On Christmas Eve, 1798, a week after turning 23, Jane Austen returned home from a visit to the Bigg sisters at their nearby Hampshire family estate, Manydown, and wrote the following lively, witty, amusing gossip to sister Cassandra, away in Kent chez brother Edward at his grand estate, Godmersham:
“I returned from Manydown this morning, and found my mother certainly in no respect worse than when I left her. She does not like the cold weather, but that we cannot help. I spent my time very quietly and very pleasantly with Catherine [Bigg]. Miss Blackford is agreeable enough. I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal. I found only Catherine and her when I got to Manydown on Thursday.…. Mr. Calland …appeared as usual with his hat in his hand, and stood every now and then behind Catherine and me to be talked to and abused for not dancing. We teased him, however, into it at last. I was very glad to see him again after so long a separation, and he was altogether rather the genius and flirt of the evening. He enquired after you. There were twenty dances, and I danced them all, and without any fatigue. …My black cap was openly admired by Mrs. Lefroy, and secretly I imagine by everybody else in the room.”
In 1908, just before the end of her first novel, Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote the following passage about Avonlea seen through the precocious eyes and mind of her young heroine, Anne Shirley:
“Anne worked hard and steadily. Her rivalry with Gilbert was as intense as it had ever been in Avonlea school, although it was not known in the class at large, but somehow the bitterness had gone out of it. Anne no longer wished to win for the sake of defeating Gilbert; rather, for the proud consciousness of a well-won victory over a worthy foeman. It would be worth while to win, but she no longer thought life would be insupportable if she did not.
In spite of lessons the students found opportunities for pleasant times. Anne spent many of her spare hours at Beechwood and generally ate her Sunday dinners there and went to church with Miss Barry. The latter was, as she admitted, growing old, but her black eyes were not dim nor the vigor of her tongue in the least abated. But she never sharpened the latter on Anne, who continued to be a prime favorite with the critical old lady.
"That Anne-girl improves all the time," she said. "I get tired of other girls--there is such a provoking and eternal sameness about them. Anne has as many shades as a rainbow and every shade is the prettiest while it lasts. I don't know that she is as amusing as she was when she was a child, but she makes me love her and I like people who make me love them. It saves me so much trouble in making myself love them."
Aside from noting the similar witty, lively tone in both these passages, I hope you also picked up on one very striking parallelism between Austen’s “Miss Blackford is agreeable enough. I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” and Montgomery’s Miss Barry’s fond comments about Anne: “I don't know that she is as amusing as she was when she was a child, but she makes me love her and I like people who make me love them. It saves me so much trouble in making myself love them."
It’s not just the close tracking of verbiage and epigrammatic style, it’s the identical idea behind both. I.e., Montgomery provides the other side of the proverbial coin to Austen’s wonderfully Wildean ironic epigram. Whereas Austen drily notes her reciprocation of Miss Blackford’s cold indifference, Miss Barry drily acknowledges that she has come to love Anne, because Anne is the anti-Miss Blackford-she works hard to win over Miss Barry, and in so doing, unwittingly reminds Miss Barry of her imaginative, passionate, brilliant much younger self.
On the basis of this one startling parallel alone, I claim that the 34 year old L. M. Montgomery, in her very first novel, published in 1908, was broadly hinting that she had already read Jane Austen’s above quoted Christmas Eve 1798 letter, which appeared in numerous editions of Austen’s letters published between 1884 and 1906. This is apparently news in the world of Montgomery scholarship, because iit’s only surprisingly recently (given the longstanding, large overlap between readership of Austen’s and Montgomery’s novels, respectively) that a systematic case has even been made that Montgomery was an avid Janeite.
This was convincingly demonstrated several years ago by my fellow JASNA member, Prof. Miriam Rheingold Fuller: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol29no1/fuller.html “Jane of Green Gables: L.M. Montgomery’s Reworking of Austen’s Legacy”. Here’s the core of Fuller’s argument:
“These similarities are deliberate. Montgomery enjoyed Austen very much; she writes in her journal after rereading Emma: “There are some things I am not sick of, . . . and one of them is Jane Austen’s novels”…She owned at least three Austen novels: Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma…it is probable that she owned other Austen works. Montgomery scholar and biographer Mary Rubio believes that Montgomery “read all of Jane Austen many times” as she did with any work that she particularly enjoyed. Montgomery classed Austen with other great writers whom she admired…The connections between Anne Shirley, Austen’s heroines, and Montgomery herself are extremely complex….” END QUOTE FROM FULLER ARTICLE
So, I believe my catch today establishes that Montgomery was so focused not only on Austen’s novels, but also on her life and letters, that in her first novel, Lucy Maud chose to hide this unmistakable hint
of that love of Austen in plain sight. But that’s not all I see. As I reread the above quoted passage in Anne of Green Gables, I made a further leap, and realized that the allusion to Jane Austen’s Christmas eve letter was only the tip of an iceberg, and that Anne’s de facto Aunt Josephine was actually Montgomery’s veiled portrait of Jane Austen herself! Miss Barry is also a woman born long before Montgomery and her alter ego, Anne, and I believe Montgomery conceived Miss Barry as a Jane Austen figure, who would love the much younger writer for her literary ambition and fearless mind and heart?
There are a couple of passages in Anne of Green Gables which confirm my hunch. First, see the following in Chapter 19, when Miss Barry is first introduced to the reader, after Anne and her friend Diana have disturbed the elderly lady by inadvertently jumping on her while she slept in bed:
"Who is your Aunt Josephine?"
"She's father's aunt and she lives in Charlottetown. She's awfully old--seventy anyhow--and I don't believe she was EVER a little girl. We were expecting her out for a visit, but not so soon. She's awfully prim and proper and she'll scold dreadfully about this, I know. Well, we'll have to sleep with Minnie May--and you can't think how she kicks."
Miss Josephine Barry did not appear at the early breakfast the next morning. Mrs. Barry smiled kindly at the two little girls.
"Did you have a good time last night? I tried to stay awake until you came home, for I wanted to tell you Aunt Josephine had come and that you would have to go upstairs after all, but I was so tired I fell asleep. I hope you didn't disturb your aunt, Diana."
Diana preserved a discreet silence, but she and Anne exchanged furtive smiles of guilty amusement across the table.”
Eventually, Anne bravely decides to confess to Miss Barry that she was the true culprit:
“With this encouragement Anne bearded the lion in its den--that is to say, walked resolutely up to the sitting-room door and knocked faintly. A sharp "Come in" followed.
Miss Josephine Barry, thin, prim, and rigid, was knitting fiercely by the fire, her wrath quite unappeased and her eyes snapping through her gold-rimmed glasses. She wheeled around in her chair, expecting to see Diana, and beheld a white-faced girl whose great eyes were brimmed up with a mixture of desperate courage and shrinking terror.
"Who are you?" demanded Miss Josephine Barry, without ceremony.
"I'm Anne of Green Gables," said the small visitor tremulously, clasping her hands with her characteristic gesture, "and I've come to confess, if you please."
"That it was all my fault about jumping into bed on you last night. I suggested it. Diana would never have thought of such a thing, I am sure. Diana is a very ladylike girl, Miss Barry. So you must see how unjust it is to blame her."
"Oh, I must, hey? I rather think Diana did her share of the jumping at least. Such carryings on in a respectable house!"
"But we were only in fun," persisted Anne. "I think you ought to forgive us, Miss Barry, now that we've apologized. And anyhow, please forgive Diana and let her have her music lessons. Diana's heart is set on her music lessons, Miss Barry, and I know too well what it is to set your heart on a thing and not get it. If you must be cross with anyone, be cross with me. I've been so used in my early days to having people cross at me that I can endure it much better than Diana can."
Much of the snap had gone out of the old lady's eyes by this time and was replaced by a twinkle of amused interest. But she still said severely: "I don't think it is any excuse for you that you were only in fun. Little girls never indulged in that kind of fun when I was young. You don't know what it is to be awakened out of a sound sleep, after a long and arduous journey, by two great girls coming bounce down on you."
"I don't KNOW, but I can IMAGINE," said Anne eagerly. "I'm sure it must have been very disturbing. But then, there is our side of it too. Have you any imagination, Miss Barry? If you have, just put yourself in our place. We didn't know there was anybody in that bed and you nearly scared us to death. It was simply awful the way we felt. And then we couldn't sleep in the spare room after being promised. I suppose you are used to sleeping in spare rooms. But just imagine what you would feel like if you were a little orphan girl who had never had such an honor."
All the snap had gone by this time. Miss Barry actually laughed--a sound which caused Diana, waiting in speechless anxiety in the kitchen outside, to give a great gasp of relief. "I'm afraid my imagination is a little rusty--it's so long since I used it," she said. "I dare say your claim to sympathy is just as strong as mine. It all depends on the way we look at it. Sit down here and tell me about yourself."
"I am very sorry I can't," said Anne firmly. "I would like to, because you seem like an interesting lady, and you might even be a kindred spirit although you don't look very much like it. But it is my duty to go home to Miss Marilla Cuthbert. Miss Marilla Cuthbert is a very kind lady who has taken me to bring up properly. She is doing her best, but it is very discouraging work. You must not blame her because I jumped on the bed. But before I go I do wish you would tell me if you will forgive Diana and stay just as long as you meant to in Avonlea."
"I think perhaps I will if you will come over and talk to me occasionally," said Miss Barry.
That evening Miss Barry gave Diana a silver bangle bracelet and told the senior members of the household that she had unpacked her valise. "I've made up my mind to stay simply for the sake of getting better acquainted with that Anne-girl," she said frankly. "She amuses me, and at my time of life an amusing person is a rarity."
Marilla's only comment when she heard the story was, "I told you so." This was for Matthew's benefit.
Miss Barry stayed her month out and over. She was a more agreeable guest than usual, for Anne kept her in good humor. They became firm friends. When Miss Barry went away she said: "Remember, you Anne-girl, when you come to town you're to visit me and I'll put you in my very sparest spare-room bed to sleep."
"Miss Barry was a kindred spirit, after all," Anne confided to Marilla. "You wouldn't think so to look at her, but she is. You don't find it right out at first, as in Matthew's case, but after a while you come to see it. Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It's splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world."
I am sure Montgomery did think of Jane Austen as a kindred spirit, and that’s why she gives the following wink that zeroes in with pinpoint aim on Austen’s Christmas Eve letter where Lucy Maud found that epigram about saving trouble, in this passage in Chapter 25 of Anne of Green Gables:
When the commonplace breakfast was over Diana appeared, crossing the white log bridge in the hollow, a gay little figure in her crimson ulster. Anne flew down the slope to meet her.
"Merry Christmas, Diana! And oh, it's a wonderful Christmas. I've something splendid to show you. Matthew has given me the loveliest dress, with such sleeves. I couldn't even imagine any nicer."
"I've got something more for you," said Diana breathlessly. "Here-- this box. Aunt Josephine sent us out a big box with ever so many things in it--and this is for you. I'd have brought it over last night, but it didn't come until after dark, and I never feel very comfortable coming through the Haunted Wood in the dark now."
Anne opened the box and peeped in. First a card with "For the Anne-girl and Merry Christmas," written on it; and then, a pair of the daintiest little kid slippers, with beaded toes and satin bows and glistening buckles.
"Oh," said Anne, "Diana, this is too much. I must be dreaming."
So, I see the kid slippers as Montgomery’s clever symbol for Jane Austen’s letter as a Christmas “present” from Jane Austen to her—they each allow Montgomery’s imagination to dance!
But the veiled portrait is not all sweetness and light-a very chapters before Montgomery’s veiled quotation from JA’s Christmas Eve letter, we see the bittersweet side of Anne’s making Miss Barry love her, when the lonely old woman has to send her niece and her lively friend home after a long, lovely day at an Exhibition:
"Well, I hope you've enjoyed yourselves," said Miss Barry, as she bade them good-bye.
"Indeed we have," said Diana.
"And you, Anne-girl?"
"I've enjoyed every minute of the time," said Anne, throwing her arms impulsively about the old woman's neck and kissing her wrinkled cheek. Diana would never have dared to do such a thing and felt rather aghast at Anne's freedom. But Miss Barry was pleased, and she stood on her veranda and watched the buggy out of sight. Then she went back into her big house with a sigh. It seemed very lonely, lacking those fresh young lives. Miss Barry was a rather selfish old lady, if the truth must be told, and had never cared much for anybody but herself. She valued people only as they were of service to her or amused her. Anne had amused her, and consequently stood high in the old lady's good graces. But Miss Barry found herself thinking less about Anne's quaint speeches than of her fresh enthusiasms, her transparent emotions, her little winning ways, and the sweetness of her eyes and lips.
"I thought Marilla Cuthbert was an old fool when I heard she'd adopted a girl out of an orphan asylum," she said to herself, "but I guess she didn't make much of a mistake after all. If I'd a child like Anne in the house all the time I'd be a better and happier woman."
So, in conclusion, I think it’s very clear indeed that Lucy Maud Montgomery imagines Jane Austen as “a kindred spirit”, a fiercely independent, brilliant single author, who would have recognized literary genius in Montgomery as a young novelist. And, it’s also clear that Montgomery’s lively wit took strong inspiration from the “rusty” imagination of Jane Austen (dead nearly a century in body) living on forever in the minds and hearts of LM Montgomery and all the readers who love them both.
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
P.S.: The above lends further support to my claim six weeks ago of the daring lesbian allusion to
Austen’s Mansfield Park in L.M. Montgomery’s diary: http://tinyurl.com/kmhng84