In Praise of L.M. Montgomery’s Literary Crones
by Deborah Kennedy
I’m going to go out on a wild cherry limb here and admit I’m not a huge fan of Anne Shirley anymore. I know, she’s a child of light by birthright, blah blah blah, but if you bother to make it past the fourth book of L.M. Montgomery’s eight-book series you’ll notice that late 20s/ early 30s/ middle-aged Anne is nothing more than a boring house angel who only takes joy in match-making, flower beds, and giving birth.
Not that there’s anything wrong with having five kids — it’s nice to know that childhood sweethearts Anne and Gilbert are still hot for each other (who else out there likes to think Gilbert calls Anne “Carrots” in bed?) — but with every passing year (and book) Anne loses a little bit of her spunk, her sparkle, the lovely weirdness that prompted Mark Twain to call her the “sweetest creation of child life yet written.” Sorry, Samuel: give me Emily Starr, with her high forehead, gift for second sight, and frank unhappiness any day of the week.
We must remember here that, by the time Miss Shirley and her besties were dodging male suitors and making pies at Patty’s Place, Maud had probably grown sick of her, too. After the wild success of Anne of Green Gables, L.M. had to write more Anne books to a) satisfy a clamoring public and b) pay the bills. (Maud’s life was in many ways a tragic one, but that’s a story for another day). Still, I can’t help wishing Anne had grown more interesting with age, as the rest of us are pretty much forced to do. Perhaps it’s due to my advanced years that Anne reads rather precious to me, even when she’s still in that getting-into-scrapes stage, but one way or another, by the time I hit Anne’s House of Dreams I’m ready to throw the charming Ann-with-an-e off the top of the Four Winds Point lighthouse. There are only so many times she can clasp her hands and look starry-eyed at stuff before I roll my own un-starry ones and groan, “Do something that isn’t completely perfect and smelling of June lilies for once! Curse, maybe. Get drunk on currant wine again and make out with Leslie Moore in front of Captain Jim. Take a dump. Anything.”
But, even with my Anne aversion, I reread these books every three years or so, sometimes in chronological order, sometimes starting in medias res and randomly working my way through. And I always finish them. Always. Why do I do this when the titian-haired heroine has grown so tiresome to me? The first answer is community: L.M. Montgomery is a master world builder. I want to live in Avonlea and Kingsport and Summerside and Glen St. Mary. Especially when my own reality bites the rat-infested plum pudding. Each setting is a cozy and comforting alternate universe full of quirky, funeral-loving characters who would make any Gog- and Magog-guarded fireside an interesting place to be. Imagine Stars Hollow transplanted to turn-of-the-century, maritime Canada. (Wait: is Rory Gilmore a latter-day Anne? I just blew my own mind.)
But what really keeps me turning the pages (many of them at this point coffee- and Cheeto- and chocolate-stained) are Maud’s crones. The old ladies, in other words. The sour and not-so-sour old gossips. These women — Rachel Lynde, Marilla Cuthbert, Rebecca Dew, Susan Baker and Miss Cornelia — form the backbone of L.M. Montgomery’s delightful burgs. They make things go. The community could not exist without them.
These women remind me of the folks celebrated in Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use”: “The people I love the best / jump into work head first / without dallying in the shallows.” Unlike Anne, the old ladies of these books are not shallow dalliers. They’re deep-end doers. They’re also pretty bad-ass. I’ll begin with the most bad-ass of them all.
Say what you will about Mrs. Rachel Lynde (and Anne does, calling her a “rude, impolite, unfeeling woman” who was born without a spark of imagination), but please also admit that without her, Avonlea would have gone to the dogs a long time ago. She runs the goddamned Sewing Circle and the Sunday school too. She’s also driving force behind the Church Aid Society and Foreign Missions Auxiliary; she’s a powerhouse, a brick house to boot. She wants votes for women. She makes more quilted shit than Vera Bradley and, secretly, she has a heart the size of the Lake of Shining Waters. She’s kind to little Davy Keith, even when Davy’s a dick to her. She knows and isn’t afraid to say before anyone else that Anne and Gilbert are made for each other. She likes herself a little gore, taking strange pleasure in the Boston murder trials written up in the local newspaper. She talks to herself and ends most of her internal monologues with “That’s what.” She’s funny. She’s fat and she gets around. She’s my homegirl. My… cronegirl.
In terms of the crone throne, Marilla is the only one who can challenge Rachel Lynde. She’s certainly the most dynamic character in the series, not counting Rilla. (Interesting that two of the most dynamic characters in the whole series are named Marilla. Maybe the name is magic. Marilla for baby name of the year!) Marilla Cuthbert, at the beginning of the series, is all angles and sharp hairpins and even sharper words — a little advice; don’t even think about touching her amethyst brooch — but in just a few short years with Anne softens to the point of adopting twins from a distant cousin and offering half of her house to long-time frenemy Rachel Lynde after Rachel’s hen-pecked husband gives up the ghost. From the outside Marilla might look starched and ironed and joyless, but underneath her petticoats she’s a kindred spirit with a sense of humor and an enormous capacity for love.
Incidentally, Marilla got a serious shot in the arm when she was played by actress/goddess Colleen Dewhurst in Kevin Sullivan’s 1985 film adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Colleen Dewhurst would never play anyone who wasn’t a bad-ass, and that is real truth.
I dare you to keep a dry eye when, at the end of Windy Poplars, Rebecca Dew, the rotund and red-faced housekeeper for Aunts Kate and Chatty, waves a white towel from the tower room to bid Anne goodbye. Rebecca Dew is the mistress of Windy Poplars, no mistake. Rebecca Dew makes sure that poor little rich girl next door gets a glass of milk every night. Rebecca Dew nearly surrenders her job to save a cat. As Anne knows, you just can’t separate the “Rebecca” and the “Dew.” (Think Steve Holt and Humbert Humbert.) Rebecca Dew is also a good cook and a “genius with cold potatoes.” Does it get any better than that?
Susan’s habit of always referring to Anne as “Mrs. Doctor Dear” can get annoying after a while, but it’s Miss Baker — hardened spinster, excellent bread-maker and adoptive mother of Shirley “Brown Boy” Blythe — that becomes the star of the Ingleside household. Not only does she nurse Anne back to health after the loss of little Joyce, but she also bakes and cooks enough to feed an army of soldiers following the Piper through Rainbow Valley. She goes to work in the fields when World War I breaks out and she chases Whiskers-on-the-Moon out of her kitchen with a frying pan when he proposes marriage. She takes a honeymoon all by herself. She’s an old maid and she’s fine with it. She is, as Gilbert points out in Rilla of Ingleside, “a brick.”
As well as clearly being of the race that knows Joseph, Miss Cornelia is also Glen St. Mary’s slightly more man-hating answer to Avonlea’s Rachel Lynde. When she’s not sewing christening dresses for impoverished babies, she’s keeping lonely women like Leslie Moore company and agonizing over the fate of the poor Meredith children. She takes in the bordering-on-sociopathic Mary Vance. And in the end, she snags Marshall Elliot, who, if my imagination is correct, is one hell of a hottie, beard or no beard.
Bonus Crones: Mr. Harrison and Ginger the Parrot
Far be it from me to be gender-exclusive with the crone label when Mr. Harrison is one of L.M. Montgomery’s best. A bald and flubby farmer, he gives Anne great writing advice (“write what you know”; ditch the pitching and mooning stuff) and dares to tell her the truth about her crapfest of a story, “Averil’s Atonement,” which, if you’ve found a good fanfiction version, please send it my way. He’s also an early environmentalist. Much to the horror of the Avonlea housewives, he does his dishes the green way — by throwing them all in the rainwater hog shed and letting nature do the dirty work. He’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in pipe smoke. Who knew he had a pretty little wife waiting for him on the mainland?
And last but not least, while we’re speaking of Mr. Harrison, a shout-out to his profane parrot, Ginger, who risks life and wing by calling Anne a “red-headed snippet.” Repeatedly. And with vehemence. Before his tragic demise in a freak spring storm. RIP Ginger.
Perhaps the reason L.M. Montgomery’s crones are so satisfying is that they are allowed the luxury of being interesting, unconventional, idiosyncratic. As an adolescent, Anne obviously embodies these qualities, but then she abdicates her individualism — and her burgeoning writing career — to become a domestic goddess (and one with a maid who does almost all the work). The girl who made so many young female readers embrace being different ends up being just like everyone else.
To all accounts, Lucy Maud Montgomery was a savvy career woman with a clear grasp of the demands of the marketplace. She understood that her loyal readers craved love stories and happy endings and bouncing babies, so she gave them what they wanted. Lucky for us that while she penned Anne into a corner, she at the same time invested her aging female characters with so much spark and dazzle and — here I go out on that cherry limb again — balls. Bravo, Maud. And long live the crones.
Deborah Kennedy recently earned an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in Third Coast Magazine, Sou’wester, The North American Review, and Salon. Originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana, Deborah currently lives with her mother and obese Chow mix in Portland, Oregon.