Sunday, 14 May 2017

Anne Jumps the Shark

I thought I could hold my tongue and keep from commenting on Anne with an E (beyond my extensive Facebook and Twitter comments), but it will not do. I must express my feelings.

Like many Anne-girls, I had high hopes for this new series. I was under the impression that it would explore the depths of the text while staying true to the story. I wanted it to be my version of Anne of Green Gables. The Anne who had faced real hardships, but threw herself into the opportunities presented by a genuine family life, a supportive teacher, and a solid community.

The series is visually beautiful and the depiction of day-to-life wonderfully rendered. I also think the casting is mostly spot on, but I should have been suspicious from the moment I read that creator Moira Walley-Beckett had “set out to make a Jane Campion feature, really.” Do you mean a Jane Campion film like The Piano? Oh crap, you’re going to butcher a quotidian depiction of a very specific colonial setting for your own neo-Victorian revisionist ends. You’re going to dismiss what you see as reactionary and conservative and not allow the narrative to respond to those claims in its own terms.

You will strip what was good and heartfelt from the story because it does not fit your agenda.

There are many things to roll your eyes at. For example, Matthew’s mad dash to find Anne in Nova Scotia is a ridiculously “jump the shark” moment almost equal to Anne rushing to France in Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story, aka, the series of which we do not speak. She’s off to find Gilbert, don’t you know, who’s missing in action in WW1 - a war his children actually fought in – and she’s in disguise as a French nun. Sigh. These are plot diversions that make no logical or narrative sense.

We don’t even need to get to Anne pawning Green Gables treasures and Jerry getting beaten up for the cash. What is this? Breaking Bad?

So many things, so I’ll pick three:

1)  Gilbert being an orphan:

In the Anne books, Gilbert is an only child and he does not come from a wealthy family, but his parents are hale, healthy and happily alive until the beginning of Anne of Ingleside. Mrs. Blythe doesn’t figure greatly, but she is described as “young hearted” and she’s definitely present at the birth of Anne and Gilbert’s twin girls Di and Nan. What’s more, the Blythes are described as “clannish” by Mrs. Lynde. Family is utterly central to Gilbert’s character and that clannishness extends wholeheartedly to Anne. His Anne-girl becomes one his people from the get go, even when it “seemed to [him] that it could never come true.”

Now it’s true that in Anne of Green Gables, it is mentioned that Gilbert had gone away to Alberta for three years for his father’s health, but there’s no suggestion that he was born out west. Gilbert’s an Island boy through and through. He is a student in Kingsport, Nova Scotia for seven years, but that is a means to a singular end: becoming a very community-focused, family doctor back on PEI.

Anne with an E total revises this aspect of Gilbert’s character – clearly a clever boy who wants to be a dedicated doctor who values family life is just a bit too boring – but the set up of his family situation opens a huge plot hole that doesn’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny.

In Anne with an E, it’s apparent from Gilbert and Marilla’s conversation at John Blythe’s grave that John arrived back in Avonlea as a young widower with an infant Gilbert. I don’t know about you, but even taking into account Marilla’s stubbornness and devotion to Matthew, it seems rather likely that she might have helped John out. This being a very small community and all. They may have even reconciled. Then there would never be a need to adopt Anne in the first place. Dun dun dun!

Marilla’s silent regret for her past pride requires John to be happily settled and for her to see it every day. Now that is an emotional depth to explore.

2) The Jerry Baynard subplot

Suck it up Anglo-Canada, you have a long history of dismissing the French population and you can’t rewrite that. What’s more, our beloved Anne is actually a bit of a snob. Yes, she was an orphan who lived in service for a bit, but the implication is that the people who took her in were the uncouth ones, not Anne. She is deeply cognisant of the fact that her parents were “good” educated people. What’s more, this is a world where being Methodist is enough to make the dominant Presbyterian community somewhat suspicious. Anne is relatively egalitarian and makes great friends with many housekeepers throughout the books, but French Catholic hired boys are beyond her circle of acknowledgement.

Now I can see that the reboot series is setting up a wee love triangle complication for Anne, and it will probably reveal the bigotry of the surrounding community. No doubt, it’ll be Jerry who finally tells Anne that Gilbert “got de’ turn” and will survive typhoid. Groan. I can see the hackneyed plot device to let her go – my bets are placed, talk to me later after I vom.

But if you want to explore cultural segregation in a very small community, how about showing that sectarian side to Anne and Avonlea. Yes, it makes us uncomfortable, but even though she is an orphan, her status as an English-speaking Presbyterian from “good” stock means she sees Jerry as just the hired help. Oh, and for the record, his surname is Buote in the book. 

Canada, you can’t make yourself feel better about your history by pretending that Anne and Jerry would have been friends, let alone share a bed while in Charlottetown pawning goods... Who are you even kidding? It’s the 1880s. It's Prince Edward Island. 

3) Mocking mothers wanting to improve education

How dare you. How very dare you.

Anne is remarkable because she not only goes to Queen’s College to train as a teacher, she goes to Redmond University and gets her BA. High Honours to boot in English.

This is something that is so central and important to L.M. Montgomery’s vision of Anne that she devotes an entire book to the four years at university. However, it’s something that even the beloved Megan Follow’s series disregards. In that version, Anne had to become a writer – sorry love, but first woman in your community to go to university is too dull for us, we want you to follow your dreams!

Hang on, what if university is your dream? Worse still for scriptwriters, what if being a mother and having your own family is also your dream? What if it’s both?

A BA may seem de rigueur to us, but it is no small thing in Avonlea, and most of the village women cannot fathom Anne’s academic ambitions. Furthermore, Avonlea is not a progressive town with a two-room school – it’s a small village with a schoolhouse where everyone knows everyone. Even Marilla and Matthew, who only live a little bit back from the main road, down a lane and behind some trees.

It’s Anne and Gilbert who are the improvers, who are the committee-creating arbiters of change. Oh, they are so Presbyterian! In Anne of Avonlea they even form AVIS, the Avonlea Village Improvement Society.

I realise that this vision of social change doesn’t always gel with our understanding of feminism and socialism, but women were at the backbone of education and social reform. And yes, it was centred on the church and temperance, and it openly questioned radicalism. These women, these committees of mothers, gave us women’s franchise and they gave us universal education. We must not mock them because they do not comfortably fit with our own social ideals.

We must certainly not mock them when they represent the very mindset of the heroine we claim to be celebrating.

You cannot make Anne Shirley a radical, but for several generations, she has given all us mostly good, but slightly odd, clever girls a literary friend. No Jane Eyre terrors in the night and dark secrets in the attic, just a person who lived in accordance with her world but could see all the magic.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Scope for the Imagination

Something has been bothering me for a long time now. I’ve tried to ignore it and not let it worry me. I’ve even tried to remind myself that it’s just a story and it doesn’t actually matter, but it just won’t do. It’s infiltrated by daytime thoughts, it’s troubled my sleep. Try as I might, for over a year now, the final chapter of Anne of Island has bugged the hell out of me.

You know the one. Where they get engaged. The “diamond sunbursts and marble halls” scene. The moment when Anne and Gilbert declare their love for each other. Where after all the years of doubt and confusion, of rejection and regret, they are united. They know they will have to wait three years while Gilbert finishes medical school, but they will be happy years “waiting and working for each other—and dreaming...” 
Lover's Lane, Cavendish, PEI

I am willing to tolerate a significant amount of poetic licence when it comes to L.M. Montgomery, and I certainly do not subscribe to the school of thought that Anne Shirley is a better character than Anne Blythe – I’m actually a huge sucker for Anne’s House of Dreams and readily admit that the final couple of chapters of Anne of Ingleside are my go-to when I need something nice and romantic to read. Fine, I like happily married couples, and he runs up the stairs “three steps at a time, as Gilbert used to do long ago in the House of Dreams…” At the end of Anne of Island however, everything is said as it ought to be said and the plot is tied up neatly – there’s even plenty of “scope for the imagination” about what will come next, but there’s too much talking, not enough doing, and the narrative is just so unreliable.

Now, before anyone presumes I have an issue with the typhoid, I don’t. This is a classic crisis, realisation, resolution trope. I love a good almost dying love scene. Have you ever read Christy by Catherine Marshall? That’s a cracker of an almost-deathbed scene. And if you can get past the undeniable evangelism[i] of that book, it’s also a fascinating snapshot of early twentieth-century Appalachian life. Anyway, Anne gets back from a “happy three weeks” with the Irvings at Echo Lodge, and little Davy let’s slip that that Gilbert Blythe is dying.

“Anne stood quiet silent and motionless,…”; She has her “Book of Revelation,” her night of “I have been a complete and utter fool and now I will pay for it for the rest of my life and I can’t even go to him because a) it’s typhoid, which is totally gross and there is no way, between fever and rampant attendant dysentery, they’re about to admit visitors, b) I kind of blew that opportunity by rejecting him over two years earlier, and c) it was made clear earlier in this book that Mrs. Blythe is pretty pissed off with me, and although I’m almost certain if Gilbert wasn’t in a state of dehydrated, malnourished, feverish delirium, he would be cool with me showing up, I know for sure that Mrs. Blythe would be seriously unimpressed. I mean, who wouldn’t? Your only son is dying and little Miss Stuck Up shows up for the deathbed scene. Not going to happen. No matter how much a certain mini-series would like to believe it would. Really, this has all been extremely stupid, because in my whole narrative, which so far is a bildungsroman trilogy focused on my development through intellectually adventurous, but fundamentally domestic, if not wholly conservative womanhood, the signs have been pretty clearly pegging Gilbert as my intended. I apparently have just received high honours in English at Redmond (read Dalhousie), but I couldn’t see this bleeding obvious plot trajectory of my own.”

Then morning comes with the “fairy fringe of light on the skirts of darkness” and Anne hears Pacifique Buote’s words of redemption, “He got de turn las night”. Ah, yes, Arcadian Habitant. That’s what French Canadians are useful for in this world – hired help and local colour.

“Weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning”
                                                        CHAPTER XLI - Love takes up the Glass of Time

I’ve come up to ask you to go for one of our old time rambles through September woods and ‘over hills where spices grow,’ this afternoon,” said Gilbert, coming suddenly round the porch corner. “Suppose we visit Hester Gray’s garden.”
                                    Anne, sitting on the stone step…

Hang on there, Maud, did you just write September? It was the end of July a few lines ago and while I’m aware that it takes almost a fortnight after the crisis for typhoid to fully run its course, have we skipped some things? No, no, you’re the author, keep going. I’m also interested in this wedding Anne is going to, because it’s lovely the way you have set up this scene with Anne fixing a green dress while they discuss the various nuptials that are going on in their set. I especially like how you get Anne to wear an older green dress the next day when they go for their walk. One that Gilbert had “liked especially” at Redmond, and then how you bring back the memory of this dress at the end of Anne of Ingleside. You do that sort of thing really well.

[…] Anne looked after him as he strode away, and sighed. Gilbert was friendly--very friendly--far too friendly. He had come quite often to Green Gables after his recovery, and…

Ok, stop now. They’ve been hanging out? They’ve been hanging out and you’ve denied the reader? Gilbert was dying and Anne wretched with loss, longing, and hopeless love, and you choose to wait until everyone is all better before you let us see them together? Come on! You’re not letting us in on that moment when they first see each other? When was it? TELL ME.

Did Anne concoct ways to pass by the Blythe house? Did Mrs. Lynde conspire to task Anne with the delivery of helpful meals for the Blythe family? When Gilbert read Phil’s letter telling him “there was really nothing between Roy and Anne” and “to try again”, did he reply instantly to Phil and also figure out a way to get a note up to Anne? Did Gilbert, bored from bed rest insist on inviting his dearest friend over for a visit? Did they have to suffer the indignity of a first meeting in public view at some awful afternoon tea at the Blythe homestead? Was Mrs. Harmond Andrews there to dig in the knife? Did Gilbert’s swift recovery from that point facilitate getting the buggy out for an impromptu visit to Green Gables? Or did he wait till he was hale enough to wander up there himself? Did Anne make sure she knew the town gossip sufficiently to ensure she was at church the first Sunday Gilbert was there? WHEN WAS IT? More to the point, how the devil given all that had happened did they manage to meet again for the first time and for them not to know. Just to know. I will not of course pad out any of these ideas, because that’s fan fiction and, well, you know.    

I also know what L.M. Montgomery is doing. She is teasing out the uncertainty and saving all the resolution for Gilbert’s proposal and their defining discussion. This allows her to put all the action into dialogue, and to give her hero a formal declaration. It fits the comfy romantic with a small r plot arc. There in Hester Gray’s garden all is revealed. You see their old camaraderie return and the waiting forces Anne to have to experience the uncertainty Gilbert has experienced for the better part of a decade. I can believe that Anne would keep her council for a month, because she has already proven that she can avoid talking to Gilbert for over four years. I can definitely believe that it might have taken Gilbert a few weeks to pluck up the nerve to propose again, but it’s a big stretch to accept that they’re only just discussing now that Christine Stuart has never really been on the scene, or that Phil has been writing to Gilbert filling him in on Anne’s situation.

What’s more, I actually resent Montgomery not allowing her Anne to have to go cap in hand to Gilbert and say she made a mistake. He is rejected and then almost dies, but still has to initiate the action.

It’s also just unrealistic for Avonlea.

Let’s look at the facts, and by facts, I mean the Avonlea depicted by Montgomery herself. The Blythe place isn’t far from Green Gables and it’s a small community. I can confirm having been to the real Cavendish that short of holing herself away at Green Gables and not even talking to the people she lives with, Anne would not be able to avoid anyone directly connected with the Blythes during the fortnight that Gilbert is coming back to the land of the living. Note that throughout June and July, Montgomery has had Anne away to Phil and Jonas’s wedding in Nova Scotia, had her distracted by Jane Andrews’s marriage, and then sends her on a three week visit with the Irvings to prevent Anne and Gilbert from seeing each other after college. She even makes a point of Gilbert not being invited to Jane’s wedding.

What’s more, the very morning after she finds out Gilbert is ill, Anne bumps into his uncle’s hired man who willingly tells her that Gilbert is on the mend. And remember, Pacifique will be related to Jerry Buote who used to be Matthew Cuthbert’s hired boy, so Montgomery wants us to know that this is an utterly interrelated community. There’s a reason why Pacifique freely tells Anne about Gilbert’s health – he’s probably known her for most of his life and just presumes that Anne and Gilbert are a thing.

Additionally, we know from the chapters prior, that people in Avonlea are still making digs at Anne about Gilbert, and Charlie Sloan has been telling everyone that Gilbert is engaged to Christine Stuart. What’s more, the entire village knows that Anne is going to be principal of Summerside High School in the Autumn, which means that she is not getting married to Roy Gardner. You don't need to work if you're engaged to a young man from one of the richest families in Nova Scotia. There’s no uncertainty on that point. Mrs. Harmon Andrews has come right out and told Anne that she “once thought you and Gilbert would have made a match of it” and “If you don’t take care, Anne, all your beaux will slip through your fingers.” Mrs Lynde is equally open in her opinion about how they make a “fine looking couple” and even Marilla breaks her usual silence to mention to Anne that Gilbert was looking thin and worn out.  

Despite Mrs. Blythe’s coldness to Anne since she refused Gilbert, are we also expected to believe that while Anne was away, no one let Gilbert in on the news that Anne wasn’t getting married? Even if he didn’t listen to gossip, we can surely imagine Mrs Lynde making a point of mentioning in Mrs Blythe’s presence – say at some church ladies’ meeting - that Anne was off teaching in September and “well, we thought she would marry that Kingsport man, but it turns out she loves the Island too much,” or some such thing.

I also don’t believe for a second that their Redmond associates did not know that Anne had refused Roy, and that it wasn’t around the Kingsport gossip in a matter of days. But we don’t even need to imagine what might have happen, because Montgomery gives us the wonderful Philippa Blake, nee Gordon, who writes to Gilbert.

Bless Phil and her perfect meddling, but even here, Montgomery asks us to swallow a good deal of licence if we aren’t to assume that Anne doesn’t know full well what Phil is writing to Gilbert.

It is entirely possible that someone from Kingsport has heard about Gilbert and told Phil, but the woman has just got married and has been on her honeymoon. The most likely scenario is that Anne herself wrote to Phil that “fairy fringe” morning. Phil being the one who berated her for being a fool when she first refused Gilbert and who has been her chief confidante throughout college.

If you map out the timeline for the Anne books, using the only clear date we have – 1914 and the start of the Great War in Rilla of Ingleside, and working backwards to Rilla’s birth in what has to be 1899, the late 1880s and early 90s stretch out for more years than they ought to. However, we know that Montgomery is writing of a time when there is a solid and regular railway across Prince Edward Island, and regular ferries to the mainland. It’s only going to a take a day or two at best for a letter to get from Green Gables to Phil’s new home in the manse of the Patterson Street slums in Kingsport (read Halifax), and this news would even cause a distracted young bride to down tools and write a swift response. First to Anne and then of course to Gilbert.

Wonderful, outwardly frivolous, fundamentally goodhearted, fiercely intelligent and gossipy Phil, would not be leaving it at that. Details and updates would be demanded, and admonishments if things that needed to be done were left undone.

If I were to write fan fiction, it would be the story of the letters that pass between Phil and Anne and Phil and Gilbert during those weeks. I want to hear the frustrated cry of “would you two just get on with it!” And “Anne Shirley, you now know your own mind, so hightail yourself down there and let Gilbert know!”   

Furthermore, I reckon that wherever and whenever Gilbert and Anne first meet during Gilbert’s recovery, the business of whether or not they were respectively engaged to other people would have been dealt with in the first five minutes. In my version of romantic with a small r, there would have been no need for a few weeks of courting, because the truth would have been apparent to all.

You know, like Laurie and Amy in Little Women – yes, them again: 

If he had any doubts about the reception she would give him, they were set at rest the minute she looked up and saw him, for dropping everything, she ran to him, exclaiming in a tone of unmistakable love and longing...
"Oh, Laurie, Laurie, I knew you'd come to me!"
I think everything was said and settled then, […]

Or Montgomery’s own Emily Star when she hears Teddy’s whistle out of the blue one June evening - “An old, old call--two higher notes and one long and soft and low”  - and she knows: “It came again. And Emily knew that Teddy was there, waiting for her in Lofty John's bush--calling to her across the years.”

If I was going to be really unfair, I would also compare this to the final chapters of North and South. For what it’s worth, I think Elizabeth Gaskill’s union of Margaret Hale and John Thornton is the sexiest engagement scene of the nineteenth century.

That would be very unfair though, and I’ve come to view the final chapter of Anne of the Island as the author’s fancy of a clearly spoken engagement. Maybe we’re seeing a bit of wish fulfillment on Montgomery’s part. A dream of highfaluting mumbo-jumbo even when Montgomery’s trying so hard not to make it that way. An ideal of romance which sadly undermines the glorious everyday descriptions that bring life to Montgomery’s characters and stories.

Me, I just want that scene when Anne and Gilbert first meet again and know, but I’ll take Marilla’s advice to “never mind your imaginings.”     

[i] Christy is the sort of evangelical book that reprobates like myself approve of. The central character is a nice Southern Christian woman who plans to save a few souls when she goes to teach in rural Appalachia. Of course, she will get the biggest education when she encounters the poverty, but also the entrenched traditions of the mountain communities. Marshall doesn’t shy away from the social deprivation or the moonshining, the open-minded attitude towards sex, and she makes no apologies for the hypocrisy and even violence of the religious and social elite. Marshall does not hold back - a central character is raped by a visiting minister. Furthermore, she makes Miss Alice, a Quaker woman and Neil MacNeill, an agnostic doctor the spokespeople for the philosophy of the novel, which includes Scandinavian education theory about folk schools and the preservation of local culture. It’s that socially-minded, intellectual evangelism of the early-to-mid-twentieth century and I often wonder how the Southern Evangelical movement of today reconciles itself to the book, despite regularly claiming it to be one of the great novels of the American evangelical movement. Unsurprisingly, the mini-series made by CBS in the 1990s did what TV often does (the Anne series included) – in one breath they modernised some of the religious themes, made everyone a bit cleaner and open-minded, and consequently sanitised the story.  

Interestingly, Catherine Marshall and L.M Montgomery were both the wives of Presbyterian ministers and in their very different responses to being ministers' wives (Peter Marshall was Chaplain to the US Senate in the 1940s and a good old-fashioned Scots firebrand preacher; Ewen Macdonald was a unobtrusive, Gaelic-speaking minister more concerned with the philosophical and metaphysical matters of faith), they challenge many of the tenets of good Christian womanhood: the temperance movement, the hypocrisy of the outward appearance of faith, the small-mindedness of small communities, even as they celebrated them. They also make it very clear that a woman marries a man, not his vocation.   

Significantly, while both authors married ministers, Christy, like Anne, marries a community focussed, but scientifically forward-thinking doctor. Both characters are saved by their creators from the enforced social responsibilities of the minister’s wife.