In Marilla Before Anne, first-time novelist Louise Michalos fleshes out one of the more cryptic characters in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved and storied Anne of Green Gables series. Michalos’ novel, whose premise was sparked by a Margaret Atwood quote, provides a back-story for the reserved and sometimes dour Marilla Cuthbert.
At the outset of the story, Marilla sneaks out for the evening to meet up with her boyfriend William Baker, an apprentice shipbuilder whose trade has brought him temporarily to Prince Edward Island, where Marilla resides. Marilla and William are deeply in love and wish to marry, but the fact that she is only seventeen years old means she needs her parents’ approval to proceed.
And therein lies the problem.
Marilla’s mother Nora, who, as we learn, has endured disappointments of her own, has her own plans for Marilla. Her long-held dream is to see her daughter married into the prestigious Blythe family, and she has, for a long time, been lobbying for her daughter to hook up with John Blythe.
Marilla’s father is more understanding. Kindly and gentle where his wife is stern and self-righteous, he promises to hear William out when he asks for Marilla’s hand. But Marilla’s father dies of a heart attack before he can give his blessing on the union, and William, whose employer requires him elsewhere more quickly than expected, is forced to leave Prince Edward Island with the issue unresolved.
From here, the universe seems to conspire against Marilla and William. Marilla gets word that William has been killed in an accident. This would be reason enough for sorrow, but Marilla discovers that she is pregnant with William’s child. Keeping the baby is not an option she feels she can pursue: “. . . everyone who lived in Avonlea knew that when scandal touched one woman, it tainted, by association, the lives to those close to her.” (p. 56) Marilla decides to keep her pregnancy a secret, fleeing to Halifax to stay with her aunt Martha. While in Halifax, she gives the child up for adoption.
There are twists and turns aplenty from there, which I won’t spoil for future readers by revealing. Along with way, Marilla is forced to make choices, some of which she comes to regret. Yet despite the generous supply of curve balls life has thrown her, she manages to be her own woman: “This was her life now. And it would be lived as she saw fit. Tomorrow she would gather the broken pieces of that life . . . and try her best to put it back together.” (p. 115)
Marilla Before Anne goes beyond being an exploration of a character’s backstory. Set mainly in Avonlea, Prince Edward Island and Halifax, Nova Scotia in the years between 1841 and 1876, Marilla Before Anne is a work of historical fiction that provides a flavour for the time period. The novel brings to life the attire, housing, and clothing of the late 19th century, as well as the way societal expectations shaped womens’ lives, and the way individual women either accepted or pushed back against those expectations.
It’s also a story about secrets, choices, and regrets.
Author Louise Michalos was born in Musquodoboit Harbor, Nova Scotia, and raised in Halifax. In this first novel, she explores an intriguing concept in an interesting and engaging way. Michalos consulted with the heirs of L.M. Montgomery Inc. for permission to use the character Marilla in the story, and strove “to honour and preserve Marilla’s place as a beloved character for all Anne of Green Gables fans as well as opening that world to a new audience of readers.” (p. 260)
It would be an interesting experiment to see if reading Marilla Before Anne would alter my view of events in the Anne of Green Gables series, particularly in the opening book. I can’t help feeling that reading Marilla Before Anne would put a different slant on Anne’s arrival. At the very least, I would have a better understanding of where Marilla is coming from.
Which, I suppose, is the point.
Born in Musquodoboit Harbour and raised in Halifax, Louise Michalos brings an authentic voice to Marilla Cuthbert’s story. The second youngest of a family of nine, whose mother was raised in a lighthouse and whose father was raised in a home that housed the post office, Louise’s life was infused with the stories of love and loss that are held within small communities throughout Atlantic Canada. Louise currently lives in Bedford with her husband, Trifon. Marilla Before Anne is her first novel.
- Publisher : Vagrant Press (May 25 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1771089288
- ISBN-13 : 978-177108928
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