Rereading in Waves

This piece was previously published – with changes – in the Autumn 2017 edition of Noted, the English Department Journal of the University of Geneva.

One of the things that’s always taken me by surprise when discussing female authors, be it online or with friends, is the repeated claim that others had to go out of their way to find books written by female writers when they were children. This probably shouldn’t surprise me considering that the supposedly Great Western Canon has always been bogged down by white, male authors, but it still does. I was lucky enough to be primarily brought up by my grandmother in an all-women household and to have women as English and literature teachers in primary and secondary schools. They were all aware of the gender divide in literature, and I consequently always had books written by women at hand, from Austen and the Brontës to Jhumpa Lahiri and Margaret Atwood, and if anything, I grew to assume an author was female unless blatantly stated otherwise. (I still think of Wilkie Collins as a woman and am repeatedly startled when presented with pictures of a bearded man). Call this what you will, but it’s something for which I’ve always been thankful.

I read voraciously as a kid, and the authors I repeatedly revisited were Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and L.M. Montgomery. Looking back, I struggle to think of male authors I read at that age, only able to remember the time I put Tom Sawyer down in bored disappointment, never to pick it up again. Fast forward to studying feminist literature and reading plenty of Second Wave criticism, and I started to wonder if I had fallen into a trap after all. My favorites had all been women, yes, but they weren’t exactly groundbreaking. They were the ones who’d survived the canon because they’d appeared to comply with societal demands. They talked about young girls growing into young ladies (yes, for the most part, ladies, with all the social connotations implied), and they presented a fair share of domesticity. They glorified notions of home and family, and all the books and series that saw their female characters through to adulthood also saw them enter into marriage. Anne Shirley gives up teaching to marry Gilbert Blythe; Laura Ingalls Wilder does the same and dedicates the final book in the Little House series to her marriage; and even Jo March, who spurns Laurie and goes off to New York to live on her own and become a writer, comes home, marries, and brings up not only her two boys but an entire school of children. Alcott even put together a sequel to Little Women called Good Wives (if you don’t remember this, that may be because it’s generally printed in one volume with Little Women and appears as the second part of the book). Critically awakened, I began to re-evaluate the books in my memory, sadly thinking of them as propaganda which had driven me to romanticize marriage and domesticity despite growing up with a heightened awareness of divorce and female empowerment.

I was mistaken, however, in making this judgment without revisiting the books themselves until earlier this year. On a trip to London a few months ago, I visited Persephone Books, a publisher and bookshop dedicated to printing forgotten novels by women writers from the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, and came away with two novels by Frances Hodgson Burnett – The Making of a Marchioness and The Shuttle. I hadn’t reread any of her writing since I was about ten years old; more to the point, I hadn’t been aware of the fact that she had widely written for adult women. While The Secret Garden and A Little Princess are her most recognized novels, they only constitute a small portion of her work. I quickly read The Making of a Marchioness in April and was thrilled to find that, though it appeared to be a bit of an adult fairy tale at first glance, it gloriously echoed the realism found in the likes of her contemporary Edith Wharton. I went into a little research binge reading about Hodgson Burnett after that and found that she wasn’t the conventional late-Victorian/Edwardian woman I had assumed her to be. She was independent, earned her own living, and had two divorces under her belt at a time when marriage played a definitive role in women’s lives. This made me not only want to read more of her work but to take a closer look at some of my other old favorites.

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of my rereads thus far, with the very pretty Puffin in Bloom edition of Anne of Green Gables bringing me back to L.M. Montgomery’s works last summer. I’ve reread two of the books in the series for now – the aforementioned opening to the Anne series and Anne’s House of Dreams, the fifth book in the series. Rereading the first was a delight. Taking place in the late nineteenth century, it tells the story of an eleven-year-old orphan who’s accidentally adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, an elderly brother and sister who run a farm on Canada’s Prince Edward Island. Anne stays with the Cuthberts, gets into lots of mischief, and excels at school, proving along the way that she was a much better addition to the family than the boy they originally wanted to adopt. The first volume is truly a children’s novel, but it was refreshing to revisit after well over a decade.

The following books in the series are far more interesting from critical and social points of view. They follow Anne as she gets older and enters into adult life. Rather than getting married at the first opportunity, she pursues her education, teaches, earns a BA, and turns down multiple marriage proposals. Montgomery turns away from the heteroromantic norms of her time, prioritizing education over marriage and providing commentary on women’s issues. Characters like Rachel Lynde criticize women turning away from the home in a way that implies ridicule, while others like Cornelia Bryant speak out in favor of women’s suffrage and constantly make statements like “Drat the men!” Anne eventually marries, but she doesn’t do so until she’s met all of her personal goals in the fifth novel of the series. She is twenty-five at the time, closer to the average marriage age of today than of the pre-1900 world. Her marriage is presented as a true matter of choice and preference, not an obligation or matter of convenience. In fact, it is opposed to another marriage in Anne’s House of Dreams, where Leslie Moore is pressured into marriage with a tyrannical drunkard to save her family’s farm. Her unhappiness is explicitly depicted in the novel, and the dramatic extent to which Montgomery goes almost suggests a satirical depiction of the most extreme cases one can imagine. Other passages in the novel also suggest a somewhat satirical nature. An odd contradiction presents itself, for instance, with the topic of childbirth. Montgomery doesn’t completely shy away from the issue. The first time it is evoked, Anne is said to almost lose her life in giving birth and then loses her baby shortly after. This suggests that Montgomery is ready to be a bit more darkly realistic than other authors writing for young women at the time. But then, several chapters and over a year later in the story, she adopts what can only be thought of as an absurdly ridiculous attitude when she turns away from the natural world to the mythology of storks. I could quote just a line of the passage in question, but it is comically golden and deserves to appear in full:

One morning, when a windy golden sunrise was billowing over the gulf in waves of light, a certain weary stork flew over the bar of Four Winds Harbor on his way from the Land of Evening Stars. Under his wing was tucked a sleepy, starry-eyed, little creature. The stork was tired, and he looked wistfully about him. He knew he was somewhere near his destination, but he could not yet see it. The big, white light-house on the red sandstone cliff had its good points; but no stork possessed of any gumption would leave a new, velvet baby there. An old gray house, surrounded by willows, in a blossomy brook valley, looked more promising, but did not seem quite the thing either. The staring green abode further on was manifestly out of the question. Then the stork brightened up. He had caught sight of the very place—a little white house nestled against a big, whispering firwood, with a spiral of blue smoke winding up from its kitchen chimney—a house which just looked as if it were meant for babies. The stork gave a sigh of satisfaction, and softly alighted on the ridge-pole. (Chapter 34)

That such a passage was written in 1917, about the 1890s, is not surprising, given that “shocking” issues such as childbirth were taboo and that the book was still mostly geared towards young women; but Montgomery’s attitude towards so many other feminist issues suggests that it cannot be other than satire. How else can the extreme shift from near-death to idealized innocence be explained? The thought of it being satirical criticism of the idiotically simple way in which popular culture addressed women’s issues is reassuring. I began my reread of Anne’s House of Dreams fully aware that I was likely to be disappointed. I found it to be – to put it in colloquial terms – a fluffy book when I was little, and I was pleasantly surprised this time around precisely because it isn’t actually as fluffy as I remember it being. It has critical substance, and it has humor. Plus, the ridiculous stork imagery paired with the other samples of criticism in the novels made me think of a pro-birth control postcard from the early twentieth century that floats around the internet, depicting a woman beating away a stork with an umbrella, and what is there not to like about that?

Whether Montgomery’s passage is actually satirical criticism or whether it’s hopeful interpretation on my part, it still opens the text and the topic up to a variety of questions. What is so shocking about female realities that they supposedly need to be constantly covered up over the centuries? What ways might female writers of the early twentieth century have had to combat social censorship? And if such “subtle” criticisms are in one childhood favorite, what might there be in others? Is not something to be made of the fact that the two March girls who fit the mold of “good” nineteenth-century femininity in Little Women are the two to meet tragic ends: Meg in being prematurely widowed and Beth in literally dying because she went out of her way to help the sick? That Jo and Amy, the two flawed sisters, are the ones to have happier ends? That Anne finds domestic happiness through choice and that the heroines of Hodgson Burnett’s novels tend to be more triumphant than the men? The feminist values of these novels are ambiguous but nowhere near as easily dismissed as I feared them to be, and I look forward to revisiting them over time and seeing what more they have to offer.

Works Cited

“And the Villain Still Pursues Her.” Circa early twentieth century. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 15 August 2016.

Montgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne’s House of Dreams. Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild and Stewart, 1917. Project Gutenberg. Web. 15 August 2016.