My rating: 7.5/10
I never read this venerable classic as a child, coming to it in young adulthood, but I enjoyed it when I did finally settle down to it. My tattered paperback copy was packed and unpacked over a number of moves until coming to rest at the back of the schoolroom bookshelf, where it still sits today. I hadn’t realized that my first copy was a quite highly edited one – “abridged for younger readers”, if one reads the fine print – until I stumbled upon this vintage hardcover, read it, and realized that there was more to the story than I had been aware of.
Not much more, really, mostly just an elaboration on the religion-related episodes, where Rebecca mulls over the appeal of the missionary life and discusses her faith at length, but it was satisfying to at last read the book as it originally appeared in print.
11-year-old Rebecca Rowena Randall (her late father was a devotee of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe) has been sent off to live with her two spinster aunts in Riverboro, as her widowed mother is having a difficult time making ends meet for herself and her seven children on mortgaged Sunnybrook Farm. And it’s interesting to note that though Rebecca identifies herself as coming from Sunnybrook Farm, and obviously has strong sentimental ties to her family home, we don’t get any further acquaintance with the place itself, with the action taking place almost exclusively in Rebecca’s new home.
Grim Aunt Miranda and quiet Aunt Jane are unprepared for the bouncing Rebecca as they had requested her sober older sister Hannah instead, but after the initial surprise all accept the situation and prepare in their various ways to make the best of it. This is the era of stern duty, after all.
Do I need to detail the escapades which Rebecca gets herself into and out of? It’s fairly standard stuff for this sort of novel, and anyone who is familiar with Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery and Jean Webster can fill in the blanks. Rebecca finds kindred spirits in an elderly childless couple to whom she can tell her woes when Aunt Miranda’s sharp tongue stings too much to bear, and she soon teams up with a best chum, in this case the blond and smiling Emma Jane Perkins, good natured foil to her more rambunctious and clever friend. The two attend the local one-room school together, have ins and outs with the other children, deal with the school’s Mean Girl, the cruelly named Minnie Smellie, and good-naturedly patronize the local ne’er-do-well family, the Simpsons, headed by the light-fingered Abner, master of the midnight visit and the subsequent “trading” of goods picked up from about the neighbourhood.
In a scenario which reminded me of the later Daddy-Long-Legs plot, the young Rebecca (she’s only eleven at the start of the story) meets a much older wealthy bachelor (Adam Ladd is thirty when he and Rebecca first meet), charms him with her childish prattle, and evokes feelings which grow into something much more mature in both parties. But that is looking far ahead, though hints are abundant from the first meeting that Adam and Rebecca have “special” feelings for each other, and of course nothing untoward happens, with Adam nobly refraining from romantic thoughts about his young protégé until she reaches college age. At which point, let’s see… he is thirty-eight and she is seventeen. This raises a bit of an “ick” response in modern-day me, but it seems perfectly acceptable to this time period’s novel writers, so I’ll just leave it right there, labelled prominently “Era Acceptable”.
Rebecca is a truly charming heroine with an innate dramatic bent which shows itself in her love of writing and music. As well as creating poetry and stories, Rebecca sings beautifully and later masters the piano, with the author being very clear that in all of these accomplishments her heroine has had to stringently apply herself to master the crafts and to polish her natural abilities, which I found nicely refreshing – too often our young protagonists blithely achieve lofty heights with surprising and unlikely ease.
Early on in the story I started thinking, “Hmm, this story seems just a bit familiar. Haven’t we met these people before on Prince Edward Island?” A quick internet search showed that I was not alone in this thought, though I was mildly surprised to realize that Rebecca was created first, with Anne following several years later. Check out this article, Mirror Images: Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, which is quite fascinating in its examination of parallels between the two iconic literary heroines.
Likeable as Rebecca is – and she is truly a winsome child – she never quite comes to life as does her younger literary sister Anne. Kate Douglas Wiggin seems to be standing just a little off in the distance in describing her creation’s thoughts and feelings; her rather stilted language and stock situations belonging more to the 19th Century, whereas Anne feels much more like a creature of the here and now.
A must-read for anyone at all interested in the time period and the vintage “youth fiction” genre; there is humor and irony galore to reward the adult reader of young Rebecca’s adventures, though I’m afraid a young reader of the 21st Century might bog down somewhat in all of the missionary subplot and the relative mildness of the “action”.
My rating: 6.5/10
I was pleased to discover that there is a companion book to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, New Chronicles of Rebecca, published four years later, in 1907. It consists of a linked series of anecdotes enlarging upon and adding to the Rebecca saga, drawing on readerly familiarity with Rebecca’s original adventures, and giving many more details as to her life and some strong clues to her future.
Because of its anecdotal nature, this is much less of a stand-alone novel than the first Rebecca, but it is thus freed up to delve into some intriguing sidelines of life in Riverboro. We meet Emma Jane’s swain, Abijah Flagg, and hear his back story, as well as becoming more intimately acquainted with the Simpson clan. Though Rebecca is viewed primarily as a children’s story, it is very apparent in New Chronicles that the author is writing as well to the mature members of her readership, as a key plot concerns the common-law relationship of the Simpsons, and Rebecca’s part in awakening the feckless Abner to the wrong done to his “wife” (and mother of his children) by his neglect of the religious ceremony to legitimatize their relationship.
In another chapter, a young woman abandoned by her husband during her second pregnancy dies along with her newborn child, and the young Rebecca and Emma Jane have the distressing and quite graphically described experience of being left alone with the deceased while Emma’s father goes to fetch the neighbours. Luckily the now-motherless first child creates a diversion, and then a longer-term project as the girls decide to prevent young Jack’s disposal of to the poorhouse. The girls find him a foster mother and form a society of benevolent young “aunts” to oversee his amusement.
In general this is a mild addendum to the classic novel, but it adds enough to the overall portrait of Rebecca and her associates that it should really accompany the original as a required-reading companion volume.
A pleasant reading experience, both of these books. Though I warn you that you may look at Anne of Green Gables with new eyes on your next reading, and wonder just a bit how carefully L.M. Montgomery was examining K.D. Wiggin!
Here are both of the Rebecca books online at Project Gutenberg, along with numerous other examples of this prolific author’s work.