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Marilla

Alberto Manguel

Prince Edward Island gothic

From the female Titans that preceded the Olympian gods to the elderly characters knitting their way through our present stories, the figure of the headstrong single woman, unmarried or widowed, is mostly left in the shadows by younger heroines, and younger or older male heroes. Of course if you put your mind to find them, they are there, stalwart and enlightening, in the hidden corners of the library. Necessary characters, too. What terrible deed would Coriolanus have committed were it not for his mother, the undaunted Volumnia? Would the tragic plot of Romeo and Juliet have come to its pedagogical end without the help of the devoted Nurse? What would have happened to Huckleberry Finn without the foil of wily Aunt Polly? And where would Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane be without Miss Climpson and her army of inquisitive ladies? “Miss Climpson,” says Lord Peter to his friend, Detective-Inspector Charles Parker, “is a manifestation of the wasteful way in which this country is run. Look at electricity. Look at water-power. Look at the tides. Look at the sun. Millions of power units being given off into space every minute. Thousands of old maids, simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and communities and hostels and posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community, while the ratepayers’ money is spent on getting work for which these women are providentially fitted, inefficiently carried out by ill-equipped policemen like you.”

Canadian literature seems to be particularly well-provided with these inspired crones, and several take centre stage. Hagar in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, Daisy Goodwill in Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries, Atwood’s Old Woman in The Robber Bride, the Monster-Mother in Audrey Thomas’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, Mrs. Norrington in Mavis Gallant’s A Fairly Good Time... the list is impressive. These old women have their names in lights. And none more so than Marilla Cuthbert, the headstrong woman who runs the Green Gables household while her taciturn brother Matthew works on the farm. Readers worldwide know the vociferous Anne, the darling of Japanese tourists who have a fetish for Anne’s red hair and buy in their thousands Anne mugs, Anne tea towels, Anne notebooks and Anne T-shirts when they visit Prince Edward Island for the express purpose of praying at Anne’s shrine. As far as I know there are no Marilla T-shirts for sale.

Marilla, Lucy Maud Montgomery tells us in the first chapter of the first volume of the saga, is “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 hairpins 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 humour.” Marilla is that rare creature, true on the surface and also true in her secret core, “as large as life, and twice as natural!” as the King’s Messenger says of Alice.

Reading the Anne books the portrait of Marilla that comes to mind is the sour-faced woman in American Gothic, Grant Wood’s painting from 1930. This is one side of the canvas. But what portrait might appear on the other, the hidden side?

No one would call Marilla a sexual being, and yet she confesses to Anne that she’s been courted and has fallen in love. “John Blythe,” she tells Anne, “was a nice boy. We used to be real good friends, he and I. People called him my beau.” And then they quarrelled. “I wouldn’t forgive him when he asked me to. I meant to, after awhile—but I was sulky and angry and I wanted to punish him first. He never came back—the Blythes were all mighty independent. But I always felt—rather sorry. I’ve always kind of wished I’d forgiven him when I had the chance.” Even as a young woman Marilla seemed unwilling to bend to anyone or anything.

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath was equally unwilling to bend, neither to her five husbands (“three of them were good and two were bad”) nor to the world at large. She tells us “of tribulation in marriage,/ Of which I am expert in all mine age/ This is to say, myself hath been the whip.” The Wife of Bath wields a whip, literally and symbolically, and upholds her right to all physical pleasures. An early Camille Paglia, she accuses men of having made up the stories that condemn women. “By God,” she says, “if women had written stories, / As clerkes had within their oratories, / They would have writ of men more wickedness / Than all the mark of Adam may redress.” Could this independent, self-asserting older woman be the inverted image of Marilla or, if you like, can Marilla be read as a Puritan version of the Wife of Bath?

Marilla’s coldness hides an old story which she recognizes early enough in Anne: “What a starved, unloved life she had—a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect,” she thinks to herself, with a feeling of pity perilously near self-pity. It also hides a sense of humour, sharp and intelligent, “which is simply another name” (Montgomery comments wisely) “for a sense of the fitness of things.” This Marilla has in abundance.

Marilla is practical in all things concerning social responsibilities. Prince Edward Island community life would be impossible without mutual assistance among neighbours. Tradition and polite niceties she accepts without argument, because she refuses to imagine things “different from what they really are.” And adds: “When the Lord puts us in certain circumstances He doesn’t mean for us to imagine them away.” The Wife of Bath would agree: you don’t imagine circumstances away, you face them and deal with them, and if you have to, you use a whip. Nothing can dissuade either woman once they have set on a given course, disciplinary or amorous. “When I make up my mind to do a thing it stays made up,” Marilla states. And the Wife of Bath: “Forbid us thing, and that desire we; / Press on us fast, and then will we flee.”

These strong women living within the fortress they’ve painfully built for themselves, have occasionally the chance of change, of expanding, of becoming conscious of other powers within themselves, of enriching their souls and enjoying not only their obvious strengths but also the ones they are only vaguely aware of possessing. The husbands are the trigger that makes the Wife of Bath increasingly adroit in the use of her sexual prowess (“In wifehood I will use mine instrument/ As freely as my Maker hath it sent”). For Marilla it is Anne who helps her open herself up to the enjoyment of the world and to the recognition of kindness; in the end, as Mrs. Lynde puts it, Marilla “has got mellow” and “crispness was no longer Marilla’s distinguishing characteristic.” Anne will go on to adulthood and greater things, but it is Marilla who will remain and flourish there, in the home that has made her who she is. Anne will grow and learn and change with new experiences in new places. It is Marilla who will accomplish the far more difficult task of coming to terms with who she really is, becoming her own mirror.

“There’s another way of reading Anne of Green Gables,” wrote Margaret Atwood wisely, “and that’s to assume that the true central character is not Anne, but Marilla Cuthbert.”

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at manguel.com.


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