Tuesday, July 01, 2008


At the website for the radio program www.here-now.org you can hear this radio interview:
ANNE WITH AN 'E': This month marks the 100th anniversary of Canadian Author Lucy Maud Montgomery's classic, Anne of Green Gables. On Canada's Prince Edward Island, where the book is set, there have been Anne parades, an Anne country fair and newly released Anne Shirley postal stamps. But the book is also celebrated across the world. In Japan, you can buy a house of green gables, and in Poland there's a traditional picnic with carrot juice in honor of Anne's red hair. We speak with Dr. Elizabeth Epperly, author of Imagining Anne: the Island Scrapbooks of L.M. Montgomery, she's also founder of the L.M.Montgomery Institute at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Someone gave me an elegant set of four Anne books when I was a kid and in many ways it formed the core of my personality, at least as I saw it. I presumed I was unique, but once an airplane seatmate who was a child psychiatrist told me that even in Africa the black kids identified with Anne. With an “e” please, more refined you know. Even in Heart Butte, where no one but me had red hair, the kids loved Anne and the movies about her were my most effective bribe for working hard.

It wasn’t until I was the UU minister in Saskatoon that I ran across the journals of L.M. Montgomery. By that time I was becoming more and more determined to write seriously, so my interest was moving from just reading the Anne stories to finding out where they came from. As it turned out, Lucy Maude was far different than I had imagined. In the books there is often an older, accomplished and much admired writer, a woman of perfect poise and wisdom. I had assumed this must be the author’s self-portrait and I’m sure it was the image she hoped to project.

In fact, Lucy married a Presbyterian minister with a depressive disorder, for whom she covered in practical ways like the eternal committees and calling as well as bolstering the family finances with her income from the books and raising two boys. Once Anne had become a hit, she was not set free to write as she fancied but rather had to accept the additional yoke of being publisher’s “product” in the modern way -- constantly rewriting versions of “Anne” in much the same way as Louisa May Alcott was trapped by “Little Women.” This is a formula that can still work: witness the “Harry Potter” procession.

While I was living in Canada, I bought the first volume of Lucy’s journals and had intended to buy more, but left too soon. The first takes her up to 1910, the year she married. She herself judged that her early journal was misleading in that it was more of a record than an analysis. She was a girl who “went and did,” fell in love, made wild attempts at success that sometimes DID succeed, and recklessly spent her high spirits and energy on the appreciation of beauty. She was pretty good at school and became a teacher herself. But she had lost her mother and her absent father could not fit her into the household of his second wife in northern Saskatchewan. The Cuthberts are a much-softened version of her own grandparents, who mostly raised her. She warns that the second volume gives an entirely wrong impression that she is morbid and troubled, because like most of us she used her private journal to vent while keeping a cheerful face on things and often having a far more pleasant time than one might think from the troubles she analyzed in the interest of understanding and resolving them.

The years are 1889 - 1910. Much of my childhood reading was written in this time period since I read the books around the house acquired by my elders. Gene Stratton-Porter was another heroine of mine, though she was a tougher cookie and less inclined to admire nature (only slightly) than to act as a creditable naturalist. She did, however, have red hair -- though Elnora, the “Girl of the Limberlost” did not. Lucy wrote about nature like this: “I am closely tucked up in bed now, sitting up to write this. it is a wild night out -- one of the nights when the storm spirit hustles over the bare frozen meadows and black hollows and the wind moans around the house like a lost soul and the snow drives sharply against the shaking panes -- and people like to cuddle down and count their mercies.” This is the C.S. Lewis recipe for the sublime: looming inhuman danger in the face of which the domestic keeps one safe. The difference at the last turn of the century was that the domestic took constant attention and effort, from the wood stove to the water pump to the kerosene lamps. Still, it was on a human scale and in one’s own control, not a matter of bugging the landlord or some contractor. One didn’t worry about environmental contamination or an asteroid hitting the Earth.

It was also a time when children did not lie around moaning that there was nothing to do. Rural children certainly had chores and if they wanted fun, they had each other or they made things or even resorted to church events. Church was the center of life, not a peripheral obligation. I sometimes call this genre of books, “pinafore stories,” which rather trivializes them, I suppose, but some do rise above that description. Maybe Booth Tarkington’s versions (Penrod and Sam, Seventeen) didn’t quite, but certainly Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn stories escape the category into universality. It was before WWI and long enough after the Civil War in the US to have recovered a bit. Everyone felt optimistic and the frontier hadn’t quite closed. Thad Scriver, my father-in-law, came to this reservation in 1903, full of energy and confidence, famous for dancing.

I asked the Heart Butte kids why they loved Anne so much, and they said it was because everyone in the community seemed to get along, in spite of the grumps and the stingy, and things were “nice.” This is the same opinion our Valier mayor has of our town, in spite of the feral unspayed dogs, alcoholic unemployed men and derelict trailers. Rarely do people shoot each other or beat each other to death and there is the same pressure on folks to present a cheerful and constructive front as there was in “Avonlea.” This seems inevitably human. Ivan Doig picks up on it in his novels about this region. If either the cherished homestead or the undertow of danger gets out of balance, the story crashes.

The last entry in the first volume of the journal is on February 7, 1910, and describes “a month of nervous prostration -- an utter breakdown of body, soul and spirit. The hideous suffering of it, especially of the first fortnight, is something of which the mere remembrance curdles my blood. I thank God I do not come of a stock in which there is any tendency to insanity. If I had I believe that my mind would have given way hopelessly.” This seems to have been triggered by a broken engagement -- the young man also fell into “nervous prostration.” Lucy was vulnerable because of a heavy and unpleasant teaching situation, the unavailability of trusted female friends, and possibly other forces too deep for her to describe, like high expectations aroused by the beginning of writing success. It was so bad she asked her doctor for sleeping potions. Who’s to say laudanum doesn’t work better than Valium?

It seems to me that the sources of her sanity were community, an acute sense of humor, appreciation of ordinary daily beauty, a bouyant energy, and a particular view of the world which comes close to the great Calvinist heresies of the time, war against the strict, ascetic and imperious disciplines of Victorian ancestors in favor of Edwardian love of the here and now, "universal salvation" if you like. In the end a lot of small blessings (or mercies) is a big blessing.

1 comment:

RuthLMM said...

Did you always have a geological wisdom or did this come with age? Every day that I visit your blog, I leave feeling better, even when the topic is the harshness of reality (recent floor woes). And, I remember Valier and the Heart Butte visit as a highlight of 'driving Montana,' when we used to be able to afford aimless travel. Freezout, Choteau, Bynum, Katy's Wildlife Sanctuary, Heart Butte, Hi-Line to Rudyard and overnight at Chester, with a dip down to Big Sandy and the amazing art of Nick Fry and Don Greytak.
What's not to love?
Keep writing. I'll keep reading.
--- RuthLMM.
p.s. you inspired me to make that long-delayed call. I'm overdue for a mammogram.