A Tangled Web

Oh, such a tediously tangled web! I considered taking notes as I read so I could keep characters straight. I kept thinking the cast would eventually resolve into a few manageable main characters and I would figure out which I was supposed to care about. It didn’t and I didn’t.

In three generations sixty Darks had been married to sixty Penhallows. . . There was really nobody for a Dark to marry except a Penhallow and nobody for a Penhallow to marry except a Dark.  Once, it had been said, they wouldn’t take anybody else.  Now, nobody else would take them. . . They were still a proud, vigorous, and virile clan who hacked and hewed among themselves but presented an unbroken front to any alien or hostile force.    

For my taste, the story is too much about the hacking and hewing among themselves and not enough of the unbroken front.  My sympathies were spread too thinly over the confusing number of characters for there to be much for any particular one of them.  Too few were even likeable.  

Aunt Becky, the clan matriarch, is the possessor of a coveted heirloom, an ugly jug.  She summons the entire family to her bedside before she dies and most of them show up, thinking that she will announce who will inherit the jug.  Instead, she warns them all that they had better be mending their ways because she may or may not already have chosen who is to get the jug, but it also might depend on their future behavior.  The heir will be named on a particular date about a year and a half from the day of the meeting.  The idea that they would all knuckle under to this kind of manipulation for a cracked and broken jug is ludicrous to me.  But they all do in one way or another, from something as simple as finishing a partially painted house to deciding to get married, just in case.  

The story teems with typical Montgomery characters that work well in limited measure in other stories.  Mismatched personalities who live together while fighting like cats (will this most recent disagreement be the last straw?), disappointed old maids living with insensitive relatives, an unloved and mistreated orphan, widows of either the bitter or the tragic type, couples driven apart by misunderstandings.  There aren’t many relational possibilities that are left out.  I found it exhausting.

This family is so full of extreme passions that I couldn’t decide whether Montgomery meant for us to take them seriously.  A case of supposed love at first sight causes ten years of pain for one couple.  Two young war widows have decided to remain tragic characters forever devoted to their husbands’ memories.  One young woman determines to steal her cousin’s fiance simply to prove that she can.  And she does. Amidst this clan of people minding each other’s business, everyone looks the other way while one family treats an orphan in their care little better than Oliver Twist is treated in the orphanage.  It seems that no one merely dislikes another, they must hate.  “Hate, Donna reflected for her comforting, was a good lasting passion.  You got over loving but you never got over hating.”

No doubt plenty of people find this story clever and entertaining.  Be aware, however, that it is definitely not one of Montgomery’s stories for young girls.  By today’s standards, most of the situations are relatively mild. The men who have to try for over a year not to swear still think with accompanying d***s.  There are no explicit descriptions of romantic scenes, but the situations do involve adults.  

The last paragraph was the most disturbing part of the story.  Not because I can’t make allowances for the times during which the story was written, but because Montgomery chose to end on this note.  One of the disagreements between friends is about a statue of a naked woman one of the men won in a raffle.  It offends the other man and he moves out, but the two men make up in the end.  The owner of the statue makes the concession of painting the woman with bronze paint.  The previously offended man tells him he should scrape the paint off again.  “Think I’m going to have an unclothed n***** sitting up there?  If I’ve gotter be looking at a naked woman day in and day out, I want a white one for decency’s sake.”  

That’s their happy ending?

You can find all of our L. M. Montgomery book reviews here.