Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Wonderful Art of Lucy Montgomery

Lucy Montgomery --or L. M. Montgomery-- was the author of the series of children's books that began with Anne of Green Gables.
Green Gables is short---and most of them are just about 200 pages long---but how astonishingly powerful the writing was!  We have the intense personality of the main protagonist shoved right in our faces, while we split our sides laughing!  If I've known one person like Anne Shirley I've known a dozen: total space cadets with runaway imaginations who can barely stop talking for a few seconds!  Many of them are delightful to meet (briefly), but they're impossible as undergraduates.
A few years ago, dozens of them signed up to be Physics majors at our school.  I despaired; I had to teach them trigonometry, and they tended to relate to the subject in strange ways.  Luckily for everyone, many of them switched to other majors, such as Archeology, or Psychology, or even Religion, all of which were better suited to their mystical propensities.
To get back to our heroine, Anne Shirley: what distinguished her was a charm that not every Anne wannabe has.  Most definitely, it is a combination of Anne's charm, her hot temper and her stubbornness that carry us through that first book to its end.

After Green Gables, I had to read the sequels---some six of them---and gradually the character of Anne gels into something very plausible.  Not perfectly believable, but believable enough.  By the third book or so, Anne is engaged to the fellow who is to be her husband, and by the fifth book, Anne is no longer a schoolteacher or even a writer; her creative output takes a back seat, and she immerses herself in being a mother and a wife, and a leader in her community, and a good friend on whom her circle of women friends can lean on.  If I were a woman, I would probably get impatient with this version of Anne, Anne Blythe, because of course today women just don't fade into that role willingly.
*In addition, the character Anne Shirley wins several scholarships to institutions of higher education, and is able to afford a college degree only because of that.  This alone would have pressured a modern woman in that position to try and contribute more to her society than did our Anne, who essentially retired after half a dozen years of service!  Still, we must judge the character by "her lights", which is to say that we must judge Lucy M. Montgomery by her lights, that is, the expectations placed on an educated woman of Prince Edward Island in Canada in the early 1900's.  (Many of the mistakes we make in judging historical characters is by not recognizing the values of the times.)
In all the books, Montgomery is able to put forward a surprisingly modern set of values, even if moderated for her times, namely the turn of the century.  There is always suspicion of those of any ethnicity except white Anglo-Saxon Protestants; there is a thread of very mild racism that is present, in spite of which we get the impression that if Anne were to find herself in modern times, she would be far more broadminded.  So the author was a product of her times, and one makes allowances.
The morality of the characters is part of what endears them to me.  Without hitting us over the head with moral principles, we find ourselves heaving great sighs of relief when the little moral dilemmas in the stories are resolved with consideration and fairness and generosity.

It's been a couple of days since I read the last several books, so I can't point you to the specific book that I want to put forward as my favorite: I think it's Rainbow Valley.  It is about Anne's six children (she gave birth to seven, but the very first one did not survive infancy), and the four children of a new Presbyterian minister who comes to their town.  The four Merediths, the six Blythes, and a crazy young orphan who gets adopted by the kids, are the principal protagonists, and it is a beautiful romp through the hilarious misunderstandings that decorate the years between seven and fifteen in the lives of imaginative children.  It is just barely possible that all these stories came out of Montgomery's fertile imagination, but I strongly suspect some of these incidents did actually happen to someone.
The orphan girl, Mary Vance, runs away from an unhappy home some distance away, and arrives in the cluster of villages that make up the background to Rainbow Valley.  Mary Vance is a mildly Huckleberry Finn-ish character, but being a girl, is almost more interesting.
I have to admit that Montgomery, being of her time and place, is prone to waxing poetic about the beauties of the groves and flower gardens that surround the homes of our heroes, and the water in the bay, and the boats that sail through, and so on.  One reads fast, and waits for the action.
The older Meredith girl, Faith, is my favorite character.  Okay, spoiler alert.
The new minister, Mr. Meredith, is a widower, and absent-minded to boot.  An elderly aunt who is mostly deaf keeps house for him.  The four children: Jerry, Faith, Una and Carl (ranging from about 13 to 9 in age) are really very decent, but are poorly clothed, and generally left to their own devices.  They live right next to the old Methodist graveyard, and so naturally they tend to play among the gravestones, which is severely frowned upon by the Methodists and the Presbyterians alike.  (One time, they were singing Polly wolly doodle at the tops of their voices, not knowing that the Methodists were having a prayer meeting close by.  These are my sort of kids!)
The kids tended to frequently play in the backyard of the Blythes, and this is what they were doing when they come upon Mary Vance for the first time, hiding in the loft of a barn.  She is hungry, and not well clothed, and homeless.  Since the level of supervision at the Merediths' manse is minimal, the kids correctly conclude that it would be safest for Mary to join them in their home.  So, for several weeks, Mary blends into their family.  Having kept house for a mean old lady for years, Mary can cook, and severely criticizes Aunt Martha's cooking.  Nobody thinks Mary being there is at all strange.  This is understated comedy at its best.
Anyway, the light of inquiry is finally shone on Mary, and Mary is taken in by a neighbor as a maid and general factotum.  But the Meredith children must soon confront the fact that their rambunctious behavior is upsetting the Presbyterian churchgoers no end, and reflecting badly on their father.
So they set up a club for bringing themselves up.  Anytime any one of them does something upsetting to anyone, they have a tribunal, and assign punishments to themselves!
I don't know whether it is plausible to see such behavior from children of that age, but I was truly touched by the various stories that flowed from the Club.  In addition, Montgomery had really delineated the personalities of the children so brilliantly that you could practically see them doing their crazy stuff.
It is natural to compare the Anne books with Louisa May Alcott's Little Women series.  There are many similarities, but the Montgomery books are far less buttoned-down.  They are also more episodic in style, so it isn't a burden to take up one of those books, for fear you have to read it in one sitting.  We have come to know, of course, that Alcott's father belonged to a organization of Christian Humanists of some sort, which explains some of her progressive values.  With Montgomery, I have no such easy explanation; but we must stop being surprised at people having progressive values.  We should be rightly surprised when people do not have the sorts of values that we have come to expect in public life in the last several decades.  In short, I would like to suggest that Lucy M. Montgomery's books are a wonderful antidote to the stupefying greed and idiocy that we see coming out of Washington.  It reminds us about the kinder, gentler world that existed a century ago, and which still exists in Canada!


*Added later.

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