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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

(Almost) coinciding birthdays and grown-up fairies in Emma and Anne of Green Gables

In a blog post today by the excellent Austen and Montgomery scholar, Sarah Emsley….
...Sarah quoted from the following passage early in Jane Austen’s Emma, when Emma and her new best friend (and human pet) Harriet Smith discuss Harriet’s beau…

The next question was— "What sort of looking man is Mr. Martin?"
"Oh! not handsome—not at all handsome. I thought him very plain at first, but I do not think him so plain now. One does not, you know, after a time. But did you never see him? He is in Highbury every now and then, and he is sure to ride through every week in his way to Kingston. He has passed you very often."
"That may be, and I may have seen him fifty times, but without having any idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it."
"To be sure. Oh yes! It is not likely you should ever have observed him; but he knows you very well indeed—I mean by sight."
"I have no doubt of his being a very respectable young man. I know, indeed, that he is so, and, as such, wish him well. What do you imagine his age to be?"
"He was four-and-twenty the 8th of last June, and my birthday is the 23rd just a fortnight and a day's difference—which is very odd."

…and then Sarah pointed out an odd parallel in that Austen passage written in 1816 to the following passage in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, written almost a century later, in 1908, when Anne Shirley first meets her own “kindred spirit”, Diana Barry, and then, while intoxicated by the beauty of the Barry family garden filled with a lush variety of flowers, takes a daring leap of faith:

"Oh, Diana," said Anne at last, clasping her hands and speaking almost in a whisper, "oh, do you think you can like me a little—enough to be my bosom friend?"
Diana laughed. Diana always laughed before she spoke.
"Why, I guess so," she said frankly. "I'm awfully glad you've come to live at Green Gables. It will be jolly to have somebody to play with. There isn't any other girl who lives near enough to play with, and I've no sisters big enough."
"Will you swear to be my friend forever and ever?" demanded Anne eagerly.
Diana looked shocked.
"Why it's dreadfully wicked to swear," she said rebukingly.
"Oh no, not my kind of swearing. There are two kinds, you know."
"I never heard of but one kind," said Diana doubtfully.
"There really is another. Oh, it isn't wicked at all. It just means vowing and promising solemnly."
"Well, I don't mind doing that," agreed Diana, relieved. "How do you do it?"
"We must join hands—so," said Anne gravely. "It ought to be over running water. We'll just imagine this path is running water. I'll repeat the oath first. I solemnly swear to be faithful to my bosom friend, Diana Barry, as long as the sun and moon shall endure. Now you say it and put my name in."
Diana repeated the "oath" with a laugh fore and aft. Then she said:
"You're a queer girl, Anne. I heard before that you were queer. But I believe I'm going to like you real well."
When Marilla and Anne went home Diana went with them as far as the log bridge. The two little girls walked with their arms about each other. At the brook they parted with many promises to spend the next afternoon together.
"Well, did you find Diana a kindred spirit?" asked Marilla as they went up through the garden of Green Gables.
"Oh yes," sighed Anne, blissfully unconscious of any sarcasm on Marilla's part. "Oh Marilla, I'm the happiest girl on Prince Edward Island this very moment. I assure you I'll say my prayers with a right good-will tonight. Diana and I are going to build a playhouse in Mr. William Bell's birch grove tomorrow. Can I have those broken pieces of china that are out in the woodshed? Diana's birthday is in February and mine is in March. Don't you think that is a very strange coincidence? Diana is going to lend me a book to read. She says it's perfectly splendid and tremendously exciting. She's going to show me a place back in the woods where rice lilies grow. Don't you think Diana has got very soulful eyes? I wish I had soulful eyes. Diana is going to teach me to sing a song called 'Nelly in the Hazel Dell.' She's going to give me a picture to put up in my room; it's a perfectly beautiful picture, she says—a lovely lady in a pale blue silk dress. A sewing-machine agent gave it to her. I wish I had something to give Diana. I'm an inch taller than Diana, but she is ever so much fatter; she says she'd like to be thin because it's so much more graceful, but I'm afraid she only said it to soothe my feelings. We're going to the shore some day to gather shells. We have agreed to call the spring down by the log bridge the Dryad's Bubble. Isn't that a perfectly elegant name? I read a story once about a spring called that. A dryad is sort of a grown-up fairy, I think."
"Well, all I hope is you won't talk Diana to death," said Marilla. "But remember this in all your planning, Anne. You're not going to play all the time nor most of it. You'll have your work to do and it'll have to be done first."
Anne's cup of happiness was full…”

Sarah then asked: “So here’s my question for you – do you think L.M. Montgomery is consciously echoing Austen here? I love the idea that having birthdays in the same month, or in consecutive months, is a meaningful coincidence.”

To which I immediately replied:

Sarah, you must already recognize that it’s not a coincidence! Even if I had not written a blog post earlier this month about Jane Austen (Diana’s maiden aunt, Miss Barry) as the kindred spirit of L.M. Montgomery (Anne Shirley) in that same Anne of Green Gables….  ….there is much more parallelism between the two passages you’ve cited from Emma and Anne of Green Gables than merely the very liberal definition of a coincidence in birthdays which are actually separated by a goodly distance in days.

Consider also that the birthday speech is spoken in both passages by a fanciful romantic girl rhapsodizing about a new intimate relationship that has her swooning, a girl who is also a foundling with no status, speaking to a new girlfriend who is from a family with a great deal of status.

And, last but not least…if you believe (as I do) that Edmund Wilson was not wrong in his suggestion over 60 years ago that the relationship between Emma and Harriet is not entirely platonic, then that also fits with the perception by many that this is also true of the relationship between the “kindred spirits” Anne and Diana. I first blogged 2 months ago about Montgomery’s veiled lesbian allusions in her private journals to Austen’s fiction in “Austen’s Lady Bertram’s Carpet-Work, James I’s Carr-pet, & LM Montgomery’s Rug-Hooking”

And finally, I also don’t think Anne’s precociously learned naming a local spring “Dryad’s Bubble” in honor of a “grown-up fairy” is accidental, when you take into account how many passing references there are in Emma to fairies, especially of the grown up kind, like Miss Bates! It makes me wonder whether Montgomery, like Austen, also may have had Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in mind when she wrote that scene in Anne of Green Gables.

Lucy Maud Montgomery was one very sharp and learned elf, so I don’t put that past her!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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