Monday, May 16, 2011

Chapter 1: In which we establish a mindset

Today we begin a new chapter-by-chapter series of posts.1 The goods? Anne of Green Gables.

Anne-the-book was the source of some enduring childhood experiences, and Anne-the-Wonderworks-production even more so.
  • One day in kindergarten we were asked to bring in our favorite books and read from them. And as my favorite book of the moment was Anne, I certainly didn't think there was anything unusual about my choice. But after I read a couple pages, my teacher asked me to go to the principal's office, where I got to read again. The principal gave me a red pencil for my troubles.2
  • Just so we're clear: Megan Follows is Anne. Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth are Marilla and Matthew. And so on. I was in the single digits when Wonderworks was in its heyday, and thanks to PBS pledge-drive season, I ended up with taped versions of both Anne and Anne the Sequel, which I have now watched somewhere on the order of eleventy-dozen times since the 1980s.3
So. We open with a portrait of small-town life at its most panopticon-like. (But without the title character, as she doesn't make an appearance until the second chapter.)

Mrs. Rachel Lynde sees her neighbor Matthew Cuthbert drive by, and she starts to speculate. Because that's what Mrs. Rachel does -- pay attention to the details of her neighbors' lives, and retain enough information to make generally accurate guesses about anything she's not immediately privy to.

The residents of small-town PEI are all pretty aware that they live in the public eye:
"Mrs. Rachel knew that he ought because she had heard him tell Peter Morrison the evening before in William J. Blair's store over at Carmody that he meant to sow his turnip seed the next afternoon."
See, when Mrs. Rachel just can't resist, and heads over to Green Gables, home of the siblings Cuthbert, to find out what's going on, Marilla is ready for her:
"She had expected Mrs. Rachel up; she had known that the sight of Matthew jaunting off so unaccountably would be too much for her neighbor's curiosity."
Marilla Cuthbert is the other key character we meet in this chapter. (Matthew gets a few mentions, but Chapter 2 is his turn to shine.)
"She looked like a woman of narrow experience and rigid conscience, which she was; but there was a saving something about her mouth which, if it had been ever so slightly developed, might have been considered indicative of a sense of humor."
Many, many thanks to Gail Gauthier, whose 2008 post4 pointed me to Margaret Atwood's suggestion that Anne can be read as Marilla's story just as much as Anne's:
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.... 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.
Keep that perspective in mind as we read.

For now, "crisp, rigid Marilla" explains to Rachel that Matthew has gone off to pick up an orphan boy they've placed an order for, because you just can't get good help from those ungrateful French these days.5 Oh, and it's a good Canadian boy, because she wants nothing to do with "street Arabs" sent over from London by the Barnardo homes.

Ever the helpful neighbor, Rachel responds by listing all of the many things that could go wrong. But neither of them consider the one that will confront us in the next chapter.

1 Care to follow along with the Anne of Green Gables posts? Lucy Maud Montgomery's work is in the public domain the the US, so the first book in the series (and several others, but not quite all of them -- so no, you won't be the only one wondering what happened to Anne of Windy Poplars) is available from Project Gutenberg.

2 And apparently had a conversation with my parents about getting me into the district's gifted-and-talented program. I didn't find out about that until much later, but I did get the sense that he was pretty impressed.

3 On VHS, until just recently. (Thanks, MB!)

4 As in yes, I've been thinking about this, without actually blogging about it, for the better part of three years.

5 This xenophobia (or whatever the proper term for English-Canadian antipathy to French-Canadians is) will unfortunately make many recurring appearances.


gail said...

Is it vain of me to feel really good about making someone think about something for three years?

Sarah Rettger said...

Vain? Hardly.

(This is probably a good place to note how awesome Google is, so I could dig up the actual post, not just "Gail wrote about this once upon a time"!)