Further Chronicles of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery - HTML preview
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It is no exaggeration to say that what Longfellow did for Acadia, Miss Montgomery has done for Prince Edward Island. More than a million readers, young people as well as their parents and uncles and aunts, possess in the picture-galleries of their memories the exquisite landscapes of Avonlea, limned with as poetic a pencil as Longfellow wielded when he told the ever-moving story of Grand Pre.
Only genius of the first water has the ability to conjure up such a character as Anne Shirley, the heroine of Miss Montgomery's first novel, "Anne of Green Gables," and to surround her with people so distinctive, so real, so true to psychology. Anne is as lovable a child as lives in all fiction. Natasha in Count Tolstoi's great novel, "War and Peace," dances into our ken, with something of the same buoyancy and naturalness; but into what a commonplace young woman she develops! Anne, whether as the gay little orphan in her conquest of the master and mistress of Green Gables, or as the maturing and self-forgetful maiden of Avonlea, keeps up to concert-pitch in her charm and her winsomeness. There is nothing in her to disappoint hope or imagination.
Part of the power of Miss Montgomery--and the largest part--is due to her skill in compounding humor and pathos. The humor is honest and golden; it never wearies the reader; the pathos is never sentimentalized, never degenerates into bathos, is never morbid. This combination holds throughout all her works, longer or shorter, and is particularly manifest in the present collection of fifteen short stories, which, together with those in the first volume of the Chronicles of Avonlea, present a series of piquant and fascinating pictures of life in Prince Edward Island.
The humor is shown not only in the presentation of quaint and unique characters, but also in the words which fall from their mouths. Aunt Cynthia "always gave you the impression of a full-rigged ship coming gallantly on before a favorable wind;" no further description is needed--only one such personage could be found in Avonlea. You would recognize her at sight. Ismay Meade's disposition is summed up when we are told that she is "good at having presentiments--after things happen." What cleverer embodiment of innate obstinacy than in Isabella Spencer--"a wisp of a woman who looked as if a breath would sway her but was so set in her ways that a tornado would hardly have caused her to swerve an inch from her chosen path;" or than in Mrs. Eben Andrews (in "Sara's Way") who "looked like a woman whose opinions were always very decided and warranted to wear!"
This gift of characterization in a few words is lavished also on material objects, as, for instance; what more is needed to describe the forlornness of the home from which Anne was rescued than the statement that even the trees around it "looked like orphans"?
The poetic touch, too, never fails in the right place and is never too frequently introduced in her descriptions. They throw a glamor over that Northern land which otherwise you might imagine as rather cold and barren. What charming Springs they must have there! One sees all the fruit-trees clad in bridal garments of pink and white; and what a translucent sky smiles down on the ponds and the reaches of bay and cove!
"The Eastern sky was a great arc of crystal, smitten through with auroral crimsonings."
"She was as slim and lithe as a young white-stemmed birch-tree; her hair was like a soft dusky cloud, and her eyes were as blue as Avonlea Harbor in a fair twilight, when all the sky is a-bloom over it."
Sentiment with a humorous touch to it prevails in the first two stories of the present book. The one relates to the disappearance of a valuable white Persian cat with a blue spot in its tail. "Fatima" is like the apple of her eye to the rich old aunt who leaves her with two nieces, with a stern injunction not to let her out of the house. Of course both Sue and Ismay detest cats; Ismay hates them, Sue loathes them; but Aunt Cynthia's favor is worth preserving. You become as much interested in Fatima's fate as if she were your own pet, and the climax is no less unexpected than it is natural, especially when it is made also the last act of a pretty comedy of love.
Miss Montgomery delights in depicting the romantic episodes hidden in the hearts of elderly spinsters as, for instance, in the case of Charlotte Holmes, whose maid Nancy would have sent for the doctor and subjected her to a porous plaster while waiting for him, had she known that up stairs there was a note-book full of original poems. Rather than bear the stigma of never having had a love-affair, this sentimental lady invents one to tell her mocking young friends. The dramatic and unexpected denouement is delightful fun.
Another note-book reveals a deeper romance in the case of Miss Emily; this is related by Anne of Green Gables, who once or twice flashes across the scene, though for the most part her friends and neighbors at White Sands or Newbridge or Grafton as well as at Avonlea are the persons involved.
In one story, the last, "Tannis of the Flats," the secret of Elinor Blair's spinsterhood is revealed in an episode which carries the reader from Avonlea to Saskatchewan and shows the unselfish devotion of a half-breed Indian girl. The story is both poignant and dramatic. Its one touch of humor is where Jerome Carey curses his fate in being compelled to live in that desolate land in "the picturesque language permissible in the far Northwest."
Self-sacrifice, as the real basis of happiness, is a favorite theme in Miss Montgomery's fiction. It is raised to the nth power in the story entitled, "In Her Selfless Mood," where an ugly, misshapen girl devotes her life and renounces marriage for the sake of looking after her weak and selfish half-brother. The same spirit is found in "Only a Common Fellow," who is haloed with a certain splendor by renouncing the girl he was to marry in favor of his old rival, supposed to have been killed in France, but happily delivered from that tragic fate.
Miss Montgomery loves to introduce a little child or a baby as a solvent of old feuds or domestic quarrels. In "The Dream Child," a foundling boy, drifting in through a storm in a dory, saves a heart-broken mother from insanity. In "Jane's Baby," a baby-cousin brings reconciliation between the two sisters, Rosetta and Carlotta, who had not spoken for twenty years because "the slack-twisted" Jacob married the younger of the two.
Happiness generally lights up the end of her stories, however tragic they may set out to be. In "The Son of His Mother," Thyra is a stern woman, as "immovable as a stone image." She had only one son, whom she worshipped; "she never wanted a daughter, but she pitied and despised all sonless women." She demanded absolute obedience from Chester--not only obedience, but also utter affection, and she hated his dog because the boy loved him: "She could not share her love even with a dumb brute." When Chester falls in love, she is relentless toward the beautiful young girl and forces Chester to give her up. But a terrible sorrow brings the old woman and the young girl into sympathy, and unspeakable joy is born of the trial.
Happiness also comes to "The Brother who Failed." The Monroes had all been successful in the eyes of the world except Robert: one is a millionaire, another a college president, another a famous singer. Robert overhears the old aunt, Isabel, call him a total failure, but, at the family dinner, one after another stands up and tells how Robert's quiet influence and unselfish aid had started them in their brilliant careers, and the old aunt, wiping the tears from her eyes, exclaims: "I guess there's a kind of failure that's the best success."
In one story there is an element of the supernatural, when Hester, the hard older sister, comes between Margaret and her lover and, dying, makes her promise never to become Hugh Blair's wife, but she comes back and unites them. In this, Margaret, just like the delightful Anne, lives up to the dictum that "nothing matters in all God's universe except love." The story of the revival at Avonlea has also a good moral.
There is something in these continued Chronicles of Avonlea, like the delicate art which has made "Cranford" a classic: the characters are so homely and homelike and yet tinged with beautiful romance! You feel that you are made familiar with a real town and its real inhabitants; you learn to love them and sympathize with them. Further Chronicles of Avonlea is a book to read; and to know.
NATHAN HASKELL DOLE.