Great House Therapy: Marilla and Matthew’s God-Fearing Avonlea Orphan Sanctuary -The Toast

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Susan Harlan’s previous work for The Toast, including past installments of Great House Therapy, can be found here.

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Name: Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, bickering but affectionate siblings d’un certain age
Location: Prince Edward Island, Canada, past Barry’s Pond (or the Lake of Shining Waters) and down the Avenue (or the White Way of Delight)
Size: Appropriate and sensible
Years lived in: Since their youth, which was spent nursing their dying father rather than courting

When Matthew and Marilla decided to adopt a little orphan boy from the asylum in Nova Scotia, they had no idea what was in store, nor did the word “asylum” strike them as a problem. Although Mrs. Rachel Lynde was certain that the child would murder them in their beds and burn the place to the ground, the alternative was to hire a local French boy, and French boys are incredibly stupid. Due to a queer mistake, the Cuthberts received a girl, Anne, who was next-door to a perfect heathen but really pretty great. Sometimes home improvements go hand-in-hand with Providence, and the adoption of this skinny and homely girl led to a total reimagining of the bachelor and old maid’s farmhouse.

Green Gables has a hollow, a brook, white birches, horizon mists of pearl and purple, and other things of that manner. It is one of the finest properties in Avonlea, a peaceful and God-fearing place where people have names like “Mrs. Alexandria Spencer” and the most anticipated social event of the year is a teetotaling afternoon party at the manse. The farm is surrounded by cherry- and apple-tree orchards that shower the landscape with blossoms, and the grass is sprinkled with dandelions. Rose bushes give way to green, low-sloping fields that offer a sparkling blue glimpse of the sea beyond balsamy fir woods and wild plums that hang in their filmy bloom. So imagine a commercial for Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing.

With vintage elements that add to its rustic charm, the house is perfectly suited to the daily rhythms and hobbies of this “modern family.” Matthew spends long days in the barn, milking the cows, baling hay, and writing a blog about how to adapt his farming practices to Brooklyn rooftops. If women come to the house, he hides in a small room off the parlour. When she is not in the depths of despair, Anne enjoys reading poetry about fairies, being rageful about Gilbert Blythe, and gallivanting about the forest with her bosom friend Diana, who is dull but sweet and pretty.

It is a warm, if regimented, home, and Marilla is in charge. Because she is very into cleanliness, she scrubs the floor five times a day. When she is not doing this, she makes thousands of baking-powder biscuits, updates her recipe cards, and occasionally has a tipple of currant wine (the minister said it’s fine). Sometimes Anne does the dishes, if she’s not pretending to be a dead woman floating in a stream. Matthew doesn’t do any housework because he is a man, which also means that he has a meal of jellied chicken and cold tongue served promptly when he returns from the fields.

“We try to keep things at Green Gables very farm-to-table,” Marilla ejaculated. “Sustainability is everything around here, especially in the long winters, because without it, you will literally die.”

Marilla was kind enough to sit down with us over crabapple preserves and tea to discourse about the Cuthberts’ decorating journey, although she did say that she was missing her Aid Society meeting.

She used the special dishes.

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A chat with Marilla (a handsome woman, stern but nonetheless affectionate, who was perfectly embodied by Colleen Dewhurst in the film version of the book):

Their Style: My style is minimalist, and it doesn’t matter what Matthew’s style is because he has no say. I like bare country churches, clean Scandinavian lines, and furniture that embodies self-denial. My favorite chair is duly plain, but it’s perfect for shelling peas or reading Revelations. My taste runs to quilts that contain no more than three colors and samplers embroidered with religious wisdom. I always say: You can never have too many samplers with the Word of Our Lord on them — anything that says to your guests, We are not heathens, we swear. Gosh, I wonder if they make a sampler with that on it.

Important Influences: Well, first and foremost, I would say God. I see Our Lord as the original Property Brother, but of course there’s only one of him, and he doesn’t live in Las Vegas. And then Anne has been a big influence, although she likes to imagine her room as a kind of organdy and silk palace. She’s very into imagining things, like that she has an alabaster brow and nut-brown hair, or that she’s a princess or the Lady of the Lake. She carries around this book by Alfred, Lord Tennismatch or something like that.

Favorite Element: For me, definitely my kitchen, but Matthew’s favorite design element is the barn, which is decorated with bats and old rusty nails. Once, someone told him he should hang up these big signs that said JOY and FAMILY, and he just looked at him like he was insane. I also like our front porch. Sometimes Rachel will come over to sit in the out-of-doors with me and speculate wildly as to where people are headed in their buggies. She likes to make sure that respectable young ladies do not go driving with men. Sluts, she always says. But she prides herself on speaking her mind. 

Potential Improvements: Anne wishes that we had another spare room. She’s totally obsessed with spare rooms. I don’t get it — I mean, we have one. She also likes to rename rooms in the house, so the porch is now the Verandah of Vision, and the toilet is the Privy of the Blooming Bowels. And she’d like to get rid of her bed and sleep in a wild cherry tree, but she had an imaginary friend who lived in an enchanted bookcase when she was a kid, so you know: crazy sauce. The only kind of bookcase I will tolerate is a simple, economical model from a reliable supplier like West Elm. 

What Friends Say: Sometimes Rachel will tell me how she would have done something differently, like that we shouldn’t have put a desk in Anne’s room because now she’ll start reading books and thinking about things and not get married.

Biggest Embarrassment: The time that Anne served Diana currant wine and got the girl completely blasted. That was a pretty kettle of fish. And in my parlour! Diana is a lush.

Proudest DIY: Setting up Anne’s room. When I thought we were getting a boy, I figured he could sleep on the couch in the kitchen chamber, but that didn’t seem right for a girl, even if she was a red-headed stray waif. So I set her up in the east gable room, which was decorated with bare whitewashed walls, plain window sashes, and a braided mat in the middle of the bare floor. She said that the room had a rigidity not to be described in words that sent a chill to the very marrow of her bones, but she would do the place up like Liberace if I left it to her. A less-is-more approach is better — nothing featherbrained. Just last week, I was reading in Real Simple that I should throw away everything I own and then buy other things that the magazine helpfully suggests, and I was like: But I only own a pincushion and an amethyst brooch bequeathed to my mother by a seafaring uncle.

Biggest Indulgence: I sprang for a Viking range and marble countertops in the kitchen, but I passed on the seafoam green SMEG fridge as it was too small to hold all my jars of jam. I see these purchases as adding value to Green Gables in the long run — everyone on House Hunters wants a chef’s kitchen, even though none of those deadbeats can even make a grilled cheese. We also put in some stylish open shelving to store my muffins, raspberry cordial, and medicine for grippe.

Biggest Challenge: Trying to bleach the muslin curtains for the third time in a week while Anne is going on and one about how she wishes that roses could talk because they would say such lovely things. And making the house “green.” If you have a farmhouse, it has to be green. We put in SIP panels, an ICF foundation, and blown-in cellulose insulation in the attic. Overall, we tried to use materials that were locally sourced or salvaged. But listen to me! — Boy, do I sound smug. God would not like that.

Best Advice: Only listen to the decorating advice of kindred spirits, because everyone — and I mean everyone — is fixing up old farmhouses these days. People keep telling me to make a chalkboard wall in my kitchen, and I’m like: Why the hell would I do that? Really, the thing is not to be afraid to sit down with a notebook full of Sears catalogue cutouts and mix elements that don’t necessarily go together, like a painting of “Christ Blessing the Little Children” and a Barcelona chair. But don’t go overboard. You can always enliven a room with a throw pillow covered in burlap or a single flower in a vase. And as Anne says, without the right paint scheme for a historic home, your life will be a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.

Susan Harlan is an English professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in Shakespeare. Her essays have appeared in venues such as The Guardian US, The Morning News, Roads & Kingdoms, Nowhere, The Awl, Public Books, and Curbed.

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