Important (and Still Relevant) Life Lessons to be Learned from L.M. Montgomery’s heroines

L.M. Montgomery book covers 1L.M. Montgomery book covers 2

Lately, I’ve been re-reading the Complete Works of L.M. Montgomery. You guys remember her, right? The author of amazing classics like Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon and The Blue Castle?

I’ve mentioned L.M. Montgomery more than just a few times on this blog because I am such a huge fan of her. Montgomery’s books are some of my numero uno favourite go-to comfort books. And lately I’ve also been noticing a big resurgence of all things Montgomery on the Internet. Maybe everyone’s been reliving their favourite L.M. Montgomery books!

Anyway, while I was re-reading her books, especially The Blue Castle, which I think must be my number one favourite Montgomery book, I was reminded of an article I read on the Huffington Post a while ago about 11 Indispensable Life Lessons Every Woman Can Learn from Anne of Green Gables. At that time, I wasn’t reading the Anne series but I was reading the Emily trilogy (and The Blue Castle several times over and over again) and it got me thinking about all the lessons we could pick up, not just from Anne Shirley, but all of Montgomery’s heroines. These girls might have lived in a different time, but the lessons they’ve learned while growing up still stand the test of time: Here’s some of things I’ve noticed about Montgomery’s books that would make them still accessible to readers of today:

Strong female characters rule the day in her books: There’s no doubt about it, Montgomery’s books revolve mainly around strong female characters and their interactions with each other. There’s the main heroines, of course, sensitive, young, imaginative heroines like Anne Shirley, Emily Byrd Starr and Marigold Lesley. But then there are their interactions with both young and old females alike. There are their friendships with wild, devil-may-care girls like Ilse Burnley (of the Emily books) and Gwendolen Vincent Lesley (from Magic for Marigold). There’s their skirmishes with prim and proper old maids who rule the roost, like ‘Young Grandmother’ from Magic for Marigold or Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables or Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Ruth from the New Moon series. Old age, however, doesn’t mean the end of fun, as readers will find out with the super lovable Judy from the Silver Bush series or the roguish ‘Old Grandmother’ from Magic for Marigold and the scandal-loving Great-Aunt Nancy from Priest Pond in the New Moon series. These women harangue each other and love each other and argue with one another, teach and guide and sometimes even loathe one another, but there’s one thing that’s in no doubt – their relationships form the core of Montgomery’s books.

They remain optimistic even in the face of adversity. One thing that is emphasized over and over again in Montgomery’s books is a strong sense of duty. When Matthew Cuthbert dies at the end of Anne of Green Gables, Anne gives up her much desired, much fought for Avery Scholarship to stay home and help Marilla out on the farm and teach school instead. It wasn’t the easiest thing for her to do and no one would have blamed her if she had sulked about it, but she did her work ‘cheerfully and uncomplainingly’ and that made the job easier to bear. At the same time, Anne continued to write stories and create a new society of Village Improvers and make new friends, and her eternal optimism and determination to make lemonade out of lemons made her choice seem, in the end, the right thing to do.

Similarly, in Rilla of Ingleside, Anne’s youngest daughter, the flighty Rilla, makes the hard decision to give up her fun and frivolities and look after a ‘war baby’ during the turbulent times of WWI. She didn’t like her decision – she would rather be out with other girls her age – but she was determined she would not shirk the rather huge burden she had taken on and in the end, she ends up learning a lot more about herself than she realised and also grows to love the baby ‘Jims’. All this is very reminiscent of studies on ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ people where it’s found that ‘lucky’ people are simply more optimistic and determined to count their blessings and to reduce the ‘bad things’ that happen in life. Having to take on a burden you don’t particularly enjoy or want isn’t the best thing in the world, but if you face it ‘cheerfully and gallantly’, as Montgomery would have said, you might find that it’s not the worst thing in the world either and you might even get something out of it. It might even lead you to something even better that you never realised you could have had before.

In fact, all of Montgomery’s girls have been through some shit in their lives – from petty jealousies and clan rivalries to the death of loved ones, alcoholism and war – these girls sure haven’t had it easy. But they face their challenges head-on and courageously and they still somehow manage to keep optimistic throughout their troubles, even when it was really hard to do so.

And to cap off this particular ‘lesson’, even the most mundane things in the world like washing dishes can seem fun if you would only look at it in a different way. I should know. I totally got suckered into washing the dishes on alternate nights (my sister got the other nights) when I was kid because Pat Gardiner of Pat of Silver Bush made cleaning dirty dishes and making them pretty and clean again sound like so much fun!

But they also know when to give themselves a break. They’ve got that work/life balance right down pat. Even as Pat and Judy ‘ran the house’ while Pat’s mother was in hospital for an operation in Pat of Silver Bush, they ‘didn’t make slaves of themselves. Every once in so long Pat would say, “Now, let’s stop thinking housework, Judy, and think wild strawberries,” . . . or ferns . . . or June-bells as the case might be, and off they would go for a ramble.’ And as Judy said herself to Pat, ‘“Oh, oh, ye do be knowing how to work, Patsy darlint . . . stopping for a bit av a laugh once in so long. There’s few people do be knowing the sacret. Yer aunts at the Bay Shore . . . they niver do be laughing and it’s the rason they do be taking sick spells so often.”’

They totally understand alone time. In today’s world, where everyone is so frequently plugged into their mobile phones and iPads and headphones, there’s been this increasing backlash where people have intentionally left their phones at home and unplugged themselves to have a little ‘alone time’ or ‘me time.’ In Montgomery’s world, it’s not always easy to get your alone time in a small town or village where everyone’s always spying on one another or gossiping about each other, but Pat, Valancy, Marigold, Anne, Emily – all of Montgomery’s girls – have always loved their solitary rambles through the woods and countryside and treasured their time alone to ‘have a little think’ by themselves.

That’s not to say they don’t know how to party either. All in the name of a well-balanced lifestyle, even the most reclusive of Montgomery’s heroines could be counted on in a social situation. Dances that last till three or four in the morning. Couples slipping outside into the shadows  (or, heaven forbid, in the family graveyard!) to ‘spoon’. Rilla having to hobble home (or at least to Mary Vance’s house) barefoot from her first party, carrying her dainty French slippers, because the others had forgotten all about her. (I think those of us who have stumbled out of nightclubs early in the morning, carrying our heels because our feet ache so badly, can sympathise with her!) Valancy getting into trouble because she had gone to a dance at Chidley Corners (read: the bad side of town) and was about to be set on by a group of drunken boys when she is rescued by the dashing Barney Snaith. :swoon:

These girls are not afraid of good food. Judy’s fried chicken, doughnuts and bishop’s bread, iced melon balls and lemon coconut cake, jelly rolls, cakes with nut and raisin filling and caramel icing, strawberry shortcake, bacon and potato pie, lemon pies topped with whipped cream, cinnamon toast, shortbread, creamy chocolate mice, plum puffs, buttercupcake, cream of onion soup,the list goes on. And a fried egg for a bedtime snack at Silver Bush never goes amiss.

But they balanced it all out with exercise. Montgomery’s girls might not have gyms or Crossfit workouts and old Mrs Rachel Lynde would probably die if she looked out her window to see Anne training for a marathon. But let’s remember that these girls lived in a different time. A time when chores were a lot more strenuous, stuff like milking the cows at dawn every day, whitewashing floors and footpaths from scratch, haying, scrubbing and sanding floors, and fetching water from the well. Also, they walked. A lot. Little Pat Gardiner of Pat of Silver Bush thought nothing of walking three miles to school and back every day at the age of seven. And the girls of Prince Edward Island may not have rowing machines and treadmills, but they enjoyed boating and swimming and day-long tramps through the country all summer long.

In fact, they have a good sense of body image all around. Though a vast woman like Mrs Merridew astounded the Silver Bush family with her weight when she first arrives at the homestead (‘“Can that all be one woman?” Tillytuck asks Gentleman Tom in wonder’), words like ‘fat’ and ‘plump’ weren’t necessarily bad terms to describe a lady. Valancy of The Blue Castle was frequently ragged on for being scrawny and rejoiced to find that ‘she was really fat at last–anyway, no longer skinny’ while Anne confessed to Matthew in AoGG that she loved “to imagine I’m nice and plump, with dimples in my elbows.”

Beauty isn’t everything: And while we’re on the subject of body image, most of Montgomery’s girls aren’t classic beauties. They’ve, each and every one of them, had to struggle to come to terms with some classic physical insecurities (Anne with her red hair and freckles, Pat with her sallow skin and straight hair, Valancy with her plainness). But as these girls soon find out, there’s more than one kind of beauty out there in the world. They soon learn that if they looked at themselves honestly enough, everyone has some qualities of merit or other (a pretty ankle, a dewy complexion, a certain trick of smiling), and that attitude with beauty is better than beauty without attitude.

They’re smart and educated too. As Cuddles states in Mistress Pat, “Nowadays you’ve got to have brains to capitalise your good looks.” Meantime, in Kilmeny of the Orchard, Florence Percival, a girl who ‘looked as if she were made out of gold and roseleaves and dewdrops’, is briefly mentioned as having led her class in mathematics at Queenslea College. Anne and Emily both fought fiercely to retain the privileged top spot in their class, beating out both boys and girls. These girls were college educated and scholarship holders. Education was the order of the day for the Prince Edward Island girls.

And finally… they have high principles and they stick to ’em. Though  modern readers might smile a little at the characters in Montgomery’s books who might seem a little Puritan-ish, we could all learn something from them and their high moral standards. These girls would die before they told a lie. They held friendship in the highest regard. They never talked behind each other’s backs and they didn’t participate in malicious gossip or even gossip that might seem like harmless fun. They strove not to be petty. They never eavesdropped (at least not on purpose). They were just. And as Old Grandmother said to Marigold, “Do anything you want to… as long as you can go to your looking-glass afterwards and look yourself in the face.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hi,
    Thank you for this lengthy synopsis of strong women of then and now; it seems liken to Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel.

    We all know of strong women and the term ‘vixen’ like Joan Collins (Alexis) in Dynasty as compared to Linda Evans (Chrystal) whose character was passive and demure but she packed a good punch when needed. These are adult women; young girls are either tomboyish or bookish; I am not sure what term is used today. Thinness (rail thin) is still in and the lure of vampires characterizing the males in perhaps not wanting a companion of the female persuasion; as yet until the blood line must be reproduced or preserved.

    Women marry and some chooses to stay at home and rear children while their husband is the breadwinner. The one staying at home must raise child with what in mind? To be strongly independent and have a profession for the male son and the girl is preserve somehow for college with a career until the right boy is nabbed; or not.

    These are things to think of when not employed and not rearing of children. Because the one rearing simply do with resentments under control (if there is any at all). I mean to say; mothers have dream as well, and passes on to their children as is the democratic way; yet when they grow up and are employed it is the big corporations employing of them; and likely they are republican and when they regress into rearing of children than it is back to democracy and the waiting for next generation to succeed where the parents could not.

    But what of all this to do with rearing of young girls? They grow up being independent and angry for having to be or perhaps not. We can’t both sexes be atop; as it is not possible. Sutra would say other wise when in the seated position.

    I am sorry if I have lost readers with nonsense thinking.

  2. Hi,
    Thank you for this lengthy synopsis of strong women of then and now; it seems liken to Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel.

    We all know of strong women and the term ‘vixen’ like Joan Collins (Alexis) in Dynasty as compared to Linda Evans (Chrystal) whose character was passive and demure but she packed a good punch when needed. These are adult women; young girls are either tomboyish or bookish; I am not sure what term is used today. Thinness (rail thin) is still in and the lure of vampires characterizing the males in perhaps not wanting a companion of the female persuasion; as yet until the blood line must be reproduced or preserved.

    Women marry and some chooses to stay at home and rear children while their husband is the breadwinner. The one staying at home must raise child with what in mind? To be strongly independent and have a profession for the male son and the girl is preserve somehow for college with a career until the right boy is nabbed; or not.

    These are things to think of when not employed and not rearing of children. Because the one rearing simply do with resentments under control (if there is any at all). I mean to say; mothers have dream as well, and passes on to their children as is the democratic way; yet when they grow up and are employed it is the big corporations employing of them; and likely they are republican and when they regress into rearing of children than it is back to democracy and the waiting for next generation to succeed where the parents could not.

    But what of all this to do with rearing of young girls? They grow up being independent and angry for having to be or perhaps not. We can’t both sexes be atop; as it is not possible. Sutra would say other wise when in the seated position.

    I am sorry if I have lost readers with nonsense thinking.

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