Honored to have two pieces—an essay and a short story—in this month’s issue of LEON Literary Review, alongside some amazing writers. Here’s a taste from the essay:
“When my brother and I were small, and my mother was out somewhere—at work, or perhaps in a psychiatric hospital, I don’t recall—my Dad showed us how he could peel an orange. All in one piece, he said. Look … ” More
Check out LEON Issue #1 for some fantastic poetry from authors including Christine Kitano, Matthew Olzmann and J. Estanislao Lopez.
I’m sorry. I know. People loved 80s Anne. She was funny, and cute, and clever. And the film is well done.
But I couldn’t connect. An unwanted child whose defining characteristic was optimistic smarts? Who, when told she couldn’t stay with her new family, looks politely sad, but doesn’t stamp her foot, or otherwise make an angry mess? I couldn’t do it. She was welcome to be charming and resilient and successful over there, while I was messy and cranky and resentful over here.
So while I didn’t rush to the new TV adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s 1908 book, I didn’t approach it with any of the trepidation that others did. And I wasn’t put off by reviews saying the new series was a ‘betrayal’.
What I didn’t expect was how fascinated I’d be.
I watched it once. Huh. I watched it some more. I got the novel out from the library. I watched the 80s version on DVD. I went back to the 2017 version. Hm.
You might’ve heard that the Netflix/Canadian Broadcasting Corporation version is different from the 80s one. It’s visually darker, and it includes some new scenes (the writer is on the record as saying she worked from the novel; she didn’t want to be influenced by the 80s version). In the 2017 version, Anne has flashbacks. We see her being beaten by her former family, and taunted by children in the orphanage.
This has annoyed some people.
One reviewer said the show ‘strayed disastrously’ from Montgomery’s novel; another (in the New Yorker) that the flashbacks evoked seething, not empathy, and another felt the show revelled in Anne’s suffering.
I didn’t feel like that. Some of the scenes go too far (a character dies of a heart attack while beating Anne: really, guys?), but on the whole, watching Anne’s stunned/sad/angry face, I felt reassured. I knew I was being asked to understand Anne’s experience. Watching her zone out (eyes wide open, the sound of blood rushing through her ears), I thought: yes. It can be like that.
But this doesn’t entirely explain my fascination. What I kept coming back to, as I circled around the story in my head, is what these changes might represent. Some of them probably come down to medium: for example, Anne’s 2017 creators have said they added some scenes to ‘show’ events rather than ‘tell’ them (the 80s TV version does this too). And others seem stylistic (the 2017 Cuthberts’ house is more spartan than what we saw in 1985). But at their heart, I think these changes point to an evolution in how we understand childhood. This has been shifting since 1908, for sure. And in my lifetime, too.
That’s pretty interesting.
Let me give an example. In all of the versions I’m talking about, Matthew Cuthbert goes alone to collect an orphan ‘boy’ who turns out to be a girl, Anne. Matthew is shy. In both film versions, we see his surprise and hesitation—and we witness Anne winning him over on the ride back to Green Gables. But in Montgomery’s version, we hear Matthew’s thoughts:
“He could not tell this scrawny child … that there had been a mistake; he would take her home to let Marilla do that.”
He deliberately takes Anne all the way back home so that his sister can tell her she’s not wanted? A grown man is so afraid of the world that he would inflict such a disappointment on a child?
Well, yes. And Montgomery doesn’t seem to judge Matthew for this (later, of course, Matthew wants Anne to stay). But by 1985, we see his hesitation from the beginning (though we don’t hear his thoughts). Then, 2017 shows us concern as well as connection (Anne and Matthew see each other at the station before he realises who she is, and later the camera zooms in on them shaking hands). We’re allowed to believe that Matthew doesn’t want to let Anne down; that he accepts, on an emotional level at least, his responsibility for her as a child. In 2017, we need that in order to believe in Matthew’s basic goodness.
This (and the inclusion of those flashbacks) points to the fact that for contemporary audiences, childhood experiences are formative—and adults cannot be passers-by. Trauma can’t simply be overcome by an innately sunny (or robust) disposition. We’re too invested in nurture to believe that.
But I think 1985 viewers were expected to accept it, at least to a point.
I’m agnostic on whether this is a good thing. On the one hand, glossing over trauma can reassure viewers that things aren’t so bad; the wider society needn’t change for the benefit of this character. She’ll be all right. On the other, dwelling on trauma risks reducing a child to her circumstances. Which stinks.
Perhaps this tension is behind some of the reactions against Anne with an E. Where’s our sunny girl gone? they seem to be saying. Why have you made the world so dark?
Well, stories (like the world, and ourselves) change. The Grimm fairy tales, for example, have been evolving since the first edition was published in 1812 (and as oral tales, were changing long before the Grimms wrote them down). In the 1812 edition of Hansel and Gretel, two children are abandoned by their parents. Later versions have them ditched by their stepmother, with the (reluctant) help of their father. And the 1812 house is made of bread, with sugar for windows. The kids seem happy to find it, but it’s not the candy-bedecked confection I drooled over in the 1970s.
I could go on debating the differences between these three Annes (and I haven’t even looked into all the other adaptations out there). The novel is arguably darker than the 80s film version; there are also comments in the novel (Anne would ‘rather be pretty than clever’, and longs for dimples in her elbows) which don’t translate well today. Which version is ‘better’ is perhaps beside the point.
Reading isn’t time travel: we make sense of things in the here and now. And what do I get from this version of Montgomery’s story, as I see it, today? A girl who stands up for herself, who struggles, who doesn’t accept the circumstances she was born into. Who’s clever, and strong, and brave. Who is occasionally ridiculous. And who continues to be all of these things in the face of a world that can seem dark and indifferent.
Sitting at my desk in 2017, watching a summer day fade into night, that seems like a win to me.
First, to dispense with an irritation. The guy who said Virginia Woolf’sTo the Lighthouse is ‘not about anything very interesting or important’ … well, he was wrong.
To the Lighthouse is about love, and subjection, and forgiveness. Art. Parenthood. Death. It conjures up—if you’ll excuse my earnestness—the joy and dread of being alive. So yeah, the subject matter’s interesting and important.
Briefly, the background: Published in 1927. Set in the Ramsay family’s holiday house in the Hebrides. The main characters: Mrs Ramsay, Mr Ramsay, their eight children (among them 6-year-old James), and a cast of visitors, including Lily Briscoe (an artist) and Charles Tansley (an acolyte of Mr Ramsay’s).
The story opens with James hoping to take a trip to the lighthouse. His mother says he can go, if the weather is fine. His father says it will rain. So, why read the rest of it?
1: A million universes
You know how we all move through the world, peering out from inside our own heads? Paying partial attention, sometimes being helpful, sometimes total crap?
Well, this book captures that. And it does it so well that you care whether Mrs Ramsay is cold without her shawl; feel James’s rage at his father’s interruptions; want Lily to finish painting her scene, whether it ends up in the attic or not.
Watching Woolf’s characters interact is a joy. For example: Mrs Ramsay tells Charles that a mutual friend should have been a great philosopher, but made an ‘unfortunate marriage’. Having enjoyed Mrs Ramsay’s hint at ‘the greatness of man’s intellect … the subjection of all wives’, Charles wishes they were in a cab, so he could pay; or at least, that she’d let him carry her bag. He imagines achieving great things while she watches on. And later, having revealed a vulnerability (he’s never been to the circus, he’s poor), he’s overflowing with pride to be walking with her, because she’s so beautiful. She lets him hold her bag.
So we see that Charles is a dull man who views Mrs Ramsay as a mirror for his ego—and that he’s lonely, needy, a bit sad. We also see how Mrs Ramsay indulges Charles, defers to the ‘masculine’ intellect, and maintains her own view of him (‘he was an awful prig—an unsufferable bore’).
Reading this scene is like being at a party, and instead of watching an interaction and thinking, something here is a bit off, being able to see it with painful, half-smiling clarity.
2: It’s bomb-free
Woolf was a modernist who tried to find new ways to write, and understand the world. She looked away from ‘plot, comedy, tragedy, love interest and catastrophe in the accepted style’, towards what she called the ‘semi-transparent envelope’ of existence. She meant, I think, that life isn’t a neatly arranged series of events, full of the kind of tension we expect in a tightly plotted novel; it’s continuous, often confusing, confining, terrifying, and wonderful.
So when major plot points occur in To the Lighthouse, they’re presented in brackets—as an aside. I love this, because events happen as they do in life: as interruptions to our illusion of safety, things beyond our individual control. It also denies us the spectacle of a ‘bomb’ going off, which was a risky move on Woolf’s part. Readers want to inhabit that moment of catastrophe, right? But sometimes big events can become a barrier to empathy: when there’s a gun in a character’s face, aren’t we thinking at least as much about ourselves, as the story? What would I do in this scary situation? Isn’t that shocking? Or sad, or whatever. We’ve lost the fine grain of the character’s situation. We’re reading it like a news headline.
3: Light, dark and art
This is a beautiful book. Woolf brings the landscape alive; creates natural tension between the house and the far-off lighthouse; slowly dims the light in the dining room until the windows become a darkening mirror. In the dinner scene (which anchors the story), Woolf shows us Mrs Ramsay’s artistry in bringing people together, creating ‘such moments … [when] the thing is made that endures.’ There’s a lovely parallel here between what Mrs Ramsay creates—a home, a family life—and Lily Briscoe’s painting. Both are artists. But Woolf stays sharp: during dinner Mr Ramsay is vain as well as generous, and once dinner is over the beneficent Mrs Ramsay is cranky to find her younger children still awake.
4: To say boo to her critics
Woolf absolutely had opinions about other people’s work, but man, some of the critiques of her books are snarky. F.R. Leavis thought To the Lighthouse was Woolf’s ‘only good novel’, and he seemed to think it was okay mainly because it appeared to be based on her life (patronising much?). And as for Arnold Kettle, the guy who said the book’s not about anything important: he also wondered in what sense one of the final scenes was a culmination a key relationship, which had me wondering whether he had read the book all the way through.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. Maybe Leavis and Kettle just didn’t like the book (which is fine, of course). And there’s a stack of other criticism that I haven’t even touched. So maybe this fourth reason isn’t just about thumbing one’s nose at these guys (though if you chose to do that, I couldn’t stop you), but thinking about the relationship between a book and the wider world. The writer’s job, Woolf said, was ‘to get in touch with the reader by putting before him something which he recognises … and makes him willing to co-operate’ with the world of the story. What seems insightful to me—the everyday ways a man could depend on a woman’s lower status to feel better about himself—probably chafed in 1927 (and may still, in some quarters, today). And things we don’t (or won’t) recognise are easily dismissed as unimportant, right? But of course that doesn’t mean that they are.
So, when I think about what’s recognisable, and what’s strange (and wonderful, and sad) in To the Lighthouse, I also think about what’s recognisable and strange in the world today. Woolf gives me hope that if we look closely—imperfectly, perhaps, subject to our own odd perspectives, prejudices, fears—we might see a little bit of the way things are, and how they might be. And it seems to me that right now, that’s just what we need.
 Kettle, Arnold, ‘Mr Bennet and Mrs Woolf’. From an Introduction to the English Novel by Arnold Kettle (London, Hutchinson Publishing Group, 1961). Quoted in Vogler, Thomas: Twentieth Century Interpretations of To the Lighthouse, Prentice-Hall, London, 1970, p96
 Woolf, Virginia. ‘Modern Fiction’, 1925. Quoted Leaska, Mitchell (ed), The Virginia Woolf Reader, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1984, p287
 Leavis, F.R. ‘After To the Lighthouse’, 1941. Quoted in Vogler, Thomas: Twentieth Century Interpretations of To the Lighthouse, Prentice-Hall, London, 1970, p99
 Woolf, Virginia. ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, 1924. Quoted in Quoted Leaska, Mitchell (ed), The Virginia Woolf Reader, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1984, p206