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Monday, January 16, 2012

 

First sentences: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Requested by Jessica R.

Mrs Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops, and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde's Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs Rachel Lynde's door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs Rachel was sitting at her door, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.

A first sentence that's also a first paragraph, in fact. Anne may talk breathlessly and at great length, but the narrative can match her word for word - if with a little more regard for the decencies of structure and sequence.

When I was a little girl I adored Anne of Green Gables, identified passionately with its heroine, soared on its flights of fancy and, if memory serves, was so heartbroken at the death of Matthew Cuthbert that I couldn't sleep and eventually crept into my parents' bed for a weep. I reread it again as an adult and was surprised; recently I listened to it on audiobook and confirmed my adult impression. Montgomery may sympathise with Anne, but this is no panegyric to the imagination. Or if it is, it's also a panegyric to the realities of small-town life - but a wry panegyric. As much as a bildungsroman, this is a comedy of manners. Nature is loved, but so are people, and it will remain a background to them.

This is what we see at the beginning: we start with where 'Mrs Rachel Lynde' - introduced as if we were visiting her parlour, with that characteristic Avonlea habit of referring to individuals by both first and last name when speaking of them in the third person - is observing Avonlea, and we are observing her. Avonlea itself (a fictional place, though described with such familiarity that someone's even put together a map of it) is mentioned as if we already knew where it was, knew it so well that 'the old Cuthbert place' and 'Lynde's Hollow' were familiar landmarks. And it's worth noting that those landmarks are named for the people they frame. Anne dances in scattering her fanciful titles left and right, bestowing a Violet Vale here and a White Way of Delight there, but Montgomery's titles are like Marilla Cuthbert's tailoring: 'good, sensible, serviceable ... without any frills or furbelows about them.' The scene is set. This is a small community, small enough that the names of the occupants are the easiest way to identify places, focused on neighbourliness rather than anything more artistic. A home, with all the comforts and limitations that a small community can be expected to provide.

At the same time, Montgomery is far from blind to the beauties of nature. This is something that struck me listening to the audiobook: for all her love of fancy, she's not the most lyrical of stylists. While she shares some of Anne's animism regarding the stream, and can rock to the rhythms of 'dark secrets of pool and cascade', much of her description - and this will continue throughout the book - is more in the order of a nature walk than a poem. 'Alders and ladies' teardrops' are gestured towards with pleased familiarity, but if we don't know what an alder tree or a ladies' teardrop plant looks like we will, as Anne would say, just have to imagine it. Montgomery doesn't so much describe the wildlife as just point it out, listing what we can see. But for what we lose in descriptive beauties, we gain in a sense of belonging: inducted into Avonlea as we are, we are expected to be able to picture the plants based on their names alone, as if it were our own highway we walked.

Even the anthropomorphised nature is subject to Avonlea's customs. The stream, more than Anne herself, is subject to convention: no wild dryad brook this, but a brook sufficiently aware of Mrs Rachel Lynde's censorious gaze that it meekly mends it manners as it flows past her door. The joke is on Mrs Lynde, of course, but it also grants her power. Intricacy and passion are subdued by her. She is not, in fact, the central character, nor even a member of the central, titular household; instead, she stands in for Avonlea itself, with all its faults of provinciality and saving graces of kindliness, and its sharp interest - frankly shared by us, its newest citizens - in a good story. And a woman or a place that can subdue a stream merely by observing it is a potent force - not of oppression, but of socialisation. The story will tame Anne's wildness (rather to the cost of our entertainment, by the end), and we can anticipate this taming right from the outset. Secret streams are not extinguished, but they must learn to conduct themselves in public, and so they do.

Anne of Green Gables, in other words, begins in a balance between nature and nurture, wilderness and convention, that is resolved by dry humour. Avonlea is introduced to us as an open invitation: come in and welcome home, stranger, and don't forget to wipe your feet. Lucy Maud Montgomery is, as a narrator, present in all her characters, particularly the female ones - in Anne's love of beauty and life, in Rachel's keen eye for an interesting event, in Marilla's amused tolerance - but for the reader, she is to us what Marilla Cuthbert is to Anne: a shrewd, humorous provider of a home. No wonder we as children feel ourselves to be Anne; Montgomery more or less casts us so.

Comments:
mmy jumps and down with sheer joy.....

Okay, some questions and observations first and then I will be back with a more scholarly response.

Question: Have your read the latter Anne books? I ask because unlike many other authors who have a child/teenager grow up Montgomery follows Anne's life for next decades through the real triumphs and tragedies of life. Those realities (and the realities of which Anne slowly becomes aware) are sometimes chilling and sometimes heartbreaking. Montgomery grew up in some towns, taught in many and finally married a minister. She knew life.

Observation: My mother grew up within the same region as Anne is set (not on the island but my grandmother hailed from an area of the mainland just a short drive from the island and my mother from New Brunswick. Like Anne my mother had to go away to finish school (mom studied at home and went away to write the tests) and like Montgomery (and Anne) my mother had to teach in small one or two room schools to eke out a living when times were hard in that part of the world.

Montgomery captures the flavour of that world and those people without caricaturing them or drawing them over-broadly or making them into either simpletons or naive country philosophers.
 
I have read some of the later books, though not all of them. I have to admit that to me, it felt like they became more 'improving' and lost some of their wit and energy (though it's something I feel happens towards the end of the first book too). Others may disagree, of course. What's your view of them?

I've never been to that part of Canada, but Montgomery certainly makes it feel real. I've always loved the 'that's what' phrase that people add to emphasise a point...
 
it felt like they became more 'improving' and lost some of their wit and energy (though it's something I feel happens towards the end of the first book too).

In general I agree. There are moments and passages and even themes that stand out in the latter books (TRIGGER WARNING: DEATH OF CHILDREN) Anne loses her first child as an infant and later on one of her boys dies in World War One.

The most powerful later incident (to me) was a passage set at the funeral of a man who never hit his wife but who had psychologically abused her by never seeing her as a real person and responding to her real desires -- from the colour of her clothes to the arrangement of the furniture. The widow attempts to laugh at his funeral (in revenge) and ends up in tears.

And reading that you wonder how much "behind the scenes" horror Montgomery witnessed in her life.

Montgomery explored some of the other themes one sees in the first Anne book in other non-Anne books of which my two favourite were Jane of Lantern Hill and The Blue Castle the first of which is about a girl whose parents are estranged and the second a women nearing thirty who has been trapped by convention into an unhappy life. The former is set partially and the latter totally in Ontario. That locates them later in the author's life when she seems to put less stock in "faith" improving life and much more in people striking out and changing things for the better.

As for her writing abilities, she does absolutely nail a type of diction and dialect without going the overbroad route used by many authors. That area of Canada has several distinct regional dialects (many of which sound as un-English to American ears as do the dialects of the Midlands), and they tend to speak with a lilt, use a somewhat different word order the "default normal English" and a non-standard vocabulary. Yet everyone I knew could code-switch very well, at least when they were writing.
 
The most powerful later incident (to me) was a passage set at the funeral of a man who never hit his wife but who had psychologically abused her by never seeing her as a real person

Hm, I think I missed that one: which book was it in?
 
Just checked: It is the sister of the dead man's first wife who speaks at his funeral-- it is from "Anne of Ingleside" -- one of the later books in the Anne cycle.

I sent you a short passage from it -- to me those are the words of a woman who had heard the complaints of emotionally battered women behind closed doors.
 
I've read all the Anne books, some of them more than once, but the sequels didn't make the same impression on me as the first. I remember them quite vaguely. I don't think they were too "improving", though. Certainly they weren't as bad as the sequels to Little Women!

TRiG.

***

Request for first sentence analysis: My Brother Michael, by Mary Stewart.

"Nothing ever happens to me."
 
I remember adoring these books, so thanks for the refresher. I was a motormouth know-it-all, so I deeply sympathized with Anne.
 
I focused on the entire Anne series for my master's thesis in Literary Studies - the role that weddings and funerals (and their related imagery) play in propelling the narrative of the series, specifically.
I am now returning to the series as I introduce bits and pieces of the story to my (still very young) daughter. I try to share my favorite novels - and the Anne series certainly is one of my favorites - by tailoring small activities, meals, and crafts for younger children. Since I can't read the books with her yet (she's only three), I had to find a different way to subtly 'brainwash' my daughter into becoming a reader/dreamer.
Come see my attempts at littlepinkbookmarks.blogpsot.com.
 
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