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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

After reading Anne of Green Gables in July, I was reminded of an eternal truth about books in a series: you can never read just one.  Or at least I can’t, particularly when it is this series which so dominated my childhood reading.  How could I leave Anne after just one book?  So I read on, quickly progressing through first Anne of Avonlea and then Anne of the Island.

Anne of Avonlea is an odd book or perhaps it is just a very typical second book, written in a rush to capitalise on the extraordinary success of Anne of Green Gables.  Published in 1909, only a year after Anne’s debut, Montgomery seems to have lost her sense of humour – and her sense of characterization.  When the first book ended, Anne was maturing and recognizing (with humour) her tendency towards indulging in overly dramatic flights of fancy.  In this book, she embraces those melodramatic tendencies wholeheartedly, becomes dreamier than ever without ever really coming back down to earth, and is insufferably condescending to her more prosaic friends.  She has relapsed to a stage which readers of the first book thought she had outgrown and no one benefits from it.  (There is a very good discussion of this in The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly.)

The book still has its moments but Montgomery, desperately short of plot ideas, covers by introducing new characters at every turn.  We meet Mr Harrison, a grouchy farmer with a foul-mouthed parrot; Davy and Dora, twin relatives who Marilla takes in after they are orphaned; Paul Irving, the most sickeningly sweet child ever written; and Miss Lavendar, who is even more prone to silly fantasies than Anne.  None of these count as improvements to Avonlea society, as far as I’m concerned.

As usual, it is Anne’s humblest adventures that are the most entertaining.  Montgomery writing about ethereal fantasies and really anything involving Paul Irving is insufferable.  Montgomery writing about village gossip is delightful.  The disastrous repainting of the church is one of the book’s greatest moments and Anne’s horror at having to strap one of her misbehaving students – and then find he respects her more for it, thereby crushing all her high ideals – is marvellous.  And these moments are made better because they offer not just Anne’s perspective but a whole array of them, from besotted but still level-headed Gilbert Blythe, from sharp tongued Rachel Lynde, and from quietly amused Marilla.

If Anne of Avonlea is both frustrating and disappointing, Anne of the Island, happily, is an entirely different experience.

Published in 1915, Montgomery has several years to figure out how to next approach Anne’s story (and to write many sentimental stories and novels to expunge her overly dramatic tendencies).  The result is the 2nd best book in the series and one of the most important books of my childhood.

The novel covers Anne’s four years of college, which takes her away from Avonlea and from Prince Edward Island entirely, over to Redmond College in Kingsport, Nova Scotia (a fictionalised version of Dalhousie University in Halifax, where Montgomery studied).  She is accompanied by some familiar faces, Charlie Sloane and Gilbert Blythe, and joins up with friends Priscilla Grant and Stella Maynard, who she met at teacher’s school in Anne of Green Gables.  And, most importantly, she makes two very important new friends over her four years: Philippa Gordon and Roy Gardner.

Roy Gardner enters Anne’s life during her third year of college, an answer to all of her romantic fantasies.  Having by this point survived – and rebuffed – multiple marriage proposals (most very easily, with due horror, but one with great pain) since none of the men matched her vision of a future husband, it is almost too perfect when Roy appears in the midst of a rainstorm, perfection made flesh:

Tall and handsome and distinguished-looking – dark, melancholy, inscrutable eyes – melting, musical, sympathetic voice – yes, the very hero of her dreams stood before her in the flesh. He could not have more closely resembled her ideal if he had been made to order.

But ideal men aren’t very interesting – a fact the reader recognizes long before Anne.  Roy is clearly a red herring but it is easy to understand why a wealthy, worldly, handsome man who adores her has so much appeal.  He is so far removed from the Avonlea boys she’s grown up with, although the Redmond girls seem to think the Avonlea boys have a certain appeal, especially handsome, intelligent, and determined Gilbert Blythe, now studying to become a doctor.  Really, there is no doubt that Anne and Gilbert will end up together but my god does Montgomery put her readers through an emotional rollercoaster before that happy ending comes.

The other character of note is the marvellous Philippa Gordon.  I loved everything about this book as a child but it has only been on rereading it as an adult that I’ve recognized how much Philippa enriches the story.  Philippa is a contradiction from her very first introduction: a beauty from a wealthy Nova Scotian family, she could have married well (to her choice of suitor – both Alec and Alonzo are waiting for her still) but chose instead to come and study mathematics at university.  Despite an active social schedule through all four years, Philippa handles her academics with aplomb and sits at the top of the class.  And, perhaps most importantly, she can do what Anne cannot do: acknowledge when she is wrong, recognize a chance at happiness, and go after it with all her considerable energy and determination.

Phil and Anne approach their romances from very different perspectives.  Anne has dreamed of her ideal man for years.  She knows just what he will look like, has devoted considerable time to composing his perfect speeches, and can envision an idyllic future spent staring into one another’s eyes.  For her, the idea that Roy Gardner, her fantasy made flesh, won’t be as satisfying a life partner as Gilbert Blythe, her intellectual equal who would rather work beside her than worship her, is one she fights against.  She has a fixed vision and it is one that she sticks to.  When she finally consults her heart, it is almost too late.

Phil, on the other hand, never believed in romance.  She believed in marriage, certainly, and expected that one day she would marry one of the rich young men from her social circle and settle down to a life like the one she’d always lived.  Her time at Redmond is her way of postponing – at least for four years – having to decide which of the interchangeable eligible young men she will accept.  She throws herself into university life and has a marvellous time.  But then something changes.  She meets Jonas Blake, an awkward young minister, and that’s it.  Jonas is exactly the sort of man Phil has always joked about not being tempted by – ugly, poor, and far from at ease in company – but she falls in love almost immediately.  And when Jonas doesn’t dare to think she could be interested in him, she makes it very clear that she is.  Phil, knowing what she wants, is not going to let her chance at happiness slip away.

Nor is she about to let Anne do the same.  Marilla and Rachel Lynde may want to tell Anne that she is making a mistake by rejecting Gilbert, but they don’t.  Phil, on the other hand, is more than ready to do so.  Repeatedly.  For years.  Phil is not afraid of a little blunt talking and I love her for it.  As a child who found Anne too whimsical and Diana too timid, Phil was the first Montgomery character – and one of the first literary characters – I ever truly identified with.  And that hasn’t change remotely in the 23 years that have passed since I first encountered her.

Anne of the Island isn’t quite as good as Anne of Green Gables but it is close.  I could write about it endlessly but I’ll save that for another day.  I’ve read it countless times already and I shall certainly return to it again.  And again.  And again…

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Five years ago in the late and lamented Slightly Foxed bookshop in Gloucester Road, I picked up Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson (alongside a handful of other books).  I’d discovered D.E.S. a few years before but had never heard of this title.  I assumed it was obscure for good reason (already recognizing the varied quality of D.E.S.’s output) but for a meager £4 wanted to find out for myself.  So home it came with me only to languish for five years unread until I picked it up this August when I was home sick with a cold.

Unusually for D.E.S., this is a historical piece.  Opening in Edinburgh in the 1890s, we meet vivacious young Fanny who has caught the eye of the steady, determined farmer John Shaw.  The two are soon wed and Fanny finds herself living on John’s well-managed farm in East Lothian, unsure how to handle both rural life and marriage.  So far familiar stuff for fans of D.E.S.  Fanny is sweet and charming and finds a friend in the old local doctor and amusing – but useful – guidance in an old book.  The marriage is off to happy start and a daughter, Rosabelle, arrives followed a few years later by a son.

But the Shaw’s calm family life is disrupted by the arrival of a young boy, the only survivor of a mysterious shipwreck.  Saved by John Shaw, Fanny takes the orphaned child into her home and it is not long before the two are closely bonded.  Jay, the boy, grows into a jealous, calculating child and Fanny’s championing of him causes an understandable rift with John.  Her own children try to accept Jay as a sibling and playmate but his moody, brooding ways make it difficult.

The book then jumps forward to the eve of WWI.  Jay, uncharacteristically affable and forging a strong bond with his adopted father, is as dangerous as ever – especially to Rosabelle, who finds herself deeply attracted to him despite knowing how untrustworthy he is.  Meanwhile, her neighbour Tom watches with concern…

D.E.S. is hardly a known for her consistency but this is an unusually uneven novel, with abrupt mood changes and an embarrassingly loose plot with far too many cardboard characters.  And yet, that said, it was the perfect undemanding read for my sick day.  I loved the end of the book, with Rosabelle forging a friendly and loving partnership with Tom, having married him to provide a barrier from the alluring Jay but truly coming to love him.  It is the exact opposite of the highly dramatic scenes with Jay and far more in keeping with D.E.S.’s usual style, which she was still developing in 1937 when this was first published.  She’d only written a handful of books then and hadn’t yet settled into the light romances she would do so capably for the next three decades.  She still had a bit of melodrama left to get out of her system – Rochester’s Wife was published in 1940 – but it’s clear her lighter side was trying to break through while writing this.  The result is messy but a very interesting read for any D.E.S. fan.

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I try to be a broadminded reader.  I like to try new authors, read topics I know nothing about, and sample different genres.  But the one genre I’ve never been able to take much interest in is crime. This could be because a) I have no idea what distinguishes crime novels from mysteries so am happy to lump them both together under the heading of “Things I Do Not Much Like” and b) I have absolutely no appetite for anything violent.   I don’t find it difficult to read, I just don’t see the point.  My desire for cliffhangers and uncertainty is nil.  So, while I’ve admired the stylish British Library Crime Classics that have been released over the last few years, I’ve never felt tempted to pick one up.  Never, that is, until I heard about Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville.

So what made this one different?  The premise sounded mildly interesting – a young man, our hero Jim Henderson, is invited to a house party hosted by Mr. Carson, a mysterious and decidedly shady jewel expert.  But Jim doesn’t know the host and he and the other guests have nothing in common.  Why are they there and what is in store for them?  When I do dabble in the genre, I enjoy a good country house mystery so the omens seemed good.  But what was even more promising was the book’s introduction, which stresses Melville’s admiration of A.A. Milne’s work, particularly The Red House Mystery, and the strong influence of Milne’s style on this work.  After that, I had to read it. (And I also had to muse about Melville’s chosen penname.  Did he chose Alan in homage to Alan Milne?)

The story was published in 1934, when Melville was in his mid-twenties.  His hero, Jim Henderson, feels about that age but is actually a decade older and, after having served in the war, has spent several years struggling to find work.  When we meet him, he is unemployed but optimistic despite his lack of marketable skills, as noted in his frank self-assessment:

Pleasant and extremely good-looking young man, aged thirty-four, possessing no talents or accomplishments beyond being able to give an imitation of Gracie Fields giving an imitation of Galli-Curci, with no relations and practically no money, seeks job

Though lacking in resources, Jim possesses that which is most important for the hero of any sort of mystery/thriller: an entertaining side-kick, in this case his old school friend, Freddie Usher.  Freddie is a well-heeled chap, in possession of a sporty car, family heirlooms, and a great deal of leisure time.  But his main value to us is as someone for Jim to exchange Milne-esque dialogue with, as when Jim asks for the loan of Freddie’s evening clothes:

“Sorry, old man.  It’s impossible.”

“But, Freddie…”

“Impossible.  Quite imposs.”

“Remember we were at school together.”

“Which merely shows a lack of discretion on the part of my parents, and has nothing whatever to do with the present question.”

Freddie, like all of Carson’s guests except the penniless and decidedly jewel-less Jim, is encouraged to bring his jewels along with him – in this case, the Usher diamonds.  Not fishy at all.  Alongside the two young men, the party is made up of a varied and mostly forgettable mix of people – the only exceptions being Lady Stone, a redoubtable doyen of charitable causes, and Carson’s lovely daughter Mary.  And lurking in the background are Carson’s household staff, bruisers all of them.  The weekend promises to be interesting.

And it is, mildly.  I had fun reading this – the effortless pacing and snappy dialogue made it a quick read.  But the plot itself is rather silly and a bit all over the place and the ending is marred by an overly dramatic reveal that serves no value at all.  All in all, a pleasant but unmemorable foray into the unknown.  It hasn’t made me one jot more interested in crime or mystery books but that would have been too much to expect from such a slight book.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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A few quick reviews from my less interesting reading encounters:

Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon (1901) – I loved Brewster’s Millions (despite its many quirks and frankly bizarre plot twists) so was determined to read more by McCutcheon.  When I learned he’d written a series of Ruritanian novels, starting with Graustark, it was clear where I would start.  I love a good Ruritanian romance.  However, it turns out this is not good.  It starts well enough, yes, with our young hero meeting a beautiful, mysterious girl on the train as they travel across America.  By the time they reach Washington, DC, he is in love but she must depart for home, a small European principality he has never heard of.  Naturally, it isn’t too long before he finds his way there and ridiculous adventures involving hidden identities, dastardly aristocrats, and national debt ensue.  The saving grace was our hero’s stalwart friend and travel companion, who provided a bit of levity and a merciful dose of common sense when everyone else lost theirs.  A ridiculous book – yet I’m still strangely tempted to try the next book in the series…

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (1923) – this novella by Cather was a lovely reminder of just what a beautiful writer she was.  As usual, her characters are a bit flat (particularly the lady at the center of the tale) but Cather’s passion for her setting – a small Western town of fading importance – and the simple elegance of her writing made this a pleasure to read.  That said, the memory of it is already fading from my mind, unlike her best works which remain vivid even years later.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1972) – This is the first volume of L’Engle’s Crosswick Journals and, as usual, I approached them all out of order.  I read the last one first (Two-Part Invention – still one of my favourite bookish discoveries), then the third (The Summer of the Great-Grandmother), and now jumped back to the start.  The problem with that is that L’Engle rose to such heights with her later books that this first one can’t compare.  Those later books are deeply personal and she shares her memories and emotions in a way she probably hadn’t imagine when she wrote this first book.  This is an interesting look at her life and some of her thoughts, particularly around the communities she belongs to, but it lacks a compelling focus and I missed the sense of L’Engle herself that was so strong in the other books.  I still have An Irrational Season, the second book, left to read and will be interested to see how it compares to the others.

The Doctor’s Sweetheart and Other Stories by L.M. Montgomery (1979) – what a throw back to my childhood.  After I discovered Anne of Green Gables, I spent the next few years obsessively reading anything by or about Montgomery, including all the collections of her short stories.  This was one of many volumes that was put together drawing on pieces she’d had published in magazines (both before and after Anne, her breakthrough novel, was published), most of which had some sort of linking theme – here it is lovers who are parted.   I remembered them as repetitive and melodramatic, and was a bit embarrassed that anyone had wanted to draw attention to them by republishing them.  Twenty-two years later, that is still how I feel about them.  Well done ten-year old Claire for being such an astute literary judge.  From a scholarship point of view, this collection does have some interest – you can see Montgomery playing around with plots she would eventually use in her novels – but on their own they are best forgotten.

Salt-Water Moon by David French (1984) – part of a cycle of plays about the Mercers, a Newfoundland family, this focuses on the parents’ story, looking back to their youth.  It is just one-act, set on a moonlit summer night in 1926 when Jacob Mercer reappears in his small Newfoundland hometown a year after having left for Toronto.  He’s come to see Mary, his girl, and learn why she’s become engaged to the town schoolteacher.  Jacob is a chatty fellow and the two bicker back and forth all evening in enjoyable interplay.  By the end, of course, they have decided to face the future together, even though for Mary it might not be as practical as the future she had talked herself into with the hapless schoolteacher.  This wasn’t particularly special on its own but I’m intrigued enough to want to read more about the Mercers in French’s other plays.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

 

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I’ve made a horrible habit this year of reading wonderful new releases, loving them, and then writing absolutely nothing about them.  I did it with Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley, Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris, Bookworm by Lucy Mangan, and, perhaps most egregiously given how much I adored it, Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin.  But I will not do it with The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp by Sarra Manning – in fact, I will even manage to review it within days of its release.  Victory.

As the title indicates, this is the story of Vanity Fair but Manning has updated Thackeray’s characters for the 21st Century and dialed up the glamour.  She has traded rural aristocrats for eccentric acting royalty, regimental balls for the Cannes film festival, and the wilds of India for the wilds of LA.  It is all joyfully fun and at the heart of it is a perfectly done Becky Sharp, just as clever and manipulative as the original but with even more ambition – and, in this egalitarian age when any pretty girl with an Instagram account can make her fortune, even more tools to reach the heights she aspires to.

Orphaned in her mid-teens, we meet Becky at age 20 as she is coming out of the Big Brother house, having finished as runner-up to sweet, naïve Amelia Sedley.  Becky, despite all her plotting and strategizing in the house, soon discovers that reality star fame is measured in days and, after mooching off of the Sedleys, finds herself working as a nanny for Pitt Crawley, an aging star who has rejected acting – sort-of – in favour of living an “authentic” life.  But rural obscurity with a sexagenarian trying to seduce her daily is not Becky’s idea of life.  And so, with the arrival of Rawdon Crawley, Pitt’s actor son who seems poised for success, and Mattie Crawley, Pitt’s elder sister and a grande dame of the acting world, she begins her careful manoeuvrings.

Where Thackeray’s Becky had only beauty, charm, and cunning to aid her, Manning’s Becky has all those plus a PR team (or rather Rawdon’s PR team, whom she acquires after their marriage) and powerful social media platforms to assist her rise in the world.  Soon she is being sponsored by luxury brands, hobnobbing with all the right people, and hosting a chicly ironic sausage-and-mash salon (a brilliant touch) that attracts everyone from Zadie Smith to Kim Kardashian.  She has arrived.

But we all know how that goes.  Lord Steyne is a media magnate, naturally, so Becky’s fall is tabloid fodder across the world.  She is decried as a liar, a thief, a whore…all the usual things.  But, in a perfect moment of satire, there is at least one newspaper willing to stand up for her:

Only the Guardian had come to her defense in some long-winded opinion piece about social mobility and how there weren’t many routes open to working-class girls from broken homes, and so who could blame Becky for weaponizing her sexuality?

I laughed until I had tears when I read that.

Tabloids or not, Becky is not a woman anyone can keep down.  When we leave her, she is rising again – and aspiring to truly dizzying heights.

In her retelling, Manning changes very little of the story’s essentials.  There are fewer deaths, which is rather nice, and the timeline is condensed but that is it.  If you love Vanity Fair, you will find everything you love still here.  And if you don’t know it yet, this would be a very fun introduction, though I can’t help feeling it would be a shame.  I think you’d miss some of Manning’s own cleverness without knowing the original.  There is a horse called Pianoforte!  Who cannot love that who knows the books?

While Vanity Fair is famously a novel without a hero, its male characters – while consistently unheroic – are all well-represented.  George Osborne is now a slimy young conservative politician, Rawdon Crawley is a troubled actor with drug and gambling addictions, Dobbin is an earnest soldier (the only character who required no updating whatsoever) and Jos Sedley is…no, that’s too good to tell you.  You must read that for yourself.

And what of Amelia, to whom the fates (and Thackeray) deal so many blows in a few short years?  I am happy to say Manning is a little kinder to her this time around but she is still the Amelia we know and would love to shake some gumption in to.  When we meet her, she is a timid, sweet girl, whose wildest romantic fantasies haven’t evolved since adolescence:

…what she secretly wished was that George would be so overcome by the sight of her that he’d be the one to stride over and take her in his arms, kiss her on the forehead, and murmur throatily, ‘I’ve missed you, Emmy.  Missed you more than I can say.’

Amelia, interestingly, is where Manning makes the greatest deviation from her source material and it is all for the better.  Generations of readers have warmed to Amelia but pitied her.  Manning gives her something to do and to excel at – and the fact that it upsets George enormously makes it all the sweeter.  It is also another way for Manning to tie in more contemporary satire, which I will never say no to.

I loved this book and had so much fun reading it.  I had fully intended to wait for my upcoming holiday and read it after long days spent hiking in the Austrian Alps.  Instead, I bought it as soon as the e-book was released on Saturday (the paperback was released yesterday) and raced through it over the rest of the weekend.  I regret nothing.  It was funny and clever and just what I needed.  There is a new television adaptation of Vanity Fair airing right now on ITV but, much as I love costume dramas, I see no need for it.  Admittedly, this is partly because my love for the 1998 BBC adaptation is all consuming – Philip Glenister as Dobbin!  What more do you need, people? – but why waste time on television when you could instead pass a few hours with this fresh, clever tale?

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Is it possible that all good literary editors were killed during the war?  Or they abandoned literature for higher aims post 1945?  Or maybe they just all became secret drinkers and spent their afternoons dozing rather than doing their work?

Somewhere there is an answer.  The question comes in the form of a book, or many books: the entire post-war output of Angela Thirkell.  I’ve recently finished rereading County Chronicle, the 1950 entry into her best selling Barsetshire series, and if ever there were a book in need of an editor, this is it.

The story opens where the last one, The Old Bank House, finished.  Lucy Marling and the wealthy industrialist Sam Adams have just become engaged and Lucy is girding herself to break the news to her parents.  Sam Adams has come a long way since he was first introduced in The Headmistress, with his rough edges slightly smoothed thanks to his friend Mrs Belton but, more importantly, with the citizens of Barsetshire considerably mellowed by the passage of time and the upheaval of war.  To marry into an established gentry family like the Marlings would have been unthinkable a few years before.  Now, it is greeted with happiness by one and all.

But that happiness extends for far, far too long.  The first hundred pages of County Chronicle are concerned with Lucy and Mr Adams wedding preparations.  And then the next hundred pages are devoted to parties (none of which is a combined Conservative rally/pig show, so, really just a waste of time) .  It’s only with the last hundred or so pages that Thirkell finally decides to pull a plot together.

And what a lot of plot she needs to gather up by the end!  The main heroine of this volume is introduced early on.  In need of someone to help keep wedding things organized, knowing Lucy will never do it herself, Mrs Marling asks Isabel Dale to come stay with them and help out.  With little money and an awful mother, Isabel is delighted to work for the Marlings after leaving her post at the Hospital Libraries.  She fits in immediately and earns the family’s respect and love both for her excellent work and her exceedingly correct prejudices:

“We all Hate and Despise the Bishop at Allington,” said Miss Dale with surprising energy, “that is when we think of him which is practically never.  My father was at college with him and they used to call him Old Gasbags.”

So delighted was Mr Marling by this intelligence that his wife was quite prepared for him to kiss Miss Dale by way of cementing this common dislike of the Bishop.

Isabel’s fiancé died during the war and there has been no hint of romance since then.  She is able to resist the non-existent charms of Oliver Marling, the son of the house, who toys with the idea of marrying her briefly at the end of the book, feeling “that he might reward her for her sympathy by offering her his hand, his now quite good income and the privilege of hearing him talk about himself forever.”  What she finds more difficult to resist is the quiet, calm appeal of Jeff Palliser, Lord Silverbridge and heir to the Duke of Omnium.

The days of splendour for the Pallisers are long past; the family is getting by but there is no money to spare – and certainly not enough to allow Jeff to stand for parliament, the one thing he would really like to do.  So instead he contents himself by working at a wartime history of the Barsetshires, work which Isabel ably assists him at.  As their feelings grow, Jeff’s sister Lady Cora does her best to encourage her brother but, convinced Isabel still loves her dead fiancé and that he has nothing to offer her, he stays silent.  Thankfully, a surprisingly and conveniently large inheritance – delightfully gossiped over by everyone in Barsetshire – allows these two to find their happy ending.

A happy ending is also found by Mrs Brandon, who finds love with Bishop Joram and so escapes a house now overrun by her horribly selfish son and his delightful but growing family.  Moving towards their happy ending – slowly, painfully, and exceedingly awkwardly – are Charles Belton and Clarissa Graham.  I love both these characters but Thirkell drags their story out over five books, taking what could have been a very nice romance – two good friends falling in love – into something overwrought and not very dear.  But their engagement in this volume leads to one of my favourite bits, when Charles breaks the news to his mother:

“I say, mother,” said Charles.

“Well, darling?” said Mrs Belton.

“You know Clarissa,” said Charles.

Mrs Belton said she did and what a charming creature she was.

“We’re not in love, you know,” said Charles.

Mrs Belton said of course not.

“Some people get engaged right off,” said Charles.  “A friend of mine called Jimmy Butters met a girl at a dance and got engaged.  But I don’t think that was wise.”

Mrs Belton said she quite agreed.

“I had a few words with Clarissa this afternoon,” said Charles in a manner which the words dégagé and insouciant do not at all adequately describe, “and we thought we might make a do of it.  Sometime, I mean, not now,” he added, lest his mother should have visions of a Fleet marriage with a curtain ring.

“I see,” said his mother, artfully assuming an air of considering something deeply.  “One might call it an understanding.”

Charles said with evident relief that that was about it, a sentence which his mother appeared to comprehend perfectly.  He then kicked the side of the bed in a way that made his mother want to kill him, kissed her with absent-minded affection and went out of the room, shutting the door so hard that it came open again, which annoyed his mother so much that she nearly called him back.

That exchange is classic Thirkell.  But it is one of the very few flashes of it in this otherwise quite dreary book.  Thirkell is, as she was wont to do in her post-war novels, playing with far too large a cast and losing track of them in the process.  Her truly funny moments – Oliver Marling’s disgust when the object of his unrequited passion, Jessica Dean, announces her pregnancy; Charles and Clarissa’s dealings with their parents; the Duke of Omnium’s quest for imaginary book titles – get lost among the dreary exchanges between characters we love but have no need to see this time around and some outrageously racist reminiscences from Bishop Joram on his African parishioners.  What a lot of difference a good editor would have made to this book!

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I don’t have any particularly strong memories of learning to read.  I read Lucy Mangan’s wonderful Bookworm earlier this year and marvelled at how well she can recall the books that made up her childhood.  For me, those memories are murkier.  I remember reading my first book by myself in Grade One (it was a very informative picture book about rabbits, cementing early my love of non-fiction) but things become hazy for a few years after that.  The Babysitter Club books were definitely involved and lots of fairy tales but the rest have been lost to time.  I don’t mind – it makes what came next stand out all the better.

When I was eight, I picked up Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery for the first time.  I had loved books before but reading hadn’t come to form part of my identity yet.  But I couldn’t put this book down.  I read it once, twice, three times and then went on to the sequels, which I read with equal intensity.  I spent the next two years reading and rereading everything Montgomery had every written – her novels, her short stories, and her diaries.  I fought with librarians in order to borrow books from the adult section of the library.  Any time I needed to do a presentation for school, she was my go-to subject.  I am not sure I have ever been as expert on any topic as I once was on Montgomery.

More than twenty years later, I am on my third or fourth editions of the books, having read my initial copies so often they fell apart (partially Anne of Green Gables and Anne of the Island).  But it had been a few years since I last read anything by her (the only book I’ve reviewed here is The Blue Castle, notable for the fact that every single person who commented on my review loves what I consider to be one of her more mediocre outputs) so, feeling like I’d been ignoring an old friend, I recently picked up Anne of Green Gables, her first and best book.

Published in 1908 but set thirty years earlier, the story of the orphaned Anne Shirley and her enthusiastic (and mistake-prone) approach to life was an immediate bestseller.  Though its heroine is an adolescent girl, the book was loved by its adult readers as much as by its youthful ones.  Young readers could delight in Anne’s imaginative whims and the scraps she got herself into; adults could enjoy Montgomery’s humorous treatment of her young heroine and the bemused exasperation of the adults who surround her.  And everyone could enjoy the happy story at the heart of the book.

For those not familiar with the story (who are you?  What is wrong with you?  Stop reading this immediately and go get a copy), the book begins with Matthew Cuthbert setting off from the home he shares with his sister, Marilla, wearing his good suit.  Their busy-body neighbour, Rachel Lynde, is immediately intrigued by this unusual behaviour and, upon investigation, is shocked to learn from Marilla that Matthew is off to pick up the orphaned boy they’re adopting to help out on the farm.  But Mrs Lynde is not half as surprised as Matthew and eventually Marilla when they discover a girl has been sent to them by mistake.  And not even a useful sort of girl but a thin, dreamy one who can’t seem to stop talking.  They have no use for a girl – especially one like Anne – but there’s something awfully winsome about her, despite her odd ways, and they find themselves keeping her.

The book follows the next few years of Anne’s life, as she makes friends in the small village of Avonlea, adjusts to life at the Cuthberts’ farm, Green Gables, and gets carried away by her imagination time and time again.  There is nothing very spectacular about the goings on; even the most dramatic moments – a deathly ill child, a sinking boat, a heart attack – are entirely plausible.  Which is part of how Montgomery creates the humour that fills the book – the juxtaposition of Anne’s romantic fantasies with the work-a-day world of Avonlea is even more amusing as an adult reader than it was as a child.  And what is particularly marvellous are the hysterics that Anne can (unintentionally) send adults into with her entirely earnest but extraordinarily dramatic pronouncements.  Thankfully, she has Marilla to help bind her to the earth, as she does when Anne is happily prophesizing her early death in the wake of being parted from her best friend, Diana:

“Diana and I had such an affecting farewell down by the spring.  It will be sacred in my memory forever.  I used the most pathetic language I could think of and said ‘thou’ and ‘thee.’  ‘Thou’ and ‘thee’ seem so much more romantic than ‘you.’  Diana gave me a lock of her hair and I’m going to sew it up in a little bag and wear it around my neck all my life.  Please see that it is buried with me, for I don’t believe I’ll live very long.  Perhaps when she sees me lying cold and dead before her Mrs Barry may feel remorse for what she has done and will let Diana come to my funeral.”

“I don’t think there is much fear of your dying of grief as long as you can talk, Anne,” said Marilla unsympathetically.

Anne is a redoubtable girl and, even when things go wrong (as they constantly do), her optimism cannot be extinguished:

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

“I’ll warrant you’ll make plenty in it,” said Marilla.  “I never saw your beat for making mistakes, Anne.”

“Yes, and well I know it,” admitted Anne mournfully.  “But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla?  I never make the same mistake twice.”

“I don’t know as that’s much benefit when you’re always making new ones.”

“Oh, don’t you see, Marilla?  There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I’ll be through with them.  That’s a very comforting thought.”

Montgomery was an extraordinarily uneven writer and, to my way of thinking, there are only a few other of her books where she gets the balance of humour and sentiment exactly right (Anne of the Island being the only other one in the series where she manages this).  But here, she does.  And it’s wonderful.  Anne can have her flights of fancy but she is also able to be entirely practical, when needs must.  She knows, from her varied life prior to Green Gables, how to save an ailing baby’s life, how to work hard, and how to go after what she wants.

And what she wants, she decides early, is to be good at school and go on to teacher’s college and eventually university.  It’s a goal that finds her going up against her rival, Gilbert Blythe, over and over again in the fight for top marks but that is the only conflict.  Everyone else views her intelligence and scholarly ambitions as something to be extraordinarily proud of and, looking back, I think that was probably one of the most important things I took away from the series.  Education is an important and unquestioned part of Anne’s life throughout the early books.  It probably would have been just as important in mine regardless but it helped to have a literary idol who shared my love of school (and of being at the top of the class).

Rereading this as an adult, it’s also interesting to notice how vivid the adult female characters are compared to the male ones.  Matthew is lovely but he is quiet and retiring.  He adores Anne and all her energy but has none of his own.  Marilla, who is left to do the heavy lifting in raising Anne, is clearly the more dominant personality.  And Rachel Lynde, their neighbour and friend-of-sorts, is hardly a meek and obedient wife.  Her husband is mentioned only rarely and is generally being directed around by his very able wife, such as when Mrs Lynde decides to go to a political rally in town:

Mrs Rachel Lynde was a red-hot politician and couldn’t have believed that the political rally could be carried through without her, although she was on the opposite side of politics.  So she went to town and took her husband – Thomas would be useful in looking after the horse – and Marilla Cuthbert with her.

And even among Anne and her friends, the desirability of men is discussed skeptically from a young age.  Anne dreams of an exotic, mysterious stranger to whisk her away one day; her friend Jane has a more realistic view of marriage:

“Jane says she will devote her whole life to teaching, and never, never marry, because you are paid a salary for teaching, but a husband won’t pay you anything, and growls if you ask for a share in the egg and butter money.”

Sounds like Jane’s mother could do with some assertiveness training from Rachel Lynde.

Anne’s own early dealing with romantic gestures aren’t particularly positive.  After teasing her about her red hair, Gilbert Blythe, Avonlea’s favourite son, spends the next few years trying to get back into Anne’s good books.  He eventually manages it but has to endure years of snubs, including this particularly harsh one after the initial insult:

Once, when nobody was looking, Gilbert took from his desk a little pink candy heart with a gold motto on it, “You are sweet,” and slipped it under the curve of Anne’s arm.  Whereupon Anne arose, took the pink heart gingery between the tips of her fingers, dropped it on the floor, ground it to powder beneath her heel, and resumed her position without deigning to bestow a glance on Gilbert.

That is stone cold, Anne Shirley.  But mightily amusing.

Oh, I love it all so much.  I love how Anne’s schemes fly over the head of her very tolerant but not particularly imaginative best friend, Diana; how humorously Montgomery contrasts Anne’s romanticized language with the plainspokenness of everyone else in Avonlea; and how the universe always grants Anne a suitably unglamorous end when her imagination gets the best of her.  I love how Matthew and Marilla change and soften because of her, how Anne becomes calmer and more practical under their steady influence, and how everyone proves they are deserving of a second chance.  Most of all, I love its humour, I love its heart, and I love that I can very clearly see parts of it in the person I became.

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