Living in the World of Cordelia

I am rereading Anne of Green Gables for the first time in over two decades, not with the kids, but in advance of teaching the novel to Daniel’s children’s literature class next week. I would like to read it with the kids as well, but I’m not sure how they’ll respond to the extensive descriptive passages; I worry that they’ll grow impatient with the blushing cherry blossoms and the rustling poplar leaves and the mellow sunset light. I’d rather not introduce them to Anne than run the risk that they might find her tedious. So I’m waiting until they are a bit older, a bit more romantic, a bit more (dare I say) literary — in the hope that they will fall in love with Anne as I am, all over again.

Unlike many of the other children’s books I’ve reread in recent years, in which I am struck by how much I’d forgotten, I’ve remembered everything about Anne. I can finish her sentences even now, when I’m three times her age. When I scan the titles of the chapters, I know exactly what is going to happen in each – here she will arrive, an orphan, at Green Gables, driven from train station in a buggy by Matthew Cuthbert, who was expecting a boy to help him and Marilla on the farm. Here the stern but warm-hearted Marilla will decide that even though Anne is not a boy, they will keep her nonetheless. Here Anne will meet her bosom friend, Diana Barry, and here her temper will get the better of her and she’ll break the slate over the head of Gilbert Blythe, her rival for the next decade, until ultimately she will come to reciprocate his affection. There is no surprise in re-discovering Anne; the surprise of this rereading is in re-discovering myself.

Like Anne, I am painfully aware of my faults and my foibles. I know which of my traits most aggravate those around me, and now that I’m closer to Marilla’s age than to Anne’s, I know how hard it is to change myself. But in re-reading the Anne books, I am struck by how much I modeled myself after Anne. Did I identify as much with Anne as a child as I do now? Or did I read the book as a child and then re-invent myself in Anne’s image, such that she is in no small part responsible for the person I became?

Anne’s most distinguishing characteristic—aside from her thick red hair—is her vivid imagination. Again and again she will lose herself in the world of her imaginings. She finds it difficult to concentrate on completing household chores, because she gets distracted by her own wandering thoughts. And so when Marilla tells her to put the pudding sauce on a high shelf and cover it, she takes the bowl in her hands and imagines that she is a nun taking the veil “to bury a broken heart in cloistered seclusion,” and forgets to cover it; the next day she discovers that a mouse has drowned in the sauce, as she admits to Marilla only as the pudding is being brought to the table to serve to Marilla’s illustrious dinner guests. I’ve never found a mouse in my pudding, but I’ve forgotten to cover the challah dough while letting it rise, and I’ve left the laundry out on the porch when it starts to rain, and I’ve swept only half the kitchen floor because even though I told myself I’d get back to it in just a moment, I got lost in a book instead.

In the kitchen I’m at my worst. Shortly after Anne arrives at Green Gables, Marilla tells Anne that she’d like to teach her to cook, but she’s so “featherbrained” that she’s waiting to see if Anne first learns to be a bit more focused. A few chapters later, Anne tells Diana that when she tries to bake a cake, she gets lost in a daydream in which Diana is deathly ill with smallpox and Anne nurses her back to health, only to lose her own life in so doing. She is so caught up in her reverie that her tears fall into the cake while she mixes it, and she forgets to add any flour. The only time Anne meets with any culinary success, perhaps, is when she writes a romantic story and gives a copy to Diana, who learns of a short story competition sponsored by the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Company and adds a product-placement scene to Anne’s story in which the heroine bakes a cake with baking powder; Anne wins the contest, to her utter humiliation. Like Anne, I am much better at writing about my failures in the kitchen than at getting my cakes to rise.

My uncanny ability to get distracted while doing anything other than reading or studying or writing is aggravating to those around me, but it is not a moral flaw. Even Marilla realizes that Anne means well when she starches Matthew’s handkerchiefs while trying to think up a name for a new island in the brook, or leaves the pie to burn in the oven while imagining herself an enchanted princess shut up in a lonely tower. Daniel will resignedly throw the wet laundry in the dryer or sweep up the other half of the kitchen floor, muttering under his breath in exasperation. And Tagel has learned, when she sees me staring at the back of the pasta bag for minutes on end, to call out, “Eleven minutes, Ima, turn on the timer.” But my family is less tolerant when, like Anne, I begin to mistake imagination for reality, becoming so swept up by what might have happened that I forget what actually did.

When Marilla first meets Anne and asks her name, Anne responds that she wishes to be called Cordelia. Marilla is puzzled; is Cordelia her name? Well, no, Anne reluctantly admits, it’s not exactly her name, but it’s so much more elegant than Anne Shirley. Anne lives in a world in which she might as well be called Cordelia, because that is how she fancies herself. The world she imagines it is so vivid and bright that it nearly eclipses the world as it is. I too often find myself living in the world of Cordelia rather than the world of Anne. The moment events are unfolding around me, I am already imagining how I will write about them, and which details I will tweak so as to make for a better story: “We caught the very last bus before Shabbat, which pulled up while we were still on the other side of the street – so I dropped one of our vegetable bags and picked up Shalvi and ran breathlessly, the back doors closing on my skirt as we entered.” Daniel will look at me quizzically. “The last bus? It’s still two hours before candlelighting.” And I’ll tell him I know, it wasn’t really the last bus, but in that moment I was so sure we wouldn’t make it that it felt like our last hope of getting home in time. It was the last bus for Cordelia, albeit not for Anne.

On account of her vivid imagination, Anne convinces herself that the spruce forest over the brook is a haunted wood, and that she is a lily maid floating down a river in a barge to meet her tragic death. She confesses with full conviction that she accidentally dropped Marilla’s heirloom amethyst brooch into a pond even though she did not touch it; since Marilla is unsatisfied with the truth, Anne invents a more compelling narrative instead in the hope that Marilla will let her go to Sunday school picnic. Her imagination is colored by her hopes and dreams, whereas mine is more often overshadowed by my fears – I tell Daniel that the school won’t let Matan move up to fifth grade if he doesn’t start doing his math homework, even though his teacher has said no such thing. I tell myself that I won’t be able to live with myself if I don’t run three times a week, even though I’ve survived for longer than that without running. I am not speaking the truth, but I’m also not willfully lying. It is just that what-might-have-been and what-might-be loom so much larger, in my imagination, than what-is.

My family has little patience for my might-have-beens. When I exaggerate, or rework my accounts, they often call me on it. At night sometimes I read the kids the stories I write about them, and they shout out corrections left and right; I don’t dare admit that I care more about a good story than a true one. I know this is a character flaw, and most of me wishes I could change. But a small part of me stubbornly holds on, convinced that surrendering imagination for reality would be a betrayal of Anne.

I have not yet re-read the later books in the series, where Anne becomes a teacher, and then gets married, and then becomes a mother of six, including twin girls. Anne’s imagination and spunk are mellowed by the responsibilities of adulthood, and when I read those books as I child, I thought that growing up must be terribly boring. I wonder whether I ought to read through the series again as an investment in my own moral education, because even the most richly imagined and imaginative heroine I have ever encountered in fiction eventually roots herself squarely in reality. It’s not the future the young Anne would have imagined for herself, and there is a reason the first book is so much more popular than any of the seven that follow. As readers, we prefer to dwell in possibility – which is perhaps why Anne of Green Gables remains, for so many of us, such a kindred spirit.

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