I’ve been reading classic children’s literature to my children. We’ve done Peter Pan, which was surprisingly hard to read aloud and made me realise that my opinions of Peter and Tinkerbell had been distorted by saccharine cartoons – they are both vile characters in the book. We read Treasure Island, which was fun but intensely male and far more literary than I had remembered. Black Beauty was a triumph, as was The Railway Children, although I’d give full credit to any parent reading it aloud to their children who is stoical enough not to have to stop and mop their own tears to stumble through the ending. Alice in Wonderland remains crazily poetic at every reading – although the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party always takes too long in coming and never lasts long enough.
But now it’s Pollyanna. I retained fond memories of Pollyanna – mainly remembering the letters it contained at the end, and the glass prisms which hung from her windows. But re-reading it this past month has made me inhale sharply at its insight, wit, writing style, characterisation, as well as the effortlessness with which EH Porter has written a simple story that is so easy to read aloud, and continues to give so much joy.
There’s certainly literary depth to her simple story. She highlights her characters with ease and wit – Aunt Polly’s tightly coiffured hair is indicative of her general demeanour. In fact Porter’s characterisation is exemplary, she lays out the different characters so well that when reading aloud it is effortless to imbue them with different voices, as Charles Dickens and then TS Eliot said ‘He do the police in different voices’. Porter layers her plot with imagery and style – images of crutches are prevalent a long time before Pollyanna has her accident that leaves her temporarily paralysed, and she also sets a scene well, conveying the small-town New England scenery of the early 1900s with her nuances of language in how she portrays Nancy and Tom, the servants. Written as an omniscient narrator, the reader is a party to Pollyanna’s naivety as well as her optimism, and also the gradual changes she unwittingly wreaks on all those around her.
Despite being published as long ago as 1913, elements of the book charm a modern day audience, and I would argue, it holds messages that are as important as ever. EH Porter portrayed the importance of a child in the adults’ lives in the book: Pollyanna manages to emotionally heal and better the lives of those around her, mainly by being an unwittingly positive and cheery child – but also by being listened to. Only last weekend Matthew Parris wrote in The Times about how the proportion of children in the population of the UK is now the smallest in history, and we need to sit up and listen to the magic of childhood, and not be treating children as just smaller adults.
For all its slight mocking tones of Miss Polly in the book, Pollyanna’s legal guardian, Pollyanna does hark back to a time when moral ideas of duty and charity were an integral part of society. But mainly, there’s the message of gratefulness. Pollyanna plays the ‘glad game’. She tries to find the goodness in things rather than the negative side, originating in the Christmas when she received a pair of crutches rather than the doll for which she had been hoping.
Pollyannaism has been much distorted since the original publication – often alluding to Pollyanna’s seemingly blind optimism in the face of all that befalls her, and her extreme naivety in simply going for the best possible outlook – she tells Tom, the gardener, that he should be glad his arthritis stoops him over, as he is therefore nearer the weeds he must pull up. However, this is a callous example of her ‘glad game’, and not really where it shines. In this example it feeds into extreme ideas of Pollyannaism as being inappropriate and offensive – after all we can’t go round with permanent smiles on our faces, sometimes we need to face a grief head on.
EH Porter even said that in her lifetime, the principle of the ‘glad game’ had been distorted, and that it wasn’t about smiling through all evils: “I have never believed that we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil; I have merely thought it far better to ‘greet the unknown with a cheer.’” In fact, what makes Pollyanna resonate for my children and our generation is that it’s simply a way of being grateful for what you have – and for looking for a way of dealing with dark periods. The book itself isn’t preachy, merely sunshiny – it provokes thought about what we can be grateful for, and how we can seek a path out of the darkness. In the text Pollyanna isn’t blindly happy and optimistic – she does grieve for her father and is struck by sadness over his death. She merely uses optimism as a tool to keep going, a skill of determination and grit – in the same way as she deals with her temporary paralysis at the end – she is the ultimate precursor to ‘positive thinking’.
For all that we had a good laugh at Pollyanna whilst reading it – her incessant banging of doors still resonates with today’s children… and despite the tricky vocabulary for today’s eight year olds, the book flows so well that you skate over the difficult words – they are picked up by osmosis as they fit so well into the context – we found Pollyanna to be one of the most enjoyable classics to revisit.
And if I thought struggling through ‘my daddy, oh my daddy’ at the end of the Railway Children was hard, I could barely read past chapter 23 of Pollyanna because of my foreknowledge of what was to come. It took an immense degree of self-control to stutter through the last few chapters for my children at bed-time. But now, onto the next classic…although I can’t handle ‘Dark Days’ from Little Women just yet. Buy Pollyanna from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.