David Beagley, editor

Rereading Childhood: Journeys into Female Imagination

Nancy McCabe

Nancy McCabe is Associate Professor and Director of the Writing Program, University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and teaches in the Brief Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing, Spalding University. Her publications include reviews, critical articles, teaching handbooks and memoirs, most recently in 2011, Crossing the Blue Willow Bridge: A Journey to My Daughter's Birthplace in China.

Rereading books from my childhood, I discover that what once inspired me now frequently surprises and often amuses and sometimes disturbs and even horrifies me.  L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series and Eunice Young Smith’s Jennifer stories remind me of just how inadequate my abilities once felt in contrast to these heroines’ fanciful creativity. Depth and originality, these books suggest, are mostly demonstrated through idealizing and personifying nature.  Clinging to the Romantic tradition, both Anne and the lesser-known Jennifer, who probably was a literary offspring of her more famous predecessor, are most alive when outside communing with the natural world.  Anne delights in giving ornate names to ordinary places; Jennifer fantasizes that she can talk to bumblebees.

I fell short. It seemed to me that my own comparatively generic Kansas landscape with its treeless fields could never live up to Anne or Jennifer’s lush surroundings. But I was not about to give up so easily. Because Jennifer’s whimsy is drawn mostly from fairy stories, particularly the Andrew Lang series published at the turn of the century, I inquired in the Wichita Public Library’s children’s room about the Olive and Scarlet fairy books.  They were so fragile they had been removed from circulation, so I had to read them at a table in the children’s room.  I found them alarmingly tedious.  I concluded sadly that maybe I just was not really that imaginative.

Lucy Montgomery inherited many of her ideas from broad reading, then wielded, through the popularity of her books, a powerful influence in perpetuating sometimes precious images of female creativity.  Anne of Green Gables is deeply concerned with the saving grace of imagination, its glories and limits, yet as Montgomery writes successive sequels, she becomes increasingly hesitant about allowing the creative vision of her heroine to reach its logical conclusion—a life in which her own thoughts, opinions, and production really matter.  Instead, her talents are gradually subsumed to those of her husband and children, and transform into a valuable route to love and community, but never her own “selfish” self-actualization, and certainly not recognition in the public sphere.

Back when I first read the early books, I aspired to be Anne, even during scenes I affectionately find ridiculous today.  My favorite of this category is the one in Anne of Avonlea when she falls through the roof of an old duck house.  Stuck hanging there while her friend goes for help, forced to draw on her own inner resources to pass the time, Anne entertains herself by working out a “most interesting dialogue between the asters and the sweet peas and the wild canaries in the lilac bush and the guardian spirit of the garden” (157).  As a child, I felt puzzled by this scene; I had trouble finding such an exchange remotely interesting, and decided that I was too literal and realistic, that my own gifts could never live up to Anne’s flights of fancy.  Feeling obligated to at least give it a try, I lay in the grass of my backyard, trying to imagine a dialogue between the dandelions and my dad’s tulips. I could not even sustain the attempt. I concluded that I lacked the proper poetic instinct.

Now, I just laugh at the absurdity of the Anne of Avonlea scene.  It exerts no pressure on me to prove myself by assigning dramatic monologues to flowers. Now I see how this scene, and many of Anne’s fantasies, provide hilariously outdated and often ironic windows into notions of girlhood, offering a subtle critique that Montgomery eventually drops but that enriches the first three books. Or at least I assume that Montgomery’s exaggerated presentation of some of Anne’s views is meant as commentary on aspects of romanticism such as Edgar Allan Poe’s contention that the death of a young woman was the most beautiful of all poetic subjects.   For instance, when Anne envisions a young woman who died a tragic death, it’s with jealous admiration toward her “timid eyes” and “pale face,” (Avonlea, 111) which I take as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek echo of those Romantic and Victorian poets, who, as George P. Landow puts it, “produced sentimentalized depictions of dead and dying women as aesthetic objects” (1).

My daughter does not, as I did, unconsciously accept such outmoded views of women or girls. She hoots when Anne dreams about rushing to her “bosom friend” Diana’s bedside to nurse her through a horrible disease, then taking sick and dying herself from her devotion (Green Gables 124). The word “bosom” is alone sufficient to inspire prolonged hilarity, but my daughter’s uncontrollable laughter also has to do with the completely bizarre nature of Anne’s masochistic fantasy. My twenty-first century daughter finds Anne’s dreamy rhapsody over the prospect of her own death pretty funny, too.  She also has the good sense to roll her eyes at Anne’s endless obsession with Elaine the Lily Maid of Astalot, the central figure in many Victorian paintings, illustrations, and poems, floating down the river in a boat, dead and startlingly beautiful.

As a child, I was less immune than my daughter is, demonstrated by the fact that I did at least briefly if unsuccessfully attempt to write little sketches about talking flowers. After she is rescued, Anne jots down the piece she composed in her head during her rooftop tribulations.  Later, after she has written several romances featuring larger-than-life characters and plots, a wise neighbor advises that she stop producing such melodramatic tripe and report on “real life.” Taking this advice to heart, Anne polishes up her flower dialogue, presumably a more solid piece of “reporting” than her love stories, and gets her first real publication.

Eventually, and debatably more tragic even than the service of a girl’s talent to such drivel, Anne ceases to write altogether.  As a young reader, I found this too unimaginable to regard it as particularly heartbreaking.  But Anne influenced me in more subtle ways, modeling how a truly virtuous girl is one who gradually abandons her personality. The Anne we first meet is a delightful if exhaustingly talkative girl who cannot be silenced, and love-interest Gilbert is attracted to her passion, her inaccessibility, her odd way of seeing the world. But maturity for Anne means taming her imagination as well as curbing her prolific speech and her assumption that she has a right to be heard. 
By the second book she has turned her efforts toward striving to be an ideal woman, gentle and soft-spoken and pure and high-minded. In a strange about-face, we are told in Anne of Avonlea that this virtue is why Gilbert likes her.  By the time I was a teenager, it embarrassed me to be overheard expressing an opinion or a preference, having noted the disapproval of others and the pattern of heroines for whom coming of age meant blandness, passive acceptance, smiles and polite murmurs, uncontroversial conversation, and the ability to placate others.

In Avonlea, as Anne becomes more concerned with female virtue, Montgomery must find another character to fill the requisite dreamy, whimsical child role. She chooses Anne’s student Paul, a boy who is allowed the option of growing up to be a writer (and does, later, publish volumes of poetry.)  But Montgomery quickly finds this dreamy boy character even more problematic than she did her ambitious girl character.  We are constantly reassured that Paul is imaginative without being “weak or girlish,” that he possesses a perfect balance of sensitivity and masculinity (92).  Everyone but Anne finds Paul “queer”—and while the book was written before queer became a derogatory and then proudly reclaimed reference to people who are gay, Montgomery remains on the defensive lest readers draw any such conclusions about Paul’s orientation.

Whenever Paul spins out elaborate fantasies about “rock people” and fairies, he also is preoccupied, in a way that seems odd for a boy of that age, with assuring Anne that he plans to marry someday.  Paul allows the “elderly spinster with snow-white hair,” Miss Lavender (she is 45) to kiss him only after delivering a manly anti-kissing speech.  Boys, he announces with an air of authority, are averse to such expressions of affection.  Then he snuggles right up to his future stepmother (205).  Paul understands already his status as a male, referring repeatedly (and here I gag involuntarily) to his dead mother as “my little mother” and to Anne as “my beautiful teacher.”  “Porridge will be the death of me,” he tells Anne, revealing his yearning to transcend routine details, the ones persistently arranged by women, so he can indulge his fantasy life (128).

His future stepmother Miss Lavender provides the book’s most interesting model of creativity and unconventionality, particularly for a woman in 1918. Her idyllic existence in her cottage, Echo Lodge, allows her to construct games of pretend and vow to defy “every known law of diet” (249).  She is childlike, but also funny, charming, and independent.  One of her favorite activities is blowing a horn and creating echoes around her property.  I was sad to eventually discover that these echoes are, metaphorically, less about making her voice heard, more about a past that haunts her.  And ultimately, her imaginative life is seen as a stagnant one that can finally advance into maturity upon her reconciliation with an old lover and their subsequent marriage.

Anne herself isn’t fully stripped of her imaginative vision until after she marries. Not until the fifth book, Anne’s House of Dreams, does she relinquish fantasies about her own artistic work. When Paul, now a successful, insistently heterosexual poet, suggests that Anne might be famous someday, she replies, “No.  I know what I can do.  I can write pretty, fanciful little sketches that children love and editors send welcome cheques for.  But I can do nothing big.  My only chance for earthly immortality is a corner in your Memoirs” (15).  My adult reaction is another not-so-involuntary gag.  But as a child, I was suspicious if not crushed.  Why was it necessary for Anne to give up her dreams when Montgomery didn’t?  Because I recognized that there were autobiographical connections between the child writer and the adult author, I never really believed this ending, or Jo March’s decision to run a school rather than write, for that matter.

And I did encounter many positive examples of female creativity. I was particularly drawn to the details of Maud Hart Lovelace’s character Betsy Ray’s writing life—the old trunk she makes into a desk, her pile of sharpened pencils, the contests she enters in high school, her world travel—and saw her eventual marriage to Joe as simply another part of a busy, interesting life, not as a capitulation or sacrifice. I refused to read Little Men or Jo’s Boys because Jo March’s writing dreams appeared to have become replaced by the care and education of a bunch of lisping boys.

But Betsy clearly owes a debt to more famous heroines with writing ambitions like Anne Shirley and Jo March. Though Little Women is set during the Civil War and Anne and Betsy inhabit stories taking place fifty years later, all three heroines share a fascination with melodramas.  In addition, Anne and Betsy share similar standards of beauty; Lovelace describes a beautiful girl in Downtown in a manner reminiscent of Anne: “She had long black ringlets and big black eyes, and a dead-white skin with lips as red as blood” (129). Like Anne, Betsy considers the idea of her funeral to be “quite romantic” and while watching a gondola in Venice, thinks of the Lily Maid of Astolat floating downstream, a recurring image throughout the Anne books as well (Great World 273). Betsy is prone to being caught up in her own drama, just like Anne: “On such occasions she often cried a little; never much, for it always occurred to her how romantic it was to be crying about her trunk, and then she stopped, and couldn’t start again” (Heaven to Betsy 48).

But Betsy’s imagination is generally far less sappy, and maybe even more so than Anne or Jo, she takes her writing seriously. Like Anne and Jo, she discovers the importance of writing about what she knows, and like them, she sends her work out for publication. But as Anna Quindlen points out, Anne and Jo “are implicitly made to pay” because they do not conform to expectations for girls. By contrast, she says, Betsy “never has to pay for the sin of being herself, in fact, she only finds herself under a cloud when she is less than herself.  At base, she is a charmed soul. . . because she can laugh at herself and take herself seriously at the same time, because she is serious but never a prig, and interested in boys but never a flirt” (Quindlen x-xi).

Long before I discovered Betsy, my very favorite book for a period of time, when I was seven or eight, was Betty Brock’s No Flying in the House.  It, like so many of my later favorites, was surprised to discover in adulthood, is centered on versions of female power and imagination accompanied by irresistible fantasies once again heavily influenced by the natural world. Returning to this novel, I again found it creepy and charming and magical, part Bewitched, part Little Mermaid, a classic fairy tale about female agency, mysterious spells, great sacrifice, and the recovery of long-lost families. I still find it haunting when the tiny maternal talking dog Gloria sacrifices herself for the sake of her charge Annabel and turns into a wind-up toy.  I am still deliciously creeped out by the tiny broken cat figurine with emerald eyes that is reassembled and possessed by the evil fairy Belinda, who appears before Annabel to try to convince her to choose the life of a fairy over that of a mortal.

Belinda the villain is the most lyrical character, teaching Annabel to fly so it feels “as if her insides had turned to liquid honey floating syrupy down a golden river, and as they flowed away she became lighter and lighter until she felt light enough to ride on a butterfly’s wing” (87).  The cat tempts her with descriptions of “hovering over a whitecapped sea without wetting your feet, or following a rabbit’s trail up a cliff thick with bayberry without getting a scratch” (92)  Belinda promises to teach Annabel to turn herself into a gull or a butterfly, ride on camels or elephants, or swing with monkeys.  “We can explore the oceans with the flying fish, make snowballs on the tops of the highest peak, and ride with the wind to the stars,” she says (127).

The illustration of Belinda screeching and bristling when a resourceful Annabel traps her in the cookie jar still inspires a thrill of fear.  When Annabel discovers the name of her mother inside Gloria’s collar and the birthmark on her back, I still feel a jolt of discovery.  When Annabel realizes that she can kiss her elbow, the mark of a fairy, I remember suddenly how my cousin Jody and I twisted and turned our arms in futile attempts to kiss our elbows.

Now when I read this book, with all its nature imagery, sacrifices, and coincidences, it seems a fable about girls’ lives, about Anne’s and Jo’s and Betsy’s and maybe even Laura Ingalls’s as much as mine: do they choose to relinquish power in favor of intact families and the certainty of mortality, or do they choose to fly and be free and indestructible?  The latter is the choice identified with evil, the one that will separate them forever from love.  Do they identify with the steady loyal motherly plainspoken dog Gloria, or the poetic savage beast of a fairy cat, Belinda, who can be destroyed by any contact with sugar?  This not only aligns her with the Wicked Witch of the West who is destroyed by water, but also positions her far from sugar, spice, or anything nice.  Annabel makes the proper good girl choice, the one that will reunite her with her exiled parents but rob her of magic, yet what choice does she really have?  Isn’t love, “the power of the heart,” (107) powerful enough?

While this choice may seem the traditional one, while I wonder why our culture remains so insistent that women can have love or success but never both, the book’s end offers an array of female creativity and power. As far as we know, Annabel’s mother Princess Felicia is still a fairy, Annabel’s guardian who turns out to be her grandmother remains “like a queen bestowing favors,” (137) and best of all, Gloria the fairy dog intends to visit soon, “before she begins her stage career” (136). This was one of the first books I read that defined for me so specifically the tensions between love and work, public and private, families and creative expression that were supposed to become one and the same in women’s lives, love marketed to girls far more than to boys as the most powerful form of creative expression beyond which none other is necessary.

One of the other books that entranced me when I was in the second or third grade, Eva Moore’s The Fairy Tale Life of Hans Christian Anderson, presented a somewhat different cultural conception of the creative genius, one that can be interpreted as a cautionary tale to children of both genders.  The gifted creator is, in this book, one who cannot master the real world and whose peculiar talents prevent him from being good at anything else.  Perhaps modeling her story after Anderson’s own autobiography, Moore presents Hans as fundamentally odd and pathetic.  He is ugly, his father is a failure, and he has unrealistic, even ridiculous, dreams about becoming an actor and a dancer.  Then he aspires to be a singer but his voice changes.  At school, he is the biggest kid in class, and, persistently humiliated by the cruel schoolmaster, he becomes convinced that he is stupid.  He cries in school.  He cannot make enough money to get his mother out of the poorhouse.  He never marries or has children.

But this is framed as a story of triumph: in the end, Hans Christian Anderson, like the ugly duckling in his story, becomes a swan, in his case, a famous writer.  Still, his level of success is inversely proportionate to his happiness.  While as a young reader I found it vindicating when the citizens of Anderson’s hometown raise their torches to him, the book still led me to feel constitutionally doomed to be poor and alone in a deeply scary world.  I can imagine how a boy encountering this book would flee even more vehemently from any artistic dreams.

Later reading recast this image for me but continued to promote stereotypes about the sacrifice, suffering, and ostracism inevitable for creative artists. While The Fairy Tale Life of Hans Christian Anderson certainly suggests that these notions cross gender lines, such images became most ingrained in me through high school fascinations with the Bronte sisters and Emily Dickinson.  The popular view of Emily Bronte held that she was utterly indifferent to society, lost in a dream world, and hopelessly impractical; Charlotte Bronte was seen as more affected by her history of failure.  Her first novel was rejected while her sisters’ were taken, the collaborative poetry collection she spearheaded sold only three copies, the school she started enrolled no students, and her greatest love was unrequited.  Dickinson’s agoraphobia might have precluded public recognition even if she had desired it; she claimed not to and cultivated an image of herself as an odd woman in white, lowering baskets of treats to neighborhood children.  None of these writers’ popular images include athletic ability, gardening talent, or whiz-bang math skills, much less a capacity for managing ordinary daily life.

This was all very frightening if sort of romantic.  The notion of the starving artist beset by failure and suffering figured heavily in my imagination alongside the obligation of women to put aside art for the sake of others. Lois Duncan’s Down a Dark Hall, my childhood favorite of all of her compelling, if extremely conservative, children’s horror stories, lends even more terrifying dimensions to creative ability and artistic production. Hall’s premise is intriguingly spooky: what would happen if all the geniuses who died before their time could find young, unformed girls to serve as mediums, channeling unfinished work and recording it for posterity?

At Blackwood School, a place as gothic as its name suggests, four girls discover that they’re being held prisoner for that very purpose—to paint, discover mathematical equations, produce poetry, and compose the music of dead geniuses.  One girl creates Thomas Cole landscapes before moving on to horrible torture scenes.  Another begins with gentle Schubert music before more violent composers start vying for her soul.  Originally channeling Emily Bronte, a third writes sweet poetry about the moors before a new dead writer forces her to shift to ugly, disgusting verse (content never specified.)

I reread this novel on the heels of Lucasta Miller’s The Bronte Myth, which traces the changing popular images of the Bronte sisters over the last century and a half.  Duncan’s Emily is the mythic one, the mystical, wild, passionate Bronte sister, divorced from any reality, and through her, Duncan raises disturbing questions: what sacrifices should be made for art?  Is it worth saving at the cost of human lives?  But I wonder now, why so much emphasis on the way creative impulses can consume people?  Why so little reference to the possibility that art and knowledge can save them?  The real Bronte sisters were far more complex than their mythic counterparts, their passions and successes as vital as their tragedies and failures.

Rereading helped me to see the many ambivalent messages I absorbed in childhood about the written word and other forms of art—valuable messages, in many cases, raising essential questions when they didn’t present art as a dangerous force and the life of an artist as one to be leery of if not avoided altogether. Despite these messages, I somehow also absorbed in a far more influential way the notion of human creativity as a healing, sustaining force.

In the third grade, if anyone asked me my favorite book, my answer was Trumpet of the Swan.  I only read it once, though.  So now, in adulthood, unlike with the books I used to return to more regularly, coming back to E.B. White’s novel created none of the duality I had often experienced, as if I were reading as an adult and a child at the same time.  I do not remember why I loved this book, but I hope it was because my child self found it as beautiful, funny, graceful and lyrical, humane and clever and gently satirical, as my adult self does. Still, at first it seems like a vast departure from my usual fare.

The pompous but good-hearted father swan is the primary spokesperson for the novel’s underlying philosophies.  A flawed but loving and protective parent, the cob admires his offspring, an “egg of supreme beauty and perfect proportions” (22), and exults in using language to heighten experience, to hilariously overblown effect.  “Here I glide, swanlike,” he says, “while earth is bathed in wonder and beauty. . . I glide, I glide, swanlike. . . still I glide, ceaselessly, like a swan”  (30). He is initially alarmed at having a “defective” son, Louis, the main character, who cannot speak.  Nevertheless, the cob will go to the ends of the earth, commit a crime and compromise his reputation, to help his son.

Born mute, straddling the swan and human worlds, Louis attends a first grade class at a school with pricelessly unconventional classrooms, where he learns to write, enabling him to communicate with humans by jotting messages on the slate around his neck.  But the other swans cannot read.  Louis resorts to the universal language of music and through his talent triumphs over his disability, clears his father’s reputation, and gets the girl. The book is breathtaking in its reverence for life and its delight in the continuing cycle, much as in White’s more famous book about a spider who is also a writer, Charlotte’s Web

When I first returned to this book, I imagined that, being about animals and not girls, it was quite different from the books to which I generally was drawn as a child, a somewhat puzzling shift into a different genre.  But rereading it, I was surprised to discover how much its themes overlapped with and complemented those of many other books I read, particularly girls’ series.  Was I just drawn to themes related to artistic coming of age, I wondered, or are those truly some of the most pervasive ones in children’s literature?  In the end, as I reread many books from my childhood, I encountered few that do not deal in some way with creative development and production, its costs and joys.

Works Cited

Brock, Betty.  No Flying in the House.  HarperCollins, 1998. Print.

Duncan, Lois. Down a Dark Hall. Laurel Leaf: 1990. Print.

Landow, George P. “The Dead Woman Talks Back: Christina Rossetti’s Ironic Intonation of the Dead Fair Maiden,” Victorian Web: literature, history, and culture in the age of Victoria, <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/crosetti/gpl1.html>.

Lovelace, Maud Hart. Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. HarperCollins: 1993. Print.

---------- Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself. William Morrow, 2009.   Print.

---------- Betsy and the Great World.  Harper Trophy, 1996. Print.

Miller, Lucasta.  The Bronte Myth. Anchor, 2005. Print.

Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables. Bantam, 1993. Print.

--------- Anne of Avonlea. Bantam, 1987. Print.

--------- Anne of the Island. Bantam, 1993. Print.

--------- Anne’s House of Dreams. Bantam, 1993, Print.

Moore, Eva. The Fairy Tale Life of Hans Christian Anderson. Scholastic, 1992. Print.

Quindlen, Anna. Foreword to Lovelace, Maud Hart, Betsy and the Great World/Betsy’s Wedding. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009. Print.

White, E.B. Trumpet of the Swan. HarperCollins, 2001. Print.


Nancy McCabe

Volume 16, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2012

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"Rereading Childhood: Journeys into Female Imagination" © Nancy McCabe, 2012.
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