I watched the first few minutes of the film adaptation of "Anne of Green Gables" (starring Megan Fellows) today. The film is adapted from a bildungsroman by Lucy Maud Montgomery. In the story, the young poetry-loving orphan Anne Shirley, a mistreated foster-child servant-girl on the frontier, is plucked from a life of poverty and sent, accidentally, to a middle-class agrarian pastoral idyll. Literature shifts from being an escape from poverty to the spice of pastoral life. Anne's progress is emotional and relational, and her school friendships are a microcosm of the social hierarchies within the community of Avonlea. Mistakes, confessions, and aphorisms mark the ladder of her social progress, just as innocence, education, charm, and frank honesty take her to greater heights. Society is hierarchical for Anne; each new step toward the urban is a step toward greater wealth, privilege, and opportunity. We see no hint of urban suffering. When Anne reaches The City, we see only grand houses, balls, and yachts. Like Avonlea itself, Anne exhibits the graces which her upper-class friends see in the pastoral. She is a cleansing agent, the erudite and naive farmgirl who is in awe of their wealth and lifestyle, who teaches them to enjoy their privilege and introduces the sweet moral freshness of pastoral life into their rarified air. Where there is charitable, sacrificing love, it is toward the daughter of a millionaire, not toward other orphans as she once was. When she is drawn too dangerously far into the world of privilege, Anne goes back to Avonlea. A rose in the wild cannot be picked and live, no matter how pretty it might be in a crystal vase. Her morality, her frank honesty, her innocence and morals are entirely a construct of her social and natural environment; too much distance from their source strains her character. So she returns to the simple, relaxed middle-class pastoral of Avonlea, where the farms always produce, prices are affordable, friends have time to walk a mile for some gossip, and moderate wealth preserves the illusion that an extra bit of lace or jewelry really is a precious, wonderful thing.
Anne of Green Gables is, significantly, a Canadian story. Avonlea exclusively contains white people who work their own land. The story carries no hint of the American vision of the rural, with its toiling, shrewd Yankee figure. There are no yokels or rednecks here. The orphan of American literature is not Anne Shirley; it's Huck Finn. As for pastoral idylls, the American analogue to Avonlea would probably be the colonial ideal of the gentleman farmer. That ideal however was forever changed by Washington and Jefferson, who in the popular imagination put politics, warfare, invention-- the welfare of the people-- ahead of personal interests.
Some days, I wish I were in Avonlea. I wish I lived in a world where I could sit on the porch, read Wordsworth, relax and be content. Here at Cambridge, I have access to beautiful idylls like Grantchester whenever I wish. Byron and Tennyson and Wordsworth and Woolf and Plath and countless others have often enjoyed cream tea in Grantchester, under the orchard trees.
But I can't be satisfied with afternoons at Grantchester. I know better than to seek ease. I have been given resources by God and many generous people; it is my duty and pleasure to administer them as best I can for the good of others and the glory of God. So I therefore press on with what energy I have to do what I can with the time I have been given.
Anne, like the Lady of Shalott, never makes it to Camelot. But I know that there is an idyll waiting for me, a place where I will lay down my burdens and find perfect rest. In the meantime, I will do my best to lay aside those weights which slow me down and run this life's race with determination and patience, not so I can win at life, but so others may find both life and hope.
May God have mercy on me if I do anything else.