In 2018 Anne of Green Gables will turn 110 years old and the LMMI will celebrate its 25thbirthday and hold the 13th Annual Biennial Conference, L.M. Montgomery and Reading. This is the perfect time to revisit Montgomery’s classic novel in a read-a-long. Every Tuesday from now until the conference in June, readers will bring us their insights into the chapter of the week.
The first entry, “Chapter I: Mrs. Rachel Lynde is Surprised,” is by Liz Rosenberg. Rosenberg is the bestselling author of novels, poetry and children's books. Her new biography about L.M. Montgomery, HOUSE OF DREAMS, will be releasing this June from Candlewick Press.
THE OPENING CHAPTER OF ANNE OF GREEN GABLES
The opening of Anne of Green Gables is a thing of beauty. Consider just its first galloping paragraph. The whole thing rushes along, very much like the “intricate headlong brook” it describes, pausing at commas and semi-colons, but then rushing, bubbling along in a single sentence, riding on a single breath.
The book begins, startlingly enough, not with our heroine Anne, but with nosy Mrs. Rachel Lynde, the neighbor, the very spirit and incarnation of Avonlea itself. Montgomery tells us, “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.”
Why on earth begin with Mrs. Lynde? It serves to set a firm background for Anne, the coming orphan and chaos bearer—and to remind us that place, location, a sense of home, is crucial and central to this book. If you want to understand Anne’s story you must understand her discovery of home. She is, or will be, after all, Anne OF Green Gables—not a creature on her own, but an aery spirit fastened lovingly to a particular place.
Montgomery also sets Mrs. Lynde up for a shock. Surprise is an essential ingredient of this book, and we are introduced to it early. Just when everything seems to be going along as planned, along comes the red-haired female orphan, Anne. If anyone in the world is “odd or out of place” it is Anne Shirley, with her bright red hair, her fierce temper, her chatter. The very fact of her is jolting, and her entry into the formerly peaceful, dull lives of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert forms the essence of plot: Build a wall, and smash something into it. Mrs. Rachel Lynde is the wall, and Anne Shirley is already hurtling toward Avonlea by train, though Mrs. Lynde knows it not.
The book begins in June. Interestingly, we know that the author herself began writing it in June—her favorite month of the year, the month of springtime and freedom when Maud Montgomery could at last escape her dark “winter bedroom” by the downstair’s stove, and flee to her upstairs suite of rooms where she could write and dream uninterruptedly. There she had windows facing north, south, and west—everywhere but east, the very view she gives to her fictional character, Anne.
Perhaps all writing is an effort to extend one’s view to the unseen. Robert Bly has described poetry as an effort “to unfold the left side of the body.” Maud Montgomery’s real-life story of abandonment is transformed into a golden tale of rescue in this novel. No one else could have written this book about finding kinship, finding home. No other author would have managed its marriage or humor and heartbreak.
We know that L. M. Montgomery began the book on a June afternoon, and that she was busily writing away in its first chapter when she was interrupted by a handsome young minister, stopping by the house to pick up his mail. (The MacNeil household doubled as the local post office.) Maud was the organist in the church. She was merry, clever, and looking for a friend. Ewan MacDonald –Maud’s future husband-- was new in town, and he stayed to talk till the shadows lengthened. She must have had a certain confidence in her new story to allow herself to be interrupted for so long. We even know where she broke off to greet her visitor—just at the passage where Mrs. Lynde observes her shy neighbor Matthew setting off in his “white collar and his best suit of clothes.” The author paused after she had reached the question, “Now, where was Matthew Cuthbert going and why was he going there?”
Montgomery once wrote to a friend that an author must write what she has inside her to create. The rest, she noted, is “in the laps of the gods.” A study of source materials show that Montgomery’s handwriting was never stronger or more sure than in the composition of the opening chapter of her most famous novel. She covers a great deal of ground in these opening pages. We meet the vigilant Mrs. Lynde, and two of our central characters—one, Matthew, glimpsed at a distance, and the other, Marilla, close up and personal. The Cuthbert siblings are themselves characterized as “both a little odd,” making them the perfect halfway-house and ultimate home for the orphaned Anne. No one can ever forget their first introduction to Marilla—or in any event, to her well-swept yard. “Marilla Cuthbert swept that yard as often as she swept her house.” The house, that all-important house, is bright and well-kept, and “would have been cheerful if it had not been so painfully clean.” The place is barren, both literally and figuratively. Marilla and Matthew are an unmarried, childless pair of brother and sister—a fact that many readers initially overlook, thinking them a married couple. They need Anne as much as she needs them, however tartly Marilla argues against it at the start.
The opening chapter is full of so many felicities one could write about it for days. Consider our introduction to Marilla herself. One can hardly imagine a portrait more deftly,swiftly and indelibly created. “Marilla was a tall, thin woman, with angles and without curves; her dark hair showed some gray streaks and was always twisted up in a hard little knot behind with two wire hairpinbs stuck aggressively through it. She looked like a woman of narrow experience and rigid conscience, which she was; but 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.” –Here it all is, at the get-go: the repression, the anger, the rigidity, and that “saving something” of laughter. There’s also the comic moment when Mrs. Lynde learns that the Cuthberts have decided to adopt a boy to help around the farm. Mrs. Lynde’s thoughts run in bewildered exclamations. “A boy! Marilla and Matthew Cutherbert of all people adopting a boy! From an orphan asylum! Well, the world was certainly turning upside down! She would be surprised at nothing after this! Nothing!”
There is a merriness to the book’s opening which contrasts beautifully with its underlying sorrow. In this, the first chapter charms the reader very much like a painting. It contains a dozen wonderful brushstrokes—the table set with “crabapple preserves and one kind of cake,” the orchard beside Green Gables in its “bridal flush of pinky-white bloom.” And at the end of the chapter, like the bright star of evening rising, lies the waiting child, the unwanted Anne. We do not meet her. We don’t even know yet that she is not the expected boy, but instead an undesirable girl. Mrs. Rachel is “sorry for that poor young one and no mistake. Matthew and Marilla don’t know anything about children.” Her exclamation falls not on Marilla’s ears, but on an avatar of Anne, “the wild rose bushes” beside the house. And we the reader, are drawn a little closer to the heart of this great book, as we alone are given an insider’s glimpse of “the child who was waiting patiently at the Bright River station at that very moment.” It is an altogether brilliant opening to an altogether brilliant book.