Friday, January 23, 2015

The true story of Ann(e) Shirley

It’s only as an adult that I realize that the true plot of the Little House books is Laura growing up and moving the hell away from Ma.
That's from the piece about Little House on the Prairie I linked yesterday. It reminds me of a theory I have about Anne of Green Gables. I loved that book as a kid. My family spent pretty much the entire summer on Prince Edward Island from 1967 to 1970. After that, we move to Quebec and couldn't spend as long but we got two or three weeks in every summer for several years afterward.  

When you're there, the story feels real. You forget that it's fiction. That's a dangerous thing with books like Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie. It's dangerous because there is a huge wish-fulfillment element to these books. Both writers had a desperate need to imagine they'd had better childhoods than they really had and they created them in print. Imagining you had a perfect childhood is a form of delusion that prevents us from growing up. 

Don't get me wrong, you didn't have a miserable childhood either. That would be simply to create a mirror image and the mirror image of a myth is still a myth. And that mirror image will just as effectively keep us from growing up.

My theory about Anne 

It's really Marilla's story. Anne never exists. Marilla imagines Anne because she cannot be honest about her own childhood. Marilla's problem is not that she didn't marry John Blythe. (Notice how Maud Montgomery's stories are always cyclical: the same things keep repeating over and over again. Marilla's story is just like Anne's.) She never wanted to marry John and her imagined Anne never wanted to marry Gilbert just as Maud herself never wanted to marry and regretted it the second she did.

You might think these stories are about stolen childhoods. That's the way a lot of kids read them in our era of extended childhood read them. You might think, as the quote above suggests that Little House is really about Laura moving away from Ma but it's really a story about how Laura Ingalls Wilder never quite managed to confront the truth about her mother. She kept mythologizing her mother because she never really grew up.

And likewise, much as I love her, Maud Montgomery. Anne is the story of how a spirited young girl became Marilla. Every one of Maud's books is an attempt to rewrite her history with a happy ending that she never got in real life; despite her success as a writer she was miserable.

You can see this in the Anne books. It's always a variation on the same story. For example: no matter how far up the educational chain Anne and Gilbert get, they are always the two star students in the same rivalry. She keeps rewriting her childhood, thinking that if she can make it perfect (and her actual childhood was miserable) that will make everything else okay.

It didn't work.

You have to confront your parent's failings. As a child, you're helpless. Your need for protection and care is so intense that you make up a whole mythology about your parents and how they always had your best interests at heart. They didn't because they couldn't. No one could. The point of moving beyond it is not to hate them (to repeat: the opposite of a myth is still a myth). The point is reach the point where you can take care of your own needs and wants for you not only are allowed to have those, you absolutely have to to flourish.


  1. Hiya Jules. Found you through a Google search in my attempt to really understand Brideshead Revisited, and have been enjoying (and, I daresay, enriched by) your "Part 1" commentary thus far. Did you ever compile your thoughts on the rest of book?

    1. I've been meaning to do so for months. Your comment goaded me into it. If you check at the top you'll see there is now Brideshead 1, Brideshead 2 and Brideshead 3. That's all of it. Thanks for the push.

  2. Thank you! Looking forward to reading your thoughts. All the best ...