Friday, March 28, 2008

What For or Hail Columbia


In general I would have to say that reading literary things on the internet is one of my absolute favorite and most reliably relaxing pastimes, but that really it is more on the time-wasting front than the utterly delightfulness-inducing...

But now and again there is something utterly delightful, and I have just read one of these things with great glee!

A long and thought-provoking (and frequently--characteristically!--sardonic) essay by Margaret Atwood, at the Guardian, on Anne of Green Gables. Here's a bit:
in actual life, an orphaned girl like Anne would have had few prospects. "What a starved, unloved life she had had - a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect," thinks Marilla; and it's this starved, unloved life that Budge Wilson has explored in her "prequel". Judging from what we know about the lives of orphans at that time, including the many "London street Arabs", as Marilla calls them, that were being sent to Canada by the Barnardo homes, a statistically accurate Anne would have continued to be poor and neglected. However, through luck and her own merits, Anne is rescued by the Cuthbert siblings, thus joining a long line of redeemed fictional Victorian orphans, from Jane Eyre to Oliver Twist to little Tom the chimney sweep in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies. Fairy-tale endings, we call these; for, in mythology and folklore, orphans were not merely downtrodden outsiders: they might be heroes-in-training, like King Arthur, or under the special protection of the gods or fairies. (There is certainly something uncanny about Anne - a "witch", she's often called - and a few centuries earlier she might well have been burnt at the stake.)

Outside of fiction, however, orphans weren't only exploited, they were feared and despised as fruits of sin: children with no identifiable fathers, resentful and even criminal Bad Seeds who'd do things like setting fire to people's houses "on purpose", as Rachel Lynde informs Marilla. This is why Montgomery goes to such lengths to provide Anne with two educated, respectable parents who were married to each other. But a real-life Anne would have led a Dickensian life of grinding child labour and virtual bondage as an unpaid mother's help - Anne has performed this function earlier in her life, once in a bare-bones backwoods household that sports three sets of twins. In my sourer moments, I confess to having imagined yet another Anne sequel, to be called Anne Goes on the Town. This would be a grim, Zolaesque epic that would chronicle the poor girl's enticement by means of puffed sleeves, then her sexual downfall and her subsequent brutal treatment at the hands of harsh male clients. Then would follow the pilfering of her ill-got though hard-earned gains by an evil madam, her dull despair self-medicated by alcohol and opium-smoking, and her sufferings from the ravages of an incurable STD. The final chapter would contain some Traviata-like coughing, her early and ugly death, and her burial in an unmarked grave, with nothing to mark the passing of this waif with a heart of gold but a volley of coarse jokes from her former customers. However, the presiding genius of Anne is not the gritty grey Angel of Realism, but the rainbow-coloured, dove-winged Godlet of the Heart's Desire. As Oscar Wilde said about second marriages, Anne is the triumph of hope over experience: it tells us not the truth about life, but the truth about wish fulfilment. And the main truth about wish fulfilment is that most people vastly prefer it to the alternative.
I loved those books when I was a kid, but I think that even at the time they struck me as more strongly wish-fulfilling than almost anything else I liked to read at age seven or eight...


  1. I did love the books dearly, and now M does too, but oh how delightfully evil is that alternative narrative of Anne's downfall!

  2. Evil and yet so, so very Atwood. Such a great piece about a book that is damn timeless (and whose prequel, shockingly, is quite good.)

  3. I am currently reading that Atwood essay (loved Anne!) but found this blog trying to figure out what a 'What For' or a 'Hail Columbia' might be... do you know anything about such terms?