Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson

Planning a prequel or sequel to classic works by now-dead authors should bring drops of blood to the writer’s brow. Crafting a plot is fairly easy, but writing in the spirit of the original is virtually impossible. How much ought the new author’s voice inform the piece?  Too much, and the work is no longer faithful to the original creation; too little, and it’s fan fiction. Furthermore, a strong character often becomes a caricature in a sequel, reduced to easily recognized traits and mannerisms, with little further character development.

Before Green Gables was written in 2008 to commemorate the centennial of  a Canadian classic–L.M.Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, featuring the adventures of Anne Shirley, a red-haired orphan girl of unusual spirit and imagination.  Before Green Gables chronicles Anne’s years in Nova Scotia before her departure for Prince Edward Island (and Green Gables).  I couldn’t help but wonder at the chutzpah of a writer who takes on a prequel to one of the most beloved children’s books ever, but now that I’ve read it, I doff my toque to Budge Wilson.  The basic plot outlines have of course been laid out by Montgomery in Anne of Green Gables, but Wilson has immersed herself in Anne-lore and the period, and the result is  an adroitly fashioned, utterly convincing tale. Every sentence spoken by Anne could have been written by Montgomery–there isn’t a single false note in this work.

Before Green Gables begins with Walter and Bertha Shirley’s anticipation of their child’s arrival. Within a tenth of the book, they are dead and the three-month old Anne consigned to the dubious care of the Shirleys’ domestic help, Mrs. Thomas. The household consists of a drunkard father and three (to become seven) children. If Anne’s lot seems unutterably bleak, it soon gets worse–upon the death of Mr. Thomas, Anne is packed off to assist Mrs. Hammond, a mother of six (including two sets of twins), and soon to give birth to yet more twins. This MG book is a stronger argument for birth control than many carefully researched non-fictional works on the topic.

Before Green Gables feels careful-verging-on-unadventurous, but it is satisfyingly done; not one of Anne’s references to her tragical past in AoGG has been missed, from her experience with croup to Lily Jones of the nut-brown hair. If you know the series well, there’s much pleasure gained in playing spot the references. And if  Wilson makes her Anne extraordinarily precocious–walking at eight months,  noting before her third birthday that the name Maurice sounds like a “smooth-running river” , and before her sixth birthday, coaching Mr. Thomas on the secret to finding serenity–I can forgive her the indulgence.

The only real issue I had with  Before Green Gables is its unremitting misery. There isn’t a single funny episode here, nothing to raise the barest chuckle. Anne does find little joys–a good teacher, the accidental gift of a dictionary–but these are valiant victories, pathetic as much in their smallness as in their disproportionate value to Anne. Yes, the context of Anne’s unhappiness in her early years is important to highlight her joy in finally belonging to Green Gables and to Marilla and Mathew. But Montgomery always found pleasure in the ridiculous, even when the scenario was desolate. Look at The Blue Castle, where the heroine, dying of heart disease, decides to cock a snook at convention and start speaking her (decidedly rude) mind to her overbearing family. I’m no Montgomery expert, but I felt that  Wilson didn’t quite capture Montgomery’s philosophy–that in the midst of tragedy and heartbreak, when the big things seem hopelessly wrong, escape lies not just in imagination but also in humor. I like Anne of Nova Scotia, oh I do, but she doesn’t quite have the magic or laughter of Anne of Green Gables.

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Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson

Puffin Canada, 2008

Genre: MG/YA fiction

If you like all things Anne, you may also be interested in my review of L.M.Montgomery’s The Blythes are Quoted, which, for reasons I do not understand, is one of my top posts on this blog.

The Blythes are Quoted by L.M.Montgomery

A new collection featuring Anne of Green Gables has just been published, and redheads all over the world (not to mention the Japanese) are celebrating. But “new” is somewhat misleading–all but one of the stories in The Blythes are Quoted appear (in slightly abbreviated form) in 1974’s The Road to Yesterday. (Note: TRtY was published after Montgomery’s death as well.)

The background: Benjamin Lefebvre came across Montgomery’s original typescript of TBaQ, and realized it contained several never-published poems and Blythe family vignettes, as well as the unedited versions of the stories in TRtY. TBaQ was also far bleaker in its approach to war than Montgomery’s earlier writing. Believing that the manuscript “could change the way readers perceived the author and her work”, Lefebvre gives us “as close a reproduction of Montgomery’s [original] text as possible.”

Let’s cut to the chase: should you pay $25 plus tax for this book?

TBaQ boasts one story that was not included in TRtY. Titled “Some Fools and a Saint”, this one isn’t amongst Montgomery’s stronger efforts–I found it both tedious and unconvincing. (Warning: this rest of this post will mean little if you aren’t intimately acquainted with Anne’s world.)

Regarding the edited stories, I don’t find the pruning of Montgomery’s writing inherently objectionable–she can get way purple, and I’ve often wished for a sterner editorial hand. (This doesn’t mean I love Valancy or Emily any less, just that like Mr. Harrison, I would have preferred that the sunsets be left out.) I think the edits in TRtY are mostly justified—Montgomery’s weakness for ellipses has been reined in, the errors corrected, and the wishy-washier parts have been pruned. Here is an excerpt from the story “The Twins Pretend”, where millionaire Anthony Lennox has just agreed to let two young children, Jill and P.G., redecorate his house.

The Road to Yesterday: “…Well, are you coming in with me?” [Lennox asked]

“You bet,” said Jill and P.G. together.

It would have been incredible to anyone else, but nothing was ever incredible to the twins. They had sojourned so often in the land where wishes come true that nothing amazed them much or long.”

The Blythes are Quoted: “…Well, are you coming in with me?”

“You bet,” said Jill and P.G. together.

Bored? They didn’t know the meaning of such an expression. Wasn’t this just the last word in words! To think of a thing like this falling down on you, right out of the blue, so to speak!

It would have been incredible to anyone else, but nothing was ever incredible to the twins. They had sojourned so often in the land where wishes come true that nothing amazed them much or long.”

No complaints from me here about the edit. And the original story has some errors–e.g. Anthony Lennox thinks about Mrs. Dr. Blythe’s appearance, but later says he knew Anne (and Gilbert) in college. Surely you don’t think about your old college mate as Mrs. Dr. Lastname? TRtY cleans this sort of thing up very successfully.

One of the things I disliked most about TRtY was that the Blythes seemed too good to be true. The accumulation of admiration verges on the ridiculous in TBaQ. Anne is miraculously youthful looking, an ideal wife and mother, never mistaken in her judgment, and beloved by everyone. She sets the standard for behavior, beauty, style, and goodness for PEI. For instance, Anthony Lennox, who’s moped for fifteen years over a lost love, recalls his beloved’s eyes as “suggestive of wild, secret, unfettered delights…very like Mrs. Dr. Blythe’s…” Ummm…creepy. Gilbert Blythe and the Blythe children also receive generous servings of adulation; this book could have been titled The Mary Sues are Quoted.

What’s really interesting about TBaQ is Montgomery’s shifting perception of war. The stories don’t really reflect these changes (perhaps a Montgomery scholar might differ?), but the poems are something else. The first set deals with purple stars and elfin chimes and other Anne-ish fancies. Then war breaks, and the poems get progressively grimmer. The last poem “The Aftermath” is as bitter a repudiation of war as any I’ve read, and Anne says “I am thankful now … that Walter did not come back. He could never have lived with his memories…” Is this the same author who  in Rilla of Ingleside contemptuously dismissed “a pacifist appeal of the rankest sort?” Who believed the First World War was fought “for the preservation and safety of all sweet, wholesome things?” I think some readers will find this side of Montgomery fairly unsettling; as for me, I like her even more now.

(Major Spoilers Ahead.)

And I do love the family vignettes. I enjoyed seeing the Blythe children married, with families of their own, though Faith Blythe (nee Meredith, remember?) calling Anne “Mother Blythe” is rather disconcerting. Jem and Faith have two sons, Jem Jr. and Walter. Rilla is now Rilla Ford, and Nan is Nan Meredith. If you are sufficiently invested in Anne’s world, this kind of detail is utterly satisfying; in my mind, I have already married Shirley to one of Diana’s children, and I must end this post here to figure out names for their three children.

Update: If you like this post, you may want to check out my review of Budge Wilson’s Before Green Gables.