Saturday, May 13, 2017


Lucy Maude Montgomery, 1884

A literary war is developing over the new Netflix version of “Anne with an E”, a remake of “Anne of Green Gables.”  Claire Fallon says it has been put into a “prestige” machine to conform to today’s ideas; a host  of other women reviewers say they are offended by this harsh version of their heroine.  A review entitled “‘Anne with an E’ Finally Gets it Right” was removed from Google before I could read it, but I agree with this opinion.  But kafuffles make good publicity.

I would add this:  “Anne with an E” is based as much on L. M. Montgomery (the author) as it is on an American imagination.  Much as we loved Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth (we did SO love them) and I, at least, despised the 2016 candified version with a suburban-mom Marilla and a louche Mathew— this version is A) Canadian at last, and B) based on the author, Lucy Maud, as much as her creation, Anne.  To understand what I mean, consult this link.   
When I was serving the Saskatoon Unitarian congregation, I haunted the Saskatoon book store and found the journals of Montgomery, so I’ve been thinking about this writer’s amalgamation of misery into rueful amusement since 1988, but I received my first copy of "Anne of Green Gables" about 1948.  It went straight to my heart and everyone around me thought it should.  Me with my red hair and temper.

There are many versions of books that succeed because their intensity is derived from hard childhoods:  Louisa May Alcott, Gene Stratton-Porter, Ivan Doig, and my former co-writer all invented children drawn from their own bone marrow.  Lucy Maud was probably hooked on opiods in order to survive depression — both her own and that of her Presbyterian minister husband — and finally killed herself with an overdose, though some deny it.  Her journal doesn't speak of laudanum, which was common at the time, but rather "the hypodermic."

Beyond the resourcefulness of a child-brain able to jump to a blissfully dissociated alternate existence, is the importance of setting and the flavor of the specific.  This version of Anne restores the reality of Prince Edward Island.  I spot the French-Canadian demographic that I know well from my originally Quebecois in-laws.  It appears from the dusky skins of the Barry family, that they have been lifted from the lower classes by wealth, which the hired boy has not escaped.  I’ll be very curious about this dynamic as the story unrolls. 

In actuality, Marilla and Mathew were Anne’s grandparents: aged, impoverished and restrictive.  Marilla refused to heat more rooms than the kitchen.  For a short period, Lucy Maude went to her father in Prince Albert, who had remarried after her mother’s death, but — as even modern girls find out — stepmothers don’t like teenaged daughters from former marriages.  Her father had not improved.  The girl was forced back to her mother’s parents.

Driving herself through “Normal School” in half the time that was standard in order to qualify to teach in one-room schools, Lucy Maud’s first job was common among girls desperate to get ahead — or in Doig’s versions, a man of limited prospects who needed to survive.  All Lucy Maude’s life she was conscious of the necessity of making money.  There are many versions in fact and fiction of “school marm’s struggles.  Like ministry, one’s job was dependent on pleasing the community despite having a window into their less attractive qualities.  It’s often an exercise in romanticizing something that would be demonic if it weren’t so banal.

This is a fabulously beautiful series, full of vistas and super closeups.  Invented episodes, like Mathew riding hell-for-leather to catch the train on which Anne is leaving, make new reasons for spectacular cinematography along the cliffs at the sea brink.  I find it easier to forgive this than livening up the confined lives of the Bronte children on the recent PBS series by showing their heads on fire — I suppose to symbolize thinking. 

The houses and clothing are specifically authentic.  The casting is hugely satisfying.  Geraldine James can match Colleen Dewhurst.  (I’ve followed James' career for a long time, I guess since “The Jewel in the Crown.”)  The key to these books is always that the heroine is far more invested in the high principles of religion and human culture than the adults are or even what the actual lives of communities will support.  Bending to necessity, Anne copes however she can while never losing her independent ideas, but such earnestness demands a high price, best met with a strong work ethic.  In this version and in the books, Marilla deep down is a co-conspirator.  Also, Rachel Lynde is much more sharply defined here as a familiar guide and resource instead of a stereotyped crank.

Our own times, with good reason, mostly handles the relentless gap between our expectations of what life ought to be and what actually happens by simply ignoring it until something disastrous happens.  I’m not reading fiction these days, but I’m suspecting that the dynamic is still being explored as a tale of surviving children.  Around the planet there are refugees and the stigmatized trying to convey their lives and challenging the idea of predestination, being trapped by fate, which was one of Lucy Maude’s beliefs.  

The idea that there is a big Male in the sky who knows the plan can be reassuring.  Certainly no mortal men were much help to her.  She had three sons: one who “made a mess of his life,” one still-born, and one killed in WWI.  Mathew may have been inspired by one or two relationships with gentle men silenced by death.  She herself barely survived the Spanish Flu, as did my mother, but the friend who may have been “Diana Barry” did not. 

Lucy Maude made a lot of money: she estimated $100,000 over a lifetime but must have spent much of it on a bitter lawsuit against her publisher who kept trying to force her to write more crowd-pleasing Anne stories.  Louisa May had the same problem.  Gene Stratton-Porter did not, though she basically wrote the same story (“Girl of the Limberlost”) over and over.  Like Patricia Nell Warren, when Stratton-Porter wasn’t pleased by other people’s treatment of her work, she started her own company. 

This Anne may be as close to the real Anne as we'll ever be able to get.  Maybe later someone will strip away some of the embellishments, like the romance Mathew is supposed to have.  Maybe he slipped over from some of the other short stories about Avonlea.  This particular actress, Amybeth McNulty, is absolutely magical, a Celtic with big teeth and ears, enormous eyes, and an unlimited expressiveness. 

A publicity still

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