Have you ever known someone with a cold personality? Someone who seemed to have a hard edge, who was gruff and standoffish? That would describe Marilla Cuthbert. Marilla was often cross. She was sarcastic. She spoke unpleasant things easily, but she struggled terribly to speak from her heart. Well, that was Marilla Cuthbert before Anne Shirley came to Green Gables:
Marilla was a tall, thin woman, with angles and without curves; her dark hair showed some grey streaks and was always twisted up in a hard little knot behind with two wire hairpins stuck aggressively through it. She looked like a woman of narrow experience and rigid conscience, which she was; but there was a saving something about her mouth which, if it had been ever so slightly developed, might have been considered indicative of a sense of humor.
Poor Marilla! L. M. Montgomery’s portrait of Anne’s adoptive mother is hardly flattering, but at least she has a saving grace. (I can’t read those words without picturing Colleen Dewhurst. If you’ve seen the film, then surely you understand!) Maud Montgomery isn’t done painting Marilla’s portrait yet, though. When Anne Shirley arrives at Green Gables, Marilla puts her up in the east gable room, which she has decorated herself–and it perfectly matches Marilla’s personality:
The whitewashed walls were so painfully bare and staring that [Anne] thought they must ache over their own bareness….The whole apartment was of a rigidity not to be described in words, but which sent a shiver to the very marrow of Anne’s bones.
We don’t know if Marilla herself knew how cold and rigid her personality was. But we do know that Marilla was about to make a big change, whether she wanted to or not!
Do the right thing
It began out of a sense of duty. She didn’t see the opportunity for love and happiness; she saw another human being desperate for aid it seemed only she could provide. Marilla and Matthew intended to adopt a boy to help with the farm labor. But Marilla was moved with pity by Anne and her plight, and agreed to Matthew’s wish to keep her. ”It seems a sort of duty,” she said.
Anne Shirley came to Green Gables full of life, and curiosity, and opinions–which Anne offered innocently enough, but they forced Marilla to see things around her in a different light–a truer light. Anne freed Marilla to think honestly about people and situations around her for perhaps the first time, and this was tremendously freeing to Marilla. When Anne comments that she didn’t think the minister seemed interested in talking to God when praying at church that morning:
“Marilla felt helplessly that all this should be sternly reproved, but she was hampered by the undeniable fact that some of the things Anne had said…were what she herself had really thought deep down in her heart for years, but she had never given expression to. It almost seemed to her that those secret, unuttered, critical thoughts had suddenly taken visible and accusing shape in the person of this outspoken morsel of neglected humanity.”
Marilla Cuthbert could not have had a better foil than Anne Shirley. Anne put to words the things Marilla always thought, but couldn’t say–and Marilla was a better person for admitting these things to herself. You can’t change anything if you can’t admit to yourself what things are really like.
Marilla may have had the glimmerings of a sense of humor before, but Anne brought laughter to Marilla’s life like no one she had ever known. Marilla’s laughter was genuine and kind–not bitter or cruel–and it did much to soften her heart. Anne provided Marilla with abundant opportunities for laughter:
“Whatever’s the matter now, Anne?” [Marilla] asked.
“It’s about Diana, sobbed Anne luxuriously. ”I love Diana so, Marilla. I cannot ever live without her. But I know very well when we grow up that Diana will get married and go away and leave me. And oh, what shall I do? I hate her husband–I just hate him furiously. I’ve been imagining it all out–the wedding and everything–Diana dressed in snowy garments, with a veil, and looking regal as a queen; and me the bridesmaid, with a lovely dress too, and puffed sleeves, but with a breaking heart hid beneath my smiling face. And then bidding Diana good-bye-e-e’ Here Anne broke down entirely and wept with increasing bittnerness.”
Marilla turned quickly away to hide her twitching face; but it was no use; she collapsed on the nearest chair and burst into such a hearty and unusual peal of laughter that Matthew, crossing the yard outside, halted in amazement. When had he heard Marilla laugh like that before?
Marilla brought Anne into her home out of a sense of obligation, but it wasn’t long before Marilla had other reasons for being glad that Anne had stayed at Green Gables:
Anne cast herself into Marilla’s arms and rapturously kissed her sallow cheek. It was the first time in her whole life that childish lips had voluntarily touched Marilla’s face. Again that sudden sensation of startling sweetness thrilled her. She was secretly vastly pleased at Anne’s caresses, which was probably the reason why she said brusquely:
“There, there, never mind your kissing nonsense.”
(She is still Marilla Cuthbert, after all!) But love forces you to let your guard down. Love softens you. And Marilla needed softening.
When Anne asked Marilla on the anniversary of her coming to Green Gables,
“Are you sorry you kept me, Marilla?”
“No, I can’t say I’m sorry,” said Marilla, who sometimes wondered how she could have lived before Anne came to Green Gables, “no, not exactly sorry.”
But this was nothing compared to Marilla’s reaction after Anne fell off the ridgepole of Mr. Barry’s roof after accepting Josie Pye’s dare:
Marilla was out in the orchard picking a panful of summer apples when she saw Mr. Barry coming over the log bridge and up with slope….In his arms he carried Anne, whose head lay limply against his shoulder.
At that moment Marilla had a revelation. In the sudden stab of fear that pierced to her very heart she realized what Anne had come to mean to her. She would have admitted that she liked Anne–nay, that she was very fond of Anne. But now she knew as she hurried wildly down the slope that Anne was dearer to her than anything on earth.”
Seize the moment
After Matthew died suddenly, Marilla was able to tell Anne in words how she truly felt about her.
“Oh, Anne, I know I’ve been strict and harsh with you maybe–but you musn’t think I didn’t love you as well as Matthew did, for all that. I want to tell you now when I can. It’s never been easy for me to say things out of my heart, but at times like this it’s easier. I love you as dear as if you were my own flesh and blood and you’ve been my joy and comfort ever since you came to Green Gables.
We all have times when we let down our guards and are more apt to speak from our hearts. Seize those moments.
You don’t have to be perfect
Marilla’s personality softened considerably after Anne came to Green Gables, but she was still Marilla. She was still plain and sensible, still a bit rigid, and certainly not perfect. But Marilla meant everything to Anne. You don’t have to be perfect.
Stand back and see how far you’ve come
After Anne had been at Green Gables a few years, “crispness was no longer Marilla’s distinguishing characteristic.” But that’s what it had taken–years. The change was real, though–and so notable that even Rachel Lynde remarked, “Marilla Cuthbert has got mellow.“
This post is the third in the series Life Lessons from Green Gables. Click here to view the previous posts: