The Home Girls by Olga Masters Short Story Analysis

William Frederick Yeames - For the Poor

“The Home Girls” is a short story by Australian writer Olga Masters (1919 – 1986), and the first story of Masters’ 1982 collection, also called The Home Girls. I’m interested in Olga Masters partly because her fiction wasn’t published until she was in her 50s. Then, when she was published, she won a bunch of awards. The Home Girls won a National Book Council Award in 1983.

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The Symbolism of Dolls In Storytelling

Charles Haigh Wood - Storytime 1893

Dolls serve as comfort; they also creep us out. Which is it gonna be? And how do storytellers utilise their multivalent presence in our lives?

Outside the West, dolls are sometimes a part of supernatural/religious belief. Perhaps the most memorable and oft-utilised by storytellers is the Haitian vodou usage, which has been heavily simplified for Western audiences. Likewise, the concept of the ‘gwumu’ in Papua New Guinea is complex, and ‘doll’ is a substandard translation:

People describe gwumu as an agency hiding inside the body of another: it may be referred to as a “doll” for example, and an additional idiom I recorded referred to these familiars as “little sisters”. Though gwumu are held to be concealed in the interior of persons, they may nevertheless sometimes be seen as apparitions, especially when they have left the body of a person to hunt.

Becoming Witches
Honor C. Appleton for 'Josephine's birthday' (1900)
Honor C. Appleton for ‘Josephine’s birthday’ (1900)
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The Misplaced Importance Of Bloodline In Fiction

bloodline in fiction

A ‘chosen one’ story stars a main character who is basically ordinary, but because of their bloodline, they are destined for great things. Harry Potter is the iconic example of a contemporary chosen one story. Harry Potter comes after a long tradition.

At TV Tropes you’ll find that Chosen One stories are so popular there are various subcategories.

WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF BLOODLINE?

When we talk about blood we’re of course talking about genetics. We didn’t know this until recently, though scientists had a sense there was some kind of particle which passed traits on.

The 20th century gave us the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, but anyone who still thinks in those terms is making a folk distinction. Scientists working in genetics today don’t think in those terms at all because, basically, it’s all circular. We now know that environment influences gene expression. Now we know how little we actually know about genes. Sean Carroll describes our early thinking on DNA, once we had a name for it, then goes on to describe how much more complicated it is than that:

If you knew what the DNA was you could predict exactly what the organism was going to be, maybe what kind of food they would like or what kind of occupation they would have later in life. Today we know it’s a little bit more complicated than that. There’s more going on than just our DNA to make up who we are, not only nature versus nurture but even the nature part is very complicated. There’s epigenetics and development factors. There’s mitochondrial DNA. There’s the expression of the different parts of the genes that we have, and so we’re in a very, very rapid state of evolution, as it were, in terms of how we think in terms of how heredity works.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast with Carl Zimmer

Separately, I heard another geneticist talking in an interview. I don’t remember who it was or what they were talking about exactly, but one thing stuck in my mind: Geneticists, as a group, don’t tend to be all that interested in ancestry. You won’t find geneticists avidly researching their own family trees. They don’t hang out on the forums of Ancestry.com. That’s a separate interest altogether. Conversely, an interest in genetics seems to make you less interested in where you personally came from, partly because your greater understanding of genetics shows you that we’re all related in one giant web. It seems the story of our collective DNA is far more interesting than any individual’s bloodline.

Maybe we should all get PhDs in genetics and we’ll get some world peace?

FEATURES OF A CHOSEN ONE STORY

The bloodline plot often involves an orphaned character. (Or a character who thinks they are orphaned.) Orphans are super popular in children’s literature, especially in American children’s literature.

Especially in kids’ literature … there’s a trend towards unhappily adopted orphan heroes, as we’ll all know, who are lifted from the abuse/poverty/hilariously wonky living conditions they’re in by discovering that their parents were secretly wizards, or royalty, or holders of some great destiny that Our Hero is now tasked to take up. The truth of their bloodline saves the day, and you can dream of a giant busting through your door declaring “Yer a wizard” and scooping you off into the adventure you were destined for, away from your mundane and terrible home life.

The Afictionado

THE PROBLEMS WITH CHOSEN ONE STORIES

REASON ONE: CHOSEN ONE STORIES ARE UN-DEMOCRATIC

Here’s a spirited argument from Brent Hartinger:

I can’t STAND the whole idea of the “Chosen One” — someone who, usually by virtue of their family background, is destined for greatness. The prophecies all say so!

I’ve hated this trope as long as I’ve been alive. The Force runs strong in the Skywalker family? Harry Potter is a celebrity at the start of his story, destined to kill Voldemorte (or die trying)? Frodo must destroy the One Ring that his cousin/uncle brought back from his adventures, redeeming the family name?

Where does all this leave the rest of us? We’re supposed sit back and let the Chosen One complete his destiny? If we’re lucky, we might get to help?

Oh, goody.

This annoys me because it’s so clearly based on the idea of royalty: that some family lines are simply better than other ones. They’re chosen by God, or the gods, or Destiny itself. (Often, this is couched in the idea that this greatness is some kind of unbearable “burden,” one that must be kept hidden from the ignorant rabble, but that’s mostly just a bunch of bunk. From the point of view of all these stories, the main character is the “cool” kid, even if the actual cool kids can’t see it yet.)

But I believe to the core of my being that greatness is democratic: it’s damn hard, but it’s available to ALL of us.

Brent Hartinger, fantasy author

Bloodlines stories are rarely truly feminist stories. That’s because most stories, even those set in fantasy worlds, work on the principle of patrimony.

It’s the rare novel which subverts this, though some do. One of the earlier subversions happened in On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voight (1990). As Roberta Seelinger Trites describes:

While Birle [the main girl character] chafes against the narrowness of being female in this feudal society, Orien [her male love interest] questions the entire premise of the feudal society. Rejecting his patrimony, he bitterly tells Birle that knowing who one’s father is does not matter: “I know my fathers, for generations past”. He wonders why patrimony exists and why classes even exist, what gives one set of people the right to rule another, and why women are as disfranchised as they are.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

(Importantly, the story never switches to that of the boy character. He is only ever an accessory to the female character’s self-actualisation.)

REASON TWO: LAZY CHARACTERISATION

Characters of the chosen one archetype are hailed as the most important personin their setting for reasons that are entirely outside their control. The archetype is used to prop up bland characters who have done nothing to earn praise. Because these characters were born better than everyone else, they don’t have to practice or work hard to make a difference. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is worshiped because of what his mother did, while his hard-working friend Hermione sits in his shadow.

Mythcreants
REASON THREE: IN REAL LIFE IT’S NEVER JUST ONE PERSON SAVING THE DAY

Even when one person takes all the glory.

Because the chosen one is destined to change the course of history all on their own, the efforts of a larger community are quickly sidelined or forgotten. In A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance looks incompetent after Luke Skywalker swoops in and takes out an entire deathstar. And unlike many other chosen ones, he actually had some outside experience. By leaving the world-saving to one person, you’ll get a setting that is shallow and simplistic. No one makes history in a vacuum.

Mythcreants

In real life, there’s a human tendency to credit one person with doing all the work of saving the day, especially if that person happens to be a white man. (Compare responses to Chesley Sullenberger, who landed a plane safely ‘all on his own’ to many comments regarding Tammie Jo Shults, attempting to diffuse heroism to all the men in her arena.)

The following responses can be found on any comments section without scrolling far:

“Max Stone’s” element of truth is that many individuals are involved in a rescue operation. The difference is, our dominant cultural narrative gives sole credit only to men. This is how history books end up with far fewer female heroes.

Rather than continue to give sole credit to heroic, individual white men, we should treat male heroes as we currently treat female heroes.

This article from The Atlantic builds a good case: we expect too much of the President of the United States. The job itself has expanded over the decades. This may have something to do with all these (fictional) narratives in which one white dude saves the day, maybe? And now we think that’s how things should work?

BLOODLINE AND STAR WARS

I am not a Star Wars fan myself, but I would like to include a Twitter thread from someone who is. Star Wars is such a culturally significant story, and says a lot about what a ‘universal’ audience wants from blockbusters.

One of the MANY problems with overvaluing the bloodlines and legacy in Star Wars fandom: I’m a biracial woman of color. Blood purity and legacy when centered on white people has always been about white supremacy.

In worlds where that’s idealized people like me are exterminated. So having that very real inevitable outcome of imperialistic breeding be shown to be flawed and destructive, as well as intrinsically linked to a fascist regime that upholds oppression and exploitation of marginalized people is very validating.

As well as the damaging psychological toll that early indoctrination of children into any organisation, whether it is the Jedi order or the Stormtrooper program. I’m still very disappointed that I have not seen anyone draw parallels between Luke’s early training of Ben and Finn’s abduction into Stormtrooper training. Both of these men were fucked up by the previous generation’s pushing their political and religious aspersions onto kids. Much of the subtext, that I am most likely reading into, the new cast of characters is that this is a generation of war orphans.

Whether they had parents or not, each one of them has been deeply marked by galactic civil war. Poe is a child of the Rebellion, a second generation rebel fighter. That brings with it high expectations, familiar ties to the cause and a still very childish ideation of what he believes heroism is. Rey lives in a literal Emperial graveyard, survives on salvaging scraps from the past. Jakku is such a fantastic subtle marker of how broken the galaxy was left after the last war. It’s quite a contrast to the opulent splendor or Canto Bight. Finn’s a literal child soldier, taken by a war machine fed by wealthy imperialistic interests and political apathy. Rose is deeply marked by the fractured and corrupt galactic politics of this post war universe. Her childhood was stolen in much the same ways as Rey and Finn. Kylo Ren is the ultimate failure of the precious generations, but also the embodiment of generational trauma. Both in the actual abuse his mother suffered under his grandfather, the misguided choice to train him as a child, and the stain of overvalued bloodlines and “legacy”.

I don’t feel like this narrative is mocking of berating it for falling in love with the romantic notions of destiny and heroism. I feel it’s, if a bit sarcastically, redirecting us to what lies beneath these seemingly mystical and wondrous ways in which people change their world. It’s ALWAYS people. Not magic. Not powerful death machines. People shift the tides of war. People save each other. People do this because of love, friendship, family, and faith in a better future. To me this recaptures the magic of A New Hope, but more importantly our first experience of it. Where it was just about random people stumbling their way into friendship and saving the galaxy along the way. Just a farm boy, smuggler, and rebel princess. Anything was possible.

They won not because of magic or machinery. They won because Han Solo couldn’t abandon his new friends, showed up in the very last minute of the big struggle, kicked Vader in the dick, so Luke could blow up the Death Star. Luke didn’t defeat the Emperor using the Force. Anakin Skywalker decided he couldn’t let his son die for a reason. A father chose to save his son’s life. The Lightside of the Force is love and hope. The Darkside is hate, anger, and fear. These are not exclusive to one family, bloodline. Neither is the Force.

Fangirl Jeanne, twitter thread.

DOES THE WORK OF LEIGH BARDUGO SYMBOLISE A CULTURAL SHIFT IN STORYTELLING?

I have reason to believe The Chosen One story is falling out of fashion, but that’s mainly based on observing the career trajectory of Leigh Bardugo. Now, I read a lot of publishing blogs, listen to agent podcasts and whatnot and I’ve never heard any series recommended by publishing people as much as Six Of Crows. Agents love this series. Importantly to my theory: Six Of Crows is not Bardugo’s first fantasy series. What is it about this one that made it take off, and what made it take off at this cultural moment? Bear in mind, most children’s publishing people are lefties:

Six of Crows was radically different from the original trilogy. It had nothing to do with royalty or secret powers or chosen ones or any of the things that people still seem so hungry for—and to be clear, those are all tropes I’ve written and tropes I like, so I get the appeal. But I was in a place where I wanted to talk about characters who the world sees as expendable, not the ones with grand destinies.

Leigh Bardugo, talking with The Mary Sue about moving away from her also popular but not mega popular blood lines stories

IN DEFENCE OF THE BLOODLINE ARCHETYPE

It’s impossible to write about chosen one stories without mentioning Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s series is proof that many readers love chosen one narratives. It’s also worth pointing out, because it’s easy to forget, that Harry Potter is now 20 years old. In sociological terms, that’s more than an entire generation. But even in 2018, Harry Potter remains super popular with young readers. Harry Potter is as popular as it ever was. The biggest argument in favour of chosen one stories: Readers love them.

Readers have always loved them, so I’d be surprised if we see the end anytime soon.

Commenter Bruce Hahne points out that the ‘un-democratic’ work ethic implicit in the Chosen One criticism is borne by an equally problematic Protestant work ethic. Taken too far, that, too, can marginalise entire groups of people who are unable to contribute to GDP: Hahne also gives us a brief history of Chosen One stories in popular culture:

Rule out The Chosen One as an origin trope and you kill Green Lantern (all of them), Thor, Harry Potter, Captain Marvel (Billy Batson version), Buffy, and probably about half of Greek mythology.

God also disagrees with you:

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16-17)

No hard work and right choices there, he was just chosen.

Storytellers use The Chosen One because it works, it continues to work, and movies that use this origin trope well make money.

BLOODLINE STORIES: TIME FOR A MODERN RE-VISIONING?

Some bloodline stories are less problematic than others, or perhaps problematic in a slightly different way. Compare Harry Potter to Matilda:

An interesting case … is Roald Dahl’s Matilda, who off the bat has a lot in common with Harry Pottera young person in an obnoxious and abusive family who happens to have supernatural powers, both immediately relatable as heroes and providing the wish-fulfilment that we could magic ourselves out of horrible situations we’ve been raised in. Both end up leaving their toxic home environments and end up surrounded by people who love them. There’s a crucial difference between the two, though: Harry is saved by the reveal of his secret and much more appealing family lineage, and Matilda voluntarily leaves her biological family for better prospects.

Harry’s story is a much more common one: your life is terrible, orphan hero? Surprise, your real, but sadly dead and unable to help you, leading to you propelling the plot on your own, family were magical, giving you a portal to a better life you’ve been unknowingly destined for since the get go. This goes all the way back to Oliver Twist, the kicked-around workhouse boy discovered by chance by a rich old man who realises Oliver is his grandson. Happy endings ensue after plentiful struggle. This is a good narrative, and kind of so ingrained in our collective hearts that Matilda’s seems shocking in comparison: she left her blood relatives? But they were supposed to be where the hope was!

Matilda’s happy ending is being adopted, rather than the other way around. She finds someone kind and good, who knows her struggle, and together they rise up against the awful characters surrounding them and go off together to make their own family. Family is redefined as people who love, accept and protect you, and Matilda’s blood relatives are told, narrative-wise and literally, to go stuff themselves.

Afictionado

In other words, J.K. Rowling goes with the ideology that ‘your own family is best’, whereas Roald Dahl and his editor explore the possibility that some families are just terrible and you’re better off rid of them. This is still uncommon in children’s literature, but a surprisingly high proportion of adults are estranged from their natal families. This remains a cultural taboo.

One in 25 adult Australians will be estranged from their family at one point, but it’s a issue that’s rarely discussed openly.

SBS

Afictionado also points out that when we open our hearts to ‘found family’ stories (rather than ‘be loyal to your blood family at all costs’), this paves the way for a more diverse representation of family structure in fiction:

Matilda has a single adoptive mother. Lilo [from Lilo and Stitch] has her older sister, brother-in-law, extra-terrestrial best friend and two cross-dressing alien dads. Steven Universe has three (occasionally five) shapeshifting alien mums and a human dad who supports from the sidelines. Mako Mori has her adoptive father/teacher/saviour, drift companion and an entire army of international pilots and technicians who she’ll heroically protect.

Afictionado

FURTHER READING

“My Father Will Hear About This”: A Look at Magical Aristocracy from Afictionado

Matilda by Roald Dahl Novel Study

Matilda is a classic, best-selling children’s book first published in 1988. This story draws from a history of children’s literature such as classic fairytales and Anne of Green Gables.

Matilda was written by Roald Dahl, but significantly improved by a talented editor and publisher, Steven Roxburgh. For half of his writing career, Dahl wrote for adults. When Dahl found publishing success in the children’s book market he stuck with that, but his editors were constantly having to make them more suitable for kids. The happy place where the stories ended up — creepy and scary but in a childlike kind of way, filled a real hole in children’s literature at the time. Children needed scary stories which spoke to our revenge fantasies, our hatred for certain adults in our lives and our trickster instincts.

Charactersiation In Matilda — Pre-edited and Post-edited Comparison

Matilda regularly makes it onto lists ofStrong Female Characters‘. This is vexing because I’ve read almost all of Dahl’s books, as well as the biography by Jeremy Treglown, and Dahl was no feminist. He was sexist, at best. But of course he was. Look at the era and milieu into which he was born. I stop short at calling him ‘misogynist’, but only because ‘misanthropist’ feels like a better descriptor. Does this come through in Matilda, even after heavy editing?

Matilda Wormwood

Dahl’s pre-edited Matilda is no role model, at least not in the sense most adults would hope for. As explained by Jeremy Treglown:

As Dahl would sometimes relate, the original version was not at all like [the published book]. He didn’t say that the main changes were prompted by his editor, or that after the work was done, Dahl picked a fight with him, took the book away from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and left them for good.

In the first draft of Matilda, a copy of which is still in the Dahl files at FSG, the heroine, not unlike Hilaire Belloc’s Matilda, was “born wicked”. She spends the first part of the book inflicting various tortures on her harmless and baffled parents. Only later does she turn out to be clever.

A clarification: ‘strong female character’ should not be conflated with ‘morally upright’. Lists of ‘strong female characters’ should include all kinds of strength, whether a girl uses her strength for good or for evil. If a female character is terrible, she might still be strong. There should be just as many female villains as male villains, in feminism’s next stride towards equal narrative representation. In that case, Dahl’s original Matilda made for a wonderful female villain. Some of the original Matilda character remains, as she uses her high intelligence to play tricks on her stupider parents, and mostly for the fun of it, and for plain and simple revenge. Matilda, like her father, is a trickster character, and the most interesting trickster stories involve trickster opponents to outwit the original tricksters.

If ‘revenge’ is a writer’s main desireline for their main character, it’s very hard to write. The benefit is that it’s very emotional. Everyone can relate to it. But it’s hard to write because it’s a ‘low level’ emotion which doesn’t build.  Dahl got around this by creating an episodic plot, in which the child/ren exact revenge, completing that ‘episode’, but then something even more terrible happens to them.

Miss Trunchbull

Miss Trunchbull is another female villain from this story. Unlike Matilda, The Trunchbull remains villanous. Take a closer look at and it’s clear Dahl does not believe true villainy can co-exist with genuine femininity:

The headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is characterized much as in the final version of the book, although some details, such as her “shadow of a jet-black moustache” and her dressing in men’s clothes of a military type, were eventually dropped. (Dahl was to base her new appearance on that of the principal of a horticultural school near Thame, where he and his sisters bought plants.)

The Trunchbull from Matilda

Dahl’s original vision of The Trunchbull is nevertheless used in other more modern stories, such as in ParaNorman. I’m thankful Steven Roxburgh edited out the masculine descriptors. I wish he had also edited out the description of Mrs Wormwood being ‘unfortunately’ fat. Fat phobia in Dahl’s book comes through loud and clear. Readers are encouraged to despise fat characters simply for being fat.

Miss Honey

It was the editors who made the Miss Honey character a complete goodie. Dahl’s Miss Honey was more nuanced; she had a gambling habit:

In the second half, nothing in the draft corresponds with the final story as Roxburgh suggested it to Dahl, except that both versions are in the style of Victorian sentimental melodrama and, in both, Matilda is brought face to face with her teacher’s poverty. In the original version, when Matilda’s teacher — called Miss Hayes — learns of her pupil’s secret powers, she makes a confession of her own. A bookie’s daughter, Miss Hayes is a compulsive gambler and has run up debts of 20,000 pounds on the horses. Keen to help, the fascinated Matilda has the idea of using her powerful eyes to fix a race. She practises energetically by knocking over nearby cows and ponies. Meanwhile, Miss Hayes pawns an old ring of her mother’s for 2,000 pounds. The two go off to Newmarket and put the money on a 50:1 outsider. It wins Miss Hayes pockets 100,000 pounds, takes them both home in a taxi, and renounces gambling forever. By now the beginning of the book has been forgotten. Matilda has long ago stopped being naughty, and Miss Trunchbull has disappeared from view altogether.

miss-honey-matilda

EDITING MATILDA

The Importance Of Contrasting Character Values

The structural problems with this enjoyable nonsense must have been easier to identify than their solutions, but Roxburgh saw various new possibilities, both in Matilda’s cleverness and in the clash between Miss Trunchbull and Miss Hayes over educational methods. He realised, too, that the book would have more shape, and Matilda more identity, if Miss Hayes’s values (nature, poetry, etc.) were contrasted with those of her pupil’s parents. It was clear that in some way the young teacher’s predicament should arise out of the situation already established in the early chapters. Within what was usable, there would need to be some cuts, particularly in the Trunchbull scenes and in the duplication between Matilda’s naughtiness and that of her friends Hortensia and Lavender.

Roxburgh put all these points to Dahl. If they proceeded as before, Dahl would incorporate his suggestions into a new draft, on which the editor would offer further comments, having polished and cut as much as his author would tolerate.

Characters’ Moral Ambiguity Wiped Out In Favour Of Good vs Bad

The first stage went fine. Dahl saw the advantages of emphasizing Matilda’s intelligence and enthusiasm for books. Following Roxburgh’s suggestions, he developed a contrastingly boorish home background for her and reduced the episodes of her bad behaviour, turning them into acts of revenge on her illiterate, sexist, and semi-criminal father. The aptly renamed Miss Honey was built up, meanwhile, into an attractive, sweet-natured, and liberally inclined teacher, a much stronger foil to Miss Trunchbull.

We Might Need To Change Emphasis In The Climax

All of this took up considerably more of the book—almost a hundred pages of typescript, to the first draft’s fifty—allowing Miss Honey’s new revelations about the financial and domestic villainy of Miss Trunchbull to come closer to the climax. Here, Matilda’s powers now play a positive, much briefer, and more dramatic role: the exposure of Miss Trunchbull through magical writing on the blackboard.

Avoid Too Much About The Adults — It’s About The Child Hero

All this was Dahl’s next draft. Inevitably there were still roughnesses. There was too much both of Miss Trunchbull and, now, of Matilda’s parents.

Do Your Research On How Modern Schools Operate

The antique school-story idiom (“New scum,” “We’ve seen her at prayers,” “‘Steady on,’ the boy said. ‘I mean, dash it all, Headmistress'”), however reassuring to middle-class British parents, was incongruous in the setting of a contemporary day school and wouldn’t make much sense to American kids. But Roxburgh could put all this to Dahl in person at Gipsy House when they discussed what was needed in the final draft.

The Rest Is History

Except that, as it turned out, this was the final draft. Perhaps because he was increasingly busy at FSG, perhaps (as Dahl complained) because of complications in his private life, but perhaps also because he had been irked to hear that Dahl had been complaining about him at dinner parties with other publishers, Roxburgh’s letter about the new manuscript was not fulsome. “The story holds together and moves along briskly,” he wrote early in October 1987. “I had hoped to read the manuscript one more time before returning it, but Frankfurt [the Book Fair] looms.” He suggested that he might come to Great Missenden on his return, in two weeks’ time, to review the draft, “or whatever”.

Dahl was tired of being put to so much work. And when financial negotiations began, it became clear that there was a way out. In all the editorial discussions about Matilda, Roxburgh had omitted to make sure that Farrar, Straus and Giroux had a contract with Dahl for the book. They didn’t, and Dahl was now quick to demand, through his agent, a full 15 per cent royalty over and above whatever was paid to Quentin Blake. Roxburgh was left with little choice except to agree, but instead of capitulating graciously, he made the mistake of warning Pollinger that he wouldn’t be able to offer such good terms if Farrar Straus were the originating publishers of any future Dahl book.

[…]

In the United Staes, its publisher was Viking, the hardcover wing of Peter Mayer’s Penguin. Their confidence in the story as it stood was amply justified. No book of Dahl’s ever sold so fast. In Britain alone, half a million paperback copies went across the counter within six months. Stephen Roxburgh’s role, of course, was never acknowledged.

Further Storytelling Notes From Matilda

The Wormwoods remind me very much of The Dursleys. I’m not the first to make that observation.

Adults who buy children’s books about libraries and a love of reading tend to do well. Of the story apps we’ve published, the one that does the best is the one in which a child develops a love for reading after spending a lot of time in a library. This is a conservative, non-threatening message and no one who reads books really disagrees with it. Roald Dahl went a step further and incorporated a strong anti-TV message, by associating TV viewing with the most despicable characters in the story. Dahl also slipped this message into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Mike Teevee and his obsessive pop cultural attitude. I wonder if Dahl watched any TV himself. In any case it was a hypocritical position given that his wife was a film actress and Dahl wrote film scripts.

By Northrop Frye’s categorisation, Matilda Wormwood is a romantic character, superior to regular human beings and also to some of the laws of nature.

Steven Roxburgh must have understood — even if Roald Dahl himself did not — that Matilda is functioning as an almost superhero. Superhero stories have certain conventions, and that’s why the other characters needed to be unambiguously good and evil, not yin-yang as Dahl created them. Matilda works because of the stark good-bad distinction. This is the same distinction used in The Witches and The BFG.

Yet she is not a Mary-Sue goody-two-shoes character. We like her. Part of this must be to do with the fact that she enacts our revenge fantasies. Wouldn’t all of us like to play tricks on the adults who treat us with derision? Even as an adult reader, that feeling is there.

Matilda’s small size is brought up time and again. Mice are often anthropomorphised in children’s stories and it works the same way — children identify heavily with small characters. Being small is a shortcoming, but one which can always be overcome by wits.

The superpower of telekinesis also serves to propel Matilda Wormwood into the realm of a romantic/superhero character and away from the Mary-Sue archetype.

On re-reading this as an adult I am actually pretty surprised at how much of the novel is taken up by the back-and-forth oneupmanship which defines one of Dahl’s other MG novels — The Twits. First Matilda gets the better of her parents, then when she starts school she and the other children get the better of The Trunchbull in a similar series of pranks and punks.

Dahl is also a big fan of The Audience Effect to make scenes seem bigger than they would otherwise be. First we have Miss Honey interrogating Matilda, which happens in front of the class. The kindergarten students sit improbably still for this lengthy testing of abilities. A few chapters later we have the forced cake eating scene, which happens on the school stage. Dahl also uses a stage to give The Grand High Witch a platform, and Sophie from The BFG ends up at Buckingham Papers and in the papers.

The scene with the cake is disturbing rather than funny, possibly because I’ve seen Se7en, in which the fat man forced to eat dies. Dahl might easily have written a screenplay such as Se7en were he writing in slightly more modern times. When writing for children, this scene has to end in the boy’s favour. Anything else would be far too horrific. See also: How Scary Is Too Scary?

When it’s Lavender’s turn to play a trick on The Trunchbull, Dahl is very careful to be explicit about her motivation — she admires the others who’ve played tricks and wants her own turn as hero. We love Lavender’s daring, her inventiveness, and we even get a Save The Cat moment as she provides the newt with extra weed to eat. The first chapter in this sequence starts with a chapter that sets up the trick, and ends with the cliffhanger of class about to start.

The Trunchbull is the extreme hyperbolic version of a terrible headmistress — she loathes children. Not only that, she tells them so. But even her raison d’etre is explained: She feels it’s her life’s work to counterbalance the positive feedback children get from their doting parents. She really thinks she’s doing some good in the world.

Comedy comes from watching little Eric spell ‘what’ wrong three times, each time getting it more wrong than before. Comedy also comes from The Trunchbull refusing to admit she was ever small or ever a baby. This character humour is relatable because children find it hard to imagine the adults in their lives as children themselves. When I first started school my father told me m teacher didn’t have a home, that she slept in the cupboard, and I half believed him. Eric gets his ears stretched — slapstick comedy. The final gag in the chapter is a reveal that Miss Trunchbull has worked our Matilda’s father is a crook and has sold her a lemon. The reader was in audience superior position on that one, so feels satisfying. This also ups the stakes for Matilda, because not only does Miss Trunchbull hate children, she especially hates Matilda’s father. This is the cliffhanger of “The Weekly Test”.

In “The First Miracle” the reader is still in audience superior position — we know there’s a newt and guess that Miss Trunchbull is about to swallow it. Now the pleasure comes from waiting for the other shoe to drop.

As you might have guessed, the newt incident spans three chapters, making use of the Rules of Threes in storytelling. Importantly, the newt is saved. And Miss Trunchbull doesn’t swallow the newt — Dahl makes use of the telekinesis he has already set up. Matilda simply knocks the glass of water over so that the scary-looking creature tips out. Miss Trunchbull ends defeated, sending the children out into the yard, which she thinks is a punishment but is absolutely no punishment at all. The children are clear winners.

As Matilda walks down the path towards Miss Honey’s cottage and they recite the poem, I realise Miss Honey and Matilda are a Miss Stacey and Anne Shirley pair of kindred spirits. Anne of Green Gables has been hugely influential, and has influenced Matilda.

Dahl uses allusions to fairytales when describing Miss Honey’s home — as in a classic fairytale such as Hansel and Gretel, the path starts off looking cosy and inviting but the atmosphere changes as they enter ‘the forest‘. Miss Honey herself is a fairytale figure — a rags to riches, put-upon figure. Basically a Cinderella trope who has gone from upper middle class to outwardly middle class but living in poverty.

Miss Honey’s story is a chapter of hypodiegetic narration — “Miss Honey’s Story” makes it no surprise that we’re going to hear all about Miss Honey’s backstory. The big reveal at the end (though I’m sure a few young readers will have guessed) is that Miss Trunchbull is the name of the abusive aunt who killed her father and rewrote his will in her own favour, keeping Miss Honey as an indentured worker. Right out of a fairytale. We also see indentured slavery in tales such as Rumpelstiltskin.

Modern writers have trouble getting parents out of the picture. In real life, caregivers always know where their children are these days, unless there’s some dark abuse and neglect. So writers need children who are orphans or foster children or who disobediently abscond on some important mission. Even in the 1980s the freedom of childhood was starting to disappear. Dahl doesn’t have this issue with Matilda because her parents don’t care where she is. Yet he lampshades her absence anyhow. She’s been at Miss Honey’s house all afternoon but Matilda tells Miss Honey that they won’t care.

The final trick on Miss Trunchbull uses that feeling you get when you’re a kid and you learn your teacher’s first name. You feel you have something on them.

Why does Dahl take Matilda’s power of telekinesis away from her at the end? Probably because it has done its work for the story and leaving it there might suggest more in the series to come. Or, there’s a risk Matilda might continue to use it but for bad reasons. When your life is perfect you don’t need superpowers. Also, readers conservatively value hard work. She’s already been blessed with genius, now she’ll have to use her brains to make her way in life, just like the rest of us plebs. Taking away her powers puts her on the same level as the reader (in a way).

Dahl makes use of a ticking clock technique in the final chapter as Miss Honey and Matilda rush to ask if Matilda can live with Miss Honey rather than escape the police in Spain.

The final sentence of the book must be quite disturbing for a child reader — the image of your family zooming away forever. But the wonderful flip side is that Matilda will be much better off.

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Storytelling Tips From ‘Anne With An E’

I’m a big fan of Anne Of Green Gables, the 1980s TV miniseries and also of Breaking Bad, so I anticipated Moira Walley-Beckett’s 2017 re-visioning of Anne Of Green Gables with great enthusiasm. I’m not disappointed. ‘Anne With An E’ is great. (It seems I’m not in good company by saying that.)

There’s much to learn from Moira Walley-Beckett. How did she manage to not only update L.M. Montgomery’s classic for a 2017 audience, but add to the original story?

First a few notes:

  • Walley-Beckett doesn’t agree that her version is ‘dark’ so I’m going to avoid that word. I also don’t think it’s particularly dark. (She calls it a deep and honest take.)
  • This miniseries breaks from the book. Walley-Beckett felt that the novel was ‘too fast’ for her. She wanted to go back and fill in some gaps. She describes herself as an ‘incremental’ storyteller. I guess by that she means she introduces a concept but likes to build on it, digging deeper before moving on. Anne Of Green Gables has a main narrative but is a highly episodic novel. ‘Incremental’ is a word that better describes what a modern audience will enjoy.
  • Every article mentions that Moira Walley-Beckett wrote for Breaking Bad and expresses surprise that one writer would work on two such different stories. But at the deeper level, these stories are not all that different. I think the surprise lies in the idea that Anne Of Green Gables is some melodramatic, sappy crap only enjoyed by girls and nostalgic women. I think there’s a bit of that. Breaking Bad is about a white man, and is allowed to join the ranks of prestige TV.

Anne’s transformations are easy to see as part of a trend in TV and film, one in which suffering has become indistinguishable from gravitas and even the most cheerful superheroes come complete with psychological baggage. In a world where Superman no longer smiles, Archie Andrews is an ennui-filled singer-songwriter and Belle’s mother in “Beauty and the Beast” tragically dies of the plague, of course Anne has PTSD. But this new interpretation of Anne also treats a young, female character with the attention and focus often reserved for difficult men and the perversions of their machismo. In emphasizing Anne’s past, Walley-Beckett may be roughing up a sunny tale, but she is also insisting that a plucky 13-year-old girl is as worthy a subject as anyone.

NYT
  • I had assumed Walley-Beckett used a writers’ room for this show but she wrote all seven scripts herself.
  • In the book Anne is 11 but here she is 13.

SIGNIFICANCE OF THE CHANGE IN TITLE: FROM ANNE OF GREEN GABLES TO ANNE WITH AN E

This change is a signal to the audience: Don’t think of this series as a ‘replacement’ for Anne of Green Gables. Consider it an addition.

The title also clues us in on a slight change in focus. Anne Shirley in the classic has always been disappointed with her plain name, preferring something she considers more romantic, like Cordelia or Penelope. More is made of this quirk in Anne With An E, highlighting one of Anne’s psychological shortcomings: She is nobody but she wants to become someone.

In episode 2 of Anne With An E, the writers created a scene from scratch: The bit where Marilla and Matthew have finally made up their minds to keep Anne. They ask her to change her name from Anne Shirley to Anne Shirley-Cuthbert and she writes her name in their family ledger.

In this updated series, name symbolises belonging more than ever before.

Anne’s name was part of her identity and importance as a person — now it is even more so. “I am somebody. Treat me with dignity.” Her gradual acceptance of her name, spelt as it was meant to be spelt, tracks her gradual acceptance of herself. She learns that she is fine just as she is, without needing to create an imaginary doppelganger to gain acceptance.

SETTING OF ANNE WITH AN E

I went for a documentary level of real—it’s very grounded in authentic maritime life in 1896. The natural world is a really present, active part of this story, too. We set out to make a Jane Campion feature. We wanted it to be visceral and real and epic and intimate and experiential.

Walley-Beckett, The Smithsonian

The potatoes in Marilla’s pantry were period accurate. (They were smaller than supermarket behemoths but otherwise unremarkable.) […] [Walley-Beckett] She insisted on making room in the budget for a 10-foot-long burbling creek, built behind a schoolhouse also constructed from scratch, because the novel mentions that Anne and her fellow students put their milk bottles in a brook to “keep it cool and sweet until the dinner hour,” an evocative detail Walley-Beckett said she “couldn’t do without.”

NYT

MATTHEW AND MARILLA’S CHARACTER ARC

Anne Shirley arrives at Marilla and Matthew's Green Gables

I wonder who L.M. Montgomery saw as her reader. Young women in their teens? I expect she wrote this for her teenage self. The books have been read by about 4 generations now, and the audience of the Netflix series will appeal to grown women as much as to our daughters. In fact, women my age are probably the main demographic. (My daughter is not interested in watching it, having already seen the 1980s miniseries too many times on rainy sick days.)

How does this older/dual audience affect the storytelling? Well, in this re-visioning the main adults are more rounded characters. I very much identified with Marilla in this story. Fully rounded characters need their own arcs, and that is what they are given.

In the original story Marilla’s brooch goes missing, Marilla assumes Anne has stolen it, then believes that she has dropped it in the well, and once again Anne’s position at Green Gables is in jeopardy. Fortunately for Anne, Marilla finds the brooch and Anne is never sent away. Marilla offers something of an apology. “I will forgive you if you can forgive me.”

To the modern viewer, in an age of increased self-awareness, this stands out as a sorry-not-sorry. We feel bad for Anne and as if something is left hanging. Walley-Beckett has obviously felt that pang herself, and makes much more of Marilla’s own character arc. She does this by really putting her through the wringer. Matthew takes Anne away, where she will complete her own journey back to the orphanage. In the meantime, Marilla finds her heirloom brooch down the back of the chair. She sends Matthew off to find Anne, and an entire episode is spent on finding her. When he finally tracks her down she is selling her services as a beggar-storyteller (similar to a scene from Before Sunrise) and before agreeing to come home, Anne dresses him down in the public forum of a busy train terminal.

Marilla’s character arc isn’t over with episode two, of course. Walley-Beckett takes the time afforded in a 7 episode miniseries to fix a character discrepancy in Marilla’s journey from ‘good, old-fashioned church lady’ to ‘woke, first-wave feminist’. The original doesn’t show us how Marilla starts off as prejudiced as almost anyone else in this insular little village — against girls, against orphans, against red-heads (“I do believe she’s bewitched you, Matthew”). This re-visioning sees Marilla invited to a tea party of suffragettes, masterful in its depiction of early feminism — at once woke and terribly closed-minded. Later in the episode, Marilla is excluded from the suffragette circle. News has travelled about Anne’s naive talk about rape and violence — scenes she has witnessed at an earlier posting. Now the audience can see exactly how similar Marilla and Anne are, in circumstance if not in temperament (yet): While Anne is being excluded at school, Marilla is being excluded in the world of mothers. This binds them together.

Even the character of Rachel Lynde is less of a caricature in this modern re-visioning. (Over) acted by Patricia Hamilton in the 1980s adaptation, Corrine Koslo makes a more nuanced job of Rachel in this 2017 update. She has more to work with, too, as both a product of her time and an intense curiosity for what’s new. Even her gossipy ways have a positive as well as a negative effect on the community — when Matthew arrives at her door wanting to be filled in on what everyone’s saying about Anne, she serves a useful role, inviting him inside with compassion.

Mythic Journeys in Anne With An E

Marilla’s emotional journey is of the Robinsonnade, static kind — stuck at home as women were back then. Lots of filmmakers use running scenes to indicate emotional turmoil but of course Marilla would never have wasted precious energy running — the realistic equivalent for a homemaker is scrubbing the floors vigorously. We see her make a ridiculous amount of food, ironically having fewer people to nurture now. She awkwardly offers it to the hired hand — she’s realising the food might not be eaten. Finally we see her start to cry. Marilla has gone through a rocky emotional journey without even leaving the farmstead.

Matthew’s journey is of the more typical heroic, Odyssean kind. He leaves the house on a mission. He encounters various characters, some helpful, some not. He encounters problems (his horse tires out, he runs out of money) and finally he almost meets his death when he thinks he sees Anne across a busy road (an hallucination?) and gets knocked down in the traffic. Finally, Matthew proves himself a worthy hero, fulfills his goal and returns home a changed man: He now knows that he will do anything for this little girl.

I’m constantly amazed how moved I continue to be by these same old, same old mythic patterns — proof to me that we shouldn’t cast them aside just because they’ve been done before. (And when I say ‘before’, I mean for the last 3000 years in Matthew’s case!)

This leaves one major myth-structure yet to be used by Walley-Beckett: The Female Mythic Structure. After episode two I’m waiting with bated breath to see if she will use it in this 2017 updated Green Gables story. She may well, because it was used with great success by the writers of Pixar’s Inside Out. This new big struggle-free myth form is a blend of the two minus a few things. The hero(ine) of a Female Myth is ‘a walking emotion’, demonstrating to the audience a way of seeing and interacting with the world without fighting.

Sure enough, I conclude Walley-Beckett wrote this re-visioning in a woke way, and has updated Anne’s Mythic Journey somewhat, but not so much that we lose the spirit of the original story.

Like many heroines who eventually learn to embrace their inner selves, Anne has absorbed the dominant cultural (and patriarchal) message that beauty in a woman is the most important thing. But Walley-Beckett really emphasises Anne’s proto-feminism, if borne from desperation rather than a sense of gender injustice, that she can stay on the farm and do anything a boy can do, and more. This is a shouty kitchen scene in Anne With An E — a scene which was absent from the 1980s adaptation starring Megan Follows. Anne is now more feisty — a word often used to describe Pixar heroines, for instance. Her feistiness and irritation at the gender divided hierarchy is taken out on the hired hand, also absent from the book and from the 1980s adaptation. We know he’s been hired, but we don’t see him. Walley-Beckett makes the most of him, bringing him in for conflict with Anne to show us Anne’s insecurities. (Walley-Beckett also achieves increased diversity by having him hail from a French-speaking family.) Walley-Beckett also achieves some LGBTQ diversity by telling a modern audience in old-fashioned terms that Miss Barry has been in a lesbian relationship all these years and has recently lost the love of her life.

Anne’s pathway to increased acceptance of her looks, or at least her demotion of them in her priorities, is evidenced in her nightly prayer. Her first attempt at prayer has her place beauty on a par with family and belonging. She obviously believes one begets the other. In the next prayer scene she acknowledges to God that she doesn’t mind if she’s not beautiful, so long as she has a family. Walley-Beckett has updated the beauty message, as described by Willa Paskin:

If “Anne of Green Gables” were written today, it is easy to imagine that over the course of the book, Anne would come to learn that none of these externalities matter: not the color of her hair, not the sleeves of her dress. Instead, in the novel, her hair mellows to the coveted auburn, and Matthew, in a moment of tremendous fatherly kindness, gives her a dress with puffed sleeves. Rather than dispense the message that it’s only what’s on the inside that counts, “Anne of Green Gables” conveys something more nuanced, that beauty can be a pleasure, that costumes can provide succor, that the right dress can improve your life — all things that adults know to be true, sometimes, but that we try to simplify for our children.

NYT

Doretta Lau has a point when she points to the fact that some scenes of Anne With An E feel anachronistically modern:

The first time Anne Shirley sets foot in her early twentieth-century rural classroom, four young women strut over like they have been studying the movie Mean Girls. Anne’s friend, Diana Barry, introduces her to the group: “Anne loves to read, and she knows ever so many big words.” Their tall blonde schoolmate, Josie Pye, replies witheringly, “Does she use them in every sentence?” The actress playing Josie delivers this with a fake laugh (bearing her big twenty-first century Chiclet teeth) and a queen-bee head tilt; with the sound off, it appears if as she’s scoffing at Anne for being a virgin who still uses an iPhone 3. Canadian children didn’t act this way in the 1980s, much less in 1908.

The Walrus

THE THEME TUNE

“Ahead By A Century” may refer to the longevity of this story. Cinderella is the ur-Story and in rich countries orphans are fewer and far between these days, but the need to belong and the need to be noticed time travels.

Anne is timeless, but she’s timely right now. I’m not influenced by what’s come before. I feel like Anne’s issues are incredibly relevant and topical right now. There’s so much conversation in the world about gender parity and feminism and prejudice and those who come from away. People who are other. All of these conversations are within L.M. Montgomery’s writing. It’s the perfect time to talk about it again.

Walley-Beckett, The Smithsonian

ROMANCE IN ANNE WITH AN E

Anne’s rejection of society’s gender roles is taken out on Gilbert Blythe, who tries to engage her in a typically, but unacceptably, masculine way — more recently called ‘negging’ by the pick-up artist community — a rhetorical technique in which a man insults a woman to inspire passion, then turns it around by apologising, displaying his humanity and hopefully winning her affection. Although the term is recent, the phenomenon is much older. Writers of rom-coms know might call this trope ‘slap, slap, kiss’. It continues to be popular with certain audiences, leading to ‘shut up and kiss me’ fantasy moments, although this jaded middle-aged woman gets a little tired of the trope when it is brought down into children’s stories, not because children shouldn’t be exposed to the way the world actually works in practice, but because of a general lack of trope subversion. We rarely see stories in which the negging ends with an out-and-out, permanent rejection for being an asshole. Girls learn to expect bad behaviour before a relationship can kick off. Taking the entire corpus of children’s stories into account, we are basically training heterosexual girls to expect assholery, and boys to give it.

What does Walley Beckett do with the Gilbert character? Does she subvert this trope at all?

The slate over the head scene is so iconic in Anne of Green Gables that it is compulsory. But in this adaptation it is not a simplistic slap, slap, kiss, and is therefore redeemed somewhat. We have already seen what a decent character Gilbert is when he deflects a bashing from the boy in the woods. There’s a metafictive moment where Gilbert says, “Anything else you want me to help you with today? Any dragons to slay?” He is self-aware and knows that he has just ‘saved a damsel in distress’, just like out of some romantic fairytale. Later, when he enters the classroom we are shown how popular he is with the other boys. Anne presumably sees this too, and comes the same conclusion. By the time Gilbert calls her ‘carrots’, this is simply a desperate and unthinking way to get her attention. Walley-Beckett makes sure the audience has already seen Gilbert’s intrinsic goodness, and even inserts some scenes in which we see evidence of Gilbert’s social capital among the boys. He is definitely the pick. Without these earlier scenes introducing Gilbert as a sympathetic character, the slate on the head wouldn’t work.

Anne still, for example, smashes a slate over the head of her future husband, Gilbert Blythe, when he has the temerity to call her “Carrots,” but this is no longer foreplay; it’s the culmination of many weeks of bullying, including by an older boy who calls her a “talking dog” because she is an orphan.

NYT

Later, in episode seven, Walley-Beckett gives Anne a snippet of dialogue that shows, like Gilbert, she is aware of story structure. Talking to Marilla in the kitchen, she is disappointed that she is forbidden from going to town on her own, where she must raise money by pawning off some precious items. I’m sure Walley-Beckett meant the fairytale intertextuality with tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Anne argues that going to town alone would be the perfect opportunity for her to star in her own mythic journey. Walley-Beckett realises she’s already used the mythic journey structure in episode two, and so this time she makes sure to vary the pattern; Anne’s trip to the city is another Odyssean story but unlike Matthew who made significant heroic sacrifices, Anne takes help from others, and teaches Marilla that it’s okay to take charity if charity is truly needed.

INCREASED EMPHASIS ON AN ISLAND SETTING IN ANNE WITH AN E

While readers have always known that Green Gables is on an island, this fact is never really used symbolically. Sure, it’s a kind of utopia. But we never at any point see anyone actually leave the island.

In Anne With An E, I was reminded that actually the island setting of this story is significant, because we see Anne boarding the ferry. This scene in itself underscores the fact that Anne is crossing over between two very different worlds. It almost functions as a portal, as seen in fantasy stories. The island equals home and safety (though in Walley-Beckett’s version not a utopia) whereas the Canadian mainland equals danger and loneliness. The expanse of the Canadian wilderness hits home when we realise Matthew has lost Anne’s trail. Perhaps even more could have been made of this Canadian vastness with some overhead drone-camera shots.

See also: Islands In Children’s Literature.

ANNE’S NEURODIFFERENCE

Anne Shirley in Anne With An E

Since my own daughter’s ADHD profiling I have read Anne Shirley as a neurodivergent character. Because of her background as an orphan and attendant trauma, her escape into an imaginary world can also be attributed to a coping mechanism provoked entirely by environment, but I think it entirely possible that Anne’s inherited neurology makes up a large part of who she is. After all, the other orphans in the orphanage picked entirely different coping mechanisms — namely by forming a clan and enforcing their own social hierarchy by using Anne as victim, at least in this re-visioning.

Anne’s imagination and bottomless energy are clearly presented in the TV series as coping mechanisms, a frantic and resourceful means of keeping upsetting memories at bay. “I like imagining better than remembering,” Anne says, always choosing between one and the other.

NYT

While I doubt Walley-Beckett approached this new re-visioning of Anne with a mind to neurodiversity, I watched to see if my own reading is different this time. In fact, I only see more evidence of neurodivergence, not less:

Anne pinches herself so much that it leaves a bruise. Ostensibly this pinching is ‘to remind herself that it’s not all a dream’, but can also be read as an obsessive compulsive stimming behaviour not dissimilar from skin-picking or hair-pulling, which is reasonably common in the ADHD community.

Anne continues to talk ‘too much’. Of course, she exists in an era where children are to be seen and not heard. Nonetheless, she admits that, more than other children, she finds it almost impossible to stop talking but she can do so if she really sets her mind to it. This is very similar to the experience of an ADHD child. Children with hyperactivity issues are able to suppress their natural inclinations to move and talk, but it comes at great cost — they are unable to suppress their movements and attend to other things (such as learning) at the same time.

On one of her first days at school, Anne shows impulsive behaviour when she jumps up to correct a boy who spells a word wrongly on the blackboard. This could be explained away as not knowing the rules of school, but neurotypical children would learn quickly simply by gauging the mood of the room that this is not done.

In episode four Anne helps out in a house fire, rushing in to block off the oxygen, shutting all the doors and windows. This helps to put the fire out and she is praised. This can be read as ‘brave’ and ‘resourceful’. It can also be attributed to ADHD, in which neurodifferent people are more likely to rush in because they don’t have the extra few seconds typical people have to consider the danger to life and limb. In the meantime, people waiting outside for Anne worried themselves half to death. This episode is foreshadowed with the burnt pie at the beginning of the episode — another example of inattentiveness.

Anne can focus really well on things that interest her, but part of the reason being a housewife would seem so uninviting to her is because of the day-in, day-out monotony.

She can heal an infant with the croup, but she “cannot tie [herself] down to anything so unromantic as dishwashing” at “thrilling” moments or be asked to eat anything “so unromantic [as boiled pork and beans] when one is in affliction.”

Willa Paskin, NYT

Anne has a precocious active lexicon which demonstrates a deep interest in language and the way it works. About 30 per cent of ADHD children also show characteristics of autism — there is a broad genetic crossover — and I think Anne is a candidate for that. Her interest in literature and vocabulary might be seen as a ‘special interest’. She has encyclopedia knowledge of vocabulary and of the literature she’s had her hands on. When she tells Marilla and Matthew that she had a chocolate caramel ‘once two years ago’, this seems unusually specific. She may also have a knack for dates.

Before meeting her new classmates she rehearses the conversation on her trip to school. This is a trope often used on screen to show how nervous a character is about meeting someone. Anne is so good at ‘memorising’ her own rehearsal that when she blurts out her self-introduction to the group of same-age girls they react as if Anne has come from a different planet. Diana is often swooping in to smooth over Anne’s social blunders — more so in this adaptation. An autistic/ADHD girl often relies on a girl like this in order to get by in socially complex arenas such as school. If Anne is the ‘weird’ girl, Diana is the neurotypical Everygirl.

Anne Shirley’s Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

The Barrys’ picnic in the 1980s miniseries is a pleasant affair. Given the era, this insular (literally an island) community is unrealistically welcoming of orphan Anne. Walley-Beckett has taken a more historically uncomforable but realistic approach and at this same picnic Anne looks around and sees every single group staring at her and making rude comments within earshot. This picnic can be interpreted literally, or more symbolically as a snapshot of Anne’s lack of confidence. In ADHD terms, this is known as Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. Not limited to people with ADHD, this is nevertheless a heightened emotion for the ADHD population, possibly because ADHD children experience many more actual rejections over the course of childhood than the typical population. (20,000 more admonishments before age 12.) This teaches ADHD children to accept rejection, to the point where rejection ends up the assumed state. Anne expects to be rejected by this community because that is all she has ever known. This expectation can be read as a combination of her red-headed, orphan, outsider status but also combined with her possible ADHD neurology.

Anne Shirley would not be Anne Shirley without her extensive imaginary world. This is what I see in my own daughter, and I hear about this imaginary world a lot. My daughter’s imagination is very dear to her. Last week she received an award in maths, but her best friend received an award for her imagination and my daughter threw aside her maths award as if it were of no consequence, annoyed that no one had formally recognised her own vast imagination. Again I’m reminded of Anne, who repeatedly expresses incomprehension that other people do not live at all in their imaginations (notably Diana Barry and the ever-practical Marilla Cuthbert). Her storytelling ability is so important to her that she sees it as her one saleable attribute, and even decides she can make a living out of it as a street child.

By the time the first series had ended I had come to think that Anne Shirley was neither ADHD nor autistic. That’s what comes of analysing completely fictional character who, unless specified as neurodifferent, and sometimes even then, has become more mature, responsible and better at coping than at the beginning of the story. I would say the same about Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and the main character, Clay Jensen, could definitely be read as autistic at the beginning of the series but who by the end has demonstrated emotional maturity to the point where that is no longer a possible interpretation.

THE ENDING

The book, in a manner that is rare for young-adult novels even now, is a celebration of Anne’s intelligence, which is ultimately cherished by her adoptive parents, her community and her future partner, Gilbert — who is also her closest academic rival and who instead of being threatened by Anne’s brain admires her for it. And yet at the end of “Anne of Green Gables,” Anne quits college and returns to the farm to care for an ailing Marilla, never becoming the writer she wanted to be as a child. This is, perhaps, a disappointing ending (and one that presages a string of follow-up novels in which Anne eventually becomes muted by family life), but it is an honest one: We still live in a world where a woman’s intellect does not preclude her from accruing vast domestic responsibilities.

NYT

ON THE TOPIC OF ‘POVERTY PORN’

The first time I came across the term ‘poverty porn’ to describe fiction was in a review of Anne With An E — the Netflix revisioning of Anne of Green Gables:

Whereas the 1985 Sullivan Entertainment adaptation starring Megan Follows is a delectable confection that captured the wholesome and imaginative spirit of Montgomery’s books, the first few episodes of this reboot border on poverty porn, with traumatic flashbacks that rely on dirt and dark lighting to elicit emotion.

Doretta Lau at The Walrus

According to the ‘poverty porn’ entry on Wikipedia, the phrase originally refers to “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause”. Obviously, a TV series isn’t asking for money.  Main criticisms of poverty porn centre on the idea that depictions of real children in terrible situations are exploitative — these children are not consenting to having their images all around the world. They cannot consent even if asked, since the desperation of their situation means they have no real choice but to comply.

So I’m interested to see it used in relation to fiction. Is it possible to ‘exploit’ a fictional character? Surely, when we talk about poverty porn in relation to Anne Shirley, we’re actually talking about all the real children in similar situations.

When does depiction of fictional poverty cross over into poverty porn? I don’t think Anne With An E is a good example of poverty porn, because life in 1908 for orphaned red-headed girls was not good.

Depictions of poverty cross the line when:

  1. The story misrepresents poverty, e.g. when the individual poor person is blamed for systemic economic inequality or when poverty seems like something which is simple and easily fixed
  2. The story misrepresents poor people, e.g. depicting poor people living in actual gutters wearing rags rather than showing all the more realistic faces of poverty, and how it feels trumping how it looks to the outsider. In America that tends to look like inner-city, minority groups living in dilapidated housing. Emotions experienced by people living with poverty include: shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. These emotions should be explored.
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Storytelling Tips From Anne Of Green Gables

Revisiting Anne Of Green Gables as an adult reader, several things stick out:

  1. The influence of Cinderella, the rags to riches story which is often counted as one of the ‘six basic plots
  2. The influence of Pride and Prejudice
  3. Anne Of Green Gables has a lot in common with modern YA stories aimed at young women.
a 1945 hardcover edition

THE INFLUENCE OF CINDERELLA

In real life, the character of Anne Shirley would be a lifelong social workers’ project. Her parents died of ‘the fever’ when she was an infant and since then she’s been pushed around from place to place. She has literally no one in her life who really cares for her. Children simply do not thrive when there is no one to care for them. This gives the beginning of the Green Gables saga more in common with a fairytale than realistic fiction.

THE INFLUENCE OF JANE AUSTEN

Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, just shy of 100 years later. I’m in no doubt that L.M. Montgomery grew up reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Anne of Green Gables is the 1908 Canadian equivalent for slightly younger readers. However, Anne seems to be based on her child self.

L.M. Montgomery

Anne Shirley is basically an Elizabeth Bennett character.

In no particular order:

  1. Diana Barry is Jane — each the sweet and beautiful confidante but ultimately too boring to ever exist as a main character in a novel. Both Jane and Diana are victims — in some ways — of their narrowly prescribed circumstances, being completely devoid of freedom. They do pretty much as they are told and they will have uneventful, reasonably happy but low-drama lives.
  2. Lizzie is closer to her father just as Anne is closer to father figure Matthew Cuthbert at first.
  3. Marilla is much kinder and less comical than Lady Catherine de Bourgh but fulfills some of the same story functions. For example, when Marilla cautions Gilbert Blythe that Anne is still very young this must plant the idea of courting her seriously in his mind, because that’s when he offers to escort her to her reading of The Highway Man. Likewise, it’s when Lady Catherine visits Lizzie at her home telling her that Darcy is already engaged to her sickly daughter that Elizabeth stubbornly refuses to say she is not engaged to Mr Darcy, despite rumours. Ironically, this outwardly event brings to consciousness her suppressed feeling that in fact she does like Darcy very much.
  4. Suppressed affections for the most eligible boy in the village. Both Lizzie and Anne have romantic notions — Anne’s are a little more immature — and their ideas of romance actively stand in the way of them finding love until they overcome their fears.
  5. These fears are thought to be borne of ‘pride‘. I find pridefulness quite an old-fashioned notion. I believe Lizzie and Anne suffered from anxiety, which I can well understand, living as fertile women in an age where sex and love was not discussed openly, but where women died during childbirth in every village, and if you didn’t pick your man wisely? Too bad, you were stuck with him. How could you pick wisely, though, when decorum wouldn’t let you spend any real time alone with him? To the early 1900s reader, however, ‘pridefulness’ as a female shortcoming was well understood, and made for a good psychological shortcoming. Bookish girls were often told not to bury their noses in study — Diana Barry is an example of a girl whose parents thought that way — and girls were expected to marry whether they wanted to or not. If they chose not to, they were called stubborn — and Marilla is an example of that, growing old and lonely in her twilight years as she gradually loses her eyesight. “If you don’t get married and have children you’ll live a lonely life,” readers are told. Pride as a psychological shortcoming is readily understood across cultures, and in Japan we see another quite different culture which nevertheless understands that pridefulness is something to be overcome. See for example Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a Japanese story through and through but echoing strong shades of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables nonetheless. Kiki is Anne, Tombo is Gilbert. (By the way, Anne of Green Gables is very popular in Japan. Japanese tourists make up a disproportionate number of tourists to Prince Edward Island each year.)
  6. Unlike L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen was not under contract to write any more stories if Pride and Prejudice were to take off. Not true of Lucy Maud, who was forced to write an entire series about Anne under contract even though she didn’t seem to want to. I feel her instincts were right — there’s a good reason why Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and there’s a reason why the sequels to Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t sell as well. Both Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice are complete stories in their own right. There are of course readers who love the entire Anne series, but others feel quite keenly that the rest of the series pales in comparison. I hesitate to use the word ‘formula’ because Anne of Green Gables, much less Pride and Prejudice, is far from ‘formulaic’, but there is a good reason why Anne of Green Gables works. (See Story Structure, below.)
  7. For more on the similarities between P&P and Anne, see here.
George Clausen - A School Girl 1889
George Clausen – A School Girl 1889

THE INFLUENCE OF L.M. MONTGOMERY ON MODERN STORIES

It has been argued that Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is heavily influenced by Pride and Prejudice, just as many other modern YA novels have been influenced by Twilight (not even considering the vampires).

For the younger set, throw in a bit of Anne of Green Gables and there’s an unlimited number of popular and enduring stories that can be made from the pieces:

  1. Go a bit younger and the granddaughters of Anne Shirley are Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and Clementine. Mischievous, well-meaning, average looking, each of these heroines find themselves in regular scrapes when all they want to do is have fun.
  2. Let these heroines enter adolescence and they will probably have something about their physical appearance they can’t stand. That Anne Shirley so hates her hair makes me think that maybe adolescent self-criticism predates the Mad Men era after all. That said, Anne Shirley had very good reason to hate her red hair. In the 1800s it was genuinely thought that girls with red hair (and green eyes) were — if not exactly witches — at least ‘wicked’. The word ‘wicked’ comes up several times in the book. This was thought to be an innate characteristic that went with red hair, and in fact the idea hasn’t died completely. One day it will seem as archaic as phrenology. Anne Shirley was deemed to have a temper on her because of her red hair, so every time she lost her temper, it was put down to her having red hair. If that isn’t a justifiable reason to be angry in the first place, I don’t know what is.
  3. There is a Josie Pye character in almost every popular middle grade novel aimed at girls, although these days the little enemy girl is less likely to be rich and dressed in frilly dresses but more likely to be a class president, by-the-books type. (I don’t think this is a great development in children’s literature.)
  4. Young adult novels for girls will almost always have a romantic subplot if not romance as a main plot, and increasingly, middle grade fiction has a hint of romance too. (The boy and girl will probably start as enemies, end as sort-of-friends.) Romantic stories with drama as the wrapper tend to endure across generations and area also more respected by critics.
  5. I also see the influence of Anne of Green Gables in a popular TV show such as Gilmore girls. Stars Hollow is a modern day American Avonlea. Both are genuine utopias. Apart from death — which happens in a romantic way — falling over in the middle of a field and passing swiftly —  nothing really truly bad happens in Avonlea. Rory is smart and bookish like Anne, but overall more of the Diana character. The mother of Gilmore girls is feisty enough in her own right to provide some interest and conflict. Also like Gilmore girls, Rory has a bit of a rags to riches arc — she was never truly destitute, but because her grandparents are wealthy she is able to pursue her academic dreams.
James Guthrie - Schoolmates
James Guthrie – Schoolmates

SETTING OF ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

Often a measure of a novel’s success, in its depiction of a particular place, occurs when readers feel they know it, they recognize it, or, better yet, they want to visit. Such has been the case with the perennial favourite, Anne of Green Gables. Since its publication in 1908, fans of Anne Shirley have sought out the small island in eastern Canada, keen to meet the character and tour the landscapes she made memorable—The Lake of Shining Waters, the Haunted Wood, Lover’s Lane, the Birch Path. Like the free-spirited Anne, who loves and names almost every tree and flower she encounters, they, too, want to know the place that had such an influence on her. For lovers of the Anne novels (Maud Montgomery wrote an additional seven for the series), much of the magic seems rooted in the very land Anne roamed.

Visitors to Prince Edward Island will find much to love in its natural beauty—a narrow strip of rolling hills in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with lush fields, quiet coves, and miles of white sand beaches. But its pastoral, timeless feel can’t quite explain its powerful draw. While the summers are mild, its winters are long, and two of the primary industries—fishing and agriculture—can be tough to pursue at any time of year. Yet tourism, the second most important, remains strong, with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving every year to experience the same sites that were such a part of Anne Shirley’s adventures.

It is, in many ways, an odd phenomenon, a balancing act between the real and the fictional that Canada’s National Park Service, among others, helps sustain. In the town of Cavendish (“Avonlea” in the novels), in the house known as Green Gables, visitors can see the rooms where Anne and Matthew and Marilla slept; they can walk the same paths, cross the same streams and inhale the same fir-scented air.  Along the way, they can relive some of Anne’s more memorable moments—scaring herself with Diana in the Haunted Woods, welcoming spring with her schoolmates on a mayflower picnic, accepting Gilbert’s offer of friendship on an evening stroll as the novel concludes. And yet these are all imagined events, superimposed on the PEI canvas—until one reads more about Montgomery’s life. There, in the pages of her journals, which were first made available to the public in 1985 (edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston), is where the real and the fictional intersect.

Catherine Reid

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES STORY STRUCTURE

Anne of Green Gables is episodic in nature, but the character development of Anne (and Marilla and Matthew) is linear. I discuss the episodic/linear nature of Anne of Green Gables in Types Of Plots In Children’s Literature.

PARATEXT

…illustrations in children’s books contribute to our perception of character, giving an instant and immediate external portrait. Even when a novel is not illustrated, a cover picture may be revealing enough. Even a very brief examination of a number of covers to classics such as Anne of Green Gables shows how a visual portrait of a character can influence our expectations. In existing covers, Anne is portrayed sometimes older, sometimes younger, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes very pretty, which contradicts the text, and sometimes plain, in consistency with the text. In any case, the cover signals that the protagonist is a young white female. This may make adult, male, and non-Caucasian readers reject the novel.

How Picturebooks Work by Scott and Nikolajeva

There are so many exceptionally good books with strong female characters, but not nearly enough, and boys are not encouraged to immerse themselves in them. How many people would never consider buying Anne of Green Gables or Island of the Blue Dolphins for their 10-year old boy, but don’t pause before giving a daughter Treasure Island or Enders Game? Books featuring girls are, for the most part, understood to be books for girls. Which is interesting as well because, in addition to there not being enough, books featuring girls as protagonists are disproportionately among the most frequently banned children’s books. In a recent Buzzfeed list of 15 commonly banned books for kids, almost half were about girls. Girls who do things apparently scare a lot of people.

What Does it Mean that Most Children’s Books Are Still About White Boys? by Soraya Chemaly

SHORTCOMING

Anne has the same shortcoming as Cinderella — all alone in the world with literally no one but her imaginary friend Katie. Audiences love an underdog character, and Anne is nothing if not an underdog.

  1. She’s a destitute orphan
  2. A girl
  3. Red hair

As each of these main underdog attributes is overcome, the next becomes an issue. The fact that Anne is a girl places the story firmly in its era — big budget stories are still being made where female characters have to prove themselves first (which usually involves being ‘feisty’, and making it among the boys on an adventure outside the home), but this generation of children is finally starting to see stories about girls whose femaleness is not something that makes them an underdog.

Anne needs to find someone to love her in order to find fulfilment. First she must find parental figures. Later, because old people die, she must find a romantic partner. Anne of Green Gables is a love story as well as a romance.

Anne of Green Gables is in some ways a very modern story. Whereas many 20th century films and books were about women waiting for men to save them, Anne Shirley works hard and we know she’d be just fine even without her Gilbert. Our culture has even reached the point where we get popular films such as Bridesmaids, about seriously flawed women (not even attractively flawed) who must get themselves ready for equal partnership before they can find love.

Like the perfect job interview (and the perfect kidlit heroine), each of Anne’s shortcomings has a flipside strength:

  1. She is imaginative but prone to distraction. (I argue that Anne Shirley is an ADHD girl through and through.)
  2. She is smart at school but also smart mouthed (audiences love, love, love a character who has the nerve to say what she thinks — it explains the cosiness of Doc Martin, too, popular with an older audience).
  3. She appreciates all that is beautiful but remains toxically dissatisfied with her own lack thereof.
  4. She is tenacious but stubborn. Her tenaciousness gets her far in academia but until she overcomes her stubbornness she won’t get far in love.
  5. She is infectiously full of the joys of spring but immature.

DESIRE

Anne has neither the age nor wisdom to see what her real desires are. Though we as audience can see that her red hair should really be the least of her worries given her dire predicament at the start of the story, Anne gives her hair an undue amount of attention. When Marilla teaches her how to pray, Anne ‘asks humbly’ to:

  1. Stay at Green Gables
  2. Grow darker hair

Both requests indicate Anne’s deeper seated and far more serious need to be accepted and admired.

The lesson here is that main characters don’t necessarily know (or voice) what they want. But the audience must know.

OPPONENT

On her journey Anne meets the full complement of both developed and flat allies, enemies, fake-enemies and fake-allies. The allies are famously described by Anne as kindred spirits.

Although at the beginning of the story Anne has no one and the whole world seems against her, as soon as she hits Avonlea strangers show various kindnesses. For example, there’s the station attendant who is charmed by her. I suspect Anne has always found comfort in the small kindnesses of strangers she meets along the way.

The flattest enemies are the women who abuse Anne by requiring her to look after their many children, all the while psychologically abusing her. First we have Mrs Hammond; next we have the prospect of the local Mrs Bluitt, whose very name suggests Anne would not be happy. As a side note, revisiting the story again as an adult, especially as we face the prospect of re-entering a world in which men control the fertility of women, I have more sympathy for Mrs Hammond as a victim. The 1980s miniseries starring Megan Follows almost encourages the viewer to read Mrs Hammond as lesbian, about to move in with her possessive, shoulder-rubbing female friend as she accuses Anne of basically killing the husband herself, with her failure to deliver lunch on time. What if Mrs Hammond was gay? What if she never wanted any children at all, but was stuck with all those twins? In a pre-contraceptive age, Mrs Hammond is arguably as much as a victim as Anne Shirley.

Marilla is an opponent who turns into Anne’s firmest ally by the end of the book.

Miss Shirley is a Miss Honey archetype (used by Roald Dahl in Matilda), an ally in every way.

Soon a pattern emerges — Anne is universally liked by good people, even if those people are crotchety on the surface. Diana’s auntie is the best example of that. Anne is a bit of a blow-in saviour trope, though rather than leaving town for good, she is pulled away to complete different parts of her life’s journey, returning every now and then.

In any love story, the desire and opponent are the same person. This is specific to love stories. So, Gilbert Blythe is both desired and an opponent. Same for Marilla, actually, because this is a story about a girl falling in love with her (substitute) parents.

There is a romantic triangle in Anne of Green Gables, since it is clear from the start that Diana Barry admires Gilbert Blythe. But because readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the first character they see, we are all rooting for Anne and Gilbert, even though Diana probably ‘deserves’ him more, if you think about it. We can see Diana isn’t quite smart (or educated) enough for Gilbert though, who is obviously more interested in fiery women like Anne. How does Montgomery manage readers to the point where we don’t end up mad and frustrated at Anne for her stubborn resistance to Gilbert? Diana realizes Gilbert isn’t her destiny. After a conversation with Anne near the end of the book, we are left with the impression that while Diana will pursue Gilbert if Anne doesn’t want him, she’ll happily give him over to Anne.

Josie Pye is a different matter — Josie is that snobby, girly character found in most popular books for girls — a girl who thinks she’s better than other people (the worst thing a girl can possibly be). Josie is rich but not academically inclined. She is well-dressed and confident and sees Anne as her rival, setting up a rivalry even before Anne has noticed she exists. This ensures the audience dislikes Josie Pye. Josie is not all that interested in Gilbert — she is mostly keen to deprive Anne of him.

BIG STRUGGLE

Anne’s childlike, episodic adventures at Avonlea culminate in a ‘near drowning’ (which is no such thing), but the suggestion of death is there. A common storytelling technique in middle grade is to have another character come to the rescue of your protagonist. In this case it’s not a true rescue, more of a farce, as if acted upon a stage (where Anne often imagines herself, in fact). The rule here is that your main character still has to help themselves when it comes the character arc. They can be helped out in some sticky plot situation, but ultimately, change is up to them.

By the way, is there a deeper meaning to Anne’s obsession with The Lady of Shalott? Since it occurs at a climactic moment, I suggest there is. Doomed to view life through reflections, the Lady’s life is a mere shadow with no experiences of her own. Like The Lady of Shalott, Anne is inclined to live vicariously via women whose lives she has invented inside her head. This is the very thing preventing her pursuing anything in real life with Gilbert, right there in front of her.

an oil painting of The Lady of Shalott from 1888

Anne’s obsession with Tennyson’s poem isn’t really helping her get over her red hair issues, because it encourages us to focus on form over substance. The leak in the boat symbolises her psychological shortcoming — it will be her undoing — she needs the love of Gilbert to teach her she is in fact worthy in her own right. Signfiicantly, Gilbert has said he prefers brains over beauty anyway.

ANAGNORISIS

The Main Plot

Anne learns that she truly belongs to Avonlea, even if she started out as an unwanted orphan. She has won numerous people over and spurred their own character arc (especially that of Marilla and Matthew, but also that of Rachel Lynde, Diana Barry’s mother and the crotchety old maid aunt*).

*As a side note, why is Diana’s old maid aunt so much richer than Diana’s natal family? My own guess is that Diana’s extended family is aristocratic by heritage, but perhaps the father made some bad investments and they have since lost most of it, which is why the aunt is the only one still able to pay for Diana’s music lessons. In this sense, Diana is very much like Jane Bennett — not only docile and beautiful and kind but also in a financially precarious position unless she marries well — and she will be expected to marry well in order to haul the financially failing family back into Prince Edward Island’s gentry class.

The Romantic Subplot

When Gilbert reveals that he and Anne tied for first in the Queens exam it is clear to Anne, seemingly for the first time, that they are true equals. This will eventually lead to a full-blown romance and marriage, but not in this first book.

NEW SITUATION

After the death of Matthew we are left with Anne and Marilla together — Anne wants the best for Marilla and Marilla wants the best for Anne (college). These two goals will continue to butt heads and we’re not quite sure exactly what happiness will look like for these two, but when Gilbert offers to walk Anne home we know those two are going to end up together and we know for sure that Anne is going to look after Marilla in her old age.

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READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Storytelling Notes On A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2017)

Unfortunate Events Netflix

Daniel Handler wrote the teleplay (as well as the books) to the Netflix adaptation of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The author’s voice and politics come through loud and clear.

Handler loves wordplay, and is not shy of delivering a ‘moral lesson’ on the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’. Words and their meanings are consistently explained, but because Klaus, at least, already knows what the words mean, the young viewer does not feel condescended to. The joke is almost always on Count Olaf. Handler also has a keen handle on the most common storytelling tropes in children’s literature, and makes fun of them whenever he can. Lemony Snicket is on the side of the child.

In the books the storyteller is hidden from view, but for the television series Lemony Snicket is portrayed in the form of Patrick Warburton, whose formal dress juxtaposes with the humorous positions he is placed in: sitting on a lifesaver’s chair, coming out of a sewerage hole in the middle of the street and so on. See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.

This is the fist scene in which Lemony Snicket tells us to look away. We are put in mind of film noir (which is not a genre by the way, more a stylistic descriptor invented by critics).

Storyteller as ghostly lifeguard

A Series Of Unfortunate Events is famously metafictive, in which a character called Lemony Snicket warns children that this is going to be a terrible, horrible tale and they’d best turn away. Tongue-in-cheek reverse psychology. This advice is taken to its metaphorical limit in the TV series, in which the theme song advises us to ‘look away, look away!’ Then we have all the eye imagery — the viewfinder views, Count Olaf’s gaze through the peep hole (the first the Baudelaire children see of him), his eye tattoo and so on.

The cinematography of the Netflix TV series seems influenced by the films of Wes Anderson, both in symmetry and in colour. An audience knows to expect quirky from this style, and dark humour. (It was filmed in British Colombia, Canada, and you may recognise an actor or two from Orphan Black.)

Two point perspective as a train rolls past a static camera

The reflection of the old mansion allows the viewer to see both the children’s expressions as well as what they are saying goodbye to.

I’m guessing the clouds have been digitally manufactured in this distinctively storybook scene.

The brother and sister Baudelaire children stand in for ‘The Everychild’. They do not have all that much in the way of personality, aside from being inherently good and kind and well-behaved. There are differences between them — while I read Klaus as an autist, Violet is a comically Pollyanna character, determined to make the most of the situation when she asks Klaus to come across the worst predicament he’s ever encountered in his reading, then concludes they are not so badly off. Again, this is Daniel Handler making fun of the character trope that girls and boys in popular children’s stories are expected to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’. This doesn’t matter — we have Count Olaf for the laughs. In fact, all of the surrounding characters have more quirks and personality than Violet and Klaus, who, like the child audience, are newcomers to the situation and are to be read as ‘normal’.

The baby has magic super powers — she can chew things to pieces, and even create entirely new objects simply by using her four teeth. Her baby language is treated as if it’s an entirely different language, which only her siblings and surprising other characters are able to understand to the exclusion of everyone else. The baby’s words are subtitled in a font from the silent film era.

This setting is an example of Magic Realism. It also has steampunk elements, not so different from the Spy Kids series, in which our child heroes are expert at building contraptions. These expertise are first shown as a means of them having fun (retrieving the perfect skimming stone from the ocean), but of course these skills come in handy later, to get themselves out of dire trouble.

“It’s only scary because of the mist,” Klaus says metafictively, as Mr Poe (surely named after the horror writer?) approaches them on the beach to deliver terrible news. See: Fog Symbolism.

“It’s only scary because of the mist.”

A lot of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between the fairytale setting and very modern problems. For instance, when Hook-Handed Man ruins an old-fashioned typewriter (because he has hooks for hands) he asks for IT support. When Count Olaf says Violet will be marrying him ‘in an hour’ he upends a giant hourglass which he can’t remember the name of. This is making use of the classic ‘ticking clock’ storytelling device, often used to heighten suspense, but when the timer runs out nothing happens, except for Count Olaf losing face by returning through the trapdoor of the attic to explain that, actually, he bought the thing online and he didn’t know the sand went through so quickly so the children will have to turn it over a few times.

Handler is a master of irony, and there is irony in every scene and in a large proportion of the dialogue. For example, the Baudelaire children are at first taken to Mr Poe’s family — an archetypal cosy house with both parents, full of children and a well-coiffed mother in an apron who at first appears to be the epitome of a caring 1950s housewife.

We soon learn, however, that not all is well in the suburbs and she is in fact unwelcoming, taking obvious and great pleasure in the publicity she is able to garner for her own family via this tragic event.

Later that night, her children ask the Baudelaires how they managed to kill their parents, presumably because they’re hoping to do the same. The following morning we see just how small and ‘cosy’ the Poes’ house really is. Small-minded people live in very small houses — ‘cramped’, more than ‘cosy’, as first suggested by the dining table scene.

 

“I know he’s very eager to meet you and he’s employed as an actor so you know his excitement is genuine.”

This ironic tone pairs very nicely — like a great pair of serif/sans serif fonts — with the fact that much of the dialogue is in fact ‘on the nose’. The plot itself is signposted. While we are busy enjoying the setting and humour, we are not expected to work too hard to understand what is going on.

“Chop chop, Baudelaires. Now that I’ve found you a suitable guardian I’m going to take you to your new home before banking hours begin.”

Daniel Handler is firmly on the side of the child audience.

Mr Poe: “I know you must be nervous about living with a guardian. I know how I was when I was your age.”
Klaus: “We’re all different ages.”

The joke is repeated again later when another clueless adult — Count Olaf — talks about how much he loved cupcakes when he was ‘their age’. Again, Klaus repeats, “But we’re all different ages.” As is the child audience. More proof that in Daniel Handler’s writer’s mind, the Baudelaire children stand for The Audience In General. Also, we are not to believe adults who use the annoying phrase, “When I was your age”.

When Klaus expresses dismay at Count Olaf’s having a tattoo of an eye on his ankle (not to mention all the obvious eyeball paraphernalia about the house), the very reasonable and politically correct Violet advises her brother, as well as the audience, that tattoos are simply a decorative pigmentation of the skin and do not mean the person wearing them is bad. This stands in stark contrast with much characterisation from The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature in particular, in which we were actively encouraged to judge baddies based on what they look like.

A mystery is introduced when the children find a strange object hidden in the rubble of their family home.

Cinderella is the ur-tale behind A Series Of Unfortunate Events. We have poor orphans who have lost their caring and excellent real parents and who are sent to live in a big house which is emotionally bereft. They are forced to endure terrible hardships, though not of the realworld kind — that would be too cruel and not at all for children — cleaning and scrubbing and cooking and always failing to win approval. Basically an exaggerated form of how generally-cared-for children feel when they’re feeling a bit sorry for themselves.

The parents are not actually dead. We are reassured of this at the end of the first episode.

Why is it not more tragic that the parents (apparently) die in a terrible fire right at the beginning of the story? Because we don’t know the parents. The history of children’s literature (particularly American children’s literature) is chock full of orphans. If we don’t get to know them, their deaths are not sad per se, rather the plight of the children is the sad thing. See: Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature?

The dark, empty mansion belonging to Count Olaf is contrasted with the inverse living right across the road — Justice Strauss who is not the slightest bit evil, has a garden full of blossoms, a beautiful big library and is a very caring person. Extreme evil against extreme nice. Comic characters are often 2D and that’s just fine. These are dream houses, to use the terminology of Gaston Bachelard, so of course they have stairs, basements and attics. See: Symbolism Of The Dream House.

This is all we see of the Baudelaire children’s house before it is razed to the ground — a wonderful, warm library (and no parents in sight).

When the camera pans from Justice Strauss’s house to Count Olaf’s gothic mansion the camera follows a blue bird flying happily. Unfortunately, in the middle of the street, a raven swoops down and kills it. A raven in storytelling probably puts you in mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, among many others. The raven is a metaphor for death, understood by young audiences and jaded ones alike.

Blue bird, and blue sky on the sunny side of the street.

Raven swoops in front of Count Olaf’s mansion

Count Olaf himself is birdlike, watching the children from his bird’s eye view in the belfry.

Count Olaf ‘welcomes’ the children to his home.

It’s such a shame the Baudelaire children can’t live with Justice Strauss, and we are made to feel it keenly. This regret is underscored by her declaration that she’s just bought a new food processor, but who does she think she’s kidding because “I have no mechanical skills whatsoever”. Since we already know the children are expert mechanics, they would obviously be a great fit. Moreover, she has no way of cutting up the baguette, which the baby is excellent at doing with her teeth.

meeting Justice Strauss

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Absent Parents In Children’s Literature

One job for children’s authors is to get adults out of the way so child characters can solve their own problems.

“There are an awful lot of books about ‘I love you mummy’. ‘Yes, I love you, too, darling little bear!’ I’m not saying there’s not a place for those, but there’s so many books on that which I think are probably quite reassuring for the parents,” Donaldson said. “Most children I would hope take for granted that their parents or carers love them. They want a story where you’re not with them, and you’re having some sort of adventure.”

Julia Donaldson, The Guardian

Throughout the history of children’s literature, some subgenres are slightly more likely to get rid of parents than others. One type of story which almost always gets parents out of the way: Enchanted realism (Sheila Egoff’s term), especially those stories set in cities.

Parental figures seem to be absent or to have minimal in their involvement with the child protagonists in many of these texts. Both Harriet and Eloise have nannies that are more central than their parents, Aremis Slake [Slake’s Limbo 1974] has run away from home, and Jonathan (in Munsch’s picture book) ventures downtown, presumably alone, to discover the secrets of the subway. Moreover, many of these protagonists illustrate conflicted identities for urban children, whereby they are active participants in the adult world, yet still maintain a child’s perspective of the city.

Naomi Hamer

How do you feel about adults helping children in children’s books?

Some time ago Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built (among many others), spoke with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand.

Spufford isn’t a fan of the hugely popular Tracy Beaker series by Jacqueline Wilson because he’d rather there wasn’t an ongoing series devoted to the continuing uselessness of adults. He argues that uselessness should be leavened with a bit of helpfulness here and there.

EVERY AGE HAS ITS CONVENTIONS

Kim Hill of RNZ’s Saturday Morning radio program points out that a few generations ago there was a general absence of parental figures in children’s stories but now the adults are often present, and psychotic a lot of the time. Spufford says that there used to be plot contrivances to get parents out of the way. Now the adults are the problem. Every age has its conventions and adult depravity is presently one of the conventions. Spufford doesn’t like it because it’s unrealistic in the opposite direction. A world in which a child only knows about ‘stranger danger’ is bad.

When children’s authors want to get parents out of the way, how do they achieve this?

TECHNIQUE 1: PARENTS/CAREGIVERS TOO BUSY WITH WORK

absent parent in Pip: The Story Of Olive

In Pip: The Story Of Olive, an upper middle-grade novel by Australian Kim Kane, the mother of the main character is a busy and successful lawyer, left at home alone to tuck herself into bed with a hottie, but with full access to a credit card. When Pip tries to tell her mother (Mog) on the phone what’s been going on in her life, the mother gets interrupted by work colleagues, because they’re working on a big case, and so Olive is left to conclude that talking to her mother is a wasted effort.

TECHNIQUE 2: PARENTS ARE INADEQUATE

Jacqueline Wilson has written a number of such parents. In these cases, the children have to step in and be little adults. The main character is usually the eldest of a group of siblings and has to look after the younger ones.

Another example of the inadequate parent is the highly eccentric adult. One example is Ole Golly from Harriet the Spy. Sheila Egoff describes this adult as “the parody of an eccentric. She has the fondness for inserting quotations from famous writers into any conversation, no matter how irrelevant the quotation may be”. Such an adult cannot be trusted to help a young character out in a sticky situation; the child is functionally on their own.

TECHNIQUE 3: THE CHILDREN ARE ORPHANS

Even orphans tend to have assigned caregivers, but in stories these caregivers cannot possible care about someone else’s children as much as they would their own. This says something rather disturbing about parents who adopt and extended family members who care for nieces and nephews. However, there is a long history of orphans in kidlit, especially when that kidlit is American.

See: Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature?

Closely related to this, the children are in foster care and the foster parents are neglectful. This has of course lead to a corpus of literature in which foster parents are portrayed as bad people to a problematic extent.

TECHNIQUE 4: COMMUNICATION IS SUBVERTED UNINTENTIONALLY

E. Nesbit makes use of this technique in Five Children and It when the children sit down to write to their mother, telling her all about the Psammead. First, they don’t know how to spell Psammead, nor can they find it in the dictionary. Next, ink gets spilt all over the letter. Finally it’s time for the postman to arrive and pick up the mail, so the news is truncated to ‘We found something very interesting’. Nesbit’s narrator explains that this is the reason why the mother was never told about the sand fairy who can grant one wish per day.

It was perhaps easier for mid 20th century authors to get rid of the parents without necessarily making them inadequate — it is only this generation of parents who are chastised for sending their kids to the park without an adult to supervise. Even if children’s literature exaggerates the extent to which children were alone, for the modern reader, we can imagine the wartime era was a time of genuine, uninhibited freedom for children whose parents were occupied with matters of life and death.

TECHNIQUE 5: PARENTS/CAREGIVERS ARE INCURIOUS

I’ve written an entire post about curious/incurious characters in storytelling. In children’s literature, it’s handy if the parents aren’t interested in what their children are up to.

Another take on the incurious adult is the ‘vague’ adult, a la Mrs Arable of Charlotte’s Web.

Update

Children’s editor Cheryl Klein has since covered this topic in her newsletter and has some useful advice. She writes:

In present reality, kids must be supervised at all times or parents can be accused of negligence — and many kids like such supervision, in my understanding, or may not want to be without their parents or break the rules. And yet it is also a Great Law of Children’s Literature that any middle-grade novel must be centered on a child who is free to act as necessary, who will drive the action and ultimately solve the story, and grown-ups, by their very nature, get in the way of all of that. It will be very difficult to find an editor who does not believe in this Great Law, so It seems to me you have three options here:

1. Quash your instincts. If you’re protecting your characters and making sure they’re always adequately supervised, you are acting like your characters’ mother. As much as you might love your characters, you need to remember you are not their mother:  You’re their Fight Club manager, and it’s your job to get them into trouble, or let them get themselves into trouble, and then maximize that drama on behalf of readers. This can be hard to do, but if you want to write an adventure, you have to let go.

2. Find a way to make the adults less responsible or less able to save the day. The circumstances will depend on the plot of your novel and the nature of your characters, but:  Perhaps the mom is an alcoholic or works the night shift, so while she’s around, she’s not always reliable as a guide. Or perhaps the dad knows he’s a helicopter parent, so he’s consciously trying to step back and have his kid take more risks. Or perhaps the terms of the adventure dictate (for whatever reason) that only a person under the age of 18 can solve the final puzzle. Something like that might let the parents be present, but still provide a limitation on their powers that allows the child to act.

3. Shape your novel for a market where adult-centrism will be appreciated. I’m not sure about this one, but perhaps your book could work in the Christian children’s fiction market, where readers might appreciate more deference to parental authority?

STORIES OFTEN START WITH ADULTS NOT SHOWING UP

Here’s a different take. Margaret Mahy said of her novel The Riddle of the Frozen Phantom that the idea started like this:

I imagined some explorer like Scott or Shackleton…being suddenly deserted by his babysitter…[and] had to take his kids along with his polypropylene waistcoat & mukluks

Margaret Mahy

Although the children end up going with the parent, rather than being abandoned by them, there was still some kind of abandonment when the prearranged babysitter couldn’t show up at the last minute.

Margaret Mahy was a well-known New Zealand author of children’s and young adult books. While the plots of many of her books have strong supernatural elements, her writing concentrates on the themes of human relationships and growing up.

In this adventure,  a seasoned adventurer and his children who embark on an adventure to the antartic to find a lost ship, among other things. Along the way they are challenged by cartoonish baddies and even encounter the paranormal.

When coming up with an idea for a children’s story, it’s often a good idea to throw in the question: How might I get adults out of the way? Unless we do that, we’re inclined to accidentally put adults into the story more than they need to be there.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Why so many orphans in children’s literature?

Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Orphans

Orphans in modern literature evolved from orphans of folk and fairytales. There are many orphans in American and British children’s literature, but also in literature from around the world. Some communities have always been set up with strong social networks. Even if parents die, there are no true orphans because the extended family will care for them.

Henry Nelson O'Neil - Mother Depositing Her Child in the Foundling Hospital in Paris
Henry Nelson O’Neil – Mother Depositing Her Child in the Foundling Hospital in Paris
Walter Crane London Town
Walter Crane London Town

There are no orphans in traditional Hopi society. It would be culturally impossible for a child to fall right through their densely failsafe weave of family, no matter who died. If there was no father or mother, there would be an aunt; if there were no aunts or uncles, there would be a cousin; if there were no cousins, there would still be someone. But even for Hopis, the situation of abandonment seems to be a necessary one to imagine, to hug to oneself in the form of a story. It focuses a self-pity that everyone wants to feel sometimes, and that perhaps helps a child or an adolescent to think through their fundamental separateness. The situation expresses the solitude humans discover as we grow up no matter how well our kinship systems work.

The Child That Books Built

Yet stories of abandonment seem to be a universal, no matter the culture.

Augustus Edwin Mulready - Uncared For 1871 orphan
Augustus Edwin Mulready – Uncared For 1871

WELL-KNOWN LITERARY ORPHANS

American children’s literature has a particularly strong tradition of orphaned — or ‘functionally’ orphaned — child protagonists.

  • The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen does have a father at home, but since she’s in charge of financing her own life, she is functionally an orphan.
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy
  • Tarzan of the Apes
  • The Prince and the Pauper
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — It’s commonly said that Jim is a surrogate father who replaces inadequate Pap. Others have said that Huck is having an oedipal crisis, and Jim and Huck are a homoerotic archetype rather than father and son archetype.
  • Toby Tyler
  • Hans Brinker
  • The Secret Garden
  • Pollyanna
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Max of the Wild Things
  • Peter Rabbit
  • Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden
  • Stuart Little
  • Weetzie Bat
  • Harry Potter
  • Lyra and Will from Pullman’s Northern Lights
  • Dorothy who went on a mythical journey to see The Wizard Of Oz lived with her aunt and uncle in Kansas
  • Kira of Gathering Blue
  • Mowgli of Kipling’s Jungle Book
  • Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island
  • The children of Swallows and Amazons
  • Brian from Hatchet
  • Jerry Renault from The Chocolate War
  • In modern middle grade fiction, Crow in Lauren Wolk’s Beyond The Bright Sea wants to find out who she really is, especially in relation to where she comes from. The ideology behind such stories is that you can’t possibly find out where you’re going until you find out where you’ve come from. But in the end she realises that her real family is her found family.
  • Bye Bye Baby is a fairly rare example of an orphaned picture book character — perhaps quite disturbing for actual toddlers, but funny for adult co-readers who are (over-) familiar with the orphaned child sob story. This picture book ends as a found-family narrative.

ORPHANS AND REALISM

Stories in the 1960s and 1970s of the stories children themselves tell at two and three found a relationship between how ‘socially acceptable’ the actions in them were, and how much they took place in the recognisable everyday world of the child’s own experience. If they included taboo behaviour like hitting a parent or wetting yourself, or major reversals of emotional security, like having a parent die or being abandoned by parents, they were less likely to have a realistic setting (69 percent versus 94 per cent), less likely to feature the teller as a character (13 per cent versus 39 per cent), and much less likely to be told in the present tense (19 per cent versus 56  per cent.) Dangerous things were moved further away in place and in time, and were not allowed to happen even to a proxy with the same name as the child. Children a year or two older no longer varied the present tense and past tense, because they consistently told all stories in the past tense; but they used settings in the same way, moving the troubling material outward into fantasy, into the zones where a story event reflected a real event less directly… To castles pirate ships, space; to the forest. There, the terrible things you might do, and the terrible things that might happen to you — not always easy to separate — can be explored without them jostling the images you most want to guard, the precious representations of your essential security.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford

Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life…until now.

Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.

It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan. Times may be hard, and ten-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but Bud’s got a few things going for him:

He has his own suitcase full of special things.

He’s the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.

His momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers advertising Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!

Bud’s got an idea that those flyers will lead him to his father. Once he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop him–not hunger, not fear, not vampires, not even Herman E. Calloway himself.

Nine is an orphan pickpocket determined to escape her life in the Nest of a Thousand Treasures. When she steals a house-shaped ornament from a mysterious woman’s purse, she knocks on its tiny door and watches it grow into a huge, higgledy-piggeldy house. Inside she finds a host of magical and brilliantly funny characters, including Flabberghast – a young wizard who’s particularly competitive at hopscotch – and a hideous troll housekeeper who’s emotionally attached to his feather duster. They have been placed under an extraordinary spell, which they are desperate for Nine to break. If she can, maybe they can offer her a new life in return…

illustration of Little Orphan Annie from 'The Golden Book of Poetry, 85 Childhood Favorites, art by Gertrude Elliott
illustration of Little Orphan Annie from ‘The Golden Book of Poetry, 85 Childhood Favorites, art by Gertrude Elliott

WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR ALL THESE ORPHANS?

This is almost too obvious to mention, but in earlier times there were, literally, a lot more orphans. People died younger. Women frequently died in childbirth.

So, why do so many mothers die in fairytales and other stories? I could be wrong, but I have pondered it, and had even before I was asked the question.

If stories are told and re-told because they contain survival information, as I and others have argued, then why so many stories with deceased moms?

Because, I think, for most of human history this was not an uncommon occurrence. Mothers did die, often in childbirth. But children need to know that life goes on and that they can survive even this ordeal. In Bruno Bettelheim’s* book on the subject of fairytales, The Uses of Enchantment, he points out that often there is fairy godmother or some such figure that is a kind of ghost of the mother looking after her child even after death.

Why Don’t People Ask Why?
*Bettelheim was an asshole who probably set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)

Less obvious to modern readers are social customs which meant children were quite frequently without their mothers even if the mothers hadn’t died. When women and children are treated as chattels, the importance of the woman, even as mother, is not necessarily honoured. A woman’s place was especially tenuous before the custom of the eldest son inheriting everything. (Problematic as that was in its own right.)

The chronicles of the Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian dynasties, before the establishment of primogeniture, are bespattered with the blood of possible herbs, done away with by consorts ambitious for their own progeny — the true wicked stepmothers of history, who become embedded in stories as eternal truths. Moreover, children whose fathers had died often stayed in the paternal house, to be raised by their grandparents or uncles and their wives. Their mothers were made to return to their natal homes, and to forge another, advantageous alliance for their own parents’ future. Widows remarried less frequently than widowers.

From The Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner

In other words, children belonged to the household (their father), and the women were required as vessels, but after that, frequently disposed of.

Apart from the culture of primogeniture, there was also:

  • general patrilineage (in which children belong to the father)
  • dotal obligations (ie. the customs around dowries, in which the woman’s family is required to give resources to the man’s family in exchange for ostensibly looking after here. There are many knock-on effects from these customs, which is why it has been banned in countries such as India.)
  • female exogamy (in which women are required to marry outside their own social group, often moving far away with no more support from her natal family or childhood friends. In this case, if the marriage breaks up, the woman is sent far from her children.)
  • polygamy (in which fathers had more than one wife, each competing for scarce resources, and in which sister wives shared the childcare, inheriting children if one of them dies)
Walter Langley - The Orphan
Walter Langley – The Orphan

ORPHANS IN CONTEMPORARY STORIES

Why is there still a disproportionate number of kids without parents, even in contemporary literature?

First, an unexpected answer. Alison Lurie has noticed that authors of classic children’s literature may have been disproportionately orphaned themselves:

The classic makers of children’s literature are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods — or consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain — or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one continent to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. Though she was primarily an artist rather than a writer, Kate Greenaway belongs in this category.

Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature

In Audacious Kids, Jerry Griswold puts the large numbers of orphans in children’s literature down (partly) to intertextuality — in other words, authors were borrowing from each other, and this led to a whole bunch of orphans.

Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1876), for example, clearly inspired the story of Rebecca Sawyer when Kate Douglas Wiggin decided to write about a tomboy in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903). In the same way, the subplot of Laurie and his grandfather in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) seems to me to have been enlarged and become the story of Cedric and his grandfather in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885) — a novel that served, in turn, as the basis for Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna (1913).

But perhaps this is the most important reason for the prevalence of orphans throughout children’s literature: It gets adults out of the way, allows for psychological growth and ‘an equally exciting and disturbing idea’:

The prevalence of orphans in children’s fiction seems to relate to a central concern adults have with children’s independence and security. Orphans are of necessity independent, free to have adventures without the constraints of protective adults. At the same time, they automatically are faced with the danger and discomfort of lack of parental love. Childhood is usually understood as that time of life when one needs parental love and control. As a result, it seems, adults tend to believe that the possibility of being orphaned—of having the independence one wants and yet having to do without the love one needs—is an exciting and disturbing idea for children who are not in fact orphans, and a matter of immediate interest for those who are. In depicting orphans, writers can focus on children’s desire for independence, or on their fear of loss of security. In some cases, they offer interesting combinations of the two, as in Wolff’s Make Lemonade: one young girl teachers another independence by offering comfort and security. In doing so, she herself must learn, first, to compromise her own desire for independence and then, eventually, to give up the comfort of the relationship and become independent again.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Reimer and Nodelman

(There are other ways of getting adults out of the way of child heroes in children’s stories. It’s not entirely necessary to kill the mother off.)

THE SURPRISING COMFORT OF DEAD MOTHERS

Far fewer modern children have lost their mothers, though many are estranged from a parent or a grandparent. Still others fear losing their mother. Marina Warner makes the case that a dead mother in a story is, paradoxically, a comfort to a child:

[Dead mother fantasy] can also comfort bereaved children, who, however irrationally, feel themselves abandoned by their dead mothers, and even guilty for their disappearance. One English Cinderella story, called ‘Tattercoats’, perceptively focusses on this type of grief: the king figure mistreats his granddaughter ‘because at her birth, his favourite daughter died’. In this case, her ragged, starving, neglected state reflects his excess of mourning and her anguished guilt, and neither of them can be healed of the wound — the story has an unhappy ending.

FromThe Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner

Warner also points out how the Grimms had a huge influence on storytelling for children, and they had their own reasons for getting rid of mothers:

Paradoxically, the best possible intentions can also contribute to the absence of mothers from the tales. In the case of ‘Schneewittchen’ (Snow White), for instance, the Grimm altered the earlier versions they had taken down in which Snow White’s own mother suffered murderous jealousy of her and persecuted her. The 1819 edition is the first to introduce a stepmother in her place; the manuscript and the editions of 1810 and 1812 place Snow White’s natural mother at the pivot of the violent plot. But it was altered so that a mother should not be seen to torment a daughter. […]

Wilhelm [Grimm] in particular [infused] the new editions [of the Grimm fairy tales] with his Christian fervour, emboldening the moral strokes of the plot, meting out penalties to the wicked and rewards to the just, to conform with prevailing Christian and social values. They also softened the harshness — especially in family dramas. They could not make it disappear altogether, but in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, for example, they added the father’s miserable reluctance to an earlier version in which both parents had proposed the abandonment of their children, and turned the mother into wicked stepmother. On the whole, they tended towards sparing the father’s villainy, and substituting another wife for the natural mother, who had figured as the villain in the versions they had been told: they felt obliged to deal less harshly with mothers than the female storytellers whose material they were setting down.

The disappearance here of the original mothers forms a response to the harshness of the material: in their romantic idealism, the Grimms literally could not bear a maternal presence to be equivocal, or dangerous, and preferred to banish her altogether.r Fro them, the bad mother had to disappear in order for the ideal to survive and allow Mother to flourish as symbol of the eternal feminine, the motherland, and the family itself as the highest social desideratum.

From The Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner

THE ORPHAN UR-STORY STRUCTURE

Writing about American children’s literature, Griswold explains what turns up again and again in the ‘basic plot’, or the ‘ur-story’ of the orphaned child:

  • A child is born to parents who married despite the objections of others.
  • For a time, the family is well-to-do, members of the nobility or otherwise happy and prosperous.
  • Then the child’s parents die/The child is separated from its parents and effectively orphaned.
  • Without their protection, the child suffers from poverty and neglect and (if nobly born) dispossessed.
  • The hero/ine makes a journey to another place and is adopted into a second family.
  • In these new circumstances the child is treated harshly by an adult guardian of the same sex but sometimes has help from an adult of the opposite sex.
  • Eventually, however, the child triumphs over its antagonist and is acknowledged.
  • Finally, some accommodation is reached between the two discordant phases of the child’s past: life in the original or biological family and life in the second or adoptive family.

Maria Nikolajeva has also outlined these points and attributes the pattern to the fairytale family of Cinderella.

Maria Nikolajeva also makes a distinction between sad death and emotionless death when writing about the orphans in The Secret Garden. Death of the parents is sometimes just a plot device rather than something that leads to psychological growth:

A great number of fairy tales begin with the death of one or both parents, which sets in motion all the further events and complications of the plot. […] Just as we do not feel sorry for the death of the fairy-tale hero’s parents, because it is an indispensable part of the plot, we do not feel sorry for the death of Mary [Lennox’s] parents or Colin’s mother (especially since we do not feel much empathy with either of the children on the whole). Neither do the children grieve their dead, for different reasons. Colin has never met his mother, and the servants are forbidden to speak of her (ritual taboo!). […] while death certainly has a ritual function in the novel, it is not the kind of death that brings about the characters’ insight about their own mortality. On the contrary, the most important part of Colin’s development implies the change from his firm belief that he will soon die to an equally firm belief that he will not die at all, from “No one believes I shall live to grow up to “I shall live forever and ever and ever!”

Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Marina Warner makes the same point but uses Beauty and the Beast as an example:

The absence of the mother from the tale is often declared at the start, without explanation, as if none were required; Beauty appears before us, in the opening paragraph of the earliest written version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ with that title, in 1740, as a daughter to her father, a sister to her six elders, a biblical seventh child, the cadette, the favourite: nothing is spoken about her father’s wife. Later, it will turn out that Beauty is a foundling, and was left by the fairies, after her fairy mother was disgraced by union with a mortal — not the father Beauty knows, but another, higher in rank, more powerful.

From The Beast To The Blonde by Marina Warner

The City was built on a sharp mountain that jutted improbably from the sea, and the sea kept trying to claim it back. That grey morning, once the tide had retreated, a whale was found on a rooftop.

When a mysterious boy washes in with the tide, the citizens believe he’s the Enemy – the god who drowned the world – come again to cause untold chaos.

Only Ellie, a fearless young inventor living in a workshop crammed with curiosities, believes he’s innocent.

But the Enemy can take possession of any human body and the ruthless Inquisition are determined to destroy it forever.

To save the boy, Ellie must prove who he really is – even if that means revealing her own dangerous secret . . .

Believing that her French guardian is about to abandon her to an orphanage in the city, ten-year-old Lucky runs away from her small town with her beloved dog by her side in order to trek across the Mojave Desert in this Newbery Medal–winning novel from Susan Patron.

Lucky, age ten, can’t wait another day. The meanness gland in her heart and the crevices full of questions in her brain make running away from Hard Pan, California (population 43), the rock-bottom only choice she has.

It’s all Brigitte’s fault — for wanting to go back to France. Guardians are supposed to stay put and look after girls in their care! Instead Lucky is sure that she’ll be abandoned to some orphanage in Los Angeles where her beloved dog, HMS Beagle, won’t be allowed. She’ll have to lose her friends Miles, who lives on cookies, and Lincoln, future U.S. president (maybe) and member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers. Just as bad, she’ll have to give up eavesdropping on twelve-step anonymous programs where the interesting talk is all about Higher Powers. Lucky needs her own — and quick.

But she hadn’t planned on a dust storm.

Or needing to lug the world’s heaviest survival-kit backpack into the desert.

The Higher Power Of Lucky by Susan Patron is a good crossover novel. There’s a musicality in the writing and the most endearing of characters.

There was controversy around this book and it has been banned by certain libraries. The reason becomes apparent after reading the first two paragraphs which is about something overheard at an alcoholics anonymous meeting and includes the word ‘scrotum’, which is what got it banned.

We are thus planted firmly in the world of reality. This is a book peopled with true-to-life characters. Yet the writer brilliantly channels her idea and possibly her memory of a nine-year-old’s worldview. The author has achieved a highwire act in balancing the informed worldview of an adult writer but making it seem totally through the eyes of a nine-year-old.

The premise of the story is that Lucky has misunderstood something her foster/stepmother has said and thinks she’s going to be abandoned.

Tree-ear, an orphan, lives under a bridge in Ch’ulp’o, a potters’ village famed for delicate celadon ware. He has become fascinated with the potter’s craft; he wants nothing more than to watch master potter Min at work, and he dreams of making a pot of his own someday. When Min takes Tree-ear on as his helper, Tree-ear is elated–until he finds obstacles in his path: the backbreaking labor of digging and hauling clay, Min’s irascible temper, and his own ignorance. But Tree-ear is determined to prove himself–even if it means taking a long, solitary journey on foot to present Min’s work in the hope of a royal commission . . . even if it means arriving at the royal court with nothing to show but a single celadon shard.

TRADITIONAL VS MODERN ORPHANED CHARACTERS IN KIDS’ BOOKS

Traditional orphan stories often borrow the linear ‘Cinderella structure’ in which the hero loses his/her home, becomes a nobody, suffers trials and is helped out of a bad situation at just the right moment by a ‘helper’ archetype. In these stories, the true specialness of the hero is finally made apparent to everyone in the setting, and they live happily ever after.

A modern orphan story tends to dispense with so many of those Cinderella story beats. An example is The Great Gilly Hopkins, which has an open ending by contrast. For modern orphans, there is not necessarily a ‘happy ever after’.

There are some basic guidelines to crafting modern stories for children: One is that you must not be overtly didactic; another is that you must have the children solve any problems for themselves. That means, in short, that the teachers and parents need to stay right out of it. This is the kidlit version of deus ex machina, in which ‘god’ descends from the sky to resolve the problem for the hero. Let’s call it ‘parentis ex machina’.

What sort of setting is often used for keeping adults at bay?

1. Boarding schools: Harry Potter, Mallory Towers etc

2. Fantasy portals into adult-free realms: Narnia etc

3. Tragic real-world circumstances, in which parents have died or been posted abroad etc.

FUNCTIONAL ORPHANS

Modern children’s stories are full of compromised parents (most often busy, sometimes stupid, sometimes neglectful or drug addled) and so modern child characters are ‘functional’ orphans:

We live in a culture that refers constantly to helicopter parents, yet there are many young adult books with self-absorbed, negligent parents who can’t be bothered to attend to their children’s needs. In children’s literature you need a certain degree of parental incompetence and absence to enable the child’s “triumphant rise.” An earlier age depicted cruel, abusive parents or simply killed off the biological mother and father, but in a very different genre–fairy tales and fantasy. Is the parent problem in YA fiction symptomatic of a new hands-off attitude among parents today?

Maria Tatar

A good example of a functional orphan is The Little Match Girl, whose mother appears to be dead, but who technically has a father at home. But because she is out in the world earning a ‘living’, he’s hardly a parental figure — more of an absent threat.

The child who angrily wishes his mother to drop dead for not having gratified his needs will be traumatized greatly by the actual death of his mother — even if this event is not linked closely in time with his destructive wishes. He will always take part or the whole blame for the loss of his mother. He will always say to himself — rarely to others — “I did it, I am responsible, I was bad, therefore Mommy left me.” It is well to remember that the child will react in the same manner if he loses a parent by divorce, separation, or desertion. Death is often seen by a child as an impermanent thing and has therefore little distinction from a divorce in which he may have an opportunity to see a parent again.

On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Harriet The Spy is another good example of a functional orphan.

Harriet The Spy orphans

One pleasant result of the disappearance of old assumptions about the infallibility of parents and the duty of children to toe the line has been the arrival of a number of highly-individual child characters — usually girls — whose personalities have been allowed by their authors to develop without too much regard for what constitutes a proper example. Harriet, in Harriet the Spy (1964) by Louise Fizhugh (1928-74), lives in Manhattan, is eleven, and intends to be Harriet M. Welsch the famous writer when she grows up.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children
From The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

…another heroine who is her own child and nobody else’s. Claudia has decided, coolly, to run away from home, returning only when everyone has learned a lesson in Claudia-appreciation. Since she believes in beauty, education, and comfort, and lives within commuting distance of New York City, where better to run away to than the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children

HEADLESS WOMEN

In picture books, the artist can help ‘orphan’ the child character but also offer the reassuring presence of parents by cutting off the parent’s head.

functional orphan in a picture book
Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary by Beverly Donofrio & Barbara McClintock (2007)

This was a trick used in the cartoon series Muppet Babies (1984—), in which we never see the nanny’s head — only her green and white striped stockings. “The caregiver is here but not important to the story.” That’s the clear message.

scene from actual muppet babies

Naturally, this lead to a meme in which we imagine Nanny has no actual head.

Muppet Babies nanny

IMAGINARY PARENTS

Despite all these dead parents, Roberta Seelinger Trites noticed something about orphans in young adult literature in particular: ‘the propensity of adolescents with neither actual nor effective surrogate parents to create imaginary parents against whom to rebel.’ This is apparently a Lacanian principle, for those familiar with that (not me). Trites offers the following examples of YA characters who create imaginary parents and then rebel against them:

  • Judy Abbott, the main character of Daddy-Long Legs
  • Junior Brown, The Planet of Junior Brown
  • Gilly in The Great Gilly Hopkins, in which the mental construction of her mother is nothing like the reality
  • Ellen Conford, of To All my Fans, with Love, from Sylvie

Trites coined her own term to describe these parents who are parents in name only: in logo parentis. (In loco parentis, logos.)

PARENTS IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

There has been a conversation lately about something like ‘symbolic annihilation’ of parents in young adult literature.

I legit don’t understand the parents in YA convo. Why does it matter if your book has parents or not? Make it a good book. I hope I’m not alone in this. It just feels like every other month we’re debating why books need more parents or saying that parents have no place in YA

@whimsicallyours‬

Set in the late Middle Ages, a quick-witted orphan, abused by his grandfather, risks his life to care for a wounded knight who is on a quest but can’t remember what he is searching for. Exciting, engrossing, enchanting!

Reading Level: Ages 11-13.

Widge is an orphan with a rare talent for shorthand. His fearsome master has just one demand: steal Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”–or else. Widge has no choice but to follow orders, so he works his way into the heart of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s players perform. As full of twists and turns as a London alleyway, this entertaining novel is rich in period details, colorful characters, villainy, and drama.”A fast-moving historical novel that introduces an important era with casual familiarity.” —School Library Journal, starred review (1998)

RELATED

List of Orphan related tropes from TV Tropes

Best Books About Orphans, a Goodreads list, in which you’ll see that the list is heavily populated with children’s literature

In this moving talk, British playwright and poet Lemn Sissay opens up about his experience of being a fostered child and child in care in the 1960s and 70s in the UK. This talk is of interest for kid-lit fans not just because Sissay has written for children (“The Emperor’s Watchmaker”), but also because he references lots of cared-for, fostered and orphaned children in children’s literature at the start of his talk.

Playing By The Book

An “elder orphan” is someone who is aging alone, without parents, a spouse, siblings, children, or grandchildren. Its population is growing—and America is terribly unprepared.

Judy Colbert
Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header painting: Thomas Benjamin Kennington – Orphans