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The evolution of Anne

Cover image via Penguin Random House. Feature image above by Sophie Giraud, courtesy of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Okay, I admit it.

I didn’t like 80s Anne of Green Gables.

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.”

Sorry, what?

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.

Reasons to read The Lighthouse

Image: Penguin Random House. Lighthouse photo by Sam Herniman

First, to dispense with an irritation. The guy who said Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is ‘not about anything very interesting or important’[1] … 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.[2] 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?).[3] 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.[4] 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.

[1] 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

[2] Woolf, Virginia. ‘Modern Fiction’, 1925. Quoted Leaska, Mitchell (ed), The Virginia Woolf Reader, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1984, p287

[3] Leavis, F.R. ‘After To the Lighthouse’, 1941. Quoted in Vogler, Thomas: Twentieth Century Interpretations of To the Lighthouse, Prentice-Hall, London, 1970, p99

[4] 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

In praise of Miss Bates

Image via Penguin
Cover images via Penguin

As every politician knows, the trick is to push – but not too much.

You want to hit that sweet spot between keeping people comfortable, and stirring them up.

Jane Austen understood this.

But okay, first things first. Having mentioned Austen, I need to say that her writing is gorgeous, her characters finely drawn, her irony pitch-perfect. But of course we know all that.

What I’ve been thinking about, as I re-read Emma over the past few weeks, is how Austen makes things possible. Which reminded me that Hetty Bates – the dittery, chattery spinster of Emma – is one of my fictional heroes. Because she’s all about possibility.

Miss Bates is, to my mind at least, the most interesting – and amusing – character in this book. She’s poor, unmarried, and lives with her (partially deaf) mother in pretty humble circumstances. But she loves everyone, and is generally loved back – in spite of her tendency to go on somewhat. For example:

“So very obliging of you! – No rain at all. Nothing to signify. I do not care for myself. Quite thick shoes. And Jane declares – ”

Oh, it’s lovely writing. The pauses – the gaps – the way Austen captures the breathless joy and squirrel-like distractibility of a lady who finds goodness in everything: well, it makes me happy.

Now I wouldn’t be the first to point out that Miss Bates, like Austen herself, is the daughter of a clergyman; that she also, like Austen, finds herself unmarried; and that this status gives her a position sufficiently outside of the expected (ie, married) path for women that she’s able to observe, and occasionally offend, without serious consequence. After all, Miss Bates has fallen pretty far down the social ladder – there’s not much more she could do to injure herself.  We’re therefore free to enjoy her social blunders – such as when she lets on that she, along with probably the rest of town, is well aware that the pompous Mr Elton once had designs on our heroine, Emma Woodhouse:

“Well. I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever – Mrs Cole once whispered to me – but I immediately said, ‘No, Mr Elton is a most worthy young man – but’ – […] At the same time, nobody could wonder if Mr Elton should have aspired – Miss Woodhouse lets me chatter on, so good-humouredly. She knows I would not offend for the world.”

No indeed, Miss Bates would not offend: but she frequently sees, and says, more than she’s meant to. Throughout the course of the novel – just to give you a sample – Miss Bates ‘accidentally on purpose’ lets on:

  • That she ignores the advice of Mr Woodhouse (Emma’s father, and patriarch of Highbury) and bakes apples only twice (a deeply serious matter for the food-paranoid Mr Woodhouse);
  • That she and her niece, Jane Fairfax, often speak of the “charming” Frank Churchill (who we later learn is Miss Fairfax’s secret fiancé);
  • That Miss Fairfax and Mr Churchill have been secretly writing to one another (though this revelation is indirect, and apparently unintended).

But in the study guides (which were the pick of the Emma books I gratefully checked out from my municipal library), Miss Bates is perhaps best known for her role in Emma’s journey to self-knowledge. Full of impatient pride, Emma insults Miss Bates at a picnic. Emma’s repentance is of course a central plot point in the novel, but that’s not what I find most interesting about this exchange. What draws my eye is Miss Bates’s response:

“Ah! – well – to be sure. Yes, I see what she means (turning to Mr Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.”

This is a dignified reply from a woman who boasts ‘neither beauty nor cleverness’. But we absolutely believe it. I, for one, can very clearly hear her saying it (and not only because I’ve seen one or two movie adaptations). We see that Mis Bates is ridiculous – we know we’re supposed to sneer, just a little bit, at her spinster status, and the small-mindedness of her incessant chatter – but we sympathise with her, and we learn to trust what she tells us. She’s a kind of comic Cassandra.[1]

How, then, has Austen made this possible? How has she placed an ‘old maid’ of low status among the ‘best families’, and not only made her respectable – but admirable?

Well, I’d say it’s all about balance.

In a sense, Austen gives us two spinsters in Emma – Miss Bates and Emma herself, who declares that she’ll never marry (though of course by the end of the book, she has). As Emma tells a friend, a single woman of fortune need not be ‘comtemptible’ – she may even enjoy some measure of independence. In this way, Emma stretches the norm, but only just so far – she has money (and youth) to cushion her. Miss Bates, of course, has neither money, nor youth – but she has a ‘gift of happiness’. She accepts her situation, is interested in others, and receives charity cheerfully.  She’s neither completely cowed by her circumstance, nor resentful of it. She’s therefore acceptable enough (a bit silly, without ambition above her station) to be allowed to speak her own turn and behave, in some ways, as an independent woman. Which – when you consider that Emma was written around the time that Mary Wollstonecraft was fighting the frippery of women’s domestic lives, and 90-odd years before Australian women were allowed to vote – is an achievement.

So Austen has pushed things, but not too much. I might add that I see a similar pattern at work in Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightley – after all, it’s a bit unusual, given the time and place, that he moves in with her. But of course everything evens up, to make it possible: it’s all to pacify her father; she’s attained some degree of equal intellectual footing with her husband-to-be (but not too much); and the house, after all, will ultimately belong to Mr Knightley. Sure, some of today’s readers may feel disappointed that Emma has given herself to marriage, and turned away from independence; but mostly, we’re happy for her.  We’re able to close this book, ready to smile with her at the misunderstandings and misjudgments the future will undoubtedly bring, knowing that whatever happens, Emma will be a woman who – in her own time, and place – knows herself.[2]

Miss Bates, meanwhile, is heading for a future in which her beloved niece Jane is comfortably married (to the secret fiancé), and the Bateses continue to hold an esteemed place in Highbury society. Everyone who should be married, is suitably settled; and everyone who deserves respect, is given it in appropriate measure.

As the lady herself would say: “Excellently contrived, upon my word. Nothing wanting.”




[1] Well … sort of. Readers who clicked the link will see that I’ve stretched the metaphor somewhat – but she does have a strange kind of insight and is, in her own way, a bit of a tragic figure. (I also note that others have also made the connection).

[2] In other words, Emma, within the bounds of convention and society, will remain resolutely ‘herself’. Harold Bloom put this rather more eloquently when he wrote that Austen “understood that the function of convention was to liberate the will, even if convention’s tendency was to stifle individuality, without which the will was inconsequential.” From The Western Canon, Papermac, 1996, p258