When Joy and Duty clash…

So I’m on a course of kidlit lately, and have just finished Kate Douglas Wiggin’s celebrated Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Also New Chronicles of Rebecca, which tells additional stories within the timeframe of the original.

There I am, reading along, enjoying the new insights that emerge when you reread a childhood favourite… when it hits me: this all sounds familiar. Very familiar. To wit:

Eleven-year-old Rebecca Randall, not beautiful save big, expressive eyes, is placed aboard a stagecoach for the long drive to her new home — a small  village on the Atlantic seaboard — during which she charms the kindly but rather slow-witted elderly driver with her nonstop, lively, original chatter, featuring hilariously inappropriate references to the adult melodrama she’s fed her starved young imagination on up to now.

She is being sent to stay with her maiden aunts, in place of her capable older sister, who was to help with the housework. One aunt is grimly practical, to the extent of dressing Rebecca very plainly; the other is softer-hearted and sympathetic, and insists that the girl have at least one pretty dress.

Upon arrival at their distinctive homestead, Rebecca quickly acquires an unimaginative but devoted best friend in the little girl across the way. Rebecca’s sensitivity to romance and drama, along with a natural gift for leadership, make her the hit of her stolid community — albeit not without getting into a lot of whimsically funny ‘scrapes’ along the way. 

In one notable incident, she has to endure unjust punishment from her mildly incompetent teacher, who forces Rebecca to stand at the front of the schoolroom with a boy she detests but who nevertheless has a mad crush on her. There’s also a notably malicious young miss whom Rebecca clashes with frequently.

Eventually, Rebecca is sent away to high school, where she widens her horizons and begins to look forward to a brilliant career. Unfortunately, a series of family crises — including the failure of the investments that had been providing her aunts with a comfortable income, and later the death of one aunt — apparently stifle that career before it can begin, and as the book closes, she has put her own dreams on hold to look after her family…

…Why, no, she doesn’t have red hair. Whatever makes you think that?

My copy of the Annotated Anne of Green Gables makes polite noises about L.M. Montgomery being ‘inspired’ by Wiggin (whom Lucy Maud had evidently read and enjoyed) but c’mon now. This isn’t ‘sharing many similarities’, this is the same damn book with some actions and attributes switched around.

The one fundamental difference is in authorial attitudes, or perhaps sympathies would be more accurate. Montgomery consciously grows Anne up by forcing her romantic imagination to face the weight of practicalities; she loves her heroine, but she also intimately understands and appreciates the world she lives in. In Avonlea, maturity is inevitable, life is often unfair, and the best you can hope for is is to find and hang on to the magic in everyday living (long before this became a gag-worthy cliche).

Wiggin, on the other hand, appears to have created Rebecca mostly as wish-fulfillment, using her unique appreciation and understanding as a bulwark against her setting. Seriously, this thing is grade-school Ayn Rand in spots. Shift the perspective of the Sunnybrook Fam canon not far at all, and you’ve got an unsparing satire of small-town New England life; at several points in the first book especially the action screeches to a dead halt to hilight the commonplace villagers’ inability to get Rebecca’s originality. Which is likewise noted every other paragraph.

Thus, where Anne seeks Prince Charming only to find him in the boy next door, Wiggin creates for Rebecca a boy next door — or rather man, since no boy could fulfil this role — who actively plays the role of Prince Charming. Specifically, Adam Ladd is ‘Aladdin’ to her Princess, showering her with pretty impractical gifts and willingly entering into her perception of life as fairytale.

It’s an interesting comparison, to say the least. I think Montgomery’s approach is the better of the two — certainly the more sophisticated; with no axe to grind she was free to let imagination develop the possibilities of the story much more fully. But there’s something compelling about Wiggin’s Diogenes-like search for sensitivity, too. Looking through her other writings (notably Mother Carey’s Chickens and Marm Lisa) makes it clear that she considered the failure to empathise as a kind of fundamental crime against nature.

Given which, the final disposition of the two heroines is deeply ironic: Anne is the one allowed to eventually pursue her own destiny and make her own decisions, albeit conventional ones; even this is presented as the natural outcome of her active search for the romantic. Wiggin, via mentor Miss Maxwell, indulges herself by toying with Rebecca’s ‘possibilities’, even  daring to argue with ‘Mr. Aladdin’ about her future — but it’s pretty clear who’s ultimately going to win that argument, given that he has (almost literally) cast Rebecca in the role since she was twelve.
In a final lengthy soliloquy direct to the reader, Wiggin makes it obvious that he does not love her so much as idealise her as everything good and sweet and pure — the final indignity of the standard Victorian ‘angel in the house’. Ultimately, her creator’s dedication to her thesis means Rebecca is a failure as an independent character, and thus undercuts everything her story was trying to prove.

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