Tuesday, 20 August 2013

100 years of Pollyanna

Statue of Pollyanna
Littleton Public Library, New Hampshire
Do little girls still read Pollyanna (1913)? You can still buy the books on Amazon (and not just the free Kindle versions) so maybe they do, or maybe she only finds older, nostalgic readers such as myself? I loved the book as a child, but hadn't thought of it for years until the 1960 Disney film, starring Hayley Mills, was shown on television a few months ago. I was rather more impressed by it than I had been first time round - in fact, my first memory of the cinema is being carried out screaming when (spoiler alert) Pollyanna falls from a tree. In my defence, I would only have been three or four, so was much too young to understand it. However, I wasn't inspired to re-read the book until this summer, while on holiday in New England, I came across the statue above. Littleton, New Hampshire, is the birth-place of Pollyanna's author, Eleanor H Porter, and every year they hold a Glad Day to celebrate Pollyanna, this year marking her centenary.

Why a Glad Day? Pollyanna is an orphan who is sent to live with her maternal aunt when her father dies. Her mother's family had not approved of her marriage to a poor minister, so Aunt Polly is not very welcoming. However, Pollyanna's sunny nature can melt the stoniest of hearts, and soon she has transformed the whole town with her "glad game" which consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation. It started one Christmas when Pollyanna, who was hoping for a doll in the missionary barrel, found only a pair of crutches inside. Pollyanna's father invented the game to teach her always to look for good in bad situations and to find something to be glad about —in this case, that they didn't need to use the crutches! When Pollyanna has an accident, all the people she has helped rally round to help her recover and her aunt is reconciled to, and marries, her former beau, Dr Chilton, leading to a happy ending. Like another of my childhood favourites, Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna can be irritatingly pious, but the message of the book is a sound one.

There are a dozen or so sequels, (see the list in Wikipedia) but only the first, Pollyanna grows up (1915), was written by Porter. Pollyanna's aunt wishes to accompany her husband to Europe. Rather casually, to the modern eye, she leaves Pollyanna to stay in Boston with the sister of an acquaintance. Mrs Carew's past has left her a bitter woman and Pollyanna, unknowingly, has been "prescribed" for her like a medicine. The glad game works its magic, Mrs Carew is transformed and Pollyanna makes many new friends. She is, however, horrified by the poverty she witnesses in Boston and returns home with views which sound dangerously socialist for the time! At this point, I got rather confused because six years pass and at first the second part of the book seems to bear little relation to what went before. Aunt Polly is now widowed and impoverished (by her standards), and Pollyanna casts around for money-making schemes and ways of preventing her aunt from sinking back into gloom. Her solution is to take in her friends from Boston as summer boarders - the connection is now clear! The rest of the plot features romantic misunderstandings and a rather hard-to-swallow coincidence which I don't think I could summarise without giving the game away. The attitude to a "crippled" character also sits uneasily in the twenty-first century, but is, I suppose, reflective of its times.

Despite these reservations, I've thoroughly enjoyed re-reading both books, but I don't think I'll go on to the sequels by other authors. I'll need to find another childhood heroine to revisit.

Update 26/08/13

Since posting the above I've learned of the existence of a list of children's literature statues in the US, Pollyanna included. Does anyone know of a similar UK list? Or of statues that could be included? Let me know in the comments if so.

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