“ ‘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.)
These matriarchal figures are stereotypically legalistic. Often they refuse to let the heroine have anything of beauty or nonsense as decoration in their rooms or as clothing. They constantly berate and belittle the heroine, nitpicking every word and causing them to be self-conscious and nervous.
I wonder if Marilla Cuthbert had been raised in such a way. She has no need for little girls, no patience for the tomfoolery of calling someone Cordelia if that’s not their name, and no appreciation of fashionable puffed sleeves. She is a humorless, unimaginative, joyless sort of character when we first meet her in Anne of Green Gables. A definite old maid living with her more softhearted brother Matthew, Marilla doesn’t seem to have a motherly bone in her body. She certainly doesn’t feel compassion when she’s met with the carrot-headed, freckled, and malnourished (in body and heart) little orphan when Anne Shirley shows up instead of the boy farmhand she’d sent away for.
But if Marilla needs the whimsical Anne to teach her how to enjoy life’s little beauties and blessings, Anne herself needs Marilla. Incorrigible and amusing as Anne might be, she is also very foolish, proud, with a bad temper and no self-control. Her long years of being shunted from home to home, often in the capacity of a servant, has left her with such a longing for love but also a shallow perception of what love really is. She is plenty intelligent, but she is also ignorant and so any cleverness she has is misspent on idle daydreams and befriending inanimate objects rather than investing in real human relationships.
In the end, Marilla and Anne fulfill the voids they lack on their own. Marilla slowly warms to the role of mother to Anne, protecting her and providing for her and eventually loving her with a fierce sort of love that only comes slow and hard. Anne learns a lot from Marilla, much of it common sense and a sort of drive to reach her fullest potential.