Back to the Beginning - Part 1
Recently, in my book group, we considered the question of how far we are influenced by the books we read. If we read a book that is sad, we would expect to feel sad ourselves whilst we are reading it, but what about when the story has ended? Do we close the book, think to ourselves, 'Well that was depressing!' and then continue about our daily lives? Or, do we find ourselves feeling depressed and in need of wine, chocolate, a long walk in the fresh air etc etc? There was no consensus in answering this question, we were split roughly 50-50, but it got me thinking about my own experiences with reading and how certain books have had strong and long-lasting effects on me.
ANNE OF GREEN GABLES (contains spoilers)
This was the cover of the first copy of 'Anne' that I owned. I still have it in a box somewhere in the loft, as even when I started buying most of my books on Kindle it survived the cull my husband 'suggested' I make of my physical books. As many of my books were at that time, it's covered in sticky back plastic to protect its cover, but even so, it's looking a bit dog-eared - a mark of how often it has been read over the years.
The first time I read it, I was probably about 8 or 9 and didn't realise quite what an impact it was having on me, or how long-lasting its influence would be. Nor did I realise at the time that I was not alone in recognising the worth of this book and its sequels. Many of my friends hadn't read it and had no desire to do so and consequently, for a number of years I felt alone in my appreciation of the little orphan girl with red hair and freckles.
For what feels like all of my life, I have had a burning desire to have red hair and this has resulted in a number of entertaining (at least for others!) mishaps with a bottle of hair dye. Anne dyed her hair green: in trying to copy her 'carrot' locks, I once managed to dye my own bright orange the day before my godson's christening. With a white suit, it was not a good look!
Her flights of fancy were echoed in my own escapes from reality and I suppose to some extent, given the nature of what I now do, they still are. After all, Anne is not the only one to scare herself silly with her own stories!
In later years, when I discovered the sequels L.M. Montgomery had written, I was ecstatic, but little did I know what they had in store for me. This is the final book in the series and is set during World War One, and tells the story of Anne's children, now mostly grown up, and their exploits at home and abroad during those four years of conflict. One particular event left me sobbing in my bed in the early hours of the morning, much to the consternation of my long-suffering mother, for whom finding me like this was not perhaps as unusual as it should have been. Between sobs I managed to explain what had happened, but couldn't convey quite why I was so heartbroken at the death of what was, after all, a fictional character.
‘”Sing before eating, cry before sleeping,” I’ve always heard. But Rilla Blythe shed no tears before the nightfall.’
'Rilla, the Piper will pipe me west tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I'm not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I've won my own freedom here-freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again-not of death-nor of life, if after all, I am to go on living. And life, I think, would be the harder of the two to face-for it could never be beautiful for me again. There would always be such horrible things to remember-things that would make life ugly and painful always for me. I could never forget them. But whether it's life or death, I'm not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I'm not sorry that I came. I'm satisfied.'
(Letter from Walter Blythe to Rilla Blythe, 'Rilla of Ingleside' (1921)
With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes obvious that what had so deeply affected me was not just the death of a fictional character, but was about the much broader sacrifice made by so many thousands of all too real young men on the fields of France and Belgium. That night though, I made myself a promise: when I was old enough, I would go to Courcelette, where Walter Blythe had died and I would lay a flower in his memory. Nearly thirty years later I kept the promise to my twelve year old self. My husband and sons accompanied me, all completely in the dark about why I had chosen to pay a visit to a random (at least as far as they were concerned) Canadian war cemetery, clutching an unnamed poppy cross as we approached.
My adult brain insisted that I was laying it for all the Canadians who had sacrificed their lives during World War One and on some level, it was absolutely right, I was. The real sacrifice of those men should never be eclipsed by any work of fiction. However, the part of my brain that remains true to the kindred spirit of Anne, insisted that I was laying it on behalf of her (and all the real Canadian mothers) who may never have seen where their sons were commemorated.
Recently, I decided that although having the 'Anne' books on my Kindle was lovely for the sake of convenience, I needed once again, to have a physical copy of the books that have been so influential in my life. After literally hours of research online and many wails of despair when so many nice versions of the books turned out only to have 6 of the 8 published, I finally tracked down a set of hardbacks that met my requirements. Admittedly, I did have to resort to having two of them imported from Canada as they weren't available in the UK, but I will also admit to not caring. When the first three arrived this afternoon, I spent a good few minutes contentedly stroking them and sighing about how pretty they were.
Nevertheless, over and above the desire for red hair and the justification of my always over-active imagination, the main lesson I learned from Anne was this: in a world where it is often all too easy to see your life as 'a graveyard of buried hopes' (AoGG Ch5) try instead to be grateful that you 'live in a world where there are Octobers' (AoGG Ch16). Anne had a positive effect on everyone around her - you only have to look at the transformative effect she had on Marilla and Leslie to see this - and even in the darkest of times, she found a way to survive and think positively, without being Pollyanna-ish. She tried, always, to be kind. Not a bad ideal to aim for, is it?