This week the LMMI welcomes writer Casey Hamilton to the Anne of Green Gables Read-a-long with "Chapter III: Matthew Cuthbert is Surprised."
There was a game on social media a while back, the kind where everyone is supposed to pitch in and come up with a clever-ism about a topic they give you. This one was “ruin a book synopsis in a 1 sentence.” I laughed heartily at the one that said “Elderly siblings Mathew and Marilla Cuthbert adopt the boy orphan they requested.”
It does what it claims to so well. Because no one cares when what happens is expected. It’s full L.M. Montgomery genius, really, that everyone is surprised. Even Anne herself, when Marilla asks heartlessly "’Matthew Cuthbert, who's that?... Where is the boy?’" It makes us care deeply about what happens to all of them; the decisions they make; whether Anne gets to stay.
I have been reading Anne on repeat for years, after discovering her books on my grandmother’s shelf in the children’s play room. I am struck by different things each time I crack the spine. The true-isms Montgomery inserts into her books that seem to strike at the meat of life; her mastery of not-too-purple prose; events too improbable to seem fake.
When I opened the book to write this blog, I was struck this time by how vibrant Montgomery makes her characters and settings. It seems effortless, and I’m jealous of her skill in capturing the essence of everything so quickly but so uniquely. No one we’ve met so far is an archetype, cookie-cutter character, not even Green Gables itself. It seems impossible that Rachel Lynde, Marilla, Mathew, and Anne don’t exist somewhere in the past. And it’s done with the careful language Montgomery selects.
Is it any wonder the beginning of the book takes place in spring? We can see it here, too. Less blatantly than in the White Way of Delight perhaps, but it’s still there stirring. This time the rebirth is within the characters and in Green Gables itself. Mathew, shy and anti-social, finds he wants Anne around after knowing her only a few hours. The contrast between Anne’s dramatic warmth (her assertions that she’s in the “depths of despair,” and desire to be called Cordelia), and Montgomery’s descriptions of the cold house suggest that Anne brings disorder, joy, and even warmth with her, despite her angst:
“The whitewashed walls were so painfully bare and staring that she thought they must ache over their own bareness… In the other corner was the aforesaid three-corner table adorned with a fat, red velvet pin-cushion hard enough to turn the point of the most adventurous pin… Midway between table and bed was the window, with an icy white muslin frill over it, and opposite it was the wash-stand. The whole apartment was of a rigidity not to be described in words, but which sent a shiver to the very marrow of Anne's bones.”
Contrasted with: “When Marilla came up for the light various skimpy articles of raiment scattered most untidily over the floor and a certain tempestuous appearance of the bed were the only indications of any presence save her own.”
Anne is already making her mark.
But this chapter is really about Marilla. After all, it’s named for her. And it’s she who is beginning to bloom the most. “Something like a reluctant smile, rather rusty from long disuse, mellowed Marilla's grim expression.” The little green shoots of affection are rising from Marilla’s soul amid the snowy chill of Green Gables.
It’s something to watch for as you continue reading, how Anne works her magic to change Green Gables and the people in it, but also how Green Gables changes her as she finds a place to belong. And, of course, the careful language Montgomery uses to convey so perfectly the essence of her characters and places.