I used to think Marilla Cuthbert was a scary old bat, a crusty, rusty porcupine of a woman who wasn’t quite capable of loving dear Anne the way she needed to be loved. She seemed like someone’s mean teacher or least favorite aunt. What a crabby Patty!
But that was before I became a mother myself–an adoptive mother, at that.
Rereading the whole series again in recent years, while writing my Anne-braided memoir, I gained a whole new fascination for Marilla. She’s intimidating, to be sure, but deep beneath her cranky exterior beats the heart of a Mama Warrior!
Say what you will about “Anne with an E,” but the way the writers have given Marilla (and Matthew, who I am saving for Father’s Day week) a backstory is nothing short of a revelation. For me, it’s opened up all kinds of questions about Marilla:
Why was she so awful to Anne at first? There must be a reason.
And why is she so closed off from the world before Anne comes? Again, there must be a reason.
Did she ever long to belong to someone–a husband and children? The way she finally embraces Anne with her whole heart is beautiful. She seems so fulfilled by her role as Anne’s de facto mother. Really, Anne of Green Gables is Marilla’s story as much as Anne’s, as it shows her incredible emotional journey from harsh and defensive spinster to a protective and loving caregiver.
Marilla fan Fayelle says it all here of her favorite AOGG character:
“(She is) strict, simple, and seemingly unfeeling, but then she is moved in enormous ways by Anne,” Fayelle says. “If I met Marilla I’d be so intimidated by her but probably adore the mess out of her too.”
Truly, Marilla Cuthbert is an astonishing character, and to play her, an actress must be pretty dang astonishing herself.
Last week, I compared Megan Follows, Ella Ballentine and Amybeth McNulty as the three actresses who have recently (since 1985) portrayed Anne. I got some FABULOUS comments, so don’t slow your roll now, Anne Devotees of the Internet. Every comment will be entered in a contest to win this splendid Anne art print from Carrot Top Paper shop!
Here goes. Are you ready to rumble, Marilla Maniacs? Hint: This will be the very closest this blog series will get to a three-way tie!
1. Colleen Dewhurst, Anne of Green Gables, 1985
Pros: I adore the late Colleen Dewhurst, a keen and able actress who played Marilla so indelibly. First of all, her laugh is the best ever. When she cackles with glee, say, after Anne spouts some preposterous bit such as “I suppose in the end it was a romantic way to perish…for a mouse,” we also throw our heads back and join in. Her big, bad laugh is contagious, and never insincere. When Marilla laughs, she really laughs and makes us all join in the hooting. And her voice! Spectacular!
My favorite Colleen Dewhurst scene is the one after Matthew dies, and Marilla hears Anne sobbing helpless tears of grief. She comes in the room, holds her hurting child, and they comfort one another in a way only those who have lost the same loved one can. I always cry my eyes out, and rejoice that Anne has found such a woman to love her forever.
Cons: It’s hard to find a con here, but here’s an observation: Compared to Geraldine James’ Marilla in “Anne with an E,” Dewhurst’s Marilla seems older, more out of touch, more like a grandmother than a mother.
2. Sara Botsford, “L. M. Montgomery’s ‘Anne of Green Gables’, 2016
Pros: As I wrote here, I had some serious issues with this retelling. But again, this was not the fault of Sara Botsford, whom I quite liked as Marilla.
I wrote: “…Sara Botsford turns in a strong, subtle performance as the crusty yet not entirely un-kindred spirit Marilla. We watch her confusion (they were supposed to get a boy from the orphanage) turn to turmoil–should they keep Anne?–and then to fascination and tenderness. Botsford is well cast and adds her own shadings to the character.”
Cons: This series just skims the surface of the AOGG story, skipping lightly from caper to caper. The format hardly gives an actress of Botsford’s calibre a chance to show her stuff.
3. Geraldine James, “Anne with an E,” 2017
Pros: At first, James’s Marilla seems like the meanest one of all, but soon her armor begins to dissolve, and we see the blazing heart of Anne’s new champion. Really, I was won over completely by the scene in Episode 2 or 3, when Anne, having been bullied at school runs home to the comfort of Marilla, who enfolds her in the most satisfying, motherly fashion. Oh my stars–that scene just broke me.
I wrote here:
“Anne’s heartbreak is now being tended by loving hands, which makes this episode redemptive. She’s not alone anymore. Now she has Marilla, a budding mother, whose hard facade is cracking open more by the day. It’s no wonder Geraldine James is an OBE (a recipient of the Order of the British Empire) for her acting.”
It’s subjective, I know, but I feel as if somehow this Marilla and this Anne bond in a deeper way. At least, their relationship was incredibly compelling to me. They grew to respect one another, and that was such a joy to witness. You knew without being told explicitly that Marilla loved this new daughter of hers to the moon and back. You knew Marilla would take an arrow to the chest for Anne, just by the look on her face when she gazed at her.
Cons: Don’t get me wrong, I am ALL for Anne and Marilla being strong, competent, autonomous, able, etc. But some of the modern feminism seemed a little clunky to me sometimes. Was this Marilla’s feminism really true to the book’s character?
For me, the Best Marilla goes to…
Geraldine James, by a hair. While I absolutely honor Colleen Dewhurst’s wonderfully crusty, cackling, and nuanced performance, the way that James’ Marilla conveys fear, uncertainty, loyalty, and a slow-burning love–for a girl she never wanted but now cannot live without–is breathtaking. She had me at the moment she opened her arms to Anne and embraced her as her own heart’s “kin.”
Who is YOUR favorite Marilla and why?
Tell me below, respectfully, of course, and we can all talk about Anne, Anne, ANNE until the cows come home (or they get let out of the pasture by mistake!)
Every comment on my blog from now until my “Who is the Best Anne Character?” blog series is done in four weeks will be entered in a contest to win a fetching Anne of Green Gables art piece or frameable quote from my favorite Etsy shop, Carrot Top Paper Shop!