Tuesday, April 9, 2019
The problem with Lucy Maud Montgomery's heroes
Warning: There are no plot spoilers as such, but you may like to take my opinion expressed here with a grain of salt.
This lady is high on many 'favourite author' lists, including mine. I collected all of her novels when I was a teenager, and they are still a highlight of my shelf. I love the entire Anne of Green Gables series, plus stories about Emily, Pat, Jane, Valancy, the Story Girl and others. Tapping into the wealth of all that L.M. Montgomery wrote is a real treat. She left an incredible legacy when she passed away.
Anybody would agree that girls are clearly the target audience. I've never known a boy who's read one yet. But they're happy to let their girlfriends, wives, sisters and other females in their lives retreat into the sweet stories, which seemingly do nobody any harm. Just a simple indulgence, right? A bit of romantic fun in which the main character always marries her perfect match? If they suspected the truth, our young men might be far more worried. But they are deterred by the feminine covers from opening the pages, so never find that L.M. Montgomery is undermining them.
The stark truth is that her heroes raise the bar far, far too high for our normal guys to live up to. With each chapter, her fictional heroes gain more and more ground in their readers' eyes, until they're not even fully aware of it. Her magic works like this. The heroes often begin as humble, unassuming boys, but here is a sample of the super achievers they become over time.
Gilbert Blythe - beloved family doctor.
Teddy Kent - famous artist.
Perry Miller - upper echelon politician.
Hilary Gordon - award winning architect.
Barney Snaith - celebrated nature writer.
Andrew Stuart - brilliant novelist and historian.
Do you sense a pattern? I want to suggest that her sort of guy is a rarity in real life, but Montgomery creates the illusion that super-romantic, highly intelligent, sensitive, manly geniuses are common enough to be always within a stone's throw. Maybe there really was a surplus on Prince Edward Island in the late 19th century, but I doubt it. She somehow manages to divvy out their brilliance so that everyone in their lives gets the best of them; employers, clients, the public and their lovers alike. The women in their lives rarely feel as if they're missing out on quality time. If this is the sort of guy our young women expect to come walking into their lives, the poor, true life young men around them don't stand a chance.
As we read the novels, we may come across occasional digs at other young men who didn't measure up on the awesome scale. They are often former suitors who ended up becoming nothing more than shop clerks or pen-pushers. And our heroines breathe sighs of relief because they dodged a bullet. They could've ended up - horror of horror - marrying men of mediocrity!
Let's not succumb to the outrageously high expectations she's set; both for our own sake and those of the poor guys who try to please us. Some readers might choose to go completely cold turkey on L. M. Montgomery books, but I would never recommend that. They are wonderful mood-lifters, great examples of excellent literature, and plain good fun. Just take care, and I have a few tips to recommend how to wisely approach the novels and avoid their pitfalls.
1) Look out for her older heroes.
These more senior men seem to have escaped the need to be as ultra-successful in the world's eyes as her younger ones. They tend to be mature men with warm hearts, sound wisdom, but more modest occupations. Men such as Matthew Cuthbert (from Anne) and Cousin Jimmy (from Emily) are both humble farmers working on land which has been in their families for generations. They are true gentlemen beloved by generations, the salt-of-the-earth type who are content to slide beneath the radar. As you admire them, remember that there are young men like them in real life too. And look out for them, because they don't flaunt themselves.
2) Remember that Montgomery might have been caught in her own vicious net.
Her personal history is worth researching, and if her biographers are correct, it's sadder than any of her novels. She ditched a guy she was genuinely attracted to because his credentials weren't quite impressive enough to be considered husband material. But she still considered him the love of her life in years to come. And she ended up marrying a respectable pastor who turned out to be a depressed, high-maintenance, hyper-guilty, over-thinking, fanatical mess of a spouse who made life a misery for her and their sons. It's a sobering piece of true life. Don't be like Lucy. (This article may be a springboard if you're interested. And this one highlights even more how tragic it was for somebody who made us so happy to be so depressed herself.)
3) Enjoy your reading, but never forget that you're messing around with an addictive substance like shopping or sugar.
The wonderful heroes Montgomery invented are swoon-worthy heart-throbs. You can't look at a list like that above without curiosity to discover more. But as you do, remember that they don't necessarily reflect reality in every way. And we're living in the real world, not the idyllic Prince Edward Island of Lucy Maud's imagination. (Of course it's a real place, but I'm just suggesting her writing may colour it even more.) Treat the books like chocolate. They can be a pleasurable part of your reading diet, but don't binge on them, and when you finish one, make even more of an effort to appreciate all the honest, nice friends and brothers in your real, flesh and blood life. And don't use Gilbert, Teddy, Barney and all the others as measuring sticks, but as simple prompts to dig around for your fellows' excellent qualities and regard them in the best light.