Monday, August 29, 2016

Little Old Ladies 7: Oh, Marilla!

“ ‘I will say it for the child,’ said Marilla when Anne had gone to her gable, ‘She isn’t stingy.  I’m glad, for of all faults I detest stinginess in a child.  Dear me, it’s only three weeks since she came, and it seems as if she’d been here always.  I can’t imagine the place without her.’” 
~ Marilla Cuthbert, 
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, 
Chapter 12: A Solemn Vow and a Promise

It may seem odd, but my favorite aspect of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s writing is her characterizations of “mean old ladies.”  Valancy, heroine of my favorite Montgomery novel The Blue Castle, is stifled and downtrodden not just by her egocentric cousins and ignorant aunts and uncles, but by her own mother. 

(As an aside, I do wonder whether all the “mean” aunts of fiction are a sidestepping of making the mother characters less than, well, motherly.  It could be the modern bowdlerization, just as fairy tales originally had evil mothers which over time were changed to evil stepmothers since maternal saintlihood, while perhaps not always realistic, is still put on a pedestal in most fiction and social expectations.)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Little Old Ladies 6: The Cures of “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle”

Source:https://timedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/piggle-wiggle.jpg?quality=75&strip=color&w=350

“Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle certainly knew how to make work fun and she also knew that there are certain kinds of work 
that children love to do even though they do not know how very well.”
~ Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, Chapter 1: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Herself

I blame Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle for many of my obsessive thoughts in childhood.  One was a constant looking up at the ceiling, trying to imagine it being the floor (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s house is built upside-down on a whim, just to satisfy her own childhood curiosity on the subject).  While interesting, it also caused massive vertigo once or twice, and made me look a bit batty to the casual onlooker all the other times. Another was the irrational but overwhelming fear of radishes growing out of my skin.  I’ve never been able to eat radishes since.  One never knows where they came from.

Putting aside these inherent phobias, let’s talk about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle herself.  Limiting myself to the first book, because that’s the only one I read as a child, there’s really not too much revealed about the mysterious widow in the upside-down house aside from what author Betty MacDonald provides in the first chapter.  There we learn that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is the widow of a pirate, the ordinary housewives of the 1940’s think her strange and don’t go near her, but all their children love her and go about her house and yard as if it were a playground. 

After the first chapter the housewives start to realize something.  Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has a cure for any childhood “disease” of misbehavior or neurosis.  Are your children Never-go-to-bedders?  Answer-backers? Slow-eater-tiny-bite-takers?  Well look no further, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle knows how to handle them

Usually her cure has something to do with letting the kids do what they want until they’re sick of it (or the consequences, or both), at which time they’ll stop of their own volition and become perfect children.  A girl who randomly decides she hates baths is allowed to get dirtier and dirtier until she has enough soil on her forehead to sprout radishes overnight.  (Yep, that explains some nightmares I’ve had about root vegetables over the years.)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Little Old Ladies 5: The Aunt to End All Aunts

“…I do not approve of mercenary marriages.  When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind.  
But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.” 
Lady Augusta Bracknell, 
The Importance of Being Earnest

I have no deep thoughts or profound themes to expound in today’s blog entry. That’s because I am laughing too hard at Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest.  It’s quite possibly my favorite play, not only of Oscar Wilde, but also of all the drama I’ve ever read, including Shakespeare. 

Part Dickens, part Monty Python, part Marx Brothers, all wit and all hilarity, Earnest is a clever farce in which the boring Mr. Jack Worthing departs his dull duties in the country with the excuse that he must deal with his fun-loving and reckless brother Ernest in the city.  Once in the city, though, Jack takes on the persona of this nonexistent brother in order to enjoy his young life and woo the sophisticated but naïve Gwendolen Fairfax.  All the while he also keeps a secret his humdrum life—and his young ingénue ward Cecily Cardew—from his equally fun-loving and reckless friend, aesthete and idle rich Algernon Moncrieff, who happens to be Gwendolen’s cousin.

When Gwendolen’s mother, Algernon’s indefatigable Aunt Augusta, refuses to let Jack/Ernest marry her daughter, Jack/Ernest decides that it would be useless to carry on the charade, and decides to kill off his fictional brother.  This, along with letting slip his actual country address, gives friend Algy a foothold into his friend’s life.  Algy arrives at Jack’s home posing as “Ernest,” and of course falls for sweet Cecily. 

Of course insanity is bound to ensue when the two so-called Ernests collide…and their love interests’ paths intersect.  But nothing could compare to the bombshell that Aunt Augusta drops when she drops in. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Little Old Ladies 4: Those Meddling Sources of Civilization “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”

“There was something about Aunt Polly’s manner, when she kissed Tom, that swept away his low spirits and made him light-hearted and happy again.”  
~ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,
 Chapter 20: Tom Takes Becky’s Punishment

When I first read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a child, I took the side of the children in that story.  And so Tom’s Aunt Polly to me was the villain of the story more than Injun Joe. Injun Joe was all part of the adventure, as spectacular as Captain Hook.  But Aunt Polly is more like Mr. Darling, just wanting to spoil the fun and make all the kids to grow up. 

Now as I look back on the scenes of this poor Aunt Polly as an adult, I sympathize with her.  Here is an elderly woman, tasked not only with providing for herself—which was no easy feat for a single woman in the 1800’s, especially as the woman got older—but also for her niece and two nephews, including the troublemaking Tom. 

Put yourself in Aunt Polly’s place.  This Tom, always playing hooky to go hang out with the drunkard’s son Huckleberry and other good-for-nothing boys, always cheating or lying or stealing, every chapter into some new scrape, he’s your responsibility, but he’s also out of control.  He’s off playing in graveyards, running away to live as a pirate, faking his death, getting mixed up with robbers.  You’d be a cranky old woman, too, by the time Tom was done with you. 

And yet when all was said and done, beneath the tough exterior of a woman who seems more prone to whacks upside the head than caresses, Aunt Polly loves Tom.  She is in many ways his true link to civilization.  She’s the one that cares whether he goes to school or church or tells the truth or works hard.  These are the things that he’ll need to know as an adult, and even if it kills her, she loves him enough to instill these values in him.  And I think, by the time the book is ended, Tom does have a bit more appreciation for his aunt, to the point where he even argues for his friend Huckleberry to stay in the same situation.  Which leads me to the next example:

Monday, August 1, 2016

Little Old Ladies 3: Bertie Wooster’s Aunts

Much as I love Bertie Wooster, especially played by Hugh Laurie where he’s not quite so much of an upper-class twit as most illustrators make him, I can’t help but feel that he deserves all the trouble he gets for being such a doormat.  It’s not that he’s a doormat to one person that knows his kryptonite and manipulates his weaknesses.  It’s that he caves to every person he knows.  This includes fellow Drones club members, old Eton classmates, cousins, girlfriends and fiancées, former girlfriends and fiancées, enemies, bullies, constables, and most especially his aunts.  Of course his butler Jeeves also exerts a fair amount of influence on Bertie, but usually this is of a positive note, such as making him shave off terrible mustachios, and it is implied Jeeves would like Bertie to go to fewer parties and read more Spinoza. 

For someone who is particularly susceptible to the threats and manipulations of aunts, Bertie is flooded with more than his fair share.  Of the ones that are mentioned (and I am led to believe there might be other unnamed aunts off skulking in the wings) there are Emily, Julia, Agatha and Dahlia. Emily and Julia are aunts by marriage, and not so much problems in their own right, except their children often are off getting into trouble which of course Bertie (rather than the actual parents) is responsible for getting them out of.  To be fair, this may be less about aunts Julia and Emily feeling up to the task of reprimanding their children, and more about Bertie’s having a certain butler who has a knack for solving sticky issues.