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.   
 

14 comments:

  1. Hear, hear!!!

    Though I have not read Montgomery's works, I know EXACTLY what you are talking about. Do you think she believes women can satisfactorily live through the successes of their husbands? How long would that last before women become bored and envious of the time men give to their achievements? Well, these are rhetorical. You already made these points.

    Here's the thing...this is very popular today, whether in books or a TV series. Either "women" (for the sake of your post) are falling for the lie, or they are escaping the reality.

    So true: read with grain of salt. ; )

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    1. Hi Ruth, it was fun to write. Just so we're aware of the emotional manipulation happening behind the scenes 😉 She liked her heroines to be strong, intelligent, original girls who spoke their minds freely, yet it seemed to go with very high standards when it came to the men in their lives.

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  2. I've only read the Anne books, so can't comment on her other heroes. But Gilbert certainly does set the bar high. A worse example though are Dee Henderson's heroes. I've really enjoyed many of her books, but the heroes are so handsome, wonderful, sympathetic, caring, no matter what a pain in the neck the women are. It is good to show some flaws.

    And speaking of boys not reading Anne ... I'm lucky enough to have been to Prince Edward Island a couple of times, and I was wearing a PEI T-shirt at my local fruit and veg shop a couple of weeks ago. A young man, probably in his 30s, asked me in all seriousness if it was off the coast of Queensland. When I told him it was in Canada and made famous in the Anne of Green Gables series, he said he'd never heard of Anne. I politely told him to ask any female in his life :)

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    1. Hi Nola, yes, at some point we tire of saying, 'What a guy!' 😂 I love the response of that young man in the shop. My hubby and sons are aware of the existence of Anne at least, probably from walking through while we have the TV series going. They make snarky comments, but at least we're educating them 😉

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  3. Excellent and amusing post. It is true, I have never read Montgomery. However, perhaps it would be a good idea if young men started to read her and attempted to live up to her expectations.,Think or the positive social benefits that would result:)

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    1. Hi Brian, wow, it might have potential to revolutionise the world 😊 Especially if they approached it with the view of discovering what women want, haha.

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  4. Ha! You have a good point, Paula. Excellent food for thought.

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    1. Hi Meredith, I wonder if she was ever aware of her own pattern. Not only were the guys super brilliant, but it seemed to take a long time for this to dawn on the girls.

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  5. Hi Paula, I’ve only read the Anne books, so can only comment on Gilbert, and I see where you’re coming from & agree with you as a general rule in romantic fiction in general, however I’m not sure I agree that Gilbert fits this description.

    That is because, as I understood it, kind of the whole point was that Gilbert didn’t fit any of Anne’s romantic ideals - he was just the boy next door - and as such she ruled him out as a romantic option. And wasn’t til much later she realised that love was really about real things, not lofty ideals & that’s when she realised she loved Gilbert & I think all the high achieving stuff was just to highlight how ‘kindred spirit’ they were - he challenged her, in a good way. Besides if he was the true definition of a high achiever he would have stayed at the city hospital and become a surgeon, instead he opted to be a simple country doctor.

    Just my two cents ��

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    1. Hi Brooke, I think you're right, he was perhaps the least accomplished of all, which is saying a lot, since he was a successful doctor. I was thinking more of the readers' approach to the heroes, rather than what the heroines thought about them. In fact, the heroines all seemed to follow Anne's example, and dismiss them as romantic matches for ever so long. And we can't imagine why 😉 Maybe the obtuseness of those girls gets us all rooting for these boys even more. I highly recommend the other LMM books. They are all great. And you've perfectly expressed the dynamics that make Anne and Gilbert so great.

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  6. Shock horror. I haven’t read the books but I’ve seen the miniseries (plural) of the Anne stories. I think we have to remember that these stories are fairytales - infused with a great deal of feminine gumption. If we remember this then we won’t put impossible expectations on our men. Well maybe not for more than a day or two :).

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    1. Hi Sue, your suggestion is perhaps the wisest remedy of all. Girls, please stay grounded 😉 Those miniseries were so well cast, but deviated from the text, especially in their second seasons. If you've watched them both, you probably sensed that. The recent one especially went full-on divergent in a way I can't help wondering how LMM would take.

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  7. This review was pretty funny. I just stumbled on this blog read "The Fountain Overflows." Reading is fun. I don't care what people say.

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    1. Hi Beth, thanks for stopping by 😄 The Fountain Overflows is up there with LMM stories in my favourite reads.

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