Yet despite -- or because of, I'm not quite sure which -- my eternal love for Anne of Green Gables, I gave Marilla of Green Gables a chance (which you probably saw coming a mile away, given the wide berth I gave Meg and Jo). Written by Sarah McCoy instead of L.M. Montgomery, this prequel is Marilla Cuthbert's origin story. Known to grown-up little girls and book lovers the world over, Marilla is the iconic, no-nonsense closet softie who gives Anne Shirley a home. She's middle-aged when we meet her, a gray-haired spinster living with her bachelor brother on the family farm in Avonlea. She's proper, she's stern, she's set in her ways, and she's downright disgruntled when the orphanage sends her a wisp of a girl instead of a strapping boy to work her farm. At first. But her kind heart lets the endearingly eccentric Anne stay, forging a bond that will change them forever.
Still, one can't help but wonder: Just how did Marilla end up alone in the first place? Sarah McCoy explores this question, using it for the foundation for her irresistible novel. She shows us Avonlea as it was forty years before Anne ever set foot there. It's a more austere, pioneery sort of place than the fairy tale land we see through Anne's eyes. But it honors the spirit of Montgomery's magic, its seemingly simple descriptions of small town life seeping into the soul.
"They sat together under a canopy of meadow grasses and a sky of spun sugar. Marilla's heart still beat fast from the dance. John's did too. She felt the pulse in his fingertips. From the magazines she'd read, she thought she'd feel embarrassed or ashamed to be holding a boy's hand. The same way she felt holding the pages of the romance quarterlies. But she didn't. She only felt John: simple, solid, and true." (110)
Wait. Hold up. Blythe, do you say? As in Gilbert Blythe, Anne Shirley's one true love and husband? Yes! Apparently, in Anne of Green Gables, Marilla tells Anne that people used to call John her beau. But I'd forgotten that. Not so for McCoy. This brief but telling revelation sparked her need to write this book and get to the bottom of what happened between John and Marilla to cause Marilla to end up -- to use the term of the time --an old maid. McCoy draws upon the themes of pride, duty, and the passage of time that influence the plots in so many of Montgomery's novels. At times, McCoy's writing is so like Lucy Maude's it's as if the late author herself is writing through her. One marked difference, though, is the prominence of historical events and -- but, of course -- feminism. McCoy takes us on a sometimes somber journey that encompasses Canada's fight to split from Mother Britain as well as the American Civil War. At one point, Marilla witnesses the public hanging of some "radicals" and is horrified by the way the onlookers laugh:
"They were too young to understand that life is ephemeral while death is permanent. These weren't her children or children of Avonlea, and yet they pained her. Like a tendon tethered to splintered bone." (198)
Marilla's own Aunt Izzy, a dressmaker in Charlottetown, offers her home as a safe house for runaway slaves. Marilla is proud, reflecting that her aunt couldn't have made such a difference if she'd stayed in Avonlea and married a local boy as planned. Instead, she uses her talent with needle and thread to offer refuge:
"Their costumes were their salvation, transformative as Cinderella on the night of the ball, and Izzy was their fairy godmother." (238)
McCoy also examines what it means to be a wife and mother, and it isn't always as idyllic as the Avonlea of old would have us believe. Poverty, farm chores, and mouths to feed conspire to create a life that is oftentimes drudgery. Women are discouraged from speaking their minds, and many succumb to sickness and even death as a result of childbirth. Still, Marilla of Green Gables needs to be told because it speaks its own truth and sets the stage for everything that comes after it. If Marilla and John had married, then there would never have been an Anne or a Gilbert. It's because they didn't that Anne and Gilbert come into the world, cross paths in Avonlea, and fall in love. Which is the way it's supposed to be. Like Marilla and John 2.0. But not. And that's the bittersweet part, I guess.
So, you see, I had no choice but to read Marilla of Green Gables. Even if I eschewed Scarlett and Mrs. de Winter. Because I'm a fool for an origin story.
And because I never loved Gone with the Wind or Rebecca the way that I've always I loved Anne.