Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Elizabeth Bennet, Meet Anne Shirley

I'd been to the House of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island, and I'd seen the Anne movies, but I've only just now -- at my wife's urging -- read Lucy Maud Montgomery's "Anne of Green Gables."

It's a sweet book, as millions of readers (most of them women and girls, I gather) will attest. But I was surprised to find that it's also a book with echoes, quite loud echoes, of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." (Spoiler alert: don't read on if you haven't yet read the books!)

Soon after Anne starts school, a rather prideful boy named Gilbert Blythe teases her about her red hair. Anne responds by cracking a slate over his head, and then refusing to speak to him -- despite his many efforts to make peace -- till years later when they've both grown up. A prejudice reminiscent of Elizabeth's?

Midway in this period, Gilbert saves Anne from a bridge to which she's clinging after the boat in which she was romantically floating unromantically sprang a leak and sank. He asks her to be friends, she remembers her anger and hotly refuses -- and then she regrets it afterwards, as Elizabeth does after Darcy's first proposal.

And then, in the last chapter, Gilbert gives up a job so that Anne can have it, which will mean Anne can remain at Green Gables and enable Marilla (who, with her brother Matthew, had given the orphaned Anne a home) to keep the family farm. The act of self-sacrifice has Darcy's gallantry (though Gilbert by then has nothing to feel guilty about, unlike Darcy). The saving of the farm isn't totally unlike the saving of the Bennet family's economic and social prospects that Darcy accomplishes. But best of all, the actual moment of reconciliation between Gilbert and Anne takes place as they stand on a country road -- as Elizabeth and Darcy open their hearts to each other while walking on a country path.

This doesn't make the two books identical -- though fans of Jane Austen might also be surprised by how sharp a wit Lucy Maud Montgomery brings to her story. (I’m sure the differences are greater than I can describe, because Anne and Gilbert go on through many more books, and I gather the course of true love doth not run entirely smooth.) Still, did Anne's creator read "Pride and Prejudice"? She could have -- and I wonder if anyone has checked. Or are these story elements so deep in our culture, whether because of "Pride and Prejudice" or even earlier roots, that they inevitably recur? Either way, it's nice to see that life, or at any rate art, in Meryton, England  and Avonlea, Prince Edward Island, takes a similar course.