Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading in Retrospect: "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" by Kate Douglas Wiggin, or Why the Anne of Green Gables Series is Better

My middle child, the bookworm, was given a copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm for Christmas. I read it for the first time only a few years ago. It seems like I’d heard of this book all my life, and I thought surely I’d read it as a child. But absolutely none of it seemed familiar, so I guess I’d missed this one.

The novel encompasses five years in the life of Rebecca Rowena Randall. One of seven children whose father died around the time of her youngest sibling’s birth, at the age of twelve Rebecca is sent to live with rich spinster aunts for schooling and raising. One aunt is spineless and the other is very hard to live with, but Rebecca’s engaging personality and active imagination see her through.

This book was first published in 1903. Anne of Green Gables was first published in 1908. There are many similarities between the two books, but Lucy Maud Montgomery did a better job with Anne. It’s as if Montgomery read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, said, “I can improve upon this!” and did.

First, Montgomery did away with all of the unnecessary background (Rebecca might as well have been an orphan; Anne was an orphan). More importantly, Anne was a more believable and likeable character. Both Anne and Rebecca were wonderfully imaginative, but Anne was also head of her class at school (smart girls rule!), and the scrapes she got herself into were both more serious and more entertaining than Rebecca’s.

Rebecca’s story doesn't extend beyond the one book, but Montgomery wisely gave us more detail in several volumes for Anne’s story. And overall, somehow Wiggin’s book was sappy, sentimental and adolescent, whereas Montgomery’s books managed to get deep into my heart rather than simply skimming the surface. Comparing Rebecca to Anne all the way through kind of ruined it for me, but I couldn't avoid it. Not that I didn’t enjoy this book, but I knew it could have been better than it was.

One final complaint about Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (which is kind of a spoiler, by the way). Ever since the moment his character was introduced, I wanted Rebecca to marry Mr. Adam Ladd (Mr. Aladdin) at the end. At the rate she was growing up through the chapters I thought for sure we would reach that point, but we didn’t. With no marriage in this book, I had hoped it might take place in a sequel, but that doesn’t seem to be the case either. (Wiggins did write the New Chronicles of Rebecca, which I haven't read, but from what I've gathered it doesn't pick up where RoSF left off; instead, it tells more stories that occurred within the same time frame.) The fact that Mr. Aladdin was twice Rebecca's age might have made a wedding somewhat squicky, but a hundred years ago such a thing wouldn't have even been considered Lolita territory (once Rebecca was an older teenager, anyway).

Oh, and it also annoyed me that most of the story didn’t even take place at Sunnybrook Farm.

Am I the only American girl who didn't read this book when I was little? Maybe I would have appreciated it more if I had.


Kristi said...

You're not the only one that didn't read it. My sister owned it and my mom kept telling me I should read it. I'm so stubborn that the more someone tells me to do something, the less likely I am to do it.

I'm glad I didn't. It probably would have annoyed me. I wasn't into sappy back then either.

Lesa said...

I did read this as a kid and liked it well enough but after reading a bit of it last year in the school library, I posted: why don't I ever think of Rebecca- I always remember Anne, Sara, ect.

The writing style did seem geared toward younger readers.

What about Pollyanna? I'm not sure if I ever read that one--but it is from the same era-- might be interesting to compare all three.

Melody said...

I never read this one either, and felt like I should have. I probably still will someday, but it is interesting to hear that there is a reason it is less known!

Kathy said...

Kristi--ooh, I'll have to remember to use reverse psychology on you! ;)

Lesa--I don't think I've ever read Pollyanna but from what I know of her I'm afraid I would feel like smacking her. Which is odd, because I'm pretty optimistic myself. Also, just have to ask . . . Sara who? Are we talking A Little Princess?

Melody--I guess you've read the Anne of Green Gables books? It will be interesting to see how you think RoSF compares to them!

Lesa said...

Yes, that Sara-- When ever I think of the girls, I always recall very fondly: Anne, Sara, Laura Ingalls & the March girls-- even Nancy Drew and I didn't read her much but never do I think of Rebecca-- actually, I forgot about her completely until I spotted the book in the library last year.

Kathy said...

You've definitely picked a good group of girls!

Avid Reader said...

I loved Anne of Green Gables growing up, but somehow I never got around to this one. Guess I didn't miss much.

Kathy said...

Yeah, I feel pretty well justified in telling you you're right. This one is probably best read only by young girls who *haven't* read Anne yet!

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading RoSF this afternoon & I'm 41, I never read it when I was younger. I totally agree with you Kathy. Mark Twain may have found Rebecca, "beautiful and moving and satisfying" I was left wanting more and feel quite let down that there isn't another book to pick up where this left off. I too have thoroughly enjoyed Anne of Green Gables and saw the similiarities between the two. L. M. Montgomery's beloved books at least left me satisfied. Thanks for sharing your posts and giving vent to what I'm currently feeling!

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading RoSF and the first words out of my mouth were, "Ah's not supposed to end like that!" Then, I immediately searched for a sequal, which led me to "New Chronicles..." Well, I read two lines and new it didn't pick up where the first one ended. So, I deleted it from my Kindle (at least it was free!) and Googled the big unanswered question, "Did Adam Ladd marry Rebecca?" This led me to your blog and comments and I just had to let you know that I agree with you 100% including being annoyed that hardly any of the story took place at Sunnybrook Farm! I'm almost 30 now and had already met Anne, so poor Rebecca just couldn't measure up to her in comparison. Glad I came across your comments! Maybe if we all just decide to agree that they eventually got married, then we'll feel a little less let-down? lol

Kathy said...

Anonymous 1 (Jeannie) and 2: it's so great finding other people who have the same feelings about a book as I do. It's gratifying.

AKU said...

I read this as a girl, but sadly after Anne. And Anne does win though I give credit to Rebecca for coming first.

As for the unanswered question. Eric Wiggins (the original author's grand nephew) wrote Rebecca books with her married to Adam Ladd.

Anonymous said...

Years after falling in love with AoGG, in my early 20s, I picked up RoSF. I immediately noticed the many similarities between the 2. Not just the characters, but the circumstances, the town, the references to faith and religion, and even specific scenes.

RoSF of course paled in comparison to AoGG because I had already loved Anne for many years. Plus Anne had been brought to life in the mini-series. Not to mention that Anne was given a whole series of novels which provided the reader with a longer, more intimate relationship with her. But I still thoroughly enjoyed RoSF and have reread it time and again over the years.

I'm now in my late 30s and just finished rereading RoSF for the umpth time. I now have a much greater appreciation for RoSF and actually find it equal to, if not better (yes, I said it) than AoGG.

When I was younger, I think I would have agreed wholeheartedly with your review. Now, I find myself thinking almost the opposite. To me, AoGG was more like a fantasy, a dream world, (dare I say it?) a bit of fluff. RoSF was rooted much more in reality. This was probably one of the reasons that I enjoyed AoGG more when I was younger and in my "romantical" stage.

I disagree with you that any of her background was "unnecessary" as it helped to shape who she was. And also that Rebecca "might as well have been an orphan." Her close ties to her large family played an integral role in the book!

Rebecca was also portrayed as a smart girl. While not top of the class in every subject, she excelled in many of the same ways that Anne did, including completing college in 3 instead of 4 years (which Anne also did). I actually found Rebecca to be more believable than Anne.

Yet, even while I find more serious "substance" in RoSF, it still provides a light-hearted emotion in my heart every time I read it. Overall, RoSF is a much more mature read to me compared to AoGG, with more underlying currents and subtleties behind the obvious.

Also, while the part of me that craves immediate gratification would have liked to see Rebecca and Alan Ladd develop more of a romantic relationship in the novel, I actually better appreciate the fact that this did not happen, that it was only hinted at. After all, Rebecca only had 1 book while Anne had several. Anne didn't get together with Gilbert until a few books down.

I guess one of the big clinchers for me and why overall I now am more in awe of RoSF than AoGG is that Rebecca came FIRST. At times a part of me felt like LM Montgomery did quite a bit of plaguarizing because there are soooo many things in AoGG that were clearly taken from RoSF. Kate Douglas Wiggins created this original, refreshing character; SHE created the world and inhabitants of what later became Avonlea. LMM took what KDW had already created and extended it beautifully, but we have to remember, this was the "child" of KDW and not LMM.

I think how much a reader enjoys and appreciates RoSF depends on how closely tied that reader already is to AoGG. My review of RoSF would have been different had I written one when I was younger. Overall though, both versions are simply amazing. I LOVE Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and I LOVE Anne of Green Gables. I am truly grateful that both exist and continue to thoroughly enjoy each. If you haven't yet read RoSF and are willing to read it, not as a comparison to AoGG but on its own merit, I would highly recommend it. It's too wondrous to miss.

Anonymous said...

By the way, thank you for opening up this discussion! I love talking about great books, even though we might not all agree. Both AoGG and RoSF hold a special place in my heart so thank you for bringing some attention to both!

Anonymous said...

Minor quibble - Rebecca is more similar to Emily of New Moon than to Anne. They are basically identical, except that Montgomery is a better writer and had the sense to conclude the story properly.

I just finished the sequel and there is no resolution at the end of that, either. I can't remember the last time I felt so cheated by the end of a book.

Charlotte said...

My impression of RofSBF when I was 11 or 12, was that, esp in comparison with A of GG, it was depressing somehow. Anne of Green Gables, otoh, seemed genuinely, universally,optimistic and fun, when she wasn't going through difficulties, which were always solved. It was not unrealistic, as death among young people was still fairly common, and some of her peers died, and Gilbert almost did. She was highly intelligent although I never understood why she wasn't more into animals, although she is in the later books. The other characters were alive & real, each one an individual and not a "type." The environment was described almost sensuously--you wanted to be there. Rebecca's Sunnybrook Farm had the feel of a distant sepia tinted photo. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is not a bad book. It's over 100 yrs old and is worth reading to give an idea of what life was like then. But Anne of Green Gables is inspriational, someone you keep in your heart forever. Kate Wiggins did a good job though, if only to inspire Anne's author (who was, sadly, herself often depressed and said to have committed suicide.) Perhaps it was her own inner torments that drove her to invent such an ebullient and memorable heroine.

Kathy said...

It's great, how such strong feelings can be brought out in so many people by books!

Linda said...

I love these books equally, but I read RoSF first and Rebecca will always be more special to me. I am wondering why Lesa said "the writing seemed geared to younger readers." Are you certain some of you have read the unabridged version? RoSF was not written as a "children's book" (neither was ANNE). RoSF was the best selling novel of 1904; not children's novel, just novel. There are a lot of passages and language I did not truly understand until I was an adult, including the chapters "Over the Teacups" and "Roses of Joy," and the comment Rebecca's mother makes about Aunt Miranda in "Goodbye Sunnybrook" which reveals so much about the young Miranda's hopes and dreams. Eric Wiggin was no blood relation of KDW; he was a distant cousin to her husband and basically simplified the two Rebecca books into one big narrative and then wrote his own ending where he went wholesale crazy, killing off characters and then marrying off other ones. It is basically hinted all along in the latter part of the text of RoSF that Adam Ladd is waiting for Rebecca to grow up before marrying her, and since she is not an adult yet at the end of the original book, I will assume that is why Wiggin left it there. Once Emma Jane rides off into the sunset with her suitor in NEW CHRONICLES OF REBECCA, it's a foregone conclusion. I did notice Eric Wiggin subtracted seven or eight years from Adam's age in his books so that it did not seem creepy that a man of thirty was in love with a teenage girl!