The opening chapter of the Anne books begins with Mrs. Lynde. As Avonlea’s resident busy-body (“There are plenty of people, in Avonlea and out of it, who can attend closely to their neighbor’s business by dint of neglecting their own; but Mrs. Lynde was one of those capable creatures who can manage their own concerns and those of other folks into the bargain.”), when she notices the painfully shy and socially awkward old bachelor Matthew Cuthbert dressed nicely and leaving the village with his horse and buggy, she visits his house – Green Gables – to find out from his spinster sister, Marilla, what is up with that. (Marilla and Matthew live together at Green Gables. They are brother and sister. Yeah, I don’t know.)
Marilla explains to Mrs. Rachel that she and Matthew have decided to adopt an orphan boy to help them around the farm. Mrs. Lynde is sort of horrified by this (not because someone would adopt a child for the purposes of manual labor, but because someone would bring “a strange child into your house and home and you don’t know a single thing about him nor what his disposition is like nor what sort of parents he had nor how he’s likely to turn out.”) and they talk about everything that could go wrong, such as having the orphan set fire to your house or poison your well.
Of course, they do not discuss the thing that actually does go wrong, which obviously as the reader we’re kind of expecting because we read the summary on the back of the book – that the orphan turns out not to be a boy. In this chapter, we’re already clued into how the mix-up occurs, if we’re paying attention. Marilla tells Mrs. Rachel that she and Matthew heard a friend of theirs was going to an orphanage to pick up a little girl for herself and so they sent word via relatives of the friend to bring them a boy. Because, gee, how could anything go awry with that method? (Okay, can we talk about the adoption process in 1880s Canada? “Um, so I heard these people I know were, like, looking to adopt a kid to do manual labor for them. Have you got like a BOGO going on or anything, so I could bring one back for them?” Yikes…)
So, that’s the gist of the chapter. What is so lovely about it, though, and what has, I think, really stuck with me is the beautiful and subtle tone of LMM’s writing. Her descriptions of the lovely Prince Edward Island natural scenery – and tune in periodically if this interests you, as I intend to dedicate a good amount of time to the role of nature in these books (it’s almost like another main character) – are not merely indulgences, but LMM often uses them to move the story forward or to develop characters. The lyricism of the descriptive passages can be just delicious, and as I read and re-read them I do so slowly and mindfully, savoring every word and phrase.
For example, LMM doesn’t just tell us that Mrs. Lynde is a busy-body. She doesn’t even show us by having Mrs. Lynde gossip or boss someone around. Rather, in the first paragraph, LMM describes a brook:
“…that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade [See what I mean? How delicious is “dark secrets of pool and cascade?”]; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.”
It’s just such a charming way to establish a character’s personality.
It occurs to me as I think more about that passage (see, this is why I can read these books over and over again) that this paragraph also plants a very subtle symbolic seed about Anne’s character. It implies that the woods of the Cuthbert place are capable of supporting something “intricate” and “headlong.” LMM goes on to describe in this chapter how the Cuthbert’s house, Green Gables, is set waaaaay back from the road, right at the edge of these woods. Mrs. Rachel reflects on this as she walks to Green Gables, finding it very odd. Obviously, her house is right on the main road (“Since Avonlea occupied a little triangular peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with water on two sides of it, anybody who went out of it or into it had to pass over that hill road and so run the unseen gauntlet of Mrs. Rachel’s all-seeing eye.”)
Of course, those woods are where Anne ends up spending a lot of her time and she is, like the brook, intricate and headlong. However, Anne doesn’t become decorous by the time she is under the eye of Mrs. Lynde, and gets into all sorts of trouble as a result.
LMM’s glimpses into Marilla’s personality are equally as charming. As Mrs. Rachel approaches Green Gables, LMM describes the yard and, in so doing, tells us a little about Marilla. “Very green and neat and precise was that yard, set about on one side with great patriarchal willows [such a great way to describe trees!] and on the other with prim Lombardies. Not a stray stick or stone was to be seen, for Mrs. Rachel would have seen it if there had been. Privately, she was of the opinion that Marilla Cuthbert swept that yard over as often as she swept her house. One could have eaten a meal off the ground without overbrimming the proverbial peck of dirt.”
Once inside the kitchen of Green Gables, LMM describes the east window, “…greened over by a tangle of vines. Here sat Marilla Cuthbert, when she sat at all, always slightly distrustful of sunshine, which seemed to her too dancing and irresponsible a thing for a world which was meant to be taken seriously.” These passages are so much more insightful than later in the chapter, when LMM expressly describes Marilla as “a tall, thin woman, with angles and without curves…She looked like a woman of narrow experience and rigid conscience, which she was…” It’s only page 5 and I defy you to have pictured Marilla as anything but what LMM describes her to be, after having read the previous passages.
The description goes on to assure us that “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.” This assurance is hardly necessary. It becomes pretty clear as the story unfolds, even in this first chapter, that Marilla has more depth than we think.
Still, I just love LMM’s style. Although she is rather effusive in her descriptions of nature throughout the Anne books, she actually does a great job with subtlety and deadpan. The Anne books are delightfully humorous but the delivery is half the charm.
For example, the conversation that Marilla and Mrs. Rachel have about adopting orphans is kind of hilarious. When Mrs. Rachel is regaling Marilla with every tale she can recall of an orphan harming his benefactor, she mentions an orphan who poisoned the family well with strychnine, “’and the whole family died in fearful agonies. Only it was a girl in that instance.’
’Well, we’re not getting a girl,’ said Marilla, as if poisoning wells were a purely feminine accomplishment and not to be dreaded in the case of a boy.”
This is the kind of off-hand humor, often delivered by Marilla but sometimes embedded in LMM’s storytelling itself, that I find delightful. It’s the kind of humor that makes you pause, reflect, and sort of smile to yourself as if you found a little unexpected gem.
Another wonderful thing about the Anne books is the food. They always seem to be cooking, eating, or talking about wonderful things to eat. And the role of food in the events of the books, as well as the kind of food in them, is actually very interesting to me from a cultural history perspective. LMM is of course writing from her own experiences and so food is matter-of-fact in the narrative. Which makes sense – you probably wouldn’t give a whole lot of back-story or a history lesson on the characters’ relationship to food in a book you were writing unless it were somehow relevant or necessary (like if you wrote a book set in a time or place very foreign or unfamiliar to your intended audience).
So you get a lot of lines like, “There were three plates laid, so that Marilla must be expecting someone home with Matthew to tea; but the dishes were every-day dishes and there was only crab apple preserves and one kind of cake, so that the expected company could not be any particular company.”
If you ever come to my house, and I feed you crab apple preserves and only one kind of cake on my every-day dishes, please know that it is not because I do not consider you to be any particular company. I’m sure you are lovely company.
Finally, there are some words and phrases I use in my day-to-day speech that I picked up from these books. My favorite is from Mrs. Lynde. She says it all the time. I don’t know why I like it but I find it sort of adorable and I encourage you to work it in to your own day-to-day speech, too.
Mrs. Lynde often emphasizes a statement by saying “that’s what” at the end of it. For example, when she’s reflecting on how odd she finds the placement of Green Gables, so far away from the road, it says that “Mrs. Rachel Lynde did not call living in such a place living at all.
‘It’s just staying, that’s what,’ she said as she stepped along the deep-rutted, grassy lane bordered with wild rose bushes.”
That’s what, indeed.