Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Anne of Green Gables: Revisiting a Childhood Favourite

It was a pleasure to recently re-read a book that I loved when I was young. More than 40 years separate my two readings of Anne of Green Gables, and some things surprised me. These include the language, my sympathy for Marilla, a misremembered incident (which must be from a different book), and, most importantly, the depth this story holds for adult readers.

I hadn't remembered how lyrical, nor how challenging, Montgomery's prose can be. Young readers today probably find it difficult.

"For Anne to take things calmly would have been to change her nature. All 'spirit and fire and dew,' as she was, the pleasures and pains of life came to her with trebled intensity. Marilla felt this and was vaguely troubled over it, realizing that the ups and downs of existence would probably bear hardly on this impulsive soul and not sufficiently understanding that the equally great capacity for delight might more than compensate. Therefore Marilla conceived it to be her duty to drill Anne into a tranquil uniformity of disposition as impossible and alien to her as to a dancing sunbeam in one of the brook shallows. She did not make much headway, as she sorrowfully admitted to herself. The downfall of some dear hope or plan plunged Anne into 'deeps of affliction.' The fulfilment thereof exalted her to dizzy realms of delight. Marilla had almost begun to despair of ever fashioning this waif of the world into her model little girl of demure manners and prim deportment. Neither would she have believed that she really liked Anne much better as she was."

I do remember the feeling I had when I first read this book. It was like something opened inside me. How her words gave me a sense of the vastness and beauty of this world. It was lovely to revisit that.

"Spring had come once more to Green Gables -- the beautiful, capricious, reluctant Canadian spring, lingering along through April and May in a succession of sweet, fresh, chilly days, with pink sunsets and miracles of resurrection and growth."

While my affection for Anne and Matthew remains unchanged, I discovered a new empathy for Marilla. Unsurprising, since now I am close to Marilla's age. She is the emotionally aloof type of character that Helen Humphreys, Anne Michaels and Jane Urquhart usually write about, and that I find fascinating.

"The lesson of a love that should display itself easily in spoken word and open look was one Marilla could never learn. But she had learned to love this slim, grey-eyed girl with an affection all the deeper and stronger from its very undemonstrativeness. Her love made her afraid of being unduly indulgent indeed. She had an uneasy feeling that it was rather sinful to set one's heart so intensely on any human creature as she had set hers on Anne, and perhaps she performed a sort of unconscious penance for this by being stricter and more critical than if the girl had been less dear to her. Certainly Anne herself had no idea how Marilla loved her."

Here are a few more passages that delighted me:

"[Mrs. Barry asked] 'How are you?'
'I am well in body although considerably rumpled up in spirit, thank you, ma'am,' said Anne gravely."

"It was in January the Premier came, to address his loyal supporters and such of his non-supporters as chose to be present at the monster mass meeting held in Charlottetown."
('Monster' used this way conjures an image of a 19th century monster truck rally.)

Jacqui Oakley's cover design
"Ruby was a very handsome young lady, now thinking herself quite as grown up as she really was; she wore her skirts as long as her mother would let her and did her hair up in town, though she had to take it down when she went home."
(Propriety and cultural mores change so much over time!)

I kept expecting to come across Anne's propensity for underlining as a means of emphasis in her prose. It wasn't there, so I must have been thinking of some other book's character who loved to write. Anyone know who/what book that might be?

Anne of Green Gables was a popular and rewarding selection for the CanLit Book Club that I facilitate at Jasper Place Library. My favourite comment came from Susan, who brought her battered original childhood copy to the meeting. She said it had a profound influence on her, by inspiring her to be a better person. What more can we ask of literature?

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