An Unsung Heroine’s Voice: Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy

This year marks the one hundred and tenth anniversary since Anne of Green Gables was first published. Lucy Maud Montgomery was a prolific author, but it is the Anne books that remain perennially popular from one generation to the next and which have been revisited many times in TV and film adaptations. The most recent of these is the Netflix series, which has been hugely popular. Sarah McCoy’s take on the Green Gables story is very timely as the appetite for more stories from Green Gables has never been stronger. While previous films and adaptations have focused on continuing Anne’s life or on the village of Avonlea, Marilla of Green Gables instead explores the background of Green Gables and the story of the first girl who grew up there: Marilla Cuthbert.

The author has had a lifelong fascination with Anne of Green Gables and with the character of Marilla in particular. McCoy admits that the hints of a possible romance in Marilla’s past had always intrigued her. In Chapter 37 of Anne of Green Gables, Marilla remarks of Gilbert Blythe: “He looks a lot like his father did at the same age. John Blythe was a nice boy. We used to be real good friends, he and I. People called him my beau.” To which Anne responds: “Oh, Marilla — and what happened?”

McCoy says that this question stayed with her, and writing Marilla of Green Gables was her way of  answering that question. Although she admits she was quite terrified as she set out to write. “Green Gables is sacred territory. But my love for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s legacy usurped my fears. So I went into the writing with the goal to honor that and give Marilla the spotlight that I felt Montgomery would approve.”

In order to get under the skin of a beloved character, McCoy had to revisit and immerse herself in Montgomery’s writing.

author photo by Emily Martin

“Montgomery wrote many tiny, wonderful details that give a glimpse into Marilla’s past,” McCoy explains. “So I spent a good amount of time re-reading the original texts in which Marilla is featured, noting every description, emotional response, comment and hidden opinion, every habit, routine, and preference. Then I placed them into the historical context to find the connections.” The historical research proved as fascinating as the character research for McCoy, who found that placing Marilla’s childhood in the 1830s meant that she was a witness to a time of great change and social upheaval. She read as many biographies of L.M Montgomery as she could find, made meticulous notes on her published diaries and spent a lot of time in Prince Edward Island visiting the places that inspired Montgomery, as well meeting Montgomery’s own relatives. “The Campbells—brother and sister, George and Pamela—were particularly welcoming to me. They own and operate the Anne of Green Gables Museum and the Anne of Green Gables stores across the island. Their knowledge concerning Maud’s writing life and the lore of Green Gables was invaluably helpful. I was honored to receive their blessing on the novel.”

McCoy comments wryly on a joke she shares with her family: that as a girl she was Anne but as she grows older she becomes more like Marilla. This is something that many Green Gables fans will no doubt identify with. For those of us who at 11, 12 or 13 empathised with Anne’s desire for a kindred spirit, her romantic notions and her desire to write may find in Marilla of Green Gables a heroine of a different kind. “Too often we think of Anne as the protagonist and Marilla as the antagonist who is made good by Anne’s presence. But the Marilla I know through the research and writing of this novel believes in romance and hope and beauty. That’s how she was able to love a temperamental, red-headed orphan so desperately. Lucy Maud Montgomery didn’t write Marilla as a villain. She wrote her as the unsung hero of Green Gables. I thought it time we heard her voice.”

 

About the contributor: Lisa Redmond is a writer, reviewer and lover of books. She is currently working on a novel about 17th-century Scottish witches. She blogs about books, writing and women in history.

 


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