statistically accurate Anne would have continued to be poor and neglected. However, through luck and her own merits, Anne is rescued by the Cuthbert siblings, thus joining a long line of redeemed fictional Victorian orphans, from Jane Eyre to Oliver Twist to little Tom the chimney sweep in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies. Fairy-tale endings, we call these; for, in mythology and folklore, orphans were not merely downtrodden outsiders: they might be heroes-in-training, like King Arthur, or under the special protection of the gods or fairies. (There is certainly something uncanny about Anne - a "witch", she's often called - and a few centuries earlier she might well have been burnt at the stake.)
Outside of fiction, however, orphans weren't only exploited, they were feared and despised as fruits of sin: children with no identifiable fathers, resentful and even criminal Bad Seeds who'd do things like setting fire to people's houses "on purpose", as Rachel Lynde informs Marilla. This is why Montgomery goes to such lengths to provide Anne with two educated, respectable parents who were married to each other. But a real-life Anne would have led a Dickensian life of grinding child labour and virtual bondage as an unpaid mother's help - Anne has performed this function earlier in her life, once in a bare-bones backwoods household that sports three sets of twins. In my sourer moments, I confess to having imagined yet another Anne sequel, to be called Anne Goes on the Town. This would be a grim, Zolaesque epic that would chronicle the poor girl's enticement by means of puffed sleeves, then her sexual downfall and her subsequent brutal treatment at the hands of harsh male clients. Then would follow the pilfering of her ill-got though hard-earned gains by an evil madam, her dull despair self-medicated by alcohol and opium-smoking, and her sufferings from the ravages of an incurable STD. The final chapter would contain some Traviata-like coughing, her early and ugly death, and her burial in an unmarked grave, with nothing to mark the passing of this waif with a heart of gold but a volley of coarse jokes from her former customers. However, the presiding genius of Anne is not the gritty grey Angel of Realism, but the rainbow-coloured, dove-winged Godlet of the Heart's Desire. As Oscar Wilde said about second marriages, Anne is the triumph of hope over experience: it tells us not the truth about life, but the truth about wish fulfilment. And the main truth about wish fulfilment is that most people vastly prefer it to the alternative.
This is one of the reasons Anne of Green Gables has had such an ongoing life, but this in itself would hardly be enough: if Anne were nothing but a soufflé of happy thoughts and outcomes, the Annery would have collapsed long ago. The thing that distinguishes Anne from so many "girls' books" of the first half of the 20th century is its dark underside: this is what gives Anne its frenetic, sometimes quasi-hallucinatory energy, and what makes its heroine's idealism and indignation so poignantly convincing.
The dark side comes from the hidden life of Anne's author, LM Montgomery. Some of Montgomery's journals have been published, and several biographies have appeared, as well as a haunting 1975 television docudrama called The Road to Green Gables. There's a new biography due in October from Mary Henley Rubio - The Gift of Wings: The Life of Lucy Maud Montgomery - and doubtless in it we will learn even more about that hidden life, though what we know already is disheartening enough. Montgomery was a semi-orphan: her mother died when she was under two, and her father packed her off to be brought up by her strict Presbyterian grandparents in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. The description of the chilly bedroom where Marilla puts Anne on her first night at Green Gables - a bedroom "of a rigidity not to be described in words, but which sent a shiver to the very marrow of Anne's bones" - is doubtless a metaphor for this household. Anne's plaintive cry, "You don't want me! . . . Nobody ever did want me", is a child's outraged protest against the unfairness of the universe that seems to come straight from the heart. Montgomery was an orphan sent to live with two old people, but, unlike Anne, she never did win them over. Marilla and Matthew are what Montgomery wished for, not what she got.
Anne's experiences minding other people's babies are bad enough - Marilla, "shrewd enough to read between the lines", pities her - but Montgomery's own experiences were, if anything, worse. The father she'd idealised from a distance moved out west and remarried, and Montgomery was sent for; but the joyful family reunion she must have anticipated didn't happen. Instead, she found herself kept out of school so she could tend the baby of her uncongenial new stepmother. Her father was seldom there.
Anne's precocious reading tastes and romantic imagination are similar to what we know of Montgomery's, but Montgomery did not star in a post-girlhood series of sequels in which she marries Gilbert Blythe. Instead, Montgomery went through two serious relationships: an engagement to a man she did not love, and a non-engagement to a man whom she loved passionately but couldn't bring herself to marry because he was an uneducated farmer. The farmer died, after which she renounced her romantic dreams and stayed home to look after her unpleasant grandmother. When she finally did marry, four months after the grandmother's death, she had premonitions of disaster - it's not a good omen to sit at your wedding breakfast feeling that it's your own funeral. Indeed, things did not work very well. Her husband, Ewen MacDonald, was a minister, and Montgomery had to perform the many tedious duties of a minister's wife, for which she was by no means as well suited as the beloved Mrs Allan of Avonlea. But then Ewen began to suffer bouts of something then called "religious melancholia", but which today might be classified as clinical depression or even bipolar disorder, and Montgomery had to devote more and more time to his care. Later in her life, she herself suffered from nervous collapses, and no wonder. "Nobody ever did want me" was a burden imposed on her by her own childhood, and it proved a hard one to overcome. The many fictional worlds she created through her writing were both an escape from and a way of coming to terms with a deep underlying sadness.
There's another way of reading Anne of Green Gables, and that's to assume that the true central character is not Anne, but Marilla Cuthbert. Anne herself doesn't really change throughout the book. She grows taller, her hair turns from "carrots" to "a handsome auburn", her clothes get much prettier, due to the spirit of clothes competition she awakens in Marilla, she talks less, though more thoughtfully, but that's about it. As she herself says, she's still the same girl inside. Similarly, Matthew remains Matthew, and Anne's best chum Diana is equally static. Only Marilla unfolds into something unimaginable to us at the beginning of the book. Her growing love for Anne, and her growing ability to express that love - not Anne's duckling-to-swan act - is the real magic transformation. Anne is the catalyst who allows the crisp, rigid Marilla to finally express her long-buried softer human emotions. At the beginning of the book, it's Anne who does all the crying; by the end of it, much of this task has been transferred to Marilla. As Mrs Rachel Lynde says, "Marilla Cuthbert has got mellow. That's what."
"I was wishing you could have stayed a little girl, even with all your queer ways," says Marilla in one of her weepy passages towards the end of the book. Marilla has finally allowed herself to make a wish, and now it's been granted: over the past hundred years, Anne has stayed the same. Good luck to her for the second hundred.
"Waiting To Be Seated"